Decoding the Bayeux Tapestry by Arthur C. Wright

You have probably seen The Bayeux Tapestry – if not in real life then in books, on websites or on television – and you may know that it depicts the story of the Norman Conquest of England, but have you ever looked at the pictures that appear in the margins and wondered what they mean? This new book by historian Arthur C. Wright, Decoding the Bayeux Tapestry: The Secrets of History’s Most Famous Embroidery Hidden in Plain Sight, attempts to interpret these often-overlooked images and relate them to the action taking place in the main body of the Tapestry.

At a quick glance, the pictures in the margins look very random and don’t appear to be connected with the larger pictures in the middle, but now that I’ve read this book I know that is not the case. Wright takes us step by step along the whole length of the Tapestry, matching the marginal story to the one in the main panel and this adds to our overall understanding of what the Tapestry is telling us.

So, what exactly are these marginal illustrations? Well, many of them depict birds and animals such as dogs, lions, ‘pards’ (the name given to large leopard-like cats), crows, foxes, mythological beasts such as dragons – anything that might have appeared in a medieval bestiary. These creatures add extra meaning to the central panels; for example, a dog is shown howling below the picture of Edward the Confessor being taken to his burial. Others display fear, joy, pride, anger or other appropriate emotions at relevant points in the Tapestry. The margins also include illustrations of some of Aesop’s Fables; the story of ‘the Fox and the Crow’ is one of them. In order to understand the significance of the fables and the other messages we are being given in the margins, it helps if we know who embroidered these images, who commissioned the Tapestry in the first place and who the intended audience was, and Wright spends a lot of time discussing these things as well as interpreting the images themselves.

All of this was fascinating, but I did wonder who this book was really aimed at. Even though I do have an interest in the subject and a moderate amount of knowledge of the Norman Conquest (admittedly, gained mainly through historical novels such as Gildenford, Godwine, Kingmaker and 1066: What Fates Impose), I didn’t really feel the need to go into so much detail on the size of the fleet that invaded England or the geographical features of the landscape. There are lengthy appendices exploring both of these topics and I think this sort of information would only really be of interest to an academic reader who wanted to make a very thorough study of the subject. Although the earlier chapters are much more accessible, I’m not sure whether I could recommend the book overall to the general reader, especially not to those who are unfamiliar with this period of history.

I’m still pleased to have had the opportunity to learn a little bit more about the Bayeux Tapestry, though, and to have been made aware that those medieval embroiderers were perhaps telling us more than meets the eye. If anyone else has read this book, or has ever studied the Tapestry, I would love to hear your thoughts.

A scene from the Bayeux Tapestry

Thanks to Pen & Sword for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This is book 8/20 of my 20 Books of Summer.

Queens of the Conquest by Alison Weir

In Alison Weir’s new non-fiction book, Queens of the Conquest, she explores the lives of the five queens of England who followed the Norman Conquest of 1066. These five, in the order they appear in the book, are Matilda of Flanders (wife of William the Conqueror), Matilda of Scotland and Adeliza of Louvain (the two wives of Henry I), Matilda of Boulogne (wife of King Stephen), and the Empress Maud, Henry I’s daughter, who was never actually crowned but called herself Lady of the English. Lots of Matildas, then – Maud is also referred to in many sources as Matilda – but with each queen discussed chronologically (apart from where their stories overlap), things aren’t as confusing as you might imagine!

Apart from Maud, whom I have read about several times in fiction, I knew very little about the other queens whose stories are covered in this book. Considering the general lack of information available to us today – we don’t even have a clear idea of what these women looked like due to the absence of contemporary portraits – I think Weir still does a good job of providing as full and comprehensive an account of each queen’s life as she possibly could. There is inevitably a lot of padding – facts about medieval life, descriptions of castles and long passages quoted from letters – but if you don’t know a lot about the period, most of this should still be of interest.

I can’t really comment on the historical accuracy of this book as my own knowledge is very limited, but Weir does provide references to back up most of what she says. In fact, the additional material which includes the references, sources, maps etc takes up about a quarter of the book! There are still times, though, when she is forced to speculate and make assumptions about how one of the queens may have felt or behaved, and resorts to using words like ‘probably’ or ‘possibly’. Usually I prefer more certainty when I’m reading non-fiction, but in this case, I do understand that with the primary sources being so sparse, some guesswork was necessary to round out the characters of the queens and to make this into an entertaining read rather than a dry textbook.

15th century depiction of the Empress Matilda/Maud

The most enjoyable part of the book for me was the section describing the period of civil war known as the Anarchy during which Maud (who was named as her father Henry I’s heir) and Matilda of Boulogne (whose husband, Stephen, was Henry I’s nephew and another claimant to the throne) found themselves on opposite sides. As I’ve read several novels which have this period as a setting, it was good to read a factual account this time instead of a fictional one, while still recognising some of the most interesting episodes, such as Maud’s escape in the snow from the besieged Oxford Castle.

Maud certainly didn’t seem to have made herself very popular, having a reputation for being proud, haughty and arrogant, but I have always assumed that this was probably due to the prejudice of the male chroniclers of the time against a female ruler who didn’t behave the way they expected a woman to behave. Weir points out that Matilda of Boulogne often acted in a similar way but her actions were seen as acceptable because she was taking them on behalf of her husband, King Stephen, rather than for herself, but she also suggests that Maud’s overbearing attitude and poor decision-making may have been due to mood swings caused by early menopause or a long-term illness she suffered following childbirth. This was the one place where I thought there may have been some bias creeping in, as Weir clearly seems to like Matilda of Boulogne much more than the Empress – and I couldn’t help wondering what caused the aggression and lack of judgement of some of the kings mentioned in the book!

18th-century impression of Matilda of Flanders

I was also interested to read the various theories and legends behind Matilda of Flanders’ marriage to William the Conqueror and the controversies surrounding Matilda of Scotland’s marriage to Henry I (she had previously spent some time in a convent so it was debatable whether or not she was free to marry). I felt that I learned very little about Adeliza, though; while she is described as being particularly beautiful and helping to promote the arts, it seemed that she had less power and political significance than the other queens.

Although I sometimes felt that too much time was devoted to the general history of the period when I would have preferred more analysis of the specific lives and characters of the five queens, I did find Queens of the Conquest a fascinating read. Apparently this is just the first of four volumes which will take us through the rest of the medieval queens to the end of the Wars of the Roses. I will be looking out for the next one.

Thanks to the publisher for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Fatal Rivalry by Mercedes Rochelle

fatal-rivalry-mercedes-rochelle This is the third and final novel in Mercedes Rochelle’s Last Great Saxon Earls trilogy, completing the story begun in Godwine Kingmaker and The Sons of Godwine. Set in 11th century England, just before the Norman Conquest, Godwine Kingmaker told the story of Godwine, the powerful Earl of Wessex, while in The Sons of Godwine the focus switched to the Earl’s children – sons Harold, Tostig, Gyrth, Leofwine and Wulfnoth, and daughter Editha. Fatal Rivalry picks up where that book left off, describing the events leading up to the Battle of Hastings in 1066.

As the novel opens in 1064, Edward the Confessor, Editha’s husband, is still on the throne of England, but the question of his successor is on everybody’s minds. Editha’s brother Harold, who has inherited his father’s earldom of Wessex, has recently returned from Normandy, where he was made to swear an oath to support the claim of Duke William – not an oath Harold intends to keep, because he believes there is a better candidate for the throne: himself. History tells us that Harold will become king in 1066, only to be defeated by William at Hastings later that same year. Fatal Rivalry explores one theory as to why things went so disastrously wrong.

In The Sons of Godwine, we saw how Harold and his younger brother Tostig had been rivals since they were children; in this book the rivalry intensifies. As Earl of Northumbria, Tostig has become very unpopular with his people, particularly after attempting to raise taxes on Harold’s orders. When Tostig’s Northumbrian thegns rebel against him, King Edward sends Harold to negotiate with them. Seeing that the situation is hopeless, Harold agrees to their demands and Tostig is sent into exile. Unable to forgive his brother for siding against him, Tostig searches for new alliances overseas, finally joining forces with the Norwegian king, Harald Hardrada, and setting in motion a chain of events which contribute to Harold’s downfall.

Like the previous novel, this one is presented as the memoirs of the Godwineson brothers, with each one given a chance to narrate his own parts of the story. Leofwine and Gyrth have smaller roles to play, while Wulfnoth, held hostage at Duke William’s court in Normandy, makes only a few appearances – until the end, when he takes on the very important job of concluding his brothers’ stories. Understandably, it’s Harold and Tostig who get most of the attention. I’ve never read about Tostig in this much detail before and I did have some sympathy for him. I’m sure Harold was doing what he thought was in the best interests of the country, but to Tostig it must have seemed like an unforgivable betrayal, particularly when he learned that Harold had married the sister of Morcar, his replacement as Earl of Northumbria.

Fatal Rivalry is an interesting read and probably my favourite of the three books in this trilogy. Because the novel covers a relatively short period of time, it allows the author to go into a lot of detail in exploring the relationship between Harold and Tostig, the motivation behind their actions and how their rivalry could have been the reason why Harold was fighting a battle in the north of the country when William invaded from the south. I am not really a lover of battle scenes, but although there are two major battles which take place in this book – Stamford Bridge and then Senlac Hill (Hastings) – this is only one aspect of the novel and plenty of time is also spent on the more personal lives of the characters, such as Tostig’s relationship with his wife, Judith, and Harold’s marriages to Edith Swanneck and Ealdgyth of Mercia.

I think the Norman Conquest is fascinating to read about and, like many periods of history, there is so much left open to interpretation and debate. I will continue to look for more fiction set in this period and will also be interested to see what Mercedes Rochelle writes about next.

Thanks to the author for providing a copy of this book for review.

Gildenford by Valerie Anand

Gildenford In 1036 the exiled Alfred Atheling, son of the late King Ethelred and his wife, Emma of Normandy, is invited to return to England to visit his mother. While lodging with Godwin, Earl of Wessex, in the town of Gildenford (now known as Guildford), Alfred and his men are betrayed and captured on the orders of King Harold Harefoot. The Atheling dies after being brutally tortured and blinded.

Several years later, Alfred’s brother, Edward the Confessor, succeeds to the throne of England but the truth of what happened in Gildenford remains shrouded in mystery. Was Harefoot acting alone or with Godwin’s help? Worse still, was it a plot of Emma’s to have her own son murdered? Edward can’t be sure, but one man thinks he knows. His name is Brand Woodcutter, a servant of Godwin’s who has been part of the Earl’s household for many years and is considered to be a friend of the family. Brand’s battle with his conscience as he tries to decide what to do with his knowledge of Gildenford is at the heart of this novel as we move through some of the key events leading up to the Norman Conquest of 1066.

I’ve been reading a lot of fiction set in this period recently and more than one person has recommended Valerie Anand’s Norman trilogy to me. I’m glad they did because I really enjoyed it – this is definitely my type of book! It does exactly what a good historical novel should do…brings a bygone age back to life, entertains as well as educating, and reminds us that the people who lived in those distant times were human beings like ourselves, not just names we might have seen in a school textbook.

Most of the characters in Gildenford are real historical figures and they are all so well-drawn and convincing that at first I wasn’t sure it was really necessary to incorporate fictional characters such as Brand into the story as well. I did soon warm to Brand, however, and enjoyed the scenes written from his perspective as he observes the actions of others, struggles with conflicting loyalties and agonises over some very difficult decisions. I was impressed by the way Anand manages to weave his personal storyline together with the historical facts, particularly the abduction of the Abbess of Leominster and the uprising in Dover during the visit of Count Eustace of Bologne.

Gildenford was published in 1977 and like most of Valerie Anand’s books is currently out of print. I managed to obtain an ebook version from Open Library but unfortunately they don’t have the second one, The Norman Pretender. Judging from the prices being asked for used copies they must be quite rare, but I’ll watch out for a reasonably priced one and hopefully it won’t be too long before I can continue with the series.

1066: What Fates Impose by G.K. Holloway

1066 1066 is one of the most famous dates in English history so you can probably guess what this book is about! I have read a few other books set in this period recently so when the author of 1066: What Fates Impose contacted me to offer me a copy for review, I was pleased to accept.

The novel closely follows the events leading up to the Battle of Hastings and the Norman Conquest. After a brief but dramatic prologue in which we see William the Conqueror on his deathbed in 1087, we move back several decades in time to Winchester in the year 1045 where we meet the family of Godwin, Earl of Wessex. It is Godwin’s son, Harold, of course, who will face William on the battlefield in 1066, but before we reach that point of the story there are twenty-one years of history to be covered and almost four hundred pages of novel to be read!

To fully understand what happened at Hastings, we need to understand the background to the conflict. G.K. Holloway takes us through many key moments including the death of Edward the Confessor, Harold’s handfast marriage to Edyth Swan-neck, the threats from the Welsh and the Vikings, and the fates of Harold’s brothers Sweyn and Tostig Godwinson. Along the way, we learn about the complex feuds and alliances between England’s noblemen and are given some insight into the situation in Normandy, where Duke William is preparing for invasion. We see how various characters plot, scheme and work hard to achieve their goals, only to find, in the end, that certain things are out of their control and that even the most careful plans can be thrown into disarray by what fates impose.

This is clearly a book that has been well researched and as far as I could tell (I can’t claim to be an expert on this subject) the story does stick closely to the known historical facts. Obviously there is a limit as to how much information is available on the 11th century so any author writing a fictional account of the period will need to use their imagination to fill in gaps and interpret the motivations and actions of the characters, but I think G.K. Holloway does this very well. Everything in the novel feels plausible and there was nothing that left me shaking my head and thinking “this would never have happened”.

The novel features a large and varied cast of characters, ranging from Godwin and his children to the ruling families of Mercia and Northumbria, Duke William and his fellow Normans, and an assortment of bishops and archbishops (most, though not all, of these people are listed at the beginning of the book, which was very helpful). Some felt more developed than others but sadly I didn’t really manage to form a strong emotional connection with any of them – although I did have a lot of sympathy for Harold as his story headed towards its inevitable end.

Because there is so much historical information packed into this novel, I think 1066: What Fates Impose could be a good introduction to the pre-Conquest years for readers who have little or no previous knowledge. A sequel covering the time between the Battle of Hastings and William’s death would be interesting, but meanwhile, having been left wanting to read more about this period I am now reading Gildenford by Valerie Anand, a book which has been recommended to me by several people recently.

Thanks to G.K. Holloway for providing a copy of this book.

The Chosen Queen by Joanna Courtney

The Chosen Queen In 1066, one of the most famous years in English history, three men were fighting for the throne of England: Harold Godwinson, the powerful Earl of Wessex; Harald Hardrada, the king of Norway; and William, Duke of Normandy. All three men had wives and in this new historical fiction trilogy, Joanna Courtney explores the lives of these three Queens of the Conquest.

The Chosen Queen is the first book to be published in the trilogy and follows the story of Edyth Alfgarsdottir, daughter of Alfgar, Earl of Mercia, and granddaughter of Lady Godiva. When Alfgar falls out of favour with the current King of England, Edward the Confessor, in the year 1055, the family are exiled to Wales. It is here that the fourteen-year-old Edyth meets and falls in love with the man who becomes her first husband – Griffin, King of all Wales. With unrest in the south of Wales, the chance of Viking invasions and the constant threat from the English side of the border, Griffin’s life is dangerous and uncertain – as he says to Edyth, he could be king for another twenty years or for just a few more hours.

When Edyth’s time as Queen of Wales eventually comes to an end, she finds herself back in England where she becomes caught up in the battle for the English crown. The childless King Edward has died, leaving Harold Godwinson as his successor, but neither Harald Hardrada of Norway nor Duke William of Normandy is willing to accept this. The new king needs a strong queen by his side, and Edyth, with her experience of the Welsh court and her family ties to both Mercia and Northumbria, is the ideal choice. The only problem is, Harold already has a wife…Edyth’s beloved friend, Svana.

The Chosen Queen is a fairly light historical novel and some readers may feel that there’s too much focus on Edyth’s romantic relationships, but I still found it quite an emotional and gripping read. It probably helped that I know very little about the Norman Conquest so most of Edyth’s story was new to me. With the story being told from a feminine perspective, I particularly enjoyed the portrayal of Edyth’s relationship with Svana, Harold’s handfast wife who befriends her as a child. Svana’s marriage to Harold took place outside the Catholic Church, which meant there was nothing to prevent Edyth from also marrying him, and the novel explores how both women may have felt about this.

Whenever I read historical fiction, I like to know how much of the book is based on fact and how much has been invented, so an author’s note is always appreciated. At the end of The Chosen Queen there’s not only an author’s note, but also a section giving further details on some of the historical figures, events and terms mentioned in the book (this is in addition to a map and two family trees at the front of the novel). It seems that some artistic licence has been taken (there is no evidence of a friendship between Edyth and Svana for example), but this is understandable when writing about a time period so far into the past; only a limited amount of factual information is available, so some imagination is obviously needed to fill in the gaps.

What I don’t understand was why it was necessary to change so many of the characters’ names. The original names are listed in an appendix together with the modernised forms found in the book and while I can maybe see the sense in referring to Harold’s first wife as Svana rather than Eadyth Swanneck (to avoid confusion with the story’s other Edyth), changing Gunnhild, Siward and Burgheard to Hannah, Ward and Brodie felt unnecessary and pulled me out of the 11th century. I like to feel fully immersed in the time period I’m reading about and that never really happened while I was reading this book. Accuracy is important to me, but it’s not the only thing I look for in a novel – I also look for a good story, and I do think Joanna Courtney has a lot of talent as a storyteller. She made me care about Edyth and she kept me turning the pages until I reached the end.

After finishing this book, I checked Joanna Courtney’s website for details of the other two novels in the trilogy. The second will be about Harald Hardrada’s wife Elizaveta of Kiev and the third will be about Matilda of Flanders, wife of William the Conqueror – two more women I know nothing about!

Thanks to Pan Macmillan for providing a copy of this book for review.