This novel was a fantastic account of the last of the Saxon English kings. Edward the Confessor was the last Saxon king to have a complete reign, and Harold Godwinson was the last Saxon king on the throne, however brief his reign was.
Hollick did a wonderful job bringing these figures to life. I liked how conflicted Harold was about his duties as a nobleman, and later as king. I could truly feel the burden he carried, the balance he had to maintain to be a good ruler as well as a good man, and how at times, the two did not go together. His conscience seemed genuine, and his desire to do the best service to his country, king, and people was strong. He was a very human character.
Edward was pathetic and unlikeable, but I also had to feel a little sorry for him for being so completely ill equipped to be a good king. At times, we get a glimpse of a good man, which I think he probably was. He was just misguided, self-absorbed, and weak-willed. For what it’s worth, I doubt he would have made a good monk, either. He seemed too selfish and lacking in intelligence to be terribly successful in the church, either, except for his wealth, which would have gotten him far enough.
Edyth Swanneck was a wonderfully strong woman and I appreciated how she was written. Even though Harold, upon his coronation, had to take a legal, noble wife, it was clear that Edyth was always going to be his first love. I wish she could have been his legal wife instead, though the culture and times were, of course, very different.
The history and culture of Saxon England was woven in deftly as well. Reading about the Witan, the fyrd, the thegns and ætheling, all were brought into the story in a way that made it feel like the reader already knew the information. I like when a historical fiction novel is written in such a way that it’s obviously well researched but doesn’t beat you over the head with it. Some historical fiction authors can become a little pedantic. Hollick never does.
The death of Harold was well done. It made sense that he was NOT, in fact, killed by the arrow to the eye as was commonly thought for years. When we consider that William of Normandy had zero legitimate claim to the English throne, an arrow to the eye of the rightful king would make William’s triumph seem like an act of god. The arrow was probably propaganda, commissioned by Bishop Odo in the form of the Bayeux Tapestry, as mentioned in the author’s note.
This novel is definitely recommended for anyone who loves a good, well researched historical fiction, and anyone who has an interest in Anglo-Saxon England.