1066: What Fates Impose
by G. K. Holloway
Publisher: Matador, 9 Priory Business Park, Kibworth Beauchamp, Leicestershire,0RX, UK
"The more things change, the more they stay the same" is a sentiment we frequently hear, but this book definitely challenges that view. There are times when change is in the air and nothing happens, but there are times (and this book is set in those times) when the world seems to shift without warning, when old traditions just seem to disappear and what was obvious one day no longer applies the next.
For those of us educated "across the pond," English history was pretty much a matter of memorizing dates, places, and names, and not many of those. The Battle of Hastings we knew about, and William the Conqueror, but little was said about the changes of the times, the forces that brought about the war, or the personalities involved. Most of us, sadly, know about the problems of succession in monarchies from watching "The Lion in Winter" and that takes place many years later. 1066 brings us into the castles of the key characters and lets us see their personality differences, their strengths and weaknesses and watch the history play out. We are a fly on the wall as they go through their lives, learning about the times and the leaders as we go.
These days we see governments more as structures, the people cogs put into the wheel by the voters, the machine running as it has always run, regardless of which faction is in charge, but when power is vested primarily in a King, governance becomes personal. Any failings he has will show in the lives of his subjects. His personal integrity, health, physical (and sexual) prowess and good judgement are critical to the health of the nation. When he makes bad decisions, his subjects must bear the burden. Family disagreements are matters of state. When those with a claim to power raise their children to be ruthless, the concept of sibling rivalry takes on a whole new meaning, spreading chaos throughout the country and beyond.
Some elements of this time (1045 - 1087) are familiar. Countries compete for advantage, wealth, and power. War is often avoided by making deals with would-be enemies (although we no longer do it by marrying off the children of heads of state) and weakness at the top is still interpreted as a vacuum, an invitation for new challengers and usurpers. But in that time, in their present, lives are undergoing massive shifts. Old traditions are breaking down right and left. Peace agreements by marriage aren't always honored; they no longer hold weight when political expedience dictates otherwise Long held traditions (like how long one must entertain a visiting nobleman who drops in) are used to entice would-be competitors to their demise. The Catholic Church, now expanded to the point where it can no longer police its clergy, is a hotbed of corruption, with reformers pushing hard to gain enough power to do the necessary housecleaning, but with a strong wish for higher Vatican visibility. Kings who formerly accorded Rome the right to choose archbishops decide to choose themselves, and Rome fights back by getting involved in the wars between contenders for the throne. Old rules of engagement (kill the men if you must but leave the women and children alone) are abandoned and the resulting carnage fuels a revenge that echoes through British history for many years to come.
Holloway puts faces and personalities to the names, and gives the time frame a sense of immediacy that lets us see the connections between the choices made by leaders and the resulting twisting and shifting of their culture. I'd recommend having wikipedia handy for those of us who were never taught the location of Northumbria or what a thane is, and to get some further background on the main characters, but all in all, this is a great way to learn history.
I did find myself wishing that the author had included a bio and a preface to tell us what made this book an important one to write, and how one does the kind of research needed to bring history to life, but perhaps, if a new book is forthcoming, one that takes up where this one left off, it can be done then. I heartily look forward to it.