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Harold The King by Helen Hollick
on 23 December 2010
For the most part, a well written novel, faithfully recording historical events in England from 1043 to 1066. As might be expected from the title, the central character is King Harold Godwinson. Unfortunately, he, and most other characters in this novel are cardboard cut-outs. Either all bad or almost sickeningly good. At times, there are scenes involving Harold's family that could have come straight out of The Waltons. It too often seems like a novel meant for children, with pretentious use of schoolgirl French the most irritating thing I found about the book. Ms Hollick seems intent throughout to emphasize her own daughter's knowledge of horses, which sometimes makes it read like a pony club instruction manual. Also, the author does not seem to have appreciated just how wealthy, important and well protected the English kings and earls and their womenfolk would have been. This was 1066, not 1966! For instance, in one scene, Edward the Exile appears unannounced and knocks on Earl Harold's door as though he has come to read the meter. In another, Lady Gytha, Harold's mother, who couldn't have been much less than 60 in 1066, a good age for those days, is present at the night camp before the Battle of Hastings serving the men soup. Equally unbelievable is her idea that Harold could have marched an army in winter from Gloucester to Shrewsbury in 12 hours; it takes more than two hours by car, let alone on horses burdened with armour and weapons. And did Duke William and his seneschal, William FitzOsbern, really do their own scouting, on foot, carrying their chain mail in their arms? This betrays a complete lack of any understanding of matters military as does Ms Hollick's earlier statement that cavalry attacked in squares and that infantry formed "defensive" wedges. The idea of a wedge is that it forms an arrow shaped attacking formation. In her Author's Note, Ms Hollick explains why she did not use the term Confessor when referring to King Edward because, as she correctly says, this was not used until 1161. However, she does insist on calling King Harald of Norway Hardrada throughout. This also was a nickname not used until well after Harald's death. Finally, at 690 large pages this book is way too long. I was so looking forward to finishing it and starting something else that I skimmed the battle of Hastings section almost entirely. Harold the King is readable but I cannot rate it any higher than that, despite all the rave reviews I see here.
I would recommend to anybody who wants to read about Harold and William that they obtain by any means possible a copy of Hope Muntz's novel, The Golden Warrior. This book, written in 1948, remains the definitive story about the events of 1066 even after the passage of 60 years. If you would like to back that up with something factual and which offers believable opinion upon happenings than are not, and will never be known for sure, then Ian W. Walker's biography of Harold: The Last Anglo-Saxon King is the best.