This is the story of Emma, doubly Queen of England – first wife of the Saxon King Aethelred (the famous Unready – and he is certainly "unready" – which apparently means "ill-advised" – in this book!) and then of the Danish King Cnut (the equally famous Canute who sat on the beach and ordered the tide not to come any further). It is a perfect example of what has become known as "fictionalising history", telling the story of historical characters as though you were writing a novel. An excellent thing, and to my mind by far the pleasantest way of reading history, so long as you remain faithful to the facts. Helen Hollick does. (So do most novelists, give or take the odd bit of nationalistic bias, usually anachronistic anyway. It is the film-makers who rewrite history to suit themselves.)
First let me say that I love the title, and am amazed it has not been used before.
For God's Sake let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings:
How some have been depos'd, some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have depos'd.
Some poison'd by their wives, some sleeping kill'd.
All murdered – for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king,
Keeps Death his court ...
(William Shakespeare, Richard II)
Isn't that perfect? I'm going to get JM to put that quote by itself somewhere conspicuous on the site.
And so we come to Emma herself, one of the most appealing young heroines I have ever come across. And yet it rings true. This what she must have been like – and how she must have been treated by her awful brother, Richard of Normandy, and by her equally awful husband, Aethelred.
The book opens with their wedding in Canterbury when she is thirteen and he a man of thirty-four with a grown son, Athelstan. Athelstan is horrified by the marriage, fearing that a son by Emma, who is crowned reigning Queen of England, may replace him as his father's heir. But life goes on, and Athelstan, who is a vast improvement on his father, develops a grudging respect and liking for Emma.
One of the great things about Helen Hollick is the light and entertaining way she fills in background detail, often fascinating stuff of which the reader may have been completely unaware. For instance, I only came across "Thorney Island" quite recently, in Michael Jecks' Dispensation of Death, where I discovered that it was the site of and the old name of Westminster. There, we had a description of it in the 14th century, when it had begun to grow into something impressive. Here, in the early 11th century, the King's London residence is little more than a cluster of wattle-and-daub hovels in a bramble-strewn sea of mud.
Emma is, for a few years, considered barren, and Aethelred is ready (hah!) to reject her, but then one night in a drunken fury he kills her dog and beats and rapes her, and as a result she gives birth to the unloved and unloveable Edward, who becomes the "saint" King Edward the Confessor.
Later, married to Cnut, she gives birth to Harthacnut, the son she truly loves. But he only reigns for a couple of years, then dies, and Edward becomes king. This is the point at which this book (a "prequel") catches up with its predecessor, Harold the King.
Highly recommended, especially for those who enjoy well-written stories of royal ladies and brutal men. The only Tudor who can compare with Emma is Elizabeth herself; and Swein Forkbeard and his son Cnut make William the Bastard seem like a gentleman!