The Last Great Saxon Earls, by Mercedes Rochelle
I first “met” Earl Godwine in Helen Hollick’s exquisite fictional account of Queen Emma, The Forever Queen. But the earl and his sons were shadowy figures on the edges of my awareness as I continued to explore more pre-Norman historical fiction. Mercedes Rochelle has knit all the puzzle pieces together marvelously in her three-volume series, The Last Great Saxon Earls.
As the author notes in her opening, it is always the victors who record and pass down the history. The Godwine family, ultimately defeated by William the Conqueror in 1066, have nearly faded into obscurity. Major dates are known – births, deaths, even some marriages – as are their various titles: earldoms, and eventually kingship, for son Harold, briefly in 1066. But the missing details are fertile ground for an author of fiction, and Rochelle fills in the blanks with compelling and engaging motives and actions.
How did Earl Godwine first meet Canute and fall into his favor? Why was there so much conflict between Earl Godwine’s sons Harold and Tostig? Was the Earl truly responsible for the death of Æthling Alfred, Emma’s son by Æthlred the Unready? What was the ultimate fate of the earl’s youngest son, Wulfnoth, a hostage in Normandy for decades?
No one knows the true answer to any of these questions. I do suspect the author’s experience as an actor in Living History has contributed to her ability to place herself – and hence us, as readers – so convincingly in both the inner and outer worlds of these characters from over a millennium ago. It’s a challenge to create a page-turner when the outcome of so many events is already known, but Rochelle’s account has succeeded. I found myself rooting for characters along the way in spite of knowing their ultimate fate, a testament to her ability to evoke empathy for characters long vilified as traitors, at worst, or simply losers, at best.
Five stars, highly recommend.
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