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Much Medieval Mayhem – in which Helen talks of Harold, arrows and the dastardly Conqueror

Today I have the great pleasure to welcome Helen Hollick to Much Medieval Mayhem. Helen is a person who has been very important to me—and many, many others—in my writing journey. Generous with her time and advice (very direct advice at times), Helen seems to imbibe directly from a constant source of energy, how else to explain the time she invests in making other writers visible to the world? So, despite today’s theme being the Middle Ages and not Helen, I just have to take this opportunity to say thank you. Thank you for being there, thank you for showcasing others so generously, but most of all, thank you for being you!

To quote a former colleague of mine, a very handsome and strapping Irishman named Sean who drank Guinness like others drink water and sang like a god, the above borders on the “touchy-feely”. Well, we don’t want to go all mushy over here, so let us get right back on subject. For those with only a passing acquaintance with Helen, there’s one distinctive feature it is impossible to miss: her hats. I’ve not seen her out and about without one, and I must say they add a certain flair. Helen also has something of an obsession with acorns. Helen’s bed has carved acorns as finials on the end posts, she has acorn trinkets all over the place, acorn earrings, acorn cups form a silver necklace that she wears all the time. I am seeing a pattern here, one that leads all the way to Helen’s dashing 18th century pirate, Captain Jesamiah Acorne. After all, handsome Jesamiah not only has blue ribbons in his hair (that double as efficient garrotting weapons when so required) he also has a little earstud in the shape of a…taa-daa…acorn.

Jesamiah does not belong on today’s post (but I do recommend you make his acquaintance. Life will be SO much richer) No, today we are here to talk about an obsession with medieval times, which in Helen’s case initially resulted in a passion for the Arthurian legend. Her first books are swept in the mists of time and feature a realistic Arthur rather than the man of myth and legend. But then, something happened. So, Helen, what or who redirected your medieval focus?

Helen: Harold did. That’s Harold II, Harold Godwinson, the Harold who (supposedly) lost an eye in 1066 at the Battle Of Hastings.

As you mention above, my first three novels, a trilogy about King Arthur (The Pendragon’s Banner Trilogy) were published in the mid-1990s. Following on, my (then) publisher, William Heinemann, wanted something else of a historical nature. I toyed with several ideas, and then realised that I would be silly not to write about a chap who had connections to the town a few miles from where I lived… Waltham Abbey. Arthur had been somewhat difficult to research because the guy never actually existed, (sorry folks, he didn’t!) so finding ’facts’ about him amongst the many, many, many myths and legends was not easy. Harold, Earl of Essex, then Earl of Wessex, then King of England, should, I thought, in comparison be a doddle.Ha! Famous last words!

There is a lot of information about 1066 and the Norman Conquest, but in 1998 when I started researching we didn’t have Google, Wikipedia or Amazon. I know! How did we manage?

Anna: No idea! Those of us accustomed to having everything at a tap or two on our laptop cannot quite understand just how daunting that must have been! So, instead of Google you did what?

Helen: Trips to various libraries, scouting for text books etc was the way to research, but I found that nearly all these scholarly tomes were written biased towards the Normans, and how wonderful they were. Indeed, English history, if you believe the majority of history books, didn’t start until 1066. You get a brief paragraph of the Saxon Invasion during the aftermath of Roman Britain, a mention of Alfred The Great, Bede, and the Vikings, then its how William’s superior military might (backed by the Church) began the ever-glorious line of the Plantagenets. History is written by the victors – and in this case Harold Godwinson, the last English king who died attempting to hold back the tide of foreign invasion, had been air-brushed out of existence.

But there were a few interesting books that I came across, and they threw light on the blatant (and ongoing to this day) Norman propaganda. Take that Arrow In The Eye business – not true. King Harold II was hacked to death on the battlefield by four of William’s men. So badly was he mutilated that it was difficult to identify what was left of his butchered torso. (Anna: Hyperventilating here. You KNOW just how affected I am by your description of Harold’s death, and now…*grits her teeth*)

Sorry about that, Anna, but facts are facts. The Norman chroniclers claimed that Bill had every right to the throne because King Edward the Confessor had made him his heir, and that our Harold had sworn an oath – on Holy relics – to support him. Aye, well, if Edward had promised such a thing it would have been in the early 1050s when Harold, his father and family were in the king’s bad books, and exiled. Edward set aside his wife (Harold’ sister) and kow-towed to his Norman mates. But the Godwins were pardoned, Edward took his wife back, and all seemed well – except that Queen Edith had no children, so there was no direct heir. But, even then it wasn’t up to Eddie to name his successor; in Saxon times the next king was elected, chosen by the Witan, the Grand Council of England and no way would they have agreed to a Norman upstart wearing the English crown. Besides, by then, there was a legitimate heir, Edward’s young kinsman, Edgar the Aethling. As it happened, he was too young and inexperienced to be given the job when Edward died on 5th January 1066, especially as it was known that William of Normandy was lurking on the other side of the English Channel.

When I started writing Harold, my initial intention was to produce a novel that had a balanced opinion, so that the reader could decide who had the right to rule as king, but it very soon became apparent that the idea would not work. The more I uncovered about ‘bended truths’ the more I wanted to write the story from the English point of view – the more I wanted to shout out for Harold.

That oath he made while a guest (I use the term loosely) at William court was forced upon him, had he not sworn he would probably never have been allowed back to England, if he had lived, that is. William, in my belief was a nasty piece of work, a narcissistic tyrant.

Anna: Are you planning on revisiting this time period?

Helen: I have been tempted to write a follow-up novel, based around the life of William’s half-brother Odo, Bishop of Bayeux. Why? I mean, he is a Norman, after all, but I believe he was bullied into becoming a member of the clergy, bullied into supporting William in 1066, and used as a scapegoat when things went wrong after 1066… And I like him because he eventually rebelled against William. As did William’s eldest son and his wife. Good for them, I say!

Anna: Ha! Diehard Anglo-Saxon to the bitter end… I am no William fan, but I am not entirely sure he was all evil – just sayin’…

Helen: *snorts loudly* A return to the eleventh-century is unlikely, at least for now, as I have a couple more adventures of my pirate to write in my Sea Witch Voyages series and I am currently venturing off at a complete different angle with a planned series of Cosy Murder Mysteries, set in the 1970s. The trouble with ideas, is finding the time to get them written down. (Anna: Tell me about it!)

Anna: Helen is quite busy bee when it comes to blogging. And yes, she has written several great historical posts. I suggest you check them out!

King Arthur’s Women and Children:

The Event That Started The Beginning Of The End: January 1066

Bishop Odo – Nice Or Nasty?

As her excerpt, Helen has chosen a passage from Harold The King (UK title)/ I Am The Chosen King (US title)

Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex has been at Duke William’s court in Normandy as a guest, for some while. It is now time for Harold to take his leave, but first, William wanted him to be present at the Christmas gathering of all the Norman Lords. It had occurred to Harold to wonder why… 

Harold, glancing across the crowded Hall, saw William fitz Osbern frantically beckoning him. Now what did Duke William’s attendant arse wiper want? He walked forward to meet an agitated fitz Osbern, who escorted him towards the raised dais to the east end of the Hall. Harold found the prospect of this ceremony distasteful. In England a housecarl pledged loyalty to his lord out of respect and love for that man. They chose which lord they would serve and their faith maintained that lord’s exalted position. If he did not keep faith in return, then a lord would fall as swift as a mouldering fruit is plucked from the store barrel and flung to rot on the midden heap. These oaths of allegiance being sworn, monotonously repetitive as, one by one, William’s knights came to kneel and kiss his ring, did not come from the heart. There was no pride in the step of each man who came forward, no sincerity in their muttered words. This oath was made under duress: serve me, be loyal to me, or lose all you have. That was the only choice available to these harnessed mules.

Unexpected, eyes and bodies were swivelling towards Harold. “My Lord Earl? Will you not also grant me the honour of declaring your loyalty?”

The Hall had fallen almost silent. Harold stood, bewildered. William sat forward on his throne, one elbow resting on the naked sword blade that lay across his knee. His mouth smiled, but there was a glint of something else in his eyes. “Sir?” he repeated. “I think it right you do swear the oath to me also. Do you not agree?”

This, Harold had not expected. The anger shuddered through him with the force of the bore tide that surged up the estuary of the Severn river. He licked his lips, trying to think what best to do, glanced at the watching faces hoping to spy a hint of help. Not one of William’s whore-poxed lick-spits dared face him. How many had known of this trap? Some? All?

How binding was a promise? Ah, that depended on the nature of the oath and the amount of honour within the man. When a man offered his sword to his chosen lord he was bound to keep his word or lose his honour. An English lord paid homage and loyalty by undertaking to do his best by the men who served him. To rule fairly, to protect the children and womenfolk, to lead bravely in battle. To take upon his shoulders the responsibility of caring for those men who had promised to serve without question. And in the Saxon tradition, above all else, a man could knowingly declare false oath and not be perjured for that swearing, if the safety or honour of another depended on it.

They were waiting expectantly, most of them hoping Earl Harold of England would show himself the greater fool by refusing outright the Duke’s command. Harold must surely oblige them, for William had no right to demand he speak the words of faith and fidelity. It would be an oath taken against his will and better judgement. Yet had not most of the men here this day proclaimed their troth under the same harsh conditions?

Swear, or lose your land and freedom. Or your life.

© Helen Hollick


After a Lottery win on the opening night of the 2012 London Olympic Games, Helen and her family moved from North-East London to an eighteenth-century farmhouse in North Devon, overlooking part of the Taw Valley. There are several friendly ghosts sharing the house and farm, and Helen regards herself as a temporary custodian of the lovely old house, not its owner.

First published in 1994, Helen became a USA Today Bestseller with The Forever Queen (titled A Hollow Crown in the UK) the story of Saxon Queen, Emma of Normandy. In addition to her fiction, she has written three non-fiction books, Pirates: Truth and Tales; Life of A Smuggler in Fact and Fiction, and as a supporter of indie writers, co-wrote a short advice guide for new writers, Discovering the Diamond. Recognised by her stylish hats, Helen attends book-related events when she can, as a chance to meet her readers and social-media followers, although her ‘wonky eyesight’ as she describes her condition of Glaucoma, is becoming a little prohibitive for travel.

She founded and runs the Discovering Diamonds review blog for historical fiction and she occasionally gets time to write.

Connect with Helen! 

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Main Blog:

Twitter: @HelenHollick

Discovering Diamonds Historical Fiction Review Blog (submissions welcome) :

Taw River Press:   

That was all for today, dear peeps. If you missed it, check out last week’s post by Mercedes. And next week, I’ll be welcoming Annie Whitehead. Don’t miss it! 

12 thoughts on “Much Medieval Mayhem – in which Helen talks of Harold, arrows and the dastardly Conqueror”

  1. Oh, that arrow story! I wonder how many children’s history books are STILL printed with it as the definitive way Harold was killed. *Le sigh*
    I’ve seen the real thing at Bayeux and as an embroiderer myself I have to say the stitching does look a bit strange…

    1. Not just children’s history books Alison – it’s still being used even in serious adult history books and articles (although the better quality ones do add a caveat of ‘debated’.) The two main culprits for continuing this myth is English Heritage the battlesite itself and the museum of the Bayeux Tapestry! (*laugh* my trip there consisted of me loudly declaring every so often ‘no he didn’t’ and ‘well that’s wrong!’ And a tip for visitors who have children with them: to keep their interest tell them to count how many rude bits they can find in the Tapestry. It’ll keep them quiet for ages _and_ make them look at what they are meant to be looking at!

  2. Thank you Anna for inviting me onto your blog. I still find it hard to believe that I have been a published author (one way or another) since 1994 – accepted by William Heinemann one week after my 40th birthday back in 1993. (Well, actually, I find it harder to believe that I am now in my late-sixties and no longer in my forties…) I admit to being proud that King Harold II is one of the characters who very firmly dwells within my own personal ‘writer’s bubble’ of friends… although I often get the feeling that he and Captaon Jesamiah Acorne don’t get on too well. The two have a very different code of honour!
    Much love to you Anna (especially for the kind words) and to all your readers
    Helen With The Hat
    (as I am known on Radio Devon!)

    1. Delighted to have you visiting, Helen. As to Harold and Jesamiah, I’m not entirely sure re their sense of honour. Jesamiah may have…err…criminal tendencies at times, but he also has integrity in spades. (Gods, I miss him! No pressure…)

      1. Thank you Richard … LOL Anna – are you trying to send me insane? :-) I can’t stand the man! Someone once said to me (I think it was Sharon Kay Penman) when I was having difficulty writing a particular scene about him ‘think of something _positive_ about him’… I still haven’t come up with anything! (IF I was to write Odo’s story, William’s POV would have to be mastered of course. Which is probably why I haven’t got around to writing Odos’ story!

  3. I’d like to see that story about Billy’s eldest son and his wife…
    And I agree, Helen – there’s been way too much air-brushing of actual history. Thanks for helping set the record straight!

  4. Helen your story about Harold was one of my huge inspirations. To you I owe the truth about him and the need to write my own story of the conquest through the eyes of my very flawed but likeable Wulfhere. He’s not quite a Harold but he has his own story to tell and its thanks to you its being told!
    Thank you for lovely post. And thanks Anna, but I’m with Helen. William was a cad.

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