I Am the Chosen King

Helen Hollick

First published under the title Harold the King, 2000.
Edition reviewed: Sourcebooks 2011, ISBN 978-1-4022-4066-9. 672 pages. Uncorrected advance review copy supplied by publisher.

Set in England and Normandy in 1043-1066, I Am the Chosen King tells the story of Harold Godwinesson and his handfast wife Edyth Swan-neck, and the events leading up to the Battle of Hastings in 1066. All the main characters are historical figures.

Newly appointed as Earl of East Anglia, Harold, second son of the powerful Earl Godwine of Wessex, has a bright future ahead. When he falls in love with the sweet and beautiful Edyth Swannhaels (Edith Swan-neck) and takes her as his handfast wife, it seems he can look forward to personal happiness as well as power and wealth. But the weak king Edward dislikes Godwine, and Harold's selfish and ill-disciplined siblings soon give Edward the opportunity to threaten the Godwine family with ruin. And across the Channel in Normandy, Edward's adolescent kinsman William the Bastard is fast growing into a ruthless and battle-hardened warlord with a ruthless eye on England...

I have long had an interest in Harold Godwinesson, King Harold II, so was very pleased to see him as the central character in this densely detailed novel. Told in third person, I Am the Chosen King switches between England and Normandy, charting the build-up to the Battle of Hastings from both sides. Both Harold and William are fully developed characters, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. Harold is the more likeable of the two, depicted here as kind, loving, considerate and competent, prepared to co-operate with others for the common good. William, emotionally scarred by a violent childhood, is harsh, ambitious, ruthless and not infrequently cruel, as he has had to be to survive and to win control of his duchy. William is used to making his own luck and achieving the impossible, and he has set his sights on a crown. Harold, by contrast, has greatness thrust upon him; he has no especial desire for a crown, but he is determined to do his best for the people of England. So the two men are set on a collision course that will culminate in a hard-fought battle on Senlac Ridge near Hastings in 1066 that will become the most memorable date in English history.

I Am the Chosen King is very long, and the political manoeuvring among the English nobility requires some concentration to follow. The first half of the book is rather slow, and is dominated by Harold's older siblings and King Edward, all of whom make distinctly unappealing company. Edward takes after his incompetent father Aethelraed Unraed in all the wrong ways. Harold's sister Edith is selfish and spiteful, his younger brother Tostig is self-righteous and grasping, and his eldest brother Swegn is an overgrown toddler who throws murderous temper tantrums. After a couple of hundred pages I was starting to feel that they all deserved each other, and possibly even deserved William. Harold and his sweet wife Edyth seem to be almost the only two pleasant, well-adjusted people in England, and their blossoming love story and happy family life stand in stark contrast to the rest of the family.

A strength of I Am the Chosen King is that it shows the Norman side of the story as well as the English side. Indeed, in the first half of the book William's determined struggle to gain control of Normandy and then expand its power and gain independence from France makes a more compelling narrative than the bickering in England. One may not like William very much - as portrayed here, he would be a hard man to like, though his wife Mathilda manages it - but it would be difficult not to admire him.

The pace steps up a gear about halfway through the novel as we reach 1064 and events start to rush towards a confrontation. Harold's ill-fated trip to Normandy in 1064 brings him into direct contact with William, and the two are already weighing each other up as potential rivals. Helen Hollick's explanation for the mysterious event of Harold swearing an oath on holy relics is plausible, and explains William's subsequent fury. From here, events crowd thick and fast. The Battle of Stamford Bridge is over in a few pages, possibly so as not to detract from the grand climax of the Battle of Hastings. The novel manages the remarkable feat of making the outcome seem genuinely in doubt right until the last moment - as of course it was to the people at the time, however well known to the reader.

The author helpfully uses variant spellings to distinguish between people with the same name, e.g. the three Ediths are Edith (Harold's sister), Edyth (Swan-neck) and Alditha (daughter of Aelfgar of Mercia and Harold's official wife). Family trees for the Norman and English aristocracies at the start of the book also help to keep track of characters, and the two maps will be useful to readers unfamiliar with the geography. A helpful Author's Note at the end outlines the underlying history, explains how the author filled in gaps - more of them than you might think; 1066 may be a famous date but that doesn't mean it was fully documented - and explains what happened to the major characters after the end of the novel.

Detailed recreation of the events leading up to the Battle of Hastings in 1066, with Harold Godwinesson and his handfast wife Edyth Swan-neck as the central characters.