It was nearing dark, and the servants were lighting the torches while Godwine played chess with the King. They sat in Canute's favorite room—perfect for entertaining the early arrivals of the Yuletide celebration. Already, Earl Eric of Northumbria was present, tasting some of the breads at the sideboard. Tovi was in his usual place behind the King speaking quietly with two other Danes, and a musician was in the corner, plucking on a harp.
The door opened and Godwine, whose back was to the newcomer, concluded who it was from Canute's grimace. The sleek voice of Eadric Streona confirmed his guess. "Good even’, your grace. I hope you are well." All other voices in the room stopped.
Canute moved a piece, nodding an answer.
Two servants followed Eadric into the room, carrying a batch of firewood. For a moment, the sound of wood being stacked filled the silence. Then the servants left the room, bowing.
"And yourself, my Lord Eric?"
The Northumbrian Earl moved closer to the King, bending over the chess-board. "Considering the rare quiet within my earldom, I am content. And yourself, Eadric?"
Godwine heard the newcomer striding back and forth behind him. His concentration broken, the Saxon quickly turned around, watching Eadric rub his arms as though he needed more warmth. Godwine turned back to the board, but not before he noticed Eadric's mouth twitch.
"I could be better." Eadric’s tone brought Canute's head up questioningly. Godwine straightened in his seat but Canute caught his eye, nodding at the board. Eadric took a stick and poked the fire.
Taking a closer look at the Earl, Godwine noticed that his hair was unbrushed, his fingernails were cracked, his clothing wrinkled. He began pacing again, adjusting his belt.
“How is that Christmas pie?” Canute asked Eric, holding out a hand for a taste. The Dane cut a piece for him, holding it out on the edge of his knife. Taking a long time to sample it, Canute leaned back, evidently enjoying the taste. He licked all five fingers and wiped his hand on his tunic, then reached for another chess piece. Eadric stopped pacing and faced Canute, his arms crossed over his chest.
"And what might be the problem?" The King's voice sounded appropriately concerned.
"My earldom is restive,” he started slowly. "The populace has not yet recovered, the revenues are poor, and the people are hungry."
"That is a pity."
"More the pity that the King does not concern himself with their troubles."
"I see," said Canute, interested. "And what of the exemption I gave them from this year's taxes?"
Closing his eyes, the other gestured as if it were nothing.
"Eadric, this is not what is bothering you."
Stopping, the Earl glared at the King, unable to hide his antipathy. He came to the table, leaned over it. Godwine could smell alcohol on his breath.
"All right. I believe that I deserve better than this. You have given me the most devastated, the poorest earldom in the kingdom. You exclude me from your council. You treat me like a stranger. After all I have done for you."
"And what is it that you have done for me?"
Eadric straightened up, crossing his arms again. He took a deep breath. "You know damned well.”
Intrigued, Canute gave Eadric his full attention. "I know damned well,” he repeated softly.
The tension between them was so strong it felt as though there were only two people in the room. Everyone knew Canute was at his most dangerous when he was totally quiet. But Eadric seemed beyond caring.
“Ask Edmund Ironside, if you could."
Godwine gasped aloud, more in amazement at the man's blatant admission of the deed than its actuality. Even Canute had paled. Getting slowly to his feet, he faced Eadric so fiercely that the other stepped back.
"Then you shall get everything you deserve. You killed your own lord! My sworn brother! Your own mouth has pronounced you a traitor; let the blood be on your head.
"Eric, dispatch this man, lest he live to betray me as well."
The Earl of Northumbria was not loth to obey. Pulling an axe from his belt, the man moved purposefully toward his enemy, narrowed eyes reflecting his satisfaction with Canute's command.
For a moment, Eadric froze, unbelieving. Then his instinct for survival gained sway, and he pushed the table over, making a dash for the door.
But Godwine blocked the way—Godwine, this nonentity, who had barely rated his acknowledgment. The Saxon was standing with legs apart and drawn sword, opposing his exit.
Preferring to die under the blade of an equal, Eadric whirled, pulling his sword. But he was already too late. Eric's axe head was making its deadly arc, and Eadric's blade came up uncertainly, not even delaying the impact of the edge as it cleanly severed his head from his body.
Canute had been watching from the fireplace. "Throw the wretch's carcass from the window, into the Thames."
Eric was glad to do so. He had hated the Earl, and saw this as a fitting end to a despicable career. Seizing one of the convulsing legs, he dragged the body across the floor, oblivious to the gushing blood. Stooping, he hoisted the corpse onto the sill and dumped it unceremoniously into the river.
Godwine stared at the disembodied face, as it gawked back at him. Then he grabbed the hair and came up behind Eric, flinging the head through the window and far out over the water.
As he listened for the inevitable splash, Godwine felt an eerie satisfaction; at least this once, he had done his part in wreaking revenge on the betrayer of Edmund Ironside, and possibly his own father way back in 1009.
Both bloodied Earls turned to Canute, who had observed the scene dispassionately. "Thank you. You have done me a great service."
Godwine controlled his trembling with an effort. "You drove him to it, didn't you?"
"You might say that. Although I was expecting his demands in a more rational form...and at a better time." He glanced at the horrified servants, who were huddled at the newly opened door. "Yes, come in, come in. As you can see, it is time we met the queen in the great hall and started our celebrations in earnest. Send for some water and buckets and take care of this mess.
"Oh, and come, my friends. Let me arrange for some clean tunics before you present yourselves."
Terrific combination of history and story
By Frank Watson
Let’s welcome Mercedes Rochelle with her second novel Godwine Kingmaker: Part 1 of the Last Great Saxon Earls. In her first novel, Heir to a Prophecy, Rochelle combined historical adventure with a touch of the supernatural and strong literary roots found in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. In this second work she returns to old-fashioned historical adventure in the tradition of Walter Scott and Alexandre Dumas. At the same time, she manages to incorporate the overwhelming tide of history not as just as setting but as the story itself.
The story will have special resonance to those familiar with the number 1066. Godwine, the hero of Rochelle’s novel, is the father of Harold Godwinson, who in 1066 A,D.was barely defeated by William the Conqueror (or William the Bastard, depending on which side of history you are on) at the Battle of Hastings in England. The Anglo-Saxon loss to the Normans changed the course of history for both England and the world.
The way most of us understand history is that certain larger-than-life men (and the occasional woman) lead armies to victory (or defeat) in a bewildering jumbo of names, dates, and places. If we learn anything at all about these players in history it is often an abbreviated summary, or maybe a resume. The truth, of course, is that their lives were lived much like any of us: A combination of natural talents and skills, a few lucky breaks, relationships good and bad, and making the right moves at the right times in history.
Men such as Godwine.
The story begins when Godwine – an Anglo-Saxon, not much a more than a child, a peasant and herdsman – finds a foreign warrior, a Dane, likely an enemy, wandering lost in the native Anglo-Saxon territory. While Godwine has talent and skills, it is his personality that causes more powerful men such as this stranger to befriend and mentor him. Unlike the history texts, in which it seems greatness is pre-ordained, Godwine’s journey is anything but certain. He struggles with growing political and military responsibilities, marriage problems, and family issues. The story ends with Godwine as head of one of the most powerful families in England.
Couldn’t all this just as easily be found in a biography? Or a comprehensive history of the period? Perhaps, but the information can be scattered across many sources and, let’s be honest, there is that pesky thing about too many names, dates, and place names and the danger of covering the events of years in a few paragraphs.
Certainly fiction might tell the stories, but often at the cost of true historical events and how they develop as a whole. A danger of fiction is dwelling upon the personal at risk of losing sight of the larger flow of history.
Rochelle does a nice job trying to incorporate both perspectives in her narrative.
She does battles and hand-to hand fighting. She describes strategies and tactics. She shows the tricky politics behind the historical events, which from Godwine’s perspective can seem capricious and ill-advised.
Rochelle also remembers that the larger-than life figures we read about in history were, regardless of their feats or failures, flesh-and-blood human beings with the same doubts, confusions, internal conflicts and feelings as the rest of us. Rochelle incorporates such universal realities into the story of unfolding history.
One of the best examples might be the relationship between Godwine and his wife, Gytha. It started out rocky, with a bad result, though an apparently happy and successful marriage followed, resulting in a family and a father’s pride in his sons. One of the more insightful scenes is when Godwine, feeling uncertain and depressed about prospects, thinks about his family, especially his son, Harold:
[Harold’s[ voice held the firm timbre of command. Godwine knew it; he had often used the same tone himself. He looked long at Harold, feeling his son’s strength – and his own frailty. There was no denying it: Godwine felt old and worn, and he needed Harold to lean on. Yet it was a good feeling to lean on a son.
If there is a fault with this work, it might be that the reader is left wanting more: more thoughts about the nature of power, details about the politics of the time, explorations about marriage and family dynamics of this historical period, and insights into the very real human emotions of those to whom the events are not history but their lives.
On the other hand, it might not be fair to complain because Rochelle has apparently made great effort to uncover every possible nugget of knowledge from the time and presented it as accurately as possible; took minimum liberties when information was sparse; presented the characters as humanly as possible; and provided some nice insights.
This is definitely a book worth reading.