Publication Date: March 7, 2016
eBook & Print; 306 Pages
Genre: Historical Fiction
Emerging from the long shadow cast by his formidable father, Harold Godwineson showed himself to be a worthy successor to the Earldom of Wessex. In the following twelve years, he became the King’s most trusted advisor, practically taking the reins of government into his own hands. And on Edward the Confessor’s death, Harold Godwineson mounted the throne—the first king of England not of royal blood. Yet Harold was only a man, and his rise in fortune was not blameless. Like any person aspiring to power, he made choices he wasn’t particularly proud of. Unfortunately, those closest to him sometimes paid the price of his fame.
This is a story of Godwine’s family as told from the viewpoint of Harold and his younger brothers. Queen Editha, known for her Vita Ædwardi Regis, originally commissioned a work to memorialize the deeds of her family, but after the Conquest historians tell us she abandoned this project and concentrated on her husband, the less dangerous subject. In THE SONS OF GODWINE and FATAL RIVALRY, I am telling the story as it might have survived had she collected and passed on the memoirs of her tragic brothers.
This book is part two of The Last Great Saxon Earls series. Book one, GODWINE KINGMAKER, depicted the rise and fall of the first Earl of Wessex who came to power under Canute and rose to preeminence at the beginning of Edward the Confessor’s reign. Unfortunately, Godwine’s misguided efforts to champion his eldest son Swegn recoiled on the whole family, contributing to their outlawry and Queen Editha’s disgrace. Their exile only lasted one year and they returned victorious to London, though it was obvious that Harold’s career was just beginning as his father’s journey was coming to an end.
Harold’s siblings were all overshadowed by their famous brother; in their memoirs we see remarks tinged sometimes with admiration, sometimes with skepticism, and in Tostig’s case, with jealousy. We see a Harold who is ambitious, self-assured, sometimes egocentric, imperfect, yet heroic. His own story is all about Harold, but his brothers see things a little differently. Throughout, their observations are purely subjective, and witnessing events through their eyes gives us an insider’s perspective.
Harold was his mother’s favorite, confident enough to rise above petty sibling rivalry but Tostig, next in line, was not so lucky. Harold would have been surprised by Tostig’s vindictiveness, if he had ever given his brother a second thought. And that was the problem. Tostig’s love/hate relationship with Harold would eventually destroy everything they worked for, leaving the country open to foreign conquest. This subplot comes to a crisis in book three of the series, FATAL RIVALRY.
Not long after we were comfortably housed in Flanders, Judith and I attended church with Matilda, Baldwin’s only surviving daughter, and her ladies. Matilda was a tiny thing, but a spirited little bundle of energy nonetheless, and very pretty. She would have fit under Judith’s chin. But she was the pride and joy of her parents, well-educated and very conscious of her lineage; her mother was the king of France’s sister, and Baldwin’s ancestors have ruled Flanders since the ninth century.
It had been raining that day and the sun was just peeking from the clouds as we finished the services in the church of St. Donation, which stood only about 400 meters from the castle. As we were leaving, Matilda led her little procession; I was far back in the crowd when the commotion began. Women were screaming, arms were waving, and people were pushing into each other trying to fall back. By the time I elbowed my way through the door, craning my neck to see over all the heads, Matilda was lying face-down in a puddle of mud. She was sobbing for all the world like she had just taken a beating. The poor girl was covered from head to toe with muck, and her beautiful dress was ruined. As she pushed herself up by the arms, I shook the girl next to me.
“It was him,” she sobbed, pointing. Looking up, I saw a somewhat disheveled man riding away. There was no time to catch up with him—not with poor Matilda in need of assistance. I ran to her side and rolled her into my arms, picking the unresisting girl up like she was a child. She put her arms around my neck, smearing mud and tears all over my tunic.
“Take…take me home,” she coughed between sobs. She didn’t need to tell me that!
By now we had drawn a crowd, but they all parted respectfully as I carried Bruges’ favorite daughter back to her father’s castle. I heard the murmurs as we passed by.
“William the Bastard,” said somebody.
“The Duke,” said another. “He must be punished.”
“Poor girl,” said a third. “He just grabbed her by the back of the neck and threw her in the mud.”
“He beat her!”
“No, he kicked her!”
“He rolled her in the mud then got on his horse.”
I was shocked. That was the Duke of Normandy?
Murmuring words of encouragement, I carried Matilda up the hill to the castle. We passed between rows of soldiers and into the citadel where her ladies ran ahead of me to prepare her chamber. I laid Matilda on a pile of covers and she rolled on her side, hiding her face. Her father rushed in the door and knelt by her bedside.
“Oh my poor child. What happened?”
At that, she sat up and threw her arms around Baldwin’s neck, covering him with mud, too. After a few moments of sobbing, she pulled herself together.
“Oh father. It was Duke William. He was waiting for me at the church. When I came out, he accused me of humiliating him! I told him I would not lower myself to marry a mere bastard, when he grabbed me and threw me into the mud. He pushed me back and forth until I was totally covered then got on his horse and rode away.”
She took a cloth from one of her ladies and blew her nose in it.
“Outrageous!” spit the Count. “I will have his head for this!”
Turning Matilda over to her women, he rose and tried to look dignified. But he was all bespattered like myself, and decided to leave the room, taking the witnesses with him. He put an arm around my shoulder.
“Thank you, Tostig. Poor girl.” He tried to straighten out his tunic then gave up. “Right before you came to Flanders, Duke William sent an embassy asking for Matilda’s hand in marriage. You can imagine how quickly she sent them packing. William was beneath her station, and a bastard on top of everything else. She is not shy, my little Matilda!” He laughed briefly. “But we weren’t expecting this!”
The more he thought about it, his face became redder and redder.
“How dare he shame my little girl! Come, Tostig. We cannot let this go unavenged!”
There is one thing I can say about Count Baldwin; he is a very decisive man. He wasted no time in calling together his scribes and composing letters to his knights and captains. He summoned his household steward and demanded an accounting of all supplies. He called for his banker so he could determine how many funds he could raise. He worked long into the night.
The following day, as Baldwin was busily giving orders, Matilda walked into the great hall, trailing her women. There were no signs of the previous afternoon’s dishevelment; in fact, she had regained her proud bearing. Everyone stopped what they were doing and stared at her.
“Father, I have made a decision,” she said evenly. “You may stop preparations for war. I have decided I will marry Duke William of Normandy.”
You could have heard a feather drop in the room. We were all stunned into silence.
“You what?” her father finally muttered.
“I will have no one else.”
Apparently used to Matilda’s strange behavior, her father leaned back and put the quill down.
“And what has brought about this change of mind?” He crossed his arms over his chest.
She appeared to think for a moment. “It must be a brave and powerful man who would dare do such a thing, right in the middle of your territory.” A brief smile flicked across her face. “I understand him better, now.”
Baldwin looked around at his courtiers. “There you have it. Cancel our preparations.” I detected a bit of sarcasm in his voice, but he was quickly obeyed. He held out a hand to Matilda.
“Come, my child. Sit beside me.”
Someone brought a chair and Matilda obliged, taking her father’s hand.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” he said gently. “He may prove to be a dangerous husband.”
“I will manage him. After all, he really didn’t hurt me.”
Baldwin didn’t even try to reason with her. Given time, he told me later, she might change her mind again.
About the Author
Born in St. Louis MO with a degree from University of Missouri, Mercedes Rochelle learned about living history as a re-enactor and has been enamored with historical fiction ever since. A move to New York to do research and two careers ensued, but writing fiction remains her primary vocation. She lives in Sergeantsville, NJ with her husband in a log home they had built themselves.
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