One of the key events of the decades leading up to William of Normandy’s transformation from Bastard to Conqueror was the slaughter of Danish settlers by the citizens of English towns, incited by King Aethelred, on St Brice’s Day in 1002. This massacre, or rather the crisis that provoked it, lies at the heart of Shadow on the Crown. But, refreshingly and completely effectively, the tale is told not from the point of view of soldiers or kings, although we watch their actions, but from that of Aethelred’s second wife and only queen, Emma of Normandy.
England at the turn of the 11th century was no easy to place to be, what with the constant threat of invading armies from the north and south, the drain of paying off Danes to stay away, and rivalry closer to home, especially between Wessex and Mercia, but also even within families, between brothers. If you were a woman then it would have been especially hard. A discarded wife or an unwanted daughter or niece could simply disappear from the historical record, consigned to a convent at best but quite possibly to a far worse fate. Emma, a child, is sent far from home, married to Aethelred, an aggressive, harried man, a king, many years her senior, and becomes stepmother to a host of strong sons, all of whom would be displaced if she were to bear a son. Unusually for a queen, Emma prays for a daughter.
The hostility between Wessex and Mercia is manifested in the novel by the rivalry between Emma and the young beauty Elgiva, daughter of the house of Mercia, whose sole mission is to enchant Aethelred or one of his sons into her bed. Her father might label her a whore for it but he has no hesitation in pushing her on. Emma, and any son she might bear, stands in the way of Elgiva’s ambitions.
Through it all, with head held high, stands Emma – she is a remarkable woman, brave and kind, clever and loyal. She has to endure a great deal, from her brute of a husband and from herself – it doesn’t pay to love where she shouldn’t. Patricia Bracewell doesn’t romanticise Emma at all. This is a believable, real young woman, living a thousand years away.
Shadow on the Crown is a wonderful novel – luxurious, evocative yet dark. Its descriptions of buildings and places, mostly now lost over the last thousand years, brings this time to life. The novel is packed with historical details. We see glimpses of Roman remains, the founding of new towns and the establishment of abbeys, some of which survive. There are battles, raids and skirmishes in towns with familiar names. The massacre itself is described as it happened, probably most famously, in Oxford. When the Danes attack the southern towns, even threatening Winchester, Patricia Bracewell conjures up images of an England that is mysterious and dangerous. There is plenty of action, with Emma and Elgiva sometimes at the heart of it. The brutality of the Danes and those who opposed them is presented full on. In a raid, women were treated worse than beasts. Both Emma and Elgiva are on the frontline.
Mixed with the military action are scenes of an uneasy domesticity as Emma copes with her lot. There are also glimpses of the superstitions of the day – the actions of several key players are influenced by prophecy. Apart from the women of the novel, much time is spent with Aethelred and his sons, especially Athelstan, and their influence over everything that Emma does or thinks is immense. Despite being queen, she is mostly powerless but it is fascinating to watch her slow infiltration into the consciousness (I would hesitate to go as far as say affections) of the men about her. I found it difficult, though, to feel anything but dislike for Elgiva and her family.
As an Oxfordian, it was very enjoyable to learn more about some familiar areas of the city and its outskirts – for instance, Emma gave birth to her son just a handful of miles away from me in the village of Islip.
Emma’s known to history largely as the mother of Edward the Confessor, she was also the wife of more than one king. She’s the perfect subject for a novel, as is the time it’s set in. By the end of the book, I was enamoured by our heroine and delighted to discover there will be two more novels. I would most certainly recommend Shadow on the Crown to all readers of medieval historical fiction, male or female. It is brilliantly done and written with great feeling for the time and people.
I must also mention how beautiful the (UK) hardback is, with its blue and gold. The font, likewise, is gorgeous.