The Chosen Queen | Joanna Courtney | 2015 | Macmillan | 352p | Review copy | Buy the book
1055, England: Edward the Confessor is a much loved but ageing, heirless king. But there is no end to the list of those with a claim to the throne, thanks to a web of marriages among the land’s most ambitious, fractious noble families. Edyth Alfgarsdottir is the blossoming daughter of Alfgar, Earl of Mercia, the son of Lady Godiva, a formidable woman who still influences the court. Edyth, her family and the rest of the court are gathered at Westminster to hear the king announce the name of the new earl of Northumbria. Alfgar is confident the earldom is his but his hopes crash when Edward gives the title to Lord Torr Godwinson, brother to Edward’s Queen and member of an increasingly powerful family that includes Torr’s brother Harold, Earl of Wessex. But Torr has none of the nobility and honour of his elder brother and the insult is too much for Alfgar to bear. He threatens the King – Alfgar and his wife and children are cast out, banished from England, left to seek refuge with Griffin, the charismatic King of all Wales. It is from that point on that life begins to get very interesting indeed for our young heroine, Edyth. History is on a collision course with Hastings and Edyth is caught at the heart of it.
There is no doubt at all that the years 1055-1066 were amongst the most tumultuous in England’s history, the perfect subject for a historical novel, but we’re now distanced from it by almost one thousand years. We all know what happened at the Battle of Hastings but the years and events preceding it are far less well-known, not least because English history was about to become Norman, not Saxon. Joanna Courtney is to be congratulated because in The Chosen Queen she throws us into the drama of these days by successfully focusing on one particular element of it – the life of a young noblewoman who experienced events better than most, and harder than most, thanks to her highborn birth and her illustrious marriages. But because we know what happened at the Battle of Hastings there is also a powerful tension running through this novel. We are spending time with people whose days are numbered.
Edyth Alfgarsdottir is an absolute delight, a spirited, brave and determined heroine who, despite her rank, learns more than she should about hardship, scrambling to survive, and death. But she also has her mind set on love and love is the dominant theme that runs through this emotional novel. Without doubt, these are the hardest of times and men especially have to live the lives of warriors – threat comes from kinsmen as much as it does from the Viking north or the Norman south. Only Edward is holding it all together and it’s obvious that time is running out on peace. But despite all of this, love runs through these men and women’s veins every bit as much as warfare and ambition.
At the beginning of the novel Edyth is a witness to a beautifully romantic handfast union between Harold of Wessex and the Lady Svana. This is a marriage without the blessing of the Church, made surrounded by nature, directly before God and one another. It is this ideal that Edyth seeks for herself, knowing only too well (especially after observing the appalling Torr) the opposite. The relationship between Edyth and her Welsh King Griffin is wonderfully told and sets a tone for the book – and Edyth’s life – that continues until the last pages. Griffin is not the last love of Edyth’s life, nor, perhaps, the most significant, but their relationship is one among several colourful and rich episodes within The Chosen Queen that goes straight to the heart of the reader.
While I adored The Chosen Queen, it also takes more than a few liberties with historical accuracy and, I would argue, authenticity. I am a bit of a purist when it comes to history – especially medieval history, which I know a fair bit about – and I am also no fan of romanticised history. However, The Chosen Queen is the exception that proves the rule, pulling me in by the extraordinary storytelling gift of the author. I never felt that I was back in 11th-century England – the language, sensibilities and relationships are too modern for that. The men in particular seem out of place. Also, many of the names have been ‘modernised’ as an appendix tells us. This I found completely unnecessary and very hard to excuse. For instance, Gunnhild becomes Hannah, Burgheard becomes Brodie, Gytha becomes Crysta and there are many more changes. This threw me out of the historical period and setting far more than I would have liked. Nevertheless, I was able to ignore this more than I thought I would and was able to enjoy the story and the characters enormously for what they are.
Joanna Courtney knows how to pull on the heartstrings of her readers – this is a light yet deeply emotional read and the pages fly through the fingers. It might be history romanticised and tidied up but it still has a considerable impact. I cried my eyes out on several occasions – there are shocks in here, not least during the Battle of Hastings itself. I never expected the Battle to make me weep but it did. Joanna Courtney tells her story with great enthusiasm and skill. It kept me reading late into the night and by the end I was an emotional wreck, left longing for the sequel! I can’t wait for it.
One point, though: don’t read the family trees at the beginning, they give away an awful lot more than the date of the Battle of Hastings.