The Last Conquest by Berwick Coates
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
A thoroughly enjoyable, maybe slightly alternative look at the possibilities surrounding the first couple of weeks of the Norman Conquest, leading up to and including the Battle of Hastings. It is a novel, so fiction, but thanks to the fiction and non-fiction reading around the events of 1066 I’ve done by accident and design over the last few years, I can see that The Last Conquest does weave very plausibly in and out of the facts as they can be determined and offers some very workable ideas, or interpretations, for what might be the reality behind at least a couple of the legends. In my opinion, I should hasten to add. As I wouldn’t want in any way shape or form, like to present myself as anything approaching an expert in the field. That is in there so I don’t get involved (again) in a thread elsewhere, about what amounts to a ‘fact’, when discussing a period with so relatively few of them available. Me asking an (I think an) author for at least one of them (and failing to get a reply other than what amounts to ‘everyone knows’) in response to their ‘it didn’t happen like that’, didn’t seem to sit well. Oh dear, how sad, never mind.
Anyway…The Last Conquest‘s story begins with the Normans landing and coming ashore at Pevensey in Sussex on the 28th September and then covers the first weeks of their preparation, scouting, defense building and, well, basically waiting. Waiting for Harold and the English to turn up and settle matters. At first they don’t know where he is, then they hear he’s had to fight the Vikings up near York. But it takes a while until they are sure if he’s won. Or lost. Maybe the Vikings have done their work for them. Maybe it’ll be the Vikings that make their way south to fight them for the throne. If the Vikings under Harald Hardrada actually know the Normans have landed at the other end of the country, that is. When the Normans do hear Harald Godwinson was successful in defeating Harald Hardrada, even before, they decide to sit and wait. But try to make sure when he does come their way, he comes the way they want him.
The opening short, sharp sections, reminded me of news bulletins. The sort based on ‘this news just coming in…from our reporter on the spot!’ The sort of little snippets of gossip, based on overhearings and assumptions based on very little fact, which is actually what they had. Or didn’t. Because they couldn’t just ring up someone nearby where they wanted to know, or see it on the news at 6.00. ‘This just in…Harold has won at Stamford Bridge.’ In our modern world of instant communication, the internet and maps to hand wherever we are, it makes it difficult to think yourself back into the mind of an 11th Century person. With guesswork passing as maps and hard evidence actually rumour, based on often false deductions or just plain old-fashioned superstition and reading of body language. This feeling your way forward through a kind of fog of false information, Coates puts over very well indeed. The Normans (and the Britons really) could only be sure of what was going on in the area where they could patrol and at the start of the book, this is the area around Hastings and up to Senlac Hill, where the battle actually took place. Harold? Well, no one knew where he was, what he was doing or with whom. And neither did the Normans. You build up an idea of how little of an idea people, especially the ordinary local people that is, the people who would, perhaps, be most affected – had of what was going on. Snippets of information trying to put together pieces of a jigsaw for which no one had the final picture.
The book structure is excellent. A bubbling confusion of information coalescing into a plan and a waiting, leading to a final battle. Like how it must have been for the Normans with boots on the ground. Normans. If you know anything about the Norman Conquest, you’ll know it was really The Norman and Others Conquest and that William was only a Duke, of a reasonably small province in what is now, but wasn’t then, France. He had to assemble and accept help and supplies, from wherever he could. That meant a lot of mercenaries, nationalities, opinions and of course tensions to keep a lid on. And a lot of money promised to all of the above. So, as the Norman scouts venture forth, putting out feelers and trying to discover what on earth is going on beyond the perimeter of their fortress, they naturally come into contact with the locals. This contact, its effects on both sides and its bearing on events leading up to the battle, is where most of the book takes place. In essence a series of domestic dramas set against the background of the Battle of Hastings. Which is sensible enough for the author, as it is the area where he/she can speculate and write their own drama, without having to shoehorn their ideas into the mould of what we actually do know happened. Now, to be honest, it does sometimes become a little disjointed here. Darting around, back and forth in time, often within the same paragraph, can make me wonder if I’ve got hold of the thread. And when you worry you haven’t, it becomes more of a task to keep thinking ‘who is he then, I thought I had his number’, than enjoying the story. I must admit that I more than once found myself mixing my Glberts and my Ralphs. I think I got control of the situation by the end. But then to be fair, the end section, the final third was just so perfectly done, I really didn’t mind the head scratching from earlier.
The final battle, the Battle of Hastings, does arrive, along with Harold, his Housecarls and the rest of the English, in the final 100-odd pages. Coates begins it as a kind of overview, of the tactical positionings and movements of troops and moves the action closer and closer to individuals fighting their way towards Harold and the apple tree at the top of Senlac Hill. It is, as befits the most pivotal event in English history, a fantastically good read. He does seem to write as if, while Harold was directed to the battle site by William, by stopping short, as it were, the English were actually better positioned when it came to deploying forces for the battle itself. Having visited the battle site, at the now cunningly titled ‘Battle’, I can ‘see’ how the Normans had an uphill fight in more ways than one. Of course, a familiar theme here: what did happen in the battle? I think I’m right in saying, no one really knows except it started, and it ended with William in the winners’ enclosure. But, it absolutely could have happened this way. It seems entirely logical to me to present it as happening the way Coates has it. Fits the facts as we have them. A simple plan of “we’re up here, they’re down there”, of moves and probes like a chess game, an arrow and a smashing through the defences, then a hacking and a killing and a monumental upheaval of history. It could well have happened this way, it’s as valid as another theory (apart from the one saying the battle didn’t take place where it did). So why not?
If you’re looking for a non-stop, action packed, blood and thunder variant of the Historical Fiction genre, then you’re looking in the wrong place. It’s more of a slow burner than that. I will admit to having had some doubts, some issues, underway, but in the end I found myself enjoying it more and more. By the end, as I’d become at ease with the characters and the style, I was sad to have finished, but glad because I’m looking forward to what may well be a follow up (as it could well be set before the events in this book, I’m not too sure what kind of animal is yet). Which I’ve taken the precaution of pre-ordering. So a tentative 3, finishing strongly with an action-packed 4.