The Last Viking by Berwick Coates
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is the story of how you really want 1066 to finish. After this battle – stop. Harold and the English win the battle of Stamford Bridge, see off the last Viking challenge. Nothing else happens. Everyone lives happy ever after.
If you’ve read anything about the 1066 period, about before or after the actual invasion, then you’ll know the bare bones of the story. And, if you know the bare bones, that’s ok. Because, as even the most arrogant of female historical fiction authors will surely admit (even of it is only through gritted teeth and with one of her many cats held over a hot fire), the bare bones of the story, is about all historians do know for sure. So if you know just a little bit, you’re pretty much up to speed. What you need to do then, is think about how it was 1,000 years ago. Remove yourself from the 21st Century and think about it. Who else only knew a little bit about what went on, was going on? Yup. People like you and me, the ordinary man and woman of England of course. We do forget sometimes, we need to be reminded by books like this, that people hadn’t much of an idea of what was actually going on. Not just in the other parts of the country, but in the next village often. I know they did travel more than we perhaps think, but think about it. No Newspapers with news only a few hours old, no TV or radio with live reports, no internet with live streaming and all the news and opinions available, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and immediately. No, if books like this (and the previous, The Last Conquest) do nothing else, they remind us of how it must have been on the ground – and higher up the system – for the people of the time. it’s like the phrase ‘the fog of war.’ They mean, I think, trying to peer through the clouds of information, misinformation, disinformation, maybes, bluffs and misdirection, to see the truth of the situation. Who is doing what and where and when and where they’re planning to be next and when. In the 11th Century, as this (and previous) book put over very well indeed – simply trying to find out where your enemy (and indeed, your friends, for that matter) are, was a huge problem. Especially if you were trying to fight off an invasion, or two. Or three. Let alone making any plans of what to do when you did find them. That’s probably why all the clever leaders down history, let their enemy come to them, at a place of their choosing. But finding out where your enemy is, reading between the lines of books like this, is a slow process of eliminating places where he is not. Even then, by the time a message has got back to you, you only really know where he was not, a few days ago. The way I read it, that’s what Mr Coates is trying to put over in his books. Though in Conquest he has William waiting for Harold came to him (mainly because he didn’t know where Harold was, or even if he’d won at Stamford Bridge. But then, Harold had a plan of where he would be, knowing the ground around Hastings and managed eventually, to let William come to him.
All that does raise the question of why Mr Coates has released the books in this order. The battle prior to that (not) at Hastings, after the book of that battle. I’m really not sure. I’m not sure though, if you would get more, or less, from reading them in the ‘right’ order. Maybe. Up to you. I had no choice, having already read ‘Invasion.’ If you haven’t read either yet, read The Last Conquest first.
To place the book in context with a couple of other books I’ve read about the period recently, it begins later than 1066 What Fates Impose, later than Shieldwall and earlier than James Aitcheson’s series and James Wilde’s Hereward books. Actually, we start off in Scandinavia, the land of Harald Hardrada, The Last Viking in question. Not with him, but amongst his people in some background to why and (possibly) how he managed to put an invasion-sized army together. He wasn’t, of course, the last Viking, as some of the people who went over with him, came back, but that’s mythology for you. Anyway, actually, apart from figuring in the background as at the start, one of the forces considering an invasion of England, Hardrada doesn’t feature in the book. Not a speaking part. The rest of his family, yes, but the ‘old viking’ himself, no. His deeds and character are sketched in by his wife and daughter, with whom the book spends a deal of time with, again, through their contacts with the Vikings at the start of the book as they prepare for and execute, their invasion plans.
The book though, is mainly over in England. It seems common knowledge amongst the peasants in the field, that the ailing King has indeed promised the throne to ‘The Bastard.’ And while William might be biding his time the other side of the Channel, the Normans are already in England. Edward’s been ‘knee-deep in Normans for years.’ And the English aren’t really sure where the King’s housecarls’ (his ‘sworn swords’) sympathies lie. Harold here is again presented as a very sympathetic figure. He could be presented differently, if a writer wished, going against what seem to be the previous King’s wishes and taking the throne for himself after familial manoeuvring into position, but in the books I’ve read, he is presented in a pretty sympathetic light. Here, he is intent on doing what is best for the country. Whilst he isn’t thrust unwillingly into the ‘job,’ he can clearly see that there are no other candidates that can do the job as well as him. None that aren’t Norman, anyway. His brother Tostig might – and does – disagree (as does their mother), much to Harold’s irritation, and he too wants to seize the throne. The view here, is that Tostig’s doing it for himself, Harold for the good of England. Hoorah! Harold therefore realises that he needs to be seen (eventually) by his own people, as doing the right thing for England. “‘Harold wants the throne, but he wants it delivered properly – open election, according to all custom and etiquette.’” Again, as I’ve pointed out in reviews for other books, note ‘election’ and ‘according to all custom.’ Interestingly, Mr Coates has Harold stating that he did swear an oath to William, but (as ‘1066 What Fates Impose’) under duress. Harold is also open about the validity of the oath and whatever it contained. “I know what I swore in that oath and what I did not, and so does William. It certainly did not include crowning him King of England. Besides, it was under some form of duress. And no oath under duress counts. Everyone knows that, never mind William.” Unfortunately, as we know, William wasn’t the understanding ‘oh yeah, you’re right, I’ll get me coat’ kind of person. Another interesting point was to cover why, if Harold knew William was delayed by bad weather and that Hardrada had arrived, he didn’t attack him earlier than at Stamford Bridge. At Fulford, for example. Here, Harold has a stomach bug, which delays his arrival, allowing Hardrada to come to Stamford bridge to exchange hostages, not realising that Harold and the English army was galloping up just the other side of that hill there. Hoorah!
‘The Last Viking’s Harold is sure, dynamic, clear sighted, sensible, certain of his own and therefore England’s success against whoever or all those who would attack her. We see what Harold might have been going through, waiting and preparing, not knowing from which end of the land an attack was going to come from first. But knowing that an attack was coming. I kept thinking underway, that maybe his intention was maybe of somehow presenting Harold as ’The Last Viking’ of the title, but it never came about.
All in all, from the little I know of the period, Mr Coates writes pretty much in line with the other histories of the period, non- and fiction-wise. The book’s narrative doesn’t have to travel near and far to gather the scraps of information. That is brought to it, partly by Harold’s spy master, by Welsh archers, by Scarborough Shire Reeves (remind you of anything?) and overheard gossip. He sets out the historical background for the period and his story in conversations and observations between ‘ordinary’ people. Well, not those out in the fields covered in shit, but those shall we say just outside the circles of power, and by not being on the inside, they can give it some – often earthy – perspective for us. We hear of Harold’s plans, his worries and his hopes, the background information coming from the ordinary people hearing rumours and having friends who have actually seen the fire-breathing dragons roaming the skies. As you do. Once in a while, some of the minor characters chatting about major events, can feel a bit too forced, a bit too obvious, but it generally works a treat.
The whole book is vivid and very readable, a good flow and structure and with plenty of sparkling dialogue – like people would discuss things, then as now. You and I would fit right in, it’s only time that separates us.
Oh, and, as ever – stay on for the Historical Afterword, really interesting.