The House of Godwine: The History of a Dynasty by Emma Mason
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I read this book some months ago, and today, as I was looking up a detail for more clarification, I realized that this volume was full of paper slips marking important passages. Then I realized I never reviewed this book which I keep on hand while working on my historical fiction projects. Well, I suppose this is a classic case of taking a book for granted, since I’m still actively using it.
I find “The House of Godwine” to be a clear, detailed and useful history that goes farther than merely recording pertinent details. Emma Mason skillfully puts “two and two” together and ventures to explain how certain events occurred or why people did what they did. For instance, when Harold launched his lightning attack on the court of Gruffydd ap Llewelyn in 1062: “It has been suggested that Aelfgar died in the Christmas season, possibly while attending court, and that this opportunity was seized to attack his ally Gruffydd ap Llewelyn before he learned of the earl’s death and could reinforce his own position.” Now, I knew about the Christmas campaign for years but never thought to associate it with Aelfgar’s death. This may or may not have happened as suggested, but the explanation is compelling.
In case you are wondering, yes, Emma uses extensive Notes to support her work. In fact, out of 281 pages, the Notes and Index start on page 203. As far as I can tell, she used her sources to best describe an event (such as the Battle of Hastings), then gave references every step of the way. So at Hastings, for instance, she gave us a depiction of the battle with notes every few sentences referencing many different sources. All total the battle description was thorough and it made a lot of sense. The same technique is used throughout the book.
I would say The House of Godwine is not an ideal history for beginners. It is not light reading, but for someone versed in the basics, the details here are welcome and useful. I picked up many things I hadn’t run across before. Another for-instance: “Harold knew that Norman plans for invasion of England were now well under way. William of Poitiers wrote that he sent spies to report back with more detailed information. One of these men was captured and his cover story was blown. He was taken before the duke, but instead of condemning him William seized the opportunity to send a message intended to demoralize his rival…” That’s the kind of detail I just gobble up!
The book starts with a good overview of England’s culture and politics before and during Aethelred’s reign, and ends with how the survivors after Hastings dealt with the new regime. This is where I discovered that Count Alain le Rouge, who led the Breton contingent at Hastings, carried off Edith Swanneck’s daughter Gunhild from her exile at Wilton abbey. Since Alain held much of the land previously owned by Gunhild’s mother, the daughter’s presence presumably calmed his Anglo-Danish tenants. She stayed with him until he died then became his brother’s partner in turn. I learned this tidbit just in time to incorporate it into my debut novel. Needless to say, I was thrilled. This is one book I will have to read more than once.