The Last English King – Julian Rathbone

Here’s the thing – I bought this in a charidee book sale at work, and I didn’t really know what to expect but you can’t go far wrong when it’s a pound a go for the kiddies, or cancer, or whatever. And lo and behold, it’s another novel based on the life of a real person, just like The Pornographer of Vienna. One of the big differences here is that I have actually heard of Harold II, the eponym. And not only that, but I would probably have been interested in his story if I hadn’t heard of him, because it’s part of the history of my country – quite an important part. He’s not just some dude who liked to paint hookers in the nuddie.

And further than that, the last time I read anything about him I was probably 9, which is when we did the Normans in school. More or less. So some bits may have been missed out – i.e. the sex and violence, i.e. the interesting bits. All I knew was that he became King because he was supposed to, and he had to fight two invading armies in a week, and he only lost to the second lot because he got shot in the eye. Everyone knows this, everyone is wrong.

The novel actually takes up a long time filling in backstory – all about Edward the Confessor (now I know what he confessed to, I’m not surprised they didn’t mention it at Catholic primary school) and the various shady dealings to engineer the succession, which was a good deal more complicated back then, with about 90 people having a reasonable claim to the throne, and the winner being whoever was close enough to the King when he died to be able to pretend he’d said “I want this dude to be King”.

And William and his army weren’t exactly the noble race of Viking-descended heroes I was led to believe either – at least, according to Rathbone, but he seems to have done his research. Perhaps their nobility was played up in my school because they brought a brand of high-pope christianity with them, which eventually crushed the pagan brand of religion that had been keeping the people of England amused until that point. Or maybe it’s because they eventually founded the aristocracy, who invented schools and learning shit. History – it’s written by the winners. For at least 1,000 years. Anyway, they are depicted in this book as a right shower of gits, I knew there was a reason I didn’t like toffs.

So, there’s all this richness of information, explained in a way that’s easy to understand and quite entertaining, but… I found the style of the novel irritating. The main character, Walt, was Harold’s sworn bodyguard – a housecarl – and had failed to give up his life to save his master, and so was wandering around Europe, telling his story to some other dude, who just happened to be there and interested (seriously). They also meet someone who was in the Norman camp, and was also ashamed of his part in the whole thing, and he told his story. And there’s some interaction between the group (including some rich ginger woman, for some reason) but it all screams “device”. And a fairly creaky one, at that. It’s a pretty old trick – Chaucer did it, for one – but I think you need to have better characters to make it worthwhile. The guys the story is actually about – Harold, William, The Confessor, various relatives – are all clear and well drawn, but the little group of made-up dudes, not so much. Oh, and some of the jokes are weak. What’s the point of having a Bob Dylan impressionist in a book about the Norman Conquest? So we can all have a giggle? It’s not funny.

Anyway, in spite of that (and the fact that it takes quite a while to get going, what with Walt being in a fever and just plodding around northern Europe aimlessly) I found it entertaining and fun, which is much more than can be said for the Egon Schiele one.

See also:

The Pornographer of Vienna – about someone I don’t care about, and not particularly well written.

The Damned Utd – about Ole Big ‘Ead

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