The Last Anglo-Saxon King and A Successful Invasion: Brutality, Beauty, and The Workings of Fate in Our Lives – in 1066

A Review of 1066 – What Fates Impose by  G.K. Holloway

1066 What Fates Impose by GK Holloway
1066 What Fates Impose by GK Holloway

I love to read a lively account of English history, and often draw principles from it that are relevant to our own lives. So when author G.K. Holloway contacted me recently to ask if I’d agree to read and review his book  1066 – What Fates Impose, I was happy to do so. The author had previously enjoyed my review of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. And having agreed to read and review the book I felt strongly enough about it to post the review on my blog.

Throughout English history, the ordinary people have never had the luxury of much to play around with by way of fate and destiny; other than the destiny they inherited to struggle day by day to live short, desperate and brutish lives. And unless you study social history, you learn only about the great “movers and shakers” rather than ordinary people.

And so it is with the events surrounding 1066, which we probably all learned about in primary school.  But read this book and you will feel close up to those dramatic and fateful events.

After a stunning opening scene, showing a remorseful William the Conqueror on his deathbed, I found the next few chapters of the book slow-going because they present a confusing array of names, with all the details of Earl Godwin and his sons, and a fickle and rather weak Edward the Confessor dishing out earldoms as it suits him, and a mix of rebellious sons, betrayal, poisonous royal advisers and ruthless conniving archbishops.

But when the stakes are high, and huge power and wealth is the prize, and the outcome will have major repercussions on history, then questions of fate and destiny become fascinating and intensely real.

The book picked up narrative pace as it moved on towards the events of 1066. In particular, the battle description at the end is brilliant, with several flashes of rich detail, engaging all the senses, together with poignant and moving touches that made me feel I was there at the thick of the battle of Hastings.

After much detailed description of carnage, brutality and sadistic violence, the end of the book came unexpectedly with a poetic beauty that I found truly moving. I was so immersed in the events that I even found myself thinking ‘I hope Harold wins’ even though I then thought ‘Of course he won’t. William wins’.

And there is one character whose sadistic murder of a mother and child whilst pillaging along the south east coast of England is so scrupulously examined I longed for him to get his come-uppance. But he doesn’t. Instead, he wins glory, royal gratitude, a large parcel of land in Devonshire and a wife and two sons. So much for ‘the way of the wicked’ perishing.

A fantastic evocation of a period of history that can seem very dry in our early school lives. But this book engages us emotionally in these events, bringing us up very close, refreshing our sense of perspective, causing us to reflect on the workings of irony in our own lives, when all our expectations are defeated and we face the reality of the least likely outcome.

Challenging False Ideas of God: The Judge-Who-Could-Never-Be-Pleased, or Perfect Love and Limitless Goodness?

‘”These things are sent to try us.”

Rev Kenny Borthwick, Church of Scotland minister (photo credit holytrinity-westerhailes.org.uk)
Rev Kenny Borthwick, Church of Scotland minister (photo credit holytrinity-westerhailes.org.uk)

This is just one among many cliches in the English language that we use without thinking.

Yet how often do we stop to realise they are meaningless?

Who sends these hard things to ‘try’ us? An almighty sadist in the sky?

This  stands as one of the most popular arguments against Christianity. How can a supposedly all-loving sovereign God allow  terrible things to happen to innocent people?

When I was in the sixth form at school we had an atheist English teacher who enjoyed challenging us on a personal level, arising from discussions about Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles.

Thomas Hardy was “a philosophic pessimist” and in Tess’s tragedy he suggests there is no purpose or meaning to her suffering, other than that “we live on a blighted star.”

Our teacher said, “All the evidence suggests that there is a random pain-inflictor, scanning round over human affairs, occasionally dropping a huge lump of tragedy onto someone.”

Discuss.

This would indeed be a good exam question in Religious Studies.

Two days ago I listened to a Church of Scotland minister, Kenny Borthwick, talk about why God does not send things to try us, and why  the real battle when we suffer is to hold onto the goodness of God.

Kenny spoke to a large audience as part of a day organised by The Well Christian Healing Centre in Leamington Spa.

God, he said, is not a harsh God whose main aim is to teach us hard lessons through hard things.

Although it is  true we can sometimes learn valuable things through suffering, we must be aware of this danger: if you over-stress a truth it can become a lie.

God does not send cancer to teach us a lesson.

God sent Jesus to teach cancer a lesson.

Kenny Borthwick is exactly the opposite of a traditional fire-and-brimstone preacher so beloved of numerous novels written by Catholic authors about their upbringing among religious authorities with a harsh view of God (how can I ever forget the sadistic priest in James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man?) No religious authority figure has ever spoken to me like that; and yet we somehow recognise the cruelty and the fanaticism in this character.

Benny Borthwick spoke of Christians who magnify badness and repentance and magnify the strictness of God with a zeal He would not own.

Kenny’s message to Christians was this:

“You have been saved into the love of God, the goodness of God that He wants to pour into your life day by day.”

The face of God-the-Judge-Who-could-never-be-pleased disappears for ever.

BUT once we accept this, there is still a process.

When we live from the goodness of God which is limitless, we realise that today and every day we always have something to offer, whoever  we are, even if we believe we have  nothing – we always have something to give.

We need to reject a false spirituality which is frightened to use words like illness or depression, and  frightened to cry and be distressed.

We can live each passing moment as a gift from God.

Jesus gave the water a new history when he turned it into wine.

He can give us a new history, with a sense of our new identity. When we are able to accept this, we can realise that our present doesn’t need to be controlled by our past.

Then we are able to make new choices – hope and trust rather than fear.

Then we can replace the old false spirituality and lies with a great truth:

“God can give me a new destiny”.

Musings From a Saxon Sanctuary – A Lesson of History: Success or Failure Turns on Quirks of Fate

Hidden in the heart of rural Warwickshire is a Saxon Sanctuary I only recently discovered.

http://raggedrobinsnaturenotes.blogspot.co.uk/2011/02/wootton-wawen.html
http://raggedrobinsnaturenotes.blogspot.co.uk/2011/02/wootton-wawen.html

It’s in St Peter’s Church at Wootton Wawen, situated between Henley-in-Arden and Stratford-upon-Avon. In the Lady Chapel, an exhibition tells the story of Wagen’s woodland village in the Forest of Arden.

Wagen was a Saxon lord who owned the land (the “manor”) of Wootton before 1066.  And I thought of him as I  looked through the exhibition. When William the Conquerer took over, he  swiped that land from Wagen and gave it, (as was the way of many English monarchs) to a pal of his. In this case the lucky recipient was Robert of Tosny, Earl of Stafford. History doesn’t record what happened to Wagen.

As I wandered around the church,  I mused upon the lessons of history, and whether I can learn anything from them, in my life.

Along with the Saxon Sanctuary, three other streams of thought  played into my musings – a recent TV programme on the 50 greatest treasures found by members of the public; a BBC TV drama production of  Shakespeare’s “Henry V”; and our planned visit to Bosworth to see the re-enactment of the Battle of Bosworth where Richard III was killed, thus signalling the end for the Plantaganets and the rise of the Tudors.

Here are a few historical snippets that sprang into my mind, in no particular order:

A Viking with “bad attitude” buried his plunder meaning to come back later and collect it – but he never did. It lay in the earth until it was found  by chance 1300 years later.

Henry V triumphed at Agincourt, then married Catherine daughter of the King of France. Their son Henry VI was a bit of a wash-out as a king, and would have preferred not to be king at all; he shrank from the role whereas his father had been famed for his valour. Following Henry V’s death when his son was 9 months old,  Catherine  went off and married Owen Tudor and thus started the Tudor dynasty.

When Richard III fought Henry Tudor at Bosworth, Henry was the rank outsider, and Richard would have been expecting to win. Shakespeare has him saying, “A horse! A horse! my kingdom for a horse!” He probably never said it but with those words Shakespeare exactly captures not only the poignancy and significance of that moment, but gives us a metaphor for human life many can recognise.

Mary I believed she’d restored Catholicism to England. She meant to secure a Catholic future – but whatever she achieved was only temporary. Her pregnancy turned out to be a phantom one, she died, and the throne passed into the hands of her protestant half-sister.

So I meditated on the fickle changes of fortune, and how they interface with our lives.

Consider the following:

What might have happened if:

– Richard III’s (metaphorical) horse had been available at the moment he needed him?

– Mary I had had a successful pregnancy which led to the birth of a healthy baby, thus securing a Catholic Tudor dynasty in England?

– if Harold had beat William at the Battle of Hastings in 1066?

– if James II had won the Battle of the Boyne?

– if Charlotte, the beautiful daughter of George IV and Caroline of Brunswick, (as beloved as Princess Diana was when she died in 1997)  had safely given birth to a healthy child, and lived to claim the throne and reign for 60 years, before Victoria was ever thought of?

– if Edward VIII had not met Mrs Simpson?

Some of these events could be interpreted as arising from errors of judgement and human failings; others from quirky twists of fate.

Many potentially great or significant people have been swallowed up by fate and removed from the arena of the world; and thus prevented from affecting the destiny of the human race. Shakespeare was well aware of that.

So what do I deduce from this? And is this something that can apply to anyone who has a dream or vision or sets out upon a course of action with a great goal in mind – such as a creative writer who would like their words to be read by many?

Simply that success or failure is not determined by hard work and striving.

Certainly “hard work and striving” cannot just be dispensed with. But perhaps we have to live with a healthy knowledge that that they may in a moment be swept away, and rendered irrelevant, by a quirky twist of fate.

What do you think? Do you share my fatalism? Or are you a historian who disagrees with my interpretation of English history?  Do consider leaving a comment!