The Challenges of a King: 1 (The Road to Hastings)

Written by K. M. Ashman
Review by Nicky Moxey

A lot has been written about that tense period in history in the run-up to the Norman invasion, when King Edward the Confessor delayed appointing a successor, and the powerful Godwineson family controlled large chunks of England. The facts of this period are well-known, and Ashman does a competent job of relating them. Where this book particularly pleases is in some of the side stories—that of the goldsmith-monk Spearhafoc of the Benedictine Abbey at Bury St Edmunds, for instance; a real and consummate artist whose work was well-documented in contemporary annals. I hadn’t realised, though, that he had effectively funded the Godwineson comeback by stealing precious metals and jewels earmarked for a new set of crown jewels! Another well-drawn tale is that of Owen of Hereford, a Godwineson thegn; an imaginary character, I think, but his character arc, from full loyalty to a breaking-point where Sweyn’s appalling behaviour pushes him beyond the brink, is well drawn.

And then there’s the grasping and venal Robert of Jumièges, Bishop of London and confidant of the King, who finally made him Archbishop of Canterbury. Ashman portrays his small-mindedness over the elevation of Spearhafoc to Bishop well enough that you get a clear glimpse into how the self-serving actions of this man contributed to the Norman invasion in no small way. And having him smuggle the two Godwineson boy hostages out of the country is excellently done.

Ashman provides a good read, with a solid grasp of the facts. The book is listed under a heading of “The Road to Hastings”; I hope that it’s the first of a series!