On September 27, 1066, Duke William of Normandy sailed for England with hundreds of ships and over 8,000 men. King Harold of England, weakened by a ferocious Viking invasion from the north, could muster little defense. At the Battle of Hastings of October 14, he was outflanked, quickly defeated, and killed by William's superior troops. The course of English history was altered forever.
Three years later, Walt, King Harold's only surviving bodyguard, is still emotionally and physically scarred by the loss of his king and his country. Wandering through Asia Minor, headed vaguely for the Holy Land, he meets Quint, a renegade monk with a healthy line of skepticism and a hearty appetite for knowledge. It is he who persuades Walt, little by little, to tell his extraordinary story.
And so begins a roller-coaster ride into an era of enduring fascination. Weaving fiction around fact, Julian Rathbone brings to vibrant, exciting, and often amusing life the shadowy figures and events that preceded the Norman Conquest. We see Edward, confessing far more than he ever did in the history books. We meet the warring nobles of Mercia and Wessex; Harold and his unruly clan; Canute's descendants with their delusions of grandeur; predatory men, pushy women, subdued Scots, and wily Welsh. And we meet William of Normandy, a psychotic thug with interesting plans for the "racial sanitation" of the Euroskeptics across the water.
Peppered with discussions on philosophy, dentistry, democracy, devils, alcohol, illusions, and hygiene, The Last English King raises issues, both daring and delightful, that question the nature of history itself. Where are the lines between fact, interpretation, and re-creation? Did the French really stop for a two-hour lunch during the Battle of Hastings?
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About the Author
Julian Rathbone was the author of many books, including Joseph and King Fisher Lives, both of which were shortlisted for the Booker Prize. He lived in Dorset, England.
Julian Rathbone was the author of many books, including Joseph and King Fisher Lives, both of which were shortlisted for the Booker Prize. He lived in Dorset, England.
Read an Excerpt
The Last English King
By Julian Rathbone
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1997 Julian Rathbone
All rights reserved.
He had travelled for three years, or was it four? At first he had not known where he went and did not care. First, after crossing the water (ill, probably dying, friends had paid a boatman for his passage across the Channel), he went into barren, frozen fens where people lived in stilted houses above the rushes, and beneath them too, for their homes were roofed with them. They fished through holes in the ice, snared the wintering wild-fowl, skated with marvellous agility and speed on skates carved from the shoulder-blades of cattle. Their Germanic language shared with his English enough basic vocabulary for him to get by.
Among these people there was a healer. Three months had passed since the battle and still the stump at his wrist suppurated, smelled foul, extruded occasional shards of shattered bone. The healer, an old man, bathed it in hot suffusions of herbs and bound it with cobwebs torn from the gaps between the ridge-pole of his house and the timber that supported it. Then he bound it with clean rags. A fortnight later he unwrapped the rags. Most of the inflammation and the smell had gone. The healer repeated the process and in another fortnight the stump was healed. It was ugly though, swelling into a knobbly cap like some mushrooms or even the warted glands of a giant penis, the pizzle of a donkey. For a time it itched dreadfully, but within a few weeks all feeling went and the obscene end of it became numb.
Fever and nightmare receded but a greater clarity brought no joy – in the stark, cold light of these foreign fens Walt now knew for sure just how deep his treachery had gone. It was simple enough. When the sword fell, he had tried to parry it with his own sword, his own arm. Had he taken the blow upon his body, as a king's companion should, then the king and lord he was meant to protect might have lived.
Through January and February he worked like a serf for the healer and learnt to cope with only one hand. He emptied slops, prepared vegetables for the pot, went about the settlement with a sledge and dragged the sick and dying to the healer's house. When the ice cracked and the water flowed, and the geese and duck who had strutted in their thousands on the ice flew north leaving the muddy mussel and oyster beds where the water was salt and did not freeze, the healer said he could go. Walt set his face to the rising sun, or the sun at midday, eager only to get as far as he could from the place of his spiritual annihilation.
He discarded the leather jerkin, padded to support chain-mail, the heavy woollen hose cross-gartered with leather thongs. The healer gave him a cloak from a patient he had failed to cure; he worked a week for an old widow who gave him stout boots with leather uppers and soles made of two thicknesses of hide – deadman's shoes.
Through the spring he followed the course, but against the stream, of a great river that meandered out of the south through farmed and forested plains, pushed on through gorges or hills so steep you could not believe they supported vines, now bursting into bright green leaf. He heard horns and woodland birds and maidens singing of stolen gold. The river became a lake and on the day of St John the Baptist, midsummer's day, when men leap through the flames of bonfires, and the hills and valleys are filled with wild roses and lilies, and the women dance with garlands made from both, the Wanderer saw huge black mountains soar above the southern shore, sheeted across their peaks with glancing snow. Rivers of ice tracked down from them into the valleys below.
He was a tall, gaunt figure from whom the women and children in fields and villages would cringe or even run with fright – until they saw his stump. Then some would mock and throw stones but others would express in tongues he could not understand curiosity and even pity. He drank from springs, he begged bread, and as the season turned he gorged on nuts and grapes. Heading east he found another river, wider, slower, more sluggish than the first but all along its banks were hamlets and villages and sometimes cities almost as big as the biggest city in the country he had left.
The further he went the more troubled were the lands he walked through. For every village with fields ripening with corn, and wine, milk, and indeed honey, with fat cattle and glossy horses, there were five that were burnt. The naked bodies of raped women festered in doorways, babies were impaled on seven-foot lances, dogs fed on the bones of their masters. He had seen such things in the past, in his own country even, but never as bad as this. Men with swaggering moustaches and fur caps, curved swords, galloped by in squadrons and fought each other beneath parched skies of azure blue. Yet Walt passed harmless and unharmed through it all, a grey wraith lost in the mirages of the plains, spared as soon as his stump was seen.
It was good land, he could see that, better than any he had seen since he left his own country, and he knew too well how good land attracts marauders the way a plum tree in September attracts swarms of wasps. And now he felt a stirring of nostalgia for what he had left behind – a land where there was abundance but order too, where all were fed, and most content.
The cold he had expected as the year turned never came, though to the north of the river more snow-capped mountains lay along the northern horizon. Then the whole landscape changed once more. The great river split and split again. Keeping to the south of it, he nevertheless found himself in a wilderness of huge rushes. Insects abounded, and carapaced amphibians, huge birds who strutted on stilt-like legs, whose sinuous necks raised their pink and black heads with axe-like beaks above his. The people were wild and savage, melting into the forest of reeds and rushes as he approached them, some mother-naked, and none to beg food from. For the first time he began not just to feel hunger but to fear it.
He headed south again and reached fertile and well-ordered plains where the churches were domed and the lords with their soldiers wore helmets inlaid with bright gold but the people laboured like slaves on huge estates or huddled in villages made from sun-baked mud. Bulgars, the lords were. Walt knew the word as a term of abuse for these people were believed to practise contraception through sodomy and so Bulgar or bugger were the words he used for a sodomite. But at that time he had had no idea that these handsome people who had clearly subdued the native population of peasants were Bulgars. It had been the same in the kingdom of Hungary. He had not known that the marauding, fur-clad horsemen with their curved swords were Magyars.
Then there was a huge forest of oak, but not even in spring – for spring it was again – the bright, brilliant green of the oak forests of home, but a dull, dark, oily green. Still, it fed him. He knew how to follow the dancing bees to their nests and steal their honey without being stung, he discovered hidden groves of wild cherry, he rooted like a pig for onions, garlic and truffles, he raided nests for eggs and tickled trout from streams.
Often he glimpsed parties of brightly dressed Bulgarian noblemen and ladies, gaudy with bright silks and gleaming armour, flying falcons or hunting boar to the blast of horns, the hullooing of their servants, and the musical confusion of their Thessalian hounds. On one occasion a mastiff treed him in a giant oak. He swung into its branches and climbed like a monkey, one-handed though he was, before its baying brought huntsmen and their beaters round its massive trunk. They peered up through the dense foliage and even loosed off a couple of arrows and a cross-bow bolt but they could not see him. Then, in the very crown of the tree, he suddenly heard a sound that for a moment scared him more: the hiss and spit of a giant cat.
Not five paces from him, and on a massive lateral bough, she faced him, back arched, brindled fur spiked, yellow eyes staring, tail as straight as a broom-handle, lips hauled back to expose white fangs and a scarlet throat. And even though she was not far short of him in length, and in weight too perhaps, he had to laugh, she so much put him in mind of the cats in the farmstead where he had been a boy. Especially he remembered a kitten called Wyn.
Steadying himself with the stump of his right arm, he plucked a bough heavy with acorns and thrust it in her face. She managed a turn, scampered down the bough and made the leap into the next tree. The men below saw her, and set to to hunt her with much laughter and hallooing on of dogs, but she was soon clear away through the forest's canopy.
Walt stayed where he was and faced a fact that filled him with remorse. For a moment, more than a moment, he had been happy, ecstatically happy, the way a man can be in the midst of battle or in the arms of his wife. And then he realised that for all the weeks he had spent in the forest he had been happy, more quietly happy, soaking in contentment with the dappled sunshine. And happiness, he knew, was not his lot. For him it was a sin. He stayed in the forest another month or so and brooded on this, mortifying himself the way he knew monks did through Lent – whipping himself with birch twigs, not eating until he fainted with hunger, exposing himself in the very tops of the trees to the summer thunderstorms that raged, hurling bolts that came close, very close, but never struck him.
The days became shorter, the nights shed dew, the restlessness returned and he knew again he had a destination, a place to go to. He could not visualise it but it was there. He walked again, south and east again, mostly east, and after two days came to an escarpment which made a natural belvedere from which he could look down out of the forest and on to a new world – new, that was, to him.
Across the roofs of marble palaces he saw a sheet, a sleeve of deepest indigo streaked with white wavelets, where gilded ships with sails and oars ploughed the water between two continents and dolphins twice the size of the porpoises he had seen in the river estuaries of his homeland tore the surface of the strait. And presently, following the forested ridge, he looked down across a narrow estuary to high walls, sturdy turrets and towers that cradled the huge domes of buildings bigger than any he had seen in his travels, and palaces more magnificent. The roofs of many flashed with beaten gold. He felt a surge of hope that this was the goal he had been heading for, but first he had to cross that river mouth and a smaller city that lay on the nearer bank. He threaded his way down through shanty towns and then the alleys and markets of the north side, but always he tried to keep in view the eminences that soared beyond the river.
He was now remarkable only because of his height, for there were many beggars more deformed than he – lepers with their faces eaten away, men whose legs had been severed at the hip, either in war or as punishment, men blinded by an executioner's brands. He passed through ghettos where, caged behind screens of iron fantastically wrought, Jews traded gold and gems weighed to the last scruple in brass balances. He picked fresh dates and crusts of bread from the gutters and drank from marble fountains set by philanthropists in the outer walls of their great houses. In a small square he saw how the poor had gathered, women with babes in arms for the most part, and how a huge cart filled with the severed heads of goats, their glazed brown eyes with horizontal pupils dilated in death, was tipped amongst them and how the women scrambled and even fought for them.
The stench and the noise were intolerable and he hurried on until at last he came to the water-side, a crowded quay which faced the walls and ramparts almost half a mile away on the further shore. On both sides scores of ships were moored. Hundreds of stevedores, mostly only in trousers or baggy loin-cloths, ran up and down steep narrow gangplanks, carrying huge baskets on their backs attached by leather thongs round their foreheads. Amongst familiar things like hazelnuts and cobs, sweet chestnuts, grapes, apples, pears, medlars, quince, green vegetables and salads there were strange orange and yellow fruits with dimpled skins. And then there were three boats filled to the gunwales with loose charcoal, another with bales of silk, five loaded with marble chips. Bemused by the variety and the sheer size of the amounts involved Walt moved through the bustle and the noise, tripping on cobbles and hawsers, peering past the sails and through the cat's cradles of rigging, but always aware of a presence on the far side that seemed to be calling him.
On the highest acropolis and dwarfing all the huge buildings and columns around it, a confederation, a congruence of small domes and half-domes nestled around a larger one that seemed to brood above them. On each a gold cross blazed in the sun. But how to get to them? There were no bridges, none in sight at any rate, and he was loth to move west and north up river, away from those domes, in the hopes of finding a crossing. But, of course, it was not a problem. A swarm of smaller craft, some with triangular sails, most rowed from the stern by oarsmen using huge black sweeps mounted on twisted posts that looked like blackened and etiolated limbs sculpted by the wind, scurried back and forth across the brown and scummy water.
Walt joined a group, a meandering line of people above a flight of steps set into the quay, some twenty or so in all. Among them were three men he took to be some sort of priest since they were robed in black, had black beards and wore high round hats, and women in mud-coloured skirts and shawls, holding baskets filled with fruit.
All of these and indeed most of the ordinary populace of this city, or pair of cities, had pasty dun-coloured skin and very black glossy hair, and eyes so deep a brown they were almost black. A tall man with a wispy beard and blue eyes stood out from the rest. He wore a leather hat with a wide brim, a leather jerkin studded with shiny rivets which came to his knees and shoes that were little more than soles held on to his ankles by leather thongs. He had a large purse on one side of his belt and carried a big sack hung from straps on his back. There was a cockle-shell on the front of the crown of his hat, and he carried a staff from which hung a gourd.
A skiff took off the first eight in the line, and a little later one of the long, thin rowed boats nudged in against the quay. The nine of them who were left descended the steps, the bottom three of which were slimy with bright green weed and studded with limpets. As he stood behind the man with the pack on his back Walt suddenly caught the smell of estuaries and the sea, the sweet rottenness of decayed fish and birds, the raunchy odours of shellfish, the salty promise of clear water beyond. A small boy tugged at his sleeve, then stood back with a curse on his lips at the sight of his stump. The tall man with the misty blue eyes looked up at him from under the brim of his leather hat. He was already standing in the boat.
He spoke. He spoke in Walt's language, but in a dialect he had not heard before, nevertheless it was the first time in nearly two years (or maybe three?) he had heard his own tongue, and it drew tears to his eyes.
'He wants,' said the man with the pack on his back, 'the fare. The fare for the ferry.'
'I have no money.'
And he drew a second brown bronze coin from his purse.
A narrow bench rimmed the gunwale of the boat and they sat next to each other. The small boy gave the side of the quay a push with a boathook, the oarsman dipped his oar and with a twisting motion pushed it through the glaucous water. The Wanderer and his new friend were facing east, out across the mouth of the estuary to the swirling deep blue-black of the water beyond and the woods and villas a league away. A breeze whipped snowy crests from its surface, and the bigger ships, galleys with high prows and banks of oars, slipped effortlessly between. A flock of shearwaters skimmed the wavelets, almost touching the scything dolphins, and the Wanderer, momentarily forgetting the domes he was heading for, recognised the souls of sinners seeking repose. If he were dead he would be one of them. But his companion, the traveller, had his mind on other things: his eyes were fixed on the quays they were approaching and the great gate set in the towering ramparts above their landing place.
'I have sailed the seas,' he said. 'And here I am.'CHAPTER 2
They passed between the huge towers of the gate and, leaving an inside line of smaller, older crumbling walls on their right, now converted into caves and hovels, began a steep zig-zagging climb up cobbled, narrow streets between buildings taller than any dwelling places Walt had ever seen before. Most were faced with grey plaster, sometimes moulded or carved into fantastic patterns. In places this stucco had fallen away, exposing walls of narrow bricks.
Excerpted from The Last English King by Julian Rathbone. Copyright © 1997 Julian Rathbone. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Part I: The Wanderer,
Part II: The Confessor,
Part III: The Oath,
Part IV: A Short Ride Across Asia Minor,
Part V: The Last English King,
Part VI: 1066,
Part VII: And All That,
Also by Julian Rathbone,