by Justin Hill
Reviewed by Annis
Shieldwall opens with eleventh-century England in turmoil, ruled by a weak, incompetent king and plagued by endless Viking incursions that bring fire and death in their wake. Rather than defy the Vikings, King Ethelred pays them off, bleeding the country dry with ruinous taxes to make up the Danegeld. While the Vikings still raid with impunity, the English starve.
Plangent as a scop’s praise-poem in the mead-hall, Hill’s sweeping saga recounts the deeds of a young Anglo-Saxon thegn, Godwin Wulfnothson, and Edmund Ironside, destined to become the last true warrior-king of the royal Wessex line. Growing up on his family’s holding at Contone in the Sussex Weald, Godwin is happy even though times are hard. Everything changes after his father falls afoul of treacherous Alderman Eadric. Edmund, the king's son, saves Godwin from a horrific death. Godwin becomes Edmund's closest retainer. The two come of age together, constantly on the move as they struggle to rally the English and fight fierce, bloody battles against the armies of rival Danish king, Knut.
Edmund’s story resounds with Arthurian parallels, perhaps ironically, given that the legendary Arthur fought to expel Edmund’s Saxon ancestors. A charismatic young king and war-leader with a band of trusted companions at his side, Edmund battles not only enemy invaders, but also apathy and divisiveness amongst the English. It is treachery, ultimately, that brings him down.
Although history paints Godwin, the future Earl of Wessex, as a ruthless self-seeker, neither his worth as warrior nor his steadfast loyalty to Edmund was ever questioned. Here he is seen as faithful heart-brother, sharing Edmund’s vision of an England returned to the glory-days of Alfred the Great. Subtly echoing the elegiac tones of Englisc heroic poetry, Shieldwall is a stirring, evocative tale ringing with war horns and battle cries; a vivid portrait of England and its people in the decades before the Battle of Hastings.
The heart's cup overflowed,
they mourned their loss, the death of their lord.
(2011; 402 pages, including an Author's Note)
More about Shieldwall at Powell's Books or Amazon.com
Shieldwall appears on the list of The 45 Best Historical Novels Set in the Viking Age
Novels set in Saxon England:
Gildenford by Valerie Anand (1978). More info
Warriors of the Dragon Gold by Ray Bryant (2001). More info
The Forever Queen by Helen Hollick (2010; originally published 2004 as The Hollow Crown). More info
Nonfiction about Godwin's era:
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle by Michael Swanton (1998), "Part 4: A.D. 1014-1051" includes information about Godwin. More info at Amazon.com or read the pertinent section of the Chronicle free online at the Online Medieval and Classical Library
The House of Godwine: The History of Dynasty by Emma Mason (2003). More info
Aethelred the Unready, the Ill-Counselled King by Ann Williams (2004). More info
Arms and Armour at the Regia Anglorum website
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