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Review: A Hollow Crown, by Helen Hollick

Pages: 864
Original date of publication: 2004
My edition: 2004 (Arrow Books)
Why I decided to read: It was a snowy weekend, and I needed a good chunkster to read!
How I acquired my copy: Bookdepository, November 2009

Emma of Normandy was born around the year 985, and was married to two different kings of England: Aethelred, called the Unready; and Cnut, the Dane who conquered England after Aethelred proved himself to be completely incompetent as a king. Emma greatly despised her first husband, but she was much more compatible with her second. Emma was also the mother of two kings: Harthnacnut and Edward, called the Confessor; and she was the great-aunt of William the Conqueror. Emma was Queen of England by dint of her marriages, but she emerges as an interesting figure in her own right, especially since she managed to remain Queen even while in exile. A Hollow Crown covers the period of her life from 1002-1042, from her wedding to Aethelred up through the death of Harthnacnut.

In addition to her other accomplishments, Emma had a biography written of her—the Encomium Emmae, which conveniently focuses on the reign of her son Hartnacnut and leaves out Emma’s first husband—medieval propaganda at its finest! You have to admire a woman who had the audacity to do such a thing. The author portrays Emma’s relationship to Cnut as a love match, but there was equally a lot of political maneuvering there as well.

In terms of reading, I’m a bit deficient in historical fiction set pre-Conquest. Although I know a lot about the late medieval period, I don’t know much about the earlier stuff, and this novel was an entertaining, engaging way to learn about the 11th century as told from the point of view of one of history’s forgotten queens. Emma is a strong, independent woman, but not too modern—I loved the scene where she finally stands up to Aethelred and throws a stool at him! Emma’s definitely not a woman I would have wanted to double-cross! I really enjoyed following Emma’s character development, from shy bride to a woman who, born Norman, became more English than the English themselves. Helen Hollick is a marvelous writer, bringing the events and people of long ago to life. It’s hard to believe that all of this happened nearly a thousand years ago, since the author makes it seem as though the events of this book happened yesterday!

As the author says in her note at the end, “I find it very frustrating that the rich, varied and wonderful culture of England pre 1066 has so casually been swept aside by those who wrote of and recorded the post-1066 kings.” It’s said that history is written by the victors, and I think that was especially true of the Normans when they invaded England, sweeping aside Saxon history as though it had never happened. The time of the Danish invasions was a brutal one, to be sure, but I think a lot of good came out of that period as well. A Hollow Crown is a prequel to Harold the King, written before this one but of course set afterwards.


Kathleen said…
This sounds interesting. I've read no historical fiction that covers this time period and I think I would quite enjoy this one based on your review.
Hannah Stoneham said…
How interesting - and she was quite a girl in English history - it is quite right that the post conquest period and sort of eclipsed the pre conquest period in literature and for no good reason. Sounds like a great read, thanks for sharing

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