Thursday, May 24, 2012

England Before the Norman Conquest: An interview with historical fiction author Paula Lofting

Today I'm talking to Paula Lofting about her upcoming novel that follows one family's saga up to the world-changing Battle of Hastings, SONS OF THE WOLF.


1) Tell us about your book.

SONS OF THE WOLF is the first in a series of novels set in 11th-century England in the years running up to the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Against a backdrop of historical events, the story unfolds as Wulfhere, the main character, is returning home south with his servant, Esegar, after fighting a great war in the North. Wulfhere is a king’s thegn who holds lands in the county of Sussex and the book follows him and his family as it weaves their saga into the tapestry of life as it was before the Domesday Book

When Wulfhere’s daughter, Freyda, enters into a forbidden relationship with the son of his enemy, he is forced by Earl Harold to agree to a betrothal that will bring peace to the warring families. Urged on by his beautiful but demanding wife Ealdgytha, Wulfhere has to think of a way to break the bargain without incurring the wrath of his lord, Earl Harold. In the meantime, there are battles to be fought in the countryside, but Wulfhere realises that sometimes, the enemy is closer to home.

2) What inspired you to write this book?

Having had a dream to write a historical novel all my life, various circumstances took me to other paths before I was finally in a place where I could crack on with it. At the time I was ready to undertake such a mission, my subjects of interest seemed to already be taken by other authors and so I waited for inspiration and the first glimmer of it was when I attended a re-enactment of the Battle of Hastings and I started to get a feeling for the era. I had been interested at some time or another in my life, in most periods of medieval existence and the pre-conquest era had fallen to the back of my mind somewhat. 

Attending the event awakened that old interest. I was incensed by what happened that day and wanted to know more. Before I knew it I was back in the 11th century, reading every non-fictional book I could lay my hands on and I also bought a great novel about Harold Godwinson by Helen Hollick. But there it was again, that same dilemma, someone had got there before me and written about my hero. What was I to do? And then I found David Howarth’s 1066: The year of the Conquest in which he identifies the man Wulfhere as the thegn of Horstede from the Domesday Book. 

Mr Howarth’s charming non-fictional account became the inspiration for Wulfhere’s story because it gave me the idea that I could write a book about an ‘ordinary’ man and his family and they were there, just waiting for me to create them, their lives and what life would have been like for the middle classes before and after the conquest. So SONS OF THE WOLF began to unfold in my head and went from my mind to the keyboard. Essentially, SONS wrote itself. I just let it happen.

3) Can you tell us about what went into developing your lead characters? 

Well, for Wulfhere, I had an idea about what I wanted him to be like, a sort of skeleton of him if you like and then as the book progressed, his character developed naturally into his framework. He is a warrior, but he is also a father, husband, lover, friend, enemy, servant, lord and landowner and so I had to make him multidimensional. 

I had to remember all these facets of him when he interacts with his co-characters and I have to decide which role would take precedent over the others in the current circumstances. For Ealdgytha, his wife, she was a little more complex because I think the reader will empathise with her one minute and hate her the next! She is less multidimensional than Wulfhere, but a very emotionally charged character which makes her so wonderful to write for. 

As for the other characters I have endeavoured to make each and every one of them as real as possible and the historical non-fictional characters such as the Godwinson family and King Edward etc, I have tried to portray them as they may have been with what little we know about them. I do think sometimes however that you can get a glimmer of a persona when you look at what deeds they performed and what they have achieved in history.

 I mean, what do you say about a man like King Edward, who kept the whole of England, Normandy and Denmark in a state of anxiety, waiting with baited breath as to who was to be his successor? That one thing was to cause so much heartache and injustice to his subjects. If I could go back in time I would have told him what for!

4) What is one of the most surprising things you learned about Anglo-Saxon England during the course of your research for this book? 

It really surprised me how well women were regarded in pre-conquest England. I think that their Wergild (the amount of money they were worth) was almost the same as a man who was the same status. She was able to own property and keep it upon her marriage. She had the right to attend court and pursue claims. She was not to be forced into a marriage (although this no doubt happened frequently) and had the right to a divorce if she wished with good reason. She was allowed to leave her property to whomever she pleased in her will. 

Much of that changed after the Normans came. Women lost their right to keep their lands she and all her property became that of her husband’s. It was still very much a patriarch society, but there was a lot to be said for being an Anglo-Saxon woman as opposed to a Norman woman.

5) Excluding the obvious, such as language, what sort of cultural changes did the Norman conquest bring that most people might not think about?

I think that perhaps not a lot of people realise that this is where the feudal system as we know it started. Okay so there was some element of it before the conquest, with men owing certain services for their land to their immediate overlord according to their statums, but the Norman system wiped out all the rights that these poor farmers had, the right to have their say in their local moot and at the shire moot was one of the things they lost. They were downgraded even further to almost that of a slave, who was bound to his new Norman master by his tenement. He was not free to go elsewhere if he did not like his master, as he had been before.

Life in England for the peasantry must have been pretty comforting, England had been a wealthy country and each thegn would have had it in their interest to treat his people well otherwise they could take their loyalty elsewhere. And for the peasantry, it was the thegn who would look out for them, speak for them in court and feast with them and listen to their troubles. He was duty bound to them. With the advent of castles, their new Norman rulers could throw a man in prison if he dared to complain or not do as he was told. 

After the Battle of Hastings and the various rebellions that followed for around five years or more, the middle nobility, the thegns, were virtually wiped out or downgraded. Those men were the ones who mediated for the peasantry and lorded it with the wealthier earls and thegns. They had been a buffer between the lower classes and the nobility. 

Now they were gone and it must have been a terrible time for the beleaguered farming community who had seen their villages decimated, their crops and animals and their farming equipment destroyed. And to compound their woes, the very men they had looked to were also destroyed.

6) How do you think English history would have unfolded had the Normans been defeated at the Battle of Hastings? 

Ha, this is a good one. Well if he had the chance, I think Harold might not have wanted William to be put to death, however who knows what a man might do if they are faced with this decision and this was quite an extreme circumstance for Harold. Historically, Harold had always been quite lenient with his enemies. He let Alfgar, the rebellious Earl of Mercia off many a time and Gruffydd the Welsh King who plagued the borders along Hereford. 

But yet his own brother Tostig had been killed at the Battle of Stamford Bridge only a few weeks before. Whether or not Harold had anything to do with that we do not know, but it might have had an effect on how he would have treated William if he had been alive after a defeat at Hastings. 

We do know that Harald Hardrada’s son Olaf was permitted to leave after Stamford Bridge with a promise to stay away and not cause trouble for England again. Anyway, I think probably Norman/English relations would have soured even further; William, had he been permitted to return back to Normandy, would have tried again and if he had not survived, his sons would have made a claim for the throne thus drawing Harold’s sons into a feud with them. If the conquest had not happened when it did, I think at some point it would have happened later, either with William’s successors or perhaps peacefully through marriage.

7) Can you tell us about some of your other planned projects? 

Whilst I am waiting for SONS OF THE WOLF to be published in August, I am working on the sequel THE WOLF BANNER, which has been written. It just needs to be edited. It was written as part of SONS, but I had no idea how much I’d written when it was finished and was advised to make it into two books. 

There were 250000 words in all and the whole project had taken me six years. I plan there to be about four books in the series. Also, I have been working on a modern day drama/thriller called KILLING THE SANDMAN about a young lad’s struggle to survive living with an alcoholic mother and an abusive stepfather. I hope to have this published with SilverWood Books also. 

I have also a project in mind for writing a novel based on Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians. She was Alfred the Great’s daughter, a great woman, who carried on her father’s fight to rid England of the Danes with her brother Edward. Then I was thinking about something in the First World War, for my Grandad who was in the 17th Lancers. I’ve got lots of ideas in my head but I think I am a long way off giving up the day job yet. Hopefully if things take off I can realise my dream of being an author. 


Thanks, Paula.

You can read more from Paula at:

SONS OF THE WOLF will be released this August.

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