Today, I’ve been asking fellow historical fiction author, Christopher M Cervasco, some questions about his love of Saxon England
Can you explain, if possible, why you’re so fascinated by the tenth and eleventh centuries in Saxon England?
It’s a period of tumultuous change filled with a wide cast of colorful characters, beginning with the children of Alfred the Great seeking to push forward the process of English unification and lasting through the Norman Conquest. Along the way, there’s a long stretch of conquering Danish rule in England under King Cnut’s line. We also see major monastic reforms during this period that radically changed the way religious houses operated in England. And throughout these two centuries, we witness such watermark moments as the murder of King Edward the Martyr (one of history’s great unsolved mysteries), the Battle of Maldon (immortalized in the Old English poem), the St Brice’s Day massacre, frequent Viking raids, and then of course the fascinating series of events that took place in 1066, arising from the succession crisis after Edward the Confessor’s death and culminating in the Battle of Hastings.
Weaving in and out of these events or in some cases existing on their periphery are such memorable individuals as Ealdorman Byrhtnoth (who fell at Maldon), the historical Macbeth, Svein Forkbeard, the Norman William the Conqueror, the Norwegian King Harald Hardrada (whose adventurous life spanned all the way to Constantinople), Harold Godwineson and his brother Tostig (the tragedy of their falling out is epic in its proportions), and the English resistance fighter Hereward the Wake, just to name a handful. Notably, these centuries also give us such fascinating and powerful women as Alfred’s daughter Æthelflæd (Lady of the Mercians), Ælfthryth (mother of Æthelred the Unready and the first wife of an English king known to have been anointed as queen), Emma of Normandy (queen to both King Æthelred and King Cnut), Godwin’s formidable wife Gytha Thorkelsdóttir, and of course Lady Godiva herself!
To me it’s always seemed that no matter where I look in 10th- and 11th-century England, I uncover some fascinating tidbit, memorable figure, or an event that demands my attention and makes me want to dig deeper and find out more. I suppose to some extent this is true of any period, but these two centuries in England just feel particularly ripe.
Could you explain to me what came first, the desire to tell Lady Godiva’s story, or wanting to use the resource of Earl Leofric’s visions? Or was it just happy coincidence?
Godiva and her story definitely came first. The legendary tale of her naked ride is of course sensational and lurid, but beyond that, Godiva was one of the most powerful and influential women to have lived during that period. She was married to Leofric, a powerful earl of Mercia during both the Danish occupation of England under King Cnut’s line and during the subsequent return of the royal English bloodline under King Edward the Confessor. Her own life spanned the periods before, during, and after the Danish conquest and she was alive to witness the Norman Conquest.
The more I delved into this period, the more it became clear to me that Godiva and her husband were very key figures behind the scenes of all of these events. And yet, while we do know a good many details about Godiva’s public life, very little survives in the historical record to tell us about her personal life. I wanted to remedy that by filling in the blanks and connecting the dots. It was while doing that, and in particular while researching Godiva’s husband, that I came across the Old English manuscript known as Visio Leofrici (“The Visions of Leofric”), which dates from the 11th Century and recounts a series of holy visions supposedly experienced by Earl Leofric. As a novelist, that source just called out to me, and I made sure to find a way to incorporate much of its substance into my story. In some ways it was my attempt to come to terms with what was really going on in that primary source that led to the fraught and somewhat tragic character arc I ended up developing for Leofric as I told the story of Godiva.
I notice during the book, hopefully no spoilers, that you also choose to have King Edward as a very uneasy ally of the Godwin family. I too have opted for that explanation in my books, but do you believe it’s historically likely, or is it just wishful thinking on our part?
It always seemed to me that Edward’s relationship with Earl Godwin’s family must have been uneasy and complicated. Yes, he married Godwin’s daughter and made her his queen, and yes the English nobles endorsed Godwin’s son Harold as Edward’s named successor after Edward’s death, but neither of these two facts was particularly straightforward. There was a period when Edward briefly more or less imprisoned his wife in a nunnery coincident with a time when he actually exiled Godwin and the rest of Godwin’s family from the kingdom on charges of treason. And it seems hard to believe that Edward would ever have forgotten the fact that decades earlier, Godwin had helped to blind and murder Edward’s younger brother Alfred.
As for Harold, while I do personally believe Edward wished at the end for Harold to succeed him, his naming of Harold was anything but straightforward, with Harold having to engage in all sorts of political maneuvering (including an arranged marriage to Lady Godiva’s granddaughter) in order to secure the support of the English nobles. And of course William maintained (with the backing of the papacy) that Edward had in fact promised the English throne to him—not to Harold—and that Harold was merely an oath-breaker and usurper. None of these complications would have arisen, I feel, if Edward’s relationship with the Godwin clan had been purely amicable. So yes, I too ran with the idea that they were only ever uneasy allies.
Do you plan on writing more books in Saxon England?
I’m currently working on a round of final revisions to a war-time resistance thriller set among the English rebels who opposed Norman rule using guerrilla tactics and sabotage in the years immediately following the Battle of Hastings in 1066. After that, I’ll be turning my attention to a new book in which I’ll seek to unravel the mystery surrounding the 978 murder of Edward the Martyr.
I’m looking forward to the murder mystery! Thank you so much for sharing your love of Saxon England. It’s good to know I’m not the only one:)
Here’s all the details for Beheld: Godiva’s Story
Having survived a grave illness to become one of 11th-century England’s wealthiest landowners, Godgyfu of Coventry (Lady Godiva) remains forever grateful to the town whose patron saint worked such miracles. She vows to rebuild Coventry’s abbey and better the lives of its townsfolk. But the wider kingdom is descending into political turmoil, and her husband, Earl Leofric, starts to break under the strain. Godgyfu finds her own plans unravelling the moment she meets Thomas, a Benedictine novice with perverse secret desires. Three lives become dangerously entangled in a shocking web of ambition, voyeuristic lust, and horrid obsession. Can Godgyfu escape the monk’s menacing wiles and Leofric’s betrayals to secure her future in a changing kingdom? Perhaps, but first she faces a dark test of wills leading her perilously closer to a legendary ride…
Sexual situations, psychological abuse, violence, brief references to suicide.
Christopher M Cevasco
Christopher M. Cevasco was born in New Jersey and spent a memorable decade in Brooklyn, New York, but he feels most at home in medieval England, Normandy, Norway, and Greenland. A lifelong passion for history and fiction led him to earn degrees in Medieval Studies and English and later to embark upon a writing career that merges these two loves.
Chris was the founding editor of the award-winning Paradox: The Magazine of Historical and Speculative Fiction from 2003 to 2009. His own short stories appear in such venues as Black Static, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Distant Echoes(Corazon Books, UK), and the Prime Books anthologies Shades of Blue and Gray: Ghosts of the Civil War and Zombies: Shambling Through the Ages.
A long-time member of the Historical Novel Society, Chris currently serves on the society’s North American conference board as registration chair for the upcoming 2023 conference in San Antonio, Texas.
Chris lives with his wife and their two children in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.