4 October 2020

Special Guest Post by Helen Hollick ~ Undoing The Facts For The Benefit Of Fiction?

Available from Amazon UK and Amazon US

The story of the Battle of Hastings, by the acclaimed author of 'A Hollow Crown' (Arrow/Random House). Two men. One Kingdom. One Crown. This is the story of the men and women involved in the tide of events that led to a battlefield near Hastings in 1066

1066, the Battle of Hastings. The event that most of us know a little about, although quite often that ‘little’ is what we were taught at school, and was not always correct. History was usually recorded by the victors – especially when such recording was limited to being written by a few, often biased, monks or the victors themselves who had a huge propaganda issue to maintain.

So, the common ‘facts’ for 1066 are that Harold II, King of England had no right to the English throne because he swore an oath to William of Normandy to support his claim. That Harold was killed by an arrow in the eye, and that Duke William introduced the wonderful new system of government called feudalism – oh, and he had the brilliant idea of compiling the Domesday Book so everyone knew who owned what.

I think the modern term to express contempt for these sort of ‘facts’ is, ‘Yeah, right...’

Historical fiction writers have an obligation to their readers to try their best to research the facts and to get these facts right in our novels. Years ago, I stopped reading a novel because Romans were sitting with their backs propped against a wall they were building, eating their well-deserved dinner. Nothing wrong with that, a nice human scene. 

What spoilt it was that they were enjoying rabbit and potato stew. I could forgive the rabbit bit, (although it is generally accepted that the Normans introduced rabbits into England as a food source after 1066,) but potatoes? Umm ... Wasn’t that Sir Walter Raleigh who brought the humble spud to England from the New World in the 1500s? That’s quite a long while after those Roman chaps would have been toiling over building Hadrian’s Wall! 

Mistakes over little, obscure facts, I think, can be forgiven, especially in novels that were published pre-World Wide Web and Internet days. (Who remembers having to traipse to the local library on a regular basis to look up facts?) But these big things that everyone who has even the slightest interest in history should know about...? A novel can be ruined by one small un-fact.

There again, there is an argument that historical fiction is just that, fiction. We, as historical fiction writers make most of it up, especially where these ‘facts’ are few and far between or disputed. Richard III is a classic example. One writer will pen a novel where he did not murder those princes in the Tower of London. Another writer will produce a novel firmly stating that he did. Where there is no evidence, we invent. For the sake of an entertaining darn good read, that is.

The difficulty comes when history itself is questionable. 

Take 1066 and the matter of Duke William of Normandy v Earl Harold of Wessex, as he was known before he was crowned as king on 6th January 1066. Yes, Harold did swear an oath of allegiance to William. That is as near fact as we can be certain because it is depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry (which is, actually, an embroidery, not a tapestry). 

What isn’t mentioned is that Harold had no choice. He was William’s ‘guest’ in Normandy. If he had not sworn that oath then he would very probably have been imprisoned for the rest of his life and his men killed. An oath made under duress, even a holy oath, is not binding.

Then there’s the matter of Duke William claiming that Edward the Confessor, who had no heir, had promised him the throne. Er, no, Billy Boy, English custom didn’t work like that. Our kings were chosen and/or elected by the Witan, the Council. Yes, usually the eldest son, the æthling, was selected because he was the one who had been trained for the job... But it didn’t always work out like that. Earl Harold was chosen because he was the best man at the time.

What about that arrow in the eye? That is also a scene in the Bayeux Tapestry, isn’t it? Sorry, no. Well, yes, it is there, but it has been misinterpreted. The image shows a man apparently pulling an arrow out of his eye. In fact he is throwing a spear, except the thread has disappeared – the stitch marks are there, though. Harold is the next man along. The one who is being hacked to pieces by Bill’s cronies. 

As for feudalism – don’t get me started! Enforced slavery, keep the poor where they belong, wealth for the rich Normans, poverty for the English...

Oh, and Domesday Book? Nope, that wasn’t William’s idea either. He wanted to know what he now owned (through murder, tyranny, invasion, stealing...) so he ordered all the tax records of every town and village in England to be put together into one big book.

Every detail from mansion to the lowliest pigsty. But those tax records were already available. Since the days of the early eleventh century when Æthelred the Unready had to gather the information together in order to raise money, via taxation, in order to pay those pesky Vikings to go away. 

And there’s one more fact, which you might have worked out for yourself by now. I don’t like Duke William very much! 

In my novel of the events that led to the Battle of Hastings, I unravelled the un-facts, the Norman propaganda, the incorrect history as we are taught in school (and in too many history books) and wrote a story from the English point of view.

And I thoroughly enjoyed writing it. (Fact!)

Helen Hollick

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About the Author

Helen moved from London in 2013 and now lives with her family in North Devon, in an eighteenth century farmhouse. First published in 1994, her passion now is her pirate character, Captain Jesamiah Acorne of the nautical adventure series, The Sea Witch Voyages. Helen became a USA Today Bestseller with her historical novel, The Forever Queen (UK title A Hollow Crown) the story of Saxon Queen, Emma of Normandy. Her novel Harold the King (US title I Am The Chosen King) explores the events that led to the 1066 Battle of Hastings. Her Pendragon’s Banner Trilogy, set in the fifth century, is widely praised as a more down-to-earth historical version of the Arthurian legend. She has written three non-fiction books, Pirates: Truth and Tales, Smugglers in Fact and Fiction (to be published 2019) and as a supporter of indie writers, co-wrote Discovering the Diamond with her editor, Jo Field, a short advice guide for new writers. She runs the Discovering Diamonds review blog for historical fiction assisted by a team of enthusiastic reviewers.  Helen is published in various languages. For more information visit Helen's website www.helenhollick.net and blog www.ofhistoryandkings.blogspot.com and follow her on Facebook and Twitter @HelenHollick.


  1. Replies
    1. Vintage Helen Hollick stuff!
      ‘Facts’ should always be checked three times from three sources. I love the Romans’ rabbit and potato stew story!

    2. I had been thoroughly enjoying the novel I found the stew reference in ... until I found the reference. Completely spoilt the book as suddenly it didn't seem believable.

  2. Thank you for being our host today Tony - so far Annie and I are enjoying our tour, and we're receiving some super responses.

  3. Love the phrase un fact. I love em. Always try to include a few in my books! Nice interview.


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