Julian Rathbone’s, The Last English King (1997), is one of the most memorable historical crime stories that I’ve ever read – assuming, that is, that you count pillage, rape, murder and indeed genocide as crimes. ‘The last English King’ of the title is, of course, King Harold (c.1022-1066), aka Harold Godwinson. Harold was killed at the battle of Hastings in 1066 AD whilst resisting the invasion of England by Duke William of Normandy (c.1028-1087) – or ‘William the Bastard’ as he was affectionately known at the time.
The story of Walt the bodyguard
But Rathbone tells the story of the Norman Conquest of England largely from the point of view of Walt, a simple member of King Harold’s personal bodyguard. Although traumatised – as much by his failure to die protecting his king as by the loss of the battle and half an arm – Walt nevertheless manages to escape to Europe. There he falls in with a motley crew of outcasts and vagrants, and embarks upon a confused and unconsummated journey, more Odyssey than pilgrimage, towards the Holy Land.
Walt’s story is brutal, tender, oddly erotic, often funny, slightly surreal and, ultimately, very angry. To be fair, the brutality begins before the Norman invasion with the Godwinson family’s bored, pointless ‘harrowing’ of disobedient villagers, and continues with the battles of Stamford Bridge and Hastings. But this violence is interleaved with Walt’s tender recollections of the wooing of his wife and then, on his subsequent journey, with the strange erotic healing of the damaged stump of his arm (p.193). Inevitably the brutality resurfaces when Walt returns to England, to his home village, to discover the charred bodies of his wife and son in his burnt-out hut. Rathbone is very, very angry that William the Bastard and a bunch of mercenary psychopaths should have been dignified by history as ‘William the Conqueror’ leading ‘the Norman Conquest’.
The anachronism and the ecstasy
Nonetheless, the story remains warm and wry and witty overall. One of the particular delights (for me, anyhow) is Rathbone’s deployment of the occasional anachronism. He tries to explain his thinking in a prefatory note on ‘Anachronisms and Historical Accuracy’: ‘Occasionally characters, and even the narrator, let slip quotations or near quotations of later writers or make oblique references to later times… For reasons I find difficult to explain, it amuses me, and may amuse others… But it also serves a more serious purpose… to remind readers, especially English readers, that it was out of all this that we came’ (p.viii).
In my favourite example, two of his travelling companions discuss poor, damaged Walt (p.190):
‘He’s a mess. Traumatised –’
‘Word I made up. From the Germanic word for “wound” – applied here to wounds in the mind. Even before the battle… I doubt he was up to much. He fears the female orgasm… Anglo-Saxon, you see. Attitudes. Attitudes to the female sex. See the conquering hero comes.’
Bliss, utter bliss. Although, actually, Julian, it’s from the Greek, via late Latin traumaticus for ‘wounded’. In German ‘Traum’ means ‘dream’. Even so, bliss.