Sunday, 28 August 2016

1066 Turned Upside Down - Sunday chat with Joanna Courtney

Today I'm delighted to welcome another 1066 Turned Upside Down author, Joanna Courtney, to the blog for some Sunday chat.

Welcome Joanna. Can I begin by asking: Where did the original idea for 1066 TUD come from?

Mea Culpa! It originated when I was part of the literary tent at the Battle of Hastings re-enactment last year with Helen Hollick and Glynn Holloway and we were talking ‘what ifs’. For writers of this period the turning points of 1066 are a very addictive topic. We’re a bit like new mothers with their birthing stories – endlessly fascinated by it (except that hopefully 1066 is a bit more engaging than giving birth). We all have parts of that huge year that we are particularly fascinated by and have our own theories on - and also that we cannot help wishing we could change. It seemed to me that a collection of alternative history stories would be the perfect way to address that.
I love writing historical fiction and really enjoy the tension between the set-in-stone facts and the wriggle-room for interpretation by me, but sometimes it can also be frustrating. I’ve recently been editing a contemporary novel and being able to just change things as I see fit has been an exhilarating freedom. Alternative history is a chance to let the fiction really take flight over the history and I’ve loved writing it (see my blog on ‘Ferrari fiction’ *.)

Without giving too much away, can you set the scene(s) for your 1066 TUD stories?

As one of the two originators of the project I’ve been lucky enough to write two stories for the collection. The first is about Harald Hardrada, who is the hero of my novel The Constant Queen, out in paperback this September and who I loved researching. He has a reputation as a ferocious warrior that was well-deserved but he was far from an old-style rape-and-pillage Viking. As a Christian, a long-standing King of Norway and a man of the world (with early years spent amongst the cultural riches of medieval Kiev and Byzantium), he was a hugely respected leader. His threat to England was undoubtedly stronger than William’s and, as part of a long-running set of Viking invasions in the north, would have been greatly feared at that time. I think the single biggest piece of heroism in 1066 was King Harold’s almost miraculous defeat of Hardrada and it could so easily have gone another way. Having also found out about Hardrada’s wife, the intriguing and hugely well-connected Elizaveta of Kiev, I am fascinated by what an England ruled by she and Harald would have looked like so it was a joy to start to explore that in my first story.

My second story was a gift to a writer of this period and I still can’t believe I was lucky enough to get to write it – the Battle of Hastings as if Harold had won. As a writer of history largely from the female point of view I don’t tend to dwell on the battle scenes but clearly I researched Hastings in some detail and this momentous, day-long battle could so very easily have gone the other way at various points. Playing with the ‘might have beens’ was a real luxury and I hope all those who boo William at the re-enactment and who still feel – based largely on what happened in the years after 1066 – that William was the baddie of the 1066 story, can enjoy this little teaser of a different way history could have gone.

Can you tell us a little about your Queens of Conquest series?

1066 is a huge date in English history, perhaps the biggest of them all – a year when great leaders fought for our throne, dragging the whole country into their bitter battles and wasting countless lives.  Three men claimed the crown that year – Harold of Wessex, Harald Hardrada and William of Normandy - and there were three big battles – Fulford, Stamford Bridge and finally Hastings. There were also three potential queens, but who even knows their names?  I felt it was time that changed and my Queens of the Conquest trilogy seeks to bring these women back into the heart of the striking stories of that great year.

Edyth of Mercia, heroine of The Chosen Queen, married Harold of Wessex in 1065 and when he ascended the throne of England on the death of King Edward, she became our queen.  Edyth was the sister of Edwin, Earl of Mercia and of Morcar, Earl of Northumbria. Their family held the north and Harold, a southern earl, needed this alliance to keep the country united against the inevitable invaders from foreign shores. Edyth was also a powerful woman in her own right, having reigned as Queen of Wales (the only woman ever to have done so) for nine years, despite still only being 25 in 1066. In The Chosen Queen, I tell how her marriage to Harold, a man she had admired, even loved, from childhood, was tainted by her friendship with his handfast wife of 20 years and how she had to put personal choices aside to stand strong for her country.

Elizaveta of Kiev, heroine of The Constant Queen, was almost twice the age of her English rival, Edyth, in 1066 and had been married to Harald Hardrada, the great Viking King of Norway, for more than twenty years. It had not, however, been an entirely peaceable match. They’d first met in 1030 when Harald, aged only 15, had fled the defeat of his brother, King Olaf, by Cnut and ended up in the service of Elizaveta’s father, Grand Prince Yaroslav. For years Harald lived by his sword throughout Russia and Byzantium and Elizaveta kept the keys to his caskets and, it would seem, to his heart, but it took him some years to finally win her hand.  In The Constant Queen I tell of how her fire and adventuring spirit kept Hardrada’s passion burning, both for herself and for conquest, and how together they sought to win the throne of England – and very nearly succeeded.

Matilda of Flanders , heroine of The Conqueror’s Queen (out in 2017), was brought up in the court of her father, the hugely influential and forward-thinking Count Baldwin. Highly educated, polished, and cultured, she was not, it seems, best pleased to be offered in marriage to William ‘the Bastard’. In William, however, she quickly came to recognise a man as tenacious, daring and ambitious as herself and theirs was a match held in high regard across Europe. In The Conqueror’s Queen I tell how she battled to find romantic passion with William, a man of steel almost all the way to his core, and what standing as his wife, his consort, and mother of his children cost her, even as she finally ascended the throne of England at his side.

Edyth, Elizaveta and Matilda are the forgotten queens of 1066 and I really hope that in my Queens of the Conquest trilogy readers enjoy uncovering their stories.

You write historical fiction, but using real-life characters and chronicled events. How difficult was it for you to 'twist' history for the 1066 project?

Not difficult at all. In fact, I’d like to do it again! Writing in this period, I have got used to there being big gaps in the factual history so I often have to think up convincing links between those events we do know about to create a coherent narrative. Thinking of how things could have gone another way is a very small leap and one I thoroughly enjoyed. On the whole in this collection we have stuck closely to the actual events of 1066 and how they might have changed but I can already see a possible sequel of stories set in the centuries after 1066 as if things had gone another way. History is wonderful, intriguing, dramatic and exciting as it stands and I love exploring it in my fiction but every so often, it’s certainly great fun to think about all the possible pasts we missed out on.

Is there another event in history that you wish had had a different outcome, another '"What if"?

I’d love to know how the last century might have gone if someone had seen fit to assassinate Adolf Hitler. How much of Nazi-ism was sheer weight of his (warped) personality and passion and how much a product of the terrible times Germany suffered after the first world war? Would someone else have filled his shoes or would it all have died away and the second world war never have happened. It’s not a period I know enough about to truly explore but books like Robert Harris’ amazing ‘Fatherland’ and, more recently, Kate Atkinson’s fascinating ‘Life after Life’ are wonderful reads and I think it’s a rich area for imaginative re-interpretation!

*Ferrari Fiction
The Chosen Queen
The Constant Queen
Find Joanna on her Website

Thank you so much for being my guest today, Joanna.

1066 Turned Upside Down is available HERE

1066 Turned Upside Down Blog Page


  1. Excellent interview and I particularly like the Ferrari fiction idea!

    1. It's great, isn't it? Glad you enjoyed the interview :)

  2. Well, there were 42 assassination attempts on Hitler. The impact would have depended on which one succeeded. The best timing for a successful assassination attempt would have been after the invasion of Czechoslovakia but before the outbreak of the war because it was only then that Britain woke up to the fact that Hilter was unreliable and couldn't be "bought off" AND was a time when the Army's leadership was staunchly anti-Hilter and had already drawn up coup plans that could have been dusted off. If Hitler had been killed, there is little question the Army would have been able to take over and shut down the SA and SS at this time, as the SA had been devastated by the SS coup several years earlier and the SS was not yet that powerful.
    Since the Army leaders were very disillusioned with the Weimar Republic, however, they would probably have opted for a restoration of the monarchy -- which would still have been better than Hitler and the Nazis.

    1. Timing is everything, isn't it - even with 1066, just a few days either way could have changed so much. I wonder what a German monarchy in the 21st would have meant to Europe... it's all really interesting :)