Shadow On The Crown Is A Riveting Anglo-Saxon Drama

Hello, everyone!

Winter is here, so what better season to travel back in time to the snowy wind-swept moors of pre-Norman England? This week I read Patricia Bracewell’s début novel Shadow On The Crown, a historical novel and the first in a trilogy about the life of Emma of Normandy. Set between 1002 AD and 1005 AD, the story follows Emma as she moves from Normandy to England to become King Æthelred’s second wife. Filled with romance, royal scheming, and a Viking invasion, Shadow on the Crown is an enthralling drama that kept me hooked from the first page to the last.

Synopsis: At the age 15, young Emma of Normandy crosses the English channel to become the second wife of King Æthelred of England. Gifted with languages, Emma soon forms alliances with prominent English noblemen and insinuates herself into the English court, but despite her efforts to win over her new husband, King Æthelred treats her with disdain. Haunted by the murder of his brother, and harried constantly by Viking attacks on his southern coastline, Æthelred spends his days drawing inward, alienating his sons, including his heir Æthelstan. Determined to do her duty as the queen, Emma tries to win the king’s affections, but finds her efforts hampered by her growing attraction to his eldest son, and the threat of an imminent Viking invasion.

My thoughts: The novel opens with an ominous excerpt from The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle detailing the murder of King Edward in 979 AD.

In this year was King Edward slain at even-tide, at Corfe-gate, on the fifteenth before the kallends of April, and he was buried at Werham without any royal honors. Nor was a worse deed than this done since men came to Britain… Æthelred was consecrated king. In this same year a bloody sky was often seen, most clearly at midnight, like fire in the form of misty beams.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

With the drama of a Shakespearean tragedy, Bracewell sets the scene and introduces us to our heroes and villains. Young Emma, courageous and kind; King Æthelred, paranoid and bitter; Æthelstan, the clear-eyed and passionate heir to the throne, and Elgiva, the beautiful daughter of a powerful lord, driven by her desire for power and a royal marriage. The setting for this drama is Anglo-Saxon England, a country in turmoil, with a weak and selfish king at its head. Leaning into the historical structure provided by The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Encomium Emmae Reginae, a contemporary chronicle of Emma’s reign, Bracewell is able to craft a realistic narrative and still have enough room for artistic liberties. The novel is a perfect balance of the historical and the fictional, drawing the reader into a rich tapestry of medieval English culture, while also piquing their interest with an enthralling fictional plot.

The novel covers the period from Emma’s marriage in 1002 to the Danish Viking invasion of England in 1005. Bracewell takes a little-known era of history and synthesizes its essence for the modern reader, explaining the complicated political ties between Normandy, Denmark, and England with ease. As someone who knew very little about Anglo-Saxon England, I was fascinated to learn about the nation in its infancy. A Christian country, but still pagan in its belief in ghosts and spirits, the England that Emma sails to in 1002 is beset by both internal and external threats. Angered by years of high taxes, Æthelred’s noblemen are chafing at the bit to replace their king, while beyond England’s borders, the Danish king Swein Forkbeard is plotting a course to invade England and dethrone its ruler. In the middle of both threats is Richard, Duke of Normandy, who lets the Danes dock in his harbor in exchange for profiting off of their stolen English booty. Caught between her Norman brother, her English husband, and the Danish king, Emma is little more than a bargaining chip, but even as a powerless teen girl, she’s determined to fulfill her duty as the king’s wife and give him another son.

The novel is split into four perspectives: Emma, King Æthelred, Æthelstan, and Elgiva. Through Emma and Elgiva, Bracewell lets us see into the minds of two very different medieval women. Emma searches for peace and security in her life, while Elgiva searches for riches and power. Both women were fascinating to read, and I appreciated how their strengths and weaknesses were highlighted through contrast. On the other side, the perspectives of Æthelred and his eldest son Æthelstan show how opposing views on leadership styles can cause familial division. Through Æthelred’s eyes, we see his desperate struggle to consolidate his power and punish his enemies, while through Æthelstan’s eyes, we see his disillusionment with his father and his fear of England crumbling before he can get a chance to save it. All four perspectives give the reader a multi-faceted look into the events leading up to the Viking invasion of 1005, which Bracewell presents as the natural consequence of Æthelred’s callous style of governance.

On the whole, Bracewell styles Anglo-Saxon England as an unforgiving country set in an unforgiving time. Violence and might rule the day, while intellectualism is regarded with suspicion. In this hostile atmosphere, Emma’s clarity, compassion, and pragmatism provide a refreshing voice. She’s a compelling heroine, not only because of her personality, but because of her perseverance. Even when faced with the insurmountable challenges of a hateful husband, unfamiliar land, and belligerent adveraries, Emma stays the course.

Final consensus: Set in the thrilling, yet little known world of Anglo-Saxon England, Shadow on the Crown is an enthralling historical drama. Filled with adventure, romance, and political intrigue, the novel will satisfy readers of all genres. It’s a wonderful début novel in what should amount to a fantastic trilogy.

An image from The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

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