By Steven H Silver:
“There are no correct alternate histories; there are only plausible alternate histories.”
After Hastings is an alternate history that branches off from one of the most pivotal moments of English history, the Norman Conquest of England. Although practically the entire novel takes place after our histories diverged, the point of divergence is chronicled in the first paragraph of the novel, although it is a little subtle and some readers may not realize it is there.
The novel opens with a quotation from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a series of short historical notes that were maintained in a variety of monasteries from the eighth century through 1154. Different version of the Chronicle record different events and different viewpoints, but they tend to agree on the major items. The entry for 1066 reads, in part:
Then came William, eorl of Normandy, into Pevensey on Michaelmas eve, and as soon as they were prepared, they built a stronghold at the town of Hastings. This was made known to king Harold; he gathered a great army and came against them at the ancient apple tree. William came upon them unawares, before they had gathered; the king, nevertheless, fought very hard against with those men who would stay with him, and there were many killed on both sides. There king Harold was killed, eorl Leofwine his brother and eorl Gyrth his brother, and many good men. (translation by Anne Savage, 1983).
The excerpt from Anglo-Saxon Chronicle with which I open the novel reads:
Then came William, eorl of Normandy, into Pevensey on Michaelmas eve, and as soon as they were prepared, they built a stronghold at the town of Hastings. This was made known to king Harold; he gathered a great army and came against them at the ancient apple tree. William came upon them unawares, before they had gathered; the king, nevertheless, fought very hard against with those men who would stay with him, and there were many killed on both sides. The king put the invaders to rout, slaying many thousands of Franks. Eorl William’s Bretons turned against their master and helped the king when they saw the battle turn. Although eorl William escaped the field, he was sorely defeated and many of his men lay now in six feet of English arable.
The divergence occurs immediately after the note that many were killed on both sides. The difference is what is known, or believed to be known, to have happened on the battle field. In our timeline, the Normans began a disorganized retreat from the battlefield with rumors swirling that William had been killed. William is said to have removed his helmet and when his men saw his red hair, they rallied to his cause. More importantly, the Breton mercenaries he had brought over with him rallied and the English were defeated.
In the world of After Hastings, when the Norman troops broke, William was not able to regain control over them. The Bretons realized that the side that hired them was a lost cause and turned against them with the expectation that they would be rewarded by the victorious side, Harold’s, once the battle was over and his throne was secure.
A successful Norman Conquest cemented England as part of Western Europe and breaking its long-term connection to Scandinavia. It is so important that W.C. Sellar and R.J. Yeats entitled their satirical history of England 1066 and All That, noting that it was one of only two dates that students of history actually needed to know (the other being 55BC). It is surprising, then, that so few alternate histories have been written about a Norman Conquest that didn’t happen.
In addition to my 2020 novel After Hastings, Franklin Hamilton wrote “What If–?” In 1964, Cecelia Holland wrote the counterfactual essay “Repulse at Hastings, October 14, 1066” in 2002, and John Gribbon wrote the time-travel novel Timeswitch in 2009. All of us have different ideas about what would have happened had the Norman Conquest failed. In addition, all of us have the Norman Conquest failing in different ways.
The story I chose to tell after William’s failure begins a few months later, on January 5, 1067 and runs for exactly two years. But it is in no way the only story I could have told, even using that same moment of defeat on the battlefield of Hastings.
In the aftermath of William’s defeat, I could have focused on Harold’s tightening of ties with the Kingdom of Norway, now ruled over by Olaf III, whose father had been killed by Harold at Stamford Bridge about three weeks before the Battle of Hastings. Conversely, Olaf could have sworn vengeance against Harold and England for the death of his father and planned yet another invasion of England. Both of these could be plausibly related.
Although I allowed William to live after the Battle of Hastings, he could just as plausibly have died, leaving his duchy to his eldest son, Robert II, who actually did eventually succeed him in Normandy, if not in England. In 1066, Robert would have been about 15 years old, so he would likely have had a regent appointed, probably his maternal uncles, Odo of Bayeux and Robert of Mortain, both of whom had good relationships with their half-brother, William. Still, at fifteen, Robert II would have been considered an adult (Odo was between 14 and 19 when William had named Bishop of Bayeux).
Had William died and Robert taken over the duchy, it would have left a power vacuum in northern France that could have been filled by any of Normandy’s neighbors. It could even have seen a grab for power by the French King, Philip I, who was slightly younger than Robert, but who had been sitting on the throne for six years (in 1066, at the age of fourteen, he mother and Baldwin of Flanders ceased to act as regents). A French king recently out from under the thumb of his mother might have seen a Norman power vacuum as the opportunity to flex his muscle.
In the fifty years prior to the events in After Hastings, England saw a successful invasion by Danish Kings Svegn and Cnut (and from 1016-1042 was ruled by Cnut and his sons, a situation which opened the door for the invasion at Stamford Bridge). That period also led to Harold’s predecessor, Edward the Confessor, having close ties to the Norman court (and leading to William’s attempted invasion). Prior to Svegn’s invasion, England was divided between an English part and the Danelaw, which, as the name suggests, was under the sway of the Danes. Following an English victory at Hastings, there is no guarantee that Harold would be able to maintain control over the entire country and it could have once again fragmented. Possibly into the Danelaw and the English-held areas, possibly with a separate kingdom forming in the North to serve as a buffer between England and Scotland (which was ruled, at the time, by the same Malcolm who features in Shakespeare’s Macbeth).
Harold could also have decided that having defeated the Norwegian king and the Norman duke on his own soil, it was time to take the battle to them, either invading Normandy in the face of a weakened William or a teen-age duke, or Norway, where he would face a new monarch. However, Harold had only been on the throne of England since early 1066. Although he had the support of the English earls (the English monarchy was semi-elective in nature, a fact that also contributed to William’s claim on the throne since he believed that Edward had promised him, and had the right to promise him, the English throne), having faced down two external threats in the span of three weeks, he may have found it prudent to remain in England to strengthen his grasp on the country.
None of these are the story I chose to tell in After Hastings, which only means that the Battle of Hastings offers numerous possibilities for a point of divergence for alternate histories. How plausible any of the stories that can grow out of it are is entirely up to the imagination, research, and skill of the writers who choose to tackle it and the acceptance by their eventual readers.
In Steven H Silver’s After Hastings (Ring of Fire Press, $5.99), Harold’s defeat of William the (Would-be) Conqueror at Hastings starts a cascade of events, which soon lead to a conflict with the Roman church. Before long, the deepening conflict threatens to engulf the entire Christian world—and even those beyond it.