Monday, 25 January 2016

Paula Reads: The Betrothed Sister by Carol McGrath

The author would like to invite you all to her Facebook Event on the 26th January
to help her celebrate the launch of the last installment in her Daughters of Hastings 
series where there will befun, Q&A session
 and the chance to win book prizes.

Harold Godwinson, King of England for only 10 months, died on a battlefield near Hastings, defending his crown and his kingdom from the foreign invaders from across the sea. On the 14th October 1066, the flower of England’s youth lay dead, their bloody carcasses scattered across the marshy slope for their womenfolk to walk amongst, like wraiths, themselves as if dead, too, searching for the bodies of their loved ones. One such woman was the wife of the king, Edith Swanneck, who, as legend tells us, had to seek out her husband’s parts, recognising him by the marks that she knew so well. What followed after this terrible event, was the Diaspora of her family. In one day, the daughters and sons of Harold Godwinson had lost their father, their uncles and their fellow Englishmen. In that same day Gytha, Harold Godwinson’s mother had lost her remaining sons and grandson, with another son and grandson in custody of the Duke of Normandy.

The devastation of that day has been the topic of many novels, compelling authors of fiction to make sense of it all, and one such author, Carol McGrath, has chosen to take us through a journey, not undertaken before: through the eyes of the Godwin women, Ms McGrath takes us on a trail with her trilogy, Daughters of Hastings, to Ireland, to Flanders and Brittany; to Denmark and to Russia. These are the far off places that the Godwinson Diaspora takes us and in her third book, The Betrothed Sister, we end at last in the magnificent palace of the Russian princes’ in Novgorod.
Young Gytha, or Thea as she is called in The Betrothed Sister, is the eldest daughter of Harold and Edith Swanneck. She is fifteen when the book starts and the story opens with a prologue. Gytha is speaking to us as a mature woman, an introduction to the narrative. It then goes on in the third person and in the first chapter, her brothers, Godwin and Edmund, are escorting her to a new life. Many wives and children of dead or dispossessed nobles go with her, their lives tainted by the ‘sin’ of fighting for the wrong side. Led by her namesake, Gytha, Countess of Wessex, Thea’s grandmother, the women and children are bound first for St Omer, where they will join a convent community. But Thea is intended for greater things, and after a long spell in Denmark, she travels to Russia, where she must wait for her prince, the man she is fated to marry, Prince Vladimir of the Rus nation. (As an aside, through Thea’s children with Vladimir, Harold Godwinson’s bloodline was carried back into the English Royal Family.  

Thea’s story is not as simple as it sounds. There is no smooth ride for Thea, as her determination to rise above adversity and prejudices, keeps her spirit alive, motivating her to give her life value. She is inspired to give meaning to her father’s death, that he did not die in vain.  Throughout the story, Thea has to overcome one test after another, but each one makes her stronger, moulding her into the courageous young woman she is fated to become. Thea is the spirit of her father, King Harold II, the driving force that propels her into greatness.

What I admire most about The Betrothed Sister, is the enormous amount of research and determination the author applies to breathe life into this woman’s existence. Women are often assigned to the footnotes of history and superficially we know through the annals of history, that Gytha, (or Thea, as she is called in this story) daughter of a defeated king, marries a Russian Prince and forged a new line of nobles in her own right. That is basically the summary of her life in history. But of course, she was much more than a few lines in a chronicle; we know roughly, the start and the end of her life, but what of those bits in between? This is where Ms McGrath’s skill as a historical novelist comes into play. Through her knowledge of noble Russian medieval life, we see how they are marginalised in politics, fiercely protected by their menfolk, almost emulating the lives of many women in Islam today. They are veiled in the presence of the court, and must not show their faces or parts of their bodies to their husband’s until they are wed. Ms McGrath has used this knowledge to imagine what the changes to Thea’s, as she is called in this story, life must have been like for her, coming from a society where women were regarded, virtually, on equal par with men.

Women in England in the 11thc were able to own property, and do with it as they felt fit. They were land owners in their own right and could hold the status of a land holding thegn. They could represent themselves in court and pursue suits against men. Thea Godwinsdottir, is suddenly thrust into a very different world where men ruled the roost completely, and has to learn to adapt to this new mindset. She finds it difficult, but she has to dampen her spirit in public to survive, even though she fights against it, mostly to her own cost and of those she loves dearly.

Faced with the task of getting Thea from England to Denmark, and from Denmark to Russia, Ms McGrath had little evidence of her trail, but deciphers the facts to give them meaning, and the story she provides us with is both plausible and entertaining. Using both fictional and real historical characters of the time, she creates a world that we can believe. Looking at the facts and examining cultural differences, our author cleverly weaves a story that is not incongruous with the life and times in which they are set. There is excitement, we have at least two battles, one of them a siege, that will have you biting your nails whilst being unable to stop turning the pages.
Ms McGrath enables us to get into the mind of Thea as she experiences the many travails of her life. Her brothers, Godwin and Edmund, lost in the annals of time, are provided with an imaginative version of what men they might have become. We also see an old favourite, Padar, Thea’s father’s scop whose loyalty to her family sees him watching over his master’s daughter, an ever listening ear and shoulder for her to lean on.

The book is an imaginative account of events that little is known about, and for those who are interested to know what might have become of Thea and her family, this series, The Daughters of Hastings, is definitely worth a read. I’ve enjoyed being taken on this journey with Ealditha, the girls’ mother, and Gunnhild and Thea, and am thankful to Ms McGrath for taking me with her.
One of the most poignant themes of this book is that in a world that is forever changing, the only thing that remains the same, is change, and that one cannot fight against it and find victory; but with a strength of spirit, one can overcome the sense of loss that change brings, to rise like the Phoenix from the ashes into a new life.

                “Ah, my mother,” she whispers as she gently drops the silver lid on the letter, “how wise you are and how fortunate I am to have a husband I love and who loves me back, the father of my father’s grandchildren.” She sighs wistfully, and smiles to herself. If there is one constant in our brief lives, it is change.”

About the Author

Based in England, Carol McGrath writes Historical Fiction. She studied History at Queens University Belfast, has an MA in Creative Writing from the Seamus Heaney Centre, Queens University Belfast and an English MPhil from Royal Holloway, University of London. The Handfasted Wife is her debut novel, first in a trilogy titled The Daughters of Hastings. The second and third novels The Swan-Daughter and The Betrothed Sister have followed and are now available on amazon and in bookshops. Carol is an historian specialised in The Medieval Era. Her first love, however, is writing. She is an avid reader and reviewer.
Follow Carol on 

Paula Lofting is the author of soon to be published Sons of the Wolf series. She is the founder of The Review and has been an ardent reader and reviewer for this blog since its creation. She is currently working on the sequel, The Wolf Banner which will follow Sons of the Wolf  in the Spring. you can follow her 1066 blog at her Website:  


  1. Great review Paula.A definate book to buy.

  2. I love the covers on Carol's books. I must start acquiring them. And this is a masterful review, dear Paula Lofting.

  3. Interestingly they sell really well as paperbacks. I chose The Handfasted Wife cover and The Swan-Daughter. I had a big say in them. Pop into the FB book party at 6.30 pm tonight . Details on the review page. I am giving away all three books too.

  4. Thanks for this recommendation. Sounds very interesting and imaginative. :-)

  5. Wonderful review, Paula

  6. It is through Gytha that our Sovereign Lady, Queen Elizabeth and her husband, Prince Philip, carry the blood of King Harold via Waldemar who became King of Denmark.