The Constant Queen by Joanna Courtney

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Word PressThe “Constant Queen” of the title is Elizaveta of Kiev, daughter of Yaroslav the Wise and, as the wife of Harald Hardrada, Queen of Norway.  Harald Hardrada is, of course, famed here for invading England in 1066 and being defeated and killed at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, which several generations of teachers have had to explain is near York and nothing to do with Chelsea, but, in doing so, weakening Harold Godwinson’s chances at the Battle of Hastings.  Before that, he’d had a very eventful life, fighting against Denmark, being a mercenary in Kievan Rus, serving in the famous Varangian Guard in Constantinople, fighting with the Varangians in Sicily and possibly even in the Holy Land, and then retaking Norway and founding Oslo.

A lot of this comes into the book. Unfortunately, not all that much is known about Elizaveta (Elisiv in Old Norse, but the Slavic “Elizaveta” sounds so much nicer!), or about Harald’s other wife (mistress? Handfast wife?) Tora, but Joanna Courtney’s created two very interesting characters with what we do know about them, and it’s a very entertaining book.  From a historical viewpoint, the most interesting thing is the reminder of how influential Kiev (yes, I know we’re supposed to say “Kyiv” now, but no-one ever says “Kyiv” when talking about Rurikid Kievan Rus) was in Yaroslav’s time.  One of Elisaveta’s sisters became Queen of France, another became Queen of Hungary, and one of her brothers married a daughter of the Emperor of Byzantium.   In this book, Agatha, the wife of Edward the Exile and mother of Edgar the Atheling and St Margaret, is also one of Elizaveta’s sisters.  No-one’s sure about that, and there are alternative theories that Agatha was from Hungary, one of the German states or even Bulgaria, but it’s certainly possible that she was a princess of Kiev.

Who would have thought, then, that Kievan Rus would decline so soon, and that its successor state(s) would fall under the “Tatar yoke” and be pretty much cut off from the rest of Europe for so long?  Or that England, with its close ties to Norway and Denmark, would, after 1066 spend four (or you could even say) five centuries getting entangled with affairs in France and have very little further involvement with the Scandinavian countries?   England, Scotland, Ireland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Greenland, the Faroe Islands, the Isle of Man, and the trade routes via Kiev to Constantinople … and Vinland too, with Erik the Red making a guest appearance in the book and meeting up with Harald and Elizaveta!

There was some talk, around the time of the Scottish referendum, that Northern England and Scotland (the Shetland and Orkney Isles remained under Norwegian rule until the mid 15th century, of course) should try to rebuild closer ties with the Scandinavian countries.  Sounds like a very good idea to me!  Really, you’d think that the Normans would have maintained close ties with Denmark, with King Rollo (not the cartoon character!) being of Danish origin; but it didn’t seem to happen.

A few annoying things.  Joanna Courtney has this bizarre habit of changing people’s names – usually to something completely inappropriate.  She’s renamed Sveyn, son of “Canute the Dane”, as Steven.  I mean, could she not have picked something Danish-sounding?!  And she’s renamed all Elizaveta’s brothers.  For example, Iziaslav’s become Ivan, and Vyacheslav’s become Yuri.  Ivan and Yuri are names which belong to Muscovy, not to Kievan Rus.  It’s all wrong!  Very annoying.  And very patronising to the reader, as apparently she changes the names as she thinks readers cannot cope with either names that aren’t familiar or two characters sharing a name.  Also, there were repeated descriptions of men as “blonde”, Miklagard was spelt “Miklegard”, and the Norwegian women were given patronymics ending in “son” instead of “datter”.  But, OK, those aren’t major gripes!

1066 is the best-known year in English history.  But it’s also a crucial year outside England: Harald Hardarda is usually described as being the last great Viking king.  And Elizaveta was his queen.  It’s such  a shame that we don’t know more about her, but Joanna Courtney’s made a very entertaining book out of what is known.  A refreshing change from all those books about the Tudors!!

4 thoughts on “The Constant Queen by Joanna Courtney

  1. Is the “King Rollo” you refer to the first Duke of Normandy? If so, he didn’t come from Denmark, but from Norway. In particular, from Aalesund in Norway, where there is a statue of Gangerolf (not sure about this spelling), aka Rollo.

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      • Don’t know that cartoon character, but here’s a follow-up: The earliest existing example of Russian literature is the Igor Tale, which describes Prince Igor’s incursion into Tartar territory – quite possibly historically accurate (e.g. description of a comet is historically OK). The tale was retrieved from a monastic library by Catherine the Great’s procurer (Musin-Pushkin, who I think was a brother of the Russian Ambassador to the UK who assisted Catherine with her purchase of Sir Robert Walpole’s magnificent art collection, some of which is now in the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC). The original Igor Tale was lost in the Moscow fire of 1812, but luckily someone had made a copy, which was later re-discovered. I can’t recall who the re-discoverer was, but I do know that that is an occasional oral question put to Russian History students in their final exams, which, so far as I am aware, are still conducted in the old “viva” style.

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