Friday, June 14, 2013

The Conqueror

After all the baking posts (and there is one more coming tomorrow), it's time for a book review. One of the books I read last year was "The Conqueror" by Georgette Heyer, and it's the story about William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy and King of England, who was also known by the name of William the Bastard.

The book was first published in 1931 and then republished in the 1960s. I was lucky enough to find a 1966 copy in a second-hand book store. Georgette Heyer is a very good writer who wrote historical novels, which are unfortunately out of print, otherwise I'd probably read all of them:)

The story begins before William's birth, when his mother has a dream about a tree growing out of her womb with huge branches that cover both Normandy and England. After this, we meet William again when he is 19 years of age and is surrounded by enemies who dispute his right to rule Normandy since he is but a bastard son of the late Duke, and what is worse, his mother was a commoner.

We see William through the eyes of one of his knights, Raoul de Harcourt, the youngest son of Hubert de Harcourt, who chooses to serve him. He is a young man with fine principles which makes him a laughing stock of his two half-brothers who think him to be more suited for a monastery than for the army. Nevertheless, he saves the Duke's life,  fights well by his side, despite his initial aversion to bloodshed, and gains an important position by the Duke's court.

When William falls in love with Matilda, a daughter of Count Baldwine the Wise, he sends Raoul and another knight with a marriage proposal, but Matilda is called the White Witch not for nothing: she refuses the Duke in no uncertain terms,  as she considers herself to be too good for a bastard son of a commoner. The Duke gets so mad that he comes to her father's house and beats her black and blue with a horse whip in the presence of her sister and her maidservants. The lashing produces such an impression on Matilda that she falls desperately in love with the Duke and is only too happy to agree when he asks her the second time.

Even William's knights were quite surprised and one of them asked her how could she agree to a marriage with a man who treated her so, to which she answered: " seemed to me that he must be a man of great courage and high daring who could venture to come and beat me in my own father's palace, and therefore a fitting mate for me." (p.141, Pan Books Ltd, 1966).

Their marriage was actually quite happy and they got an awful lot of children (my mother tells me something like 12, though the book mentioned only a couple), though the Duke spent most of his time away from home. The book goes into great detail describing his political and military successes and shows William as an ambitious man, a good leader and a brilliant politician. He was quite humane for his times and prefered to win his enemies to his side instead of crushing them.

For instance, when he captured one of his enemies, Guy, the Count of Ponthieu, William declared he would let him go free without ransom on the condition that the count would pay him homage. To quote the book : "He (the count) was prepared to endure shackles, a dungeon, perhaps torture, but it was no part of William's policy to arouse hatred in one whom he meant to make his vassal. The Count was honourably entreated, and might have whatsoever he desired, save only freedom." (p. 180, idem).

William's thoughts on women were quite different, and he gave his knight the following advice concerning them: "...women are not as men, and in my experience they do not hate their conquerors. Tenderness is not so much their need as strength....Never waste gentleness to capture a woman's heart: she will deem you a weakling, and be done with you."

The book also describes Harold, William's chief rival for the throne of England. Both men are courageous and ambitious, both inspire admiration in the hearts of their followers, but Harold gets more than this, he is genuinely loved by his knights, while William is respected and feared. In one episode, Harold saves a soldier drowning in quicksand. He pulls him out risking his own life to the cheers of the whole army and it makes him widely popular. The Duke remarks to his brother that had he chosen to do the same, it would have been from policy, not from the genuine feeling of sympathy. In the end, as we all know, scheming William triumphs over his enemy and becomes the King of England.

Raoul spends all these years by his lord's side and people call him a Watcher. Though he takes part in war and is the first to volunteer for a dangerous job, he detests fighting. His father, who has always considered him some sort of a sissy, takes great pleasure in hearing that his son can occasionally slit a man's throat without thinking twice. Yet, Raoul never seems to want anything for himself. He is not interested in titles, money or lands, but it all changes when he falls in love with  Elfrida, a Saxon maiden who is his friend's sister.

This love changes him as he experiences the desire to possess something for the first time in his life. When Saxons lose the war, Elfrida takes back her promise to marry him and it breaks through his reserve and for the first time in his life he displays harshness, or as the book puts it: "The gentle chivalry he had practised all his life was thrust under by some more primitive emotion." (p. 341). Naturally, Elfrida falls to his feet and they marry and live happily ever after, and as a bonus, he gets her dead brother's lands.

The book provides many interesting historical details about the period, but has a lot of bloodshed, considering that it was written by a woman. The battles are described very realistically, and it has a very touching chapter when Raoul searches for his Saxon friend who fought on the other side and finds him on the battle field, dying. I would recommend it to all who are interested in historical fiction.

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