One of the delights of writing The Leopards of Normandy series has been the entirely unexpected discoveries that I’ve bumped into along the way. I had no idea, for example, that the Lady Godiva, who, famously, though perhaps not factually, rode naked through the streets of Coventry, was actually a Saxon noblewoman called Godgifu, whose life overlapped with that of William the Conqueror.
I was equally unaware that the Coventry through which she allegedly rode was not the bustling medieval cathedral city portrayed in most paintings of the event. In fact, it was a mere village clustered around a Benedictine monastery that contained an abbot and twenty-four monks and stood on the site of an early convent that had been destroyed by Danish raiders.
Still, Godiva and her husband, Leofric of Mercia, were the benefactors who paid for the monastery’s establishment, so their links to Coventry are well established (both, indeed, are said to have been buried in the abbey’s church). So too is the quality of Godiva’s character.
The role of women as wealthy individuals in their own right who became significant benefactors, scholars and philanthropists is a subject worthy of a blog of its own, but suffice it for now to say that Godiva was as generous as she was devout. In fact, her various gifts to religious orders and institutions were the reason for her fame in her own lifetime, and the era immediately following it.
The first known account of the Godiva legend as we know it occurs in an early thirteenth century chronicle called the Flores Historiarum (Flowers of History), written by a monk named Roger of Wendover. In his account, Godiva pleads repeatedly with Leofric to ease the burden of taxation on the people of Coventry. At last, weary of the ear-bashing, he replies that he will cut taxes if she agrees to strip naked and ride on horseback through the streets of the town.
Amazingly, Godiva agrees, on the proviso that the townsfolk all stay indoors with their windows shuttered so that none see her go by. On the day, however, one tailor called Thomas cannot resist the temptation to look so he drills a hole in his shutters to peer through: hence the expression ‘Peeping Tom’.
From a historical point of view, the story seems, at best, an exaggeration. There were probably no more than fifty households in Coventry in the 1050s, when the event is supposed to have occurred, so the treatment of those few people is unlikely to have greatly concerned an earl, or his wife, who controlled a great swathe of the English midlands. And there is unlikely to have been more than a single muddy track through the village, rather than the teeming streets of legend.
Of course, details like that are no concern to someone who is writing fiction. We novelists have other priorities.
THE LEOPARDS OF NORMANDY: DUKE is out in hardback and ebook now
Buy the second in the epic trilogy, depicting the dramatic tale of William the Conqueror here
Imagine a baby boy – call him Baby W – born to an unmarried 16 year-old girl, known as ‘H’ from a working-class background. The baby’s father, ‘R’ comes from a wealthy, powerful family in which power is maintained by the ruthless use of violence: a gang culture, essentially. R agrees to support and eventually adopt his son. He maintains some kind of relationship (its precise details uncertain) with H, but insists on retaining custody, so that Baby W can grow up within his family’s strong, but extremely violent embrace. The pain of his separation from his mother causes W great pain that he is forced to suppress in his father’s remorselessly tough, macho environment. Meanwhile, H marries another, slightly less powerful, but still upper-class man, with whom she has three legitimate children. She maintains some contact with her illegitimate son W, for he certainly gets to know his half-siblings, but again it is hard to say how much time she actually spends with W in his infancy.
When W is seven, or possibly eight – the files dealing with the case have almost all been lost, apart from a few sketchy, informal accounts – his father decides on a whim to go on a lengthy overseas expedition. Before R goes, he names W as his heir and appoints legal guardians to safeguard his welfare – just as well, for his trip abroad proves fatal. By the time he is eight, W is fatherless, but in possession of a substantial inheritance, which other members of his family – jealous of the bastard child – want for themselves.
W has thus suffered the trauma of being torn from his mother when still in the earliest, most delicate years of personal development, and has lost his father to boot. In the years that follow, W does not return to live with his mother, H, but is cared for by a series of much older, male guardians and tutors. Just as he is entering adolescence, aged 12 or 13, at least four of these men are brutally assassinated. One of them dies in W’s bedroom, stabbed to death while trying to protect the boy. The post-traumatic stress caused by that event alone would be enough to have serious effects on a boy just entering puberty. Taken together with the other traumas, stresses and deprivations the child has suffered, any modern-day social worker, paediatrician or child psychologist would expect to see severe behavioural problems, that might include severe difficulties in forming healthy, trusting relationships; anger management issues; a suspicious nature whose lack of trust verges on the paranoid: in short, a potentially psychopathic, violent personality. On the other hand, this individual will certainly have learned a wide ranger of survival techniques, which will make him as charismatic to his allies and underlings as he was fearsome to his enemies.
And there you have William the Bastard, as he was known to his contemporaries, or William the Conqueror as posterity has re-named him. His early life is was psychologically fractured and chaotic and the man he became was brutal, cruel, merciless and indifferent to the suffering he caused … but also a brilliant strategist, warrior and administrator, who did not only conquer England (the Danes had done that within the previous century), but would also found a ruling dynasty that lasted centuries and lay down the foundations for the Britain we live in today. He was a loving husband, and loyal and generous to the small inner circle of men he trusted. As a father, he fell out with his eldest son Robert, but still sired two more sons, William and Henry who became Kings of England.
William, in short, was a complicated, contradictory and controversial character. But with a childhood like his, what else could he have been?
THE LEOPARDS OF NORMANDY: DEVIL is out in Paperback and eBook now.
- Berlin: I’ve written two books as David Thomas – BLOOD RELATIVE and OSTLAND – that are set, at least in part, in wartime Berlin and postwar East Berlin. I don’t know whether its my lifelong fascination with World War II, or my teenage infatuation with that celebrated Berlin resident David Bowie, but the city fascinates me. It’s really the nexus of 20th century European history, and whereas London, say, is filled with monuments to British victories, Berlin is a city filled with powerful, even beautiful memorials to events and phenomena no one wants to remember, but that cannot be forgotten: book-burnings, the Stasi, the Reichstag fire and, of course, the Holocaust.
- The Roman Walls of Chichester: I have an office in Chichester, West Sussex. It’s a delightful place, filled with lovely old buildings, including, of course, a glorious 12th century cathedral, whose spire can be seen for miles around. Best of all are the walls that encircle the city. I often go for a walk around them and that doesn’t just give me some much-needed exercise, but it really makes me feel the presence of history as a real, living thing.
- Rome: Because… oh, come on, does anyone need to be told?
- Kyoto: I’ve only visited Kyoto, the ancient imperial capital of Japan, once, but I still have a very powerful memory of the way that perfectly preserved historical buildings and gardens stood cheek by jowl with all the noisy, manic energy of modern Japan: here an old temple, there a pachinko parlour. I’ve had an idea for a historical novel set in early 18th century Japan waiting on my creative runway for ages. One of these days I’ll get it written!
- Istanbul: This is on my to-do list of places to visit. Arguably, it’s an even more historically rich and culturally diverse city than Rome: home to two great religions and two mighty empires, with layer-upon-layer of history from the Roman sewers on up. It’s actually mentioned in passing in DEVIL. But I can’t help feeling that there’s more to come.
The first instalment in the LEOPARDS OF NORMANDY trilogy – DEVIL is available in hardback and e-book now.
Novel-writing is an extended exercise in creative decision making. You start out with a blank page or screen, like a block of stone that a sculptor has yet to touch. And just as that sculptor looks at his block, pondering where to place his chisel and hammer for the first blow, so a writer considers the story that he or she wishes to tell and wonders where it should start and with whom.
I find that the first quarter of any book I write takes almost as long to complete as the following three quarters combined. So many ideas are tried and discarded, so many characters are auditioned for a role in the narrative, but don’t quite make the grade – or in a few rare but thrilling cases – seem so alive that they demand much more of a presence. As this sketching process goes on little fragments of story are created and discarded, and to read them again always makes me wonder: what would have happened if I had taken this fork in the road?
Here, for example is the start of what might have been a sequence of scenes about the successors to Rollo the Strider, the founder and first Duke of Normandy; the seed from which a mighty dynasty grew. It’s just a few sentences, but it conjures up images of the pagan Viking roots of Normandy’s rulers and reminds on that they were not French but, as the name of their duchy says, ‘Norse-men’.
The legends tell that when Rollo the Strider neared the end of his days and looked into the fiery furnace to which he was surely heading he abandoned the Christianity he had acquired along with his fiefdom in Normandy and returned to the pagan religion of his youth. Some say his body was burned in one of the longboats in which he and his men had sailed up the rivers of northern France, savaging everything in their path. Others talk of a return to the distant past, to the rituals of Borum Eshoj and the Sacrifice of Nine – nine cats, nine dogs, nine cattle, nine horses and finally nine men – as he sought to appease the primitive gods of the distant North.
Book. 1: The Devil And His Bastard Son
Robert of Normandy is a young man in a hurry. He’s handsome, brave, impetuous and he’s just seized Normandy’s mightiest castle. But Robert has an older brother, Richard. He’s the Duke of Normandy. He wants his castle back and he’ll take it by force if he has to.
Herleva of Falaise is the daughter of a humble tanner, but she’s more beautiful than any princess. When she and Robert meet, they will change the course of history.
Queen Emma was a daughter of the House of Normandy. She’s been wife to two Kings of England and is mother of two Kings to come. But her princeling sons, Edward and Alfred live in bitter exile at the Norman court, waiting for the day they can return home and reclaim the birthright their own mother has denied them.
William is Robert and Herleva’s illegitimate son. He’s born into a world of murder and intrigue, where families are torn apart by bitter rivalries, renegade warlords stop at nothing in their lust for power and wealth, and professional assassins are never short of work.
His enemies will mock him as William the Bastard. But we have another name for him: Conqueror.
Book. 2: The Crown Across The Water
William, the boy Duke of Normandy is running out of friends. His guardians are killed off, one by one. Even his old friends turn against him and suddenly he is riding for his life through the night, with murderous rebels hot on his trail.
Fighting for survival, William looks outside the borders of Normandy to find an unexpected ally. Then he stakes his dukedom and his life on one great battle that will decide his fate.
In England, King Canute has died leaving two widows, each with a son she plans to make King. Meanwhile Godwin, the ruthless, calculating Earl of Wessex is preparing for the day when his own son, Harold will make his bid for the throne.
In Bruges, the Count of Flanders’ headstrong teenage daughter Matilda is determined to choose her own husband. But one man has decided that he will have Matilda for his bride. She doesn’t want him. Her father objects to him. Even the Pope forbids the union.
But that man is William of Normandy. And when he wants something, he will not stop until he gets it.
Book.3: The Conqueror And The King
William of Normandy has been named the heir to the throne of England. But Harold of Wessex breaks his vow to support William’s claim and claims the crown for himself. So begins the path that will lead to battle on Senlac Hill, as the fate of an entire nation and its people is decided in a single blood-drenched day.
William the Bastard becomes the Conqueror. A boy whose mother was a peasant lass now wears a crown of gold, studded with rubies and emeralds. But at the moment of his greatest triumph his greatest troubles begin.
When the North rebels, William stains his soul as well as the soil with the blood of the innocent. Enemies in Scandinavia, Scotland, Normandy and France attack his new empire from every side. But his most serious challenge comes from his own flesh and blood. William’s oldest son, Robert hates him and his beloved wife Matilda takes her son’s side in the fight.
As the shadows of age and sickness fall and his mighty strength at last fails him, William the Conqueror gathers himself for one last campaign – one final bid for the greatest prize that he has ever won …
One condition of securing the lands that became Normandy was that Rollo the Strider had to abandon his pagan Norse gods, such as Odin and Thor and convert to Christianity. By the time of Duke Robert and his son William, the Dukes were highly devout – William, for example, went to Mass every day. But even so, their sexual attitudes were still strictly Viking.
The lords of other lands might marry for reasons of dynastic calculation, choosing their brides by the power of their fathers, or the size of their dowry. The Normans chose their women the old-fashioned way, seizing them as spoils of war or seducing them with less than subtle charms. They lived by what was known as the ‘more Danico’ or ‘Danish custom’, by which marriage was not determined by church services or religious vows, but was simply an informal matter of cohabitation and the production of children. Continue reading →
The moment I first encountered the story of Rollo, first Duke of Normandy, I knew I had to find a way to get it into ‘Devil’, because once you’ve met Rollo you understand exactly why the line of Dukes that followed him were not only warmongering, pillaging, maiden-snatching warriors, but also shrewd and calculating rulers. It was in the blood.
As so often with men of this era, there’s not a great deal of evidence to go on, and what there is, is disputed. Rollo’s name is the Latin form of the Scandinavian name Rolf, or Hrolf, though his people knew him by the nickname Rou. He was a Viking warrior, who lived from c.846 to c.932, meaning that he died in his eighties, an impressive lifespan for a man of his times. It is not in doubt that he rampaged across northern France for many years, frequently defeating the Frankish armies sent to oppose him. Then, having been for once defeated himself, he still managed to persuade King Charles the Simple of France to grant him the land of Neustria, which became Normandy. His precise identity, however, is a mystery. Continue reading →
This proposal is the result of a personal passion – virtually an obsession – dating back more than a dozen years. It began with an episode of Simon Schama’s TV series A History of Britain in which he vividly described the bloated body of William the Conqueror, lying at the priory of St Gervais in Rouen, deserted by his family and allies, stripped of anything valuable.
This image of the mighty Conqueror brought low struck me very powerfully. I realised that while I had known his name since I was a child, I knew virtually nothing about his life, beyond the Battle of Hastings and the Domesday Book. Next morning, I went online and started looking for information about him. Continue reading →