Introduction to the Leopards of Normandy Trilogy3
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.
One of the very first things I came across was the story of William’s birth, and the love-affair that preceded it: Robert of Normandy, a young aristocrat of eighteen or nineteen, spotting Herleva, the beautiful daughter of a common tanner, falling in love with her and producing a son whose fame has lasted a millennium. Then, as I bought the first few books of what has become a sizable library, I learned about William’s boyhood.
His father, by now the Duke of Normandy, went on pilgrimage to Jerusalem and died on the journey home, leaving William to inherit his title. Throughout his boyhood and early teens, William was the centre of a deadly power struggle between barons ambitious for control of the duchy. Several of his guardians were killed in calculated, cold-blooded assassinations reminiscent of Mafia hits: one died before William’s own, terrified eyes.
The young man who emerged from this traumatic upbringing to seize control of his duchy and then invade England was tough, self-reliant, prickly and untrusting. As a military leader he was courageous, a great warrior in his own right and a decisive commander. But his ruthless will to win could also lead him into acts of brutality shocking even by the standards of his harsh age. Yet he displayed great loyalty to the few people he really trusted, and both the story of how he fought to win and then marry his wife Matilda of Flanders, and the strength of their relationship over the following thirty-five years proved that he was capable of loving someone deeply, too.
William’s world was as fascinating as his life. He was the heir to a dukedom given by a terrified French king to a rampant Viking raider. His forefathers had to struggle to hold their land and expand its boundaries. William was known as ‘The Bastard’ because of his illegitimacy, but he was by no means alone in that: most of the dukes of Normandy were born to concubines who were either the spoils of war, or simply seized by powerful men who took what they wanted without question.
A web of blood and marital ties linked the royal and noble houses of Normandy, France, England and Denmark. So this is just as much a story about families and relationships as it is about kings and battles. And the women in William’s life were far, far more than helpless damsels in distress.
His great-grandmother Gunnor was first a Duke of Normandy’s concubine and then his wife. She played a central role in Norman politics for more than fifty years and was still alive and a force in the duchy when William was born.
His great-aunt Emma, Gunnor’s daughter, was married to two kings of England and mother to two more. She was as astute and ambitious a politician as any of those men and willing, some claimed, to sacrifice her own flesh and blood in the pursuit of power.
Meanwhile the queen of France, Constance of Arles had her husband the King’s previous wife murdered; encouraged her two eldest sons to rebel against their father and then, when the second son took the throne, persuaded her third to rise against him, too.
As for the men, meet King Canute the Great, the empire-building ruler of, as he put it, ‘England, Denmark, Norway and some of the Swedes’ … the less than saintly Edward the Confessor, seething with hatred for his mother Emma … the rabidly ambitious Duke Godwin of Wessex and his son Harold, the short-lived King of England. Not to mention a slew of Norman lords whose behaviour ranges from the pious to the psychopathic. And William’s own sons, most notably his eldest boy Robert, who would rise up against him, and win.
Throughout William’s life and that of his father, there are moments of incredible drama or emotional intensity that are only partially described by the very limited number of more-or-less contemporary accounts of the period. These gaps must be deeply frustrating for historians, but they are, of course, perfect for a novelist, who can let his or her imagination run free, whilst remaining true to the known facts and consistent with the characters of the people involved. The fundamental story that I will tell in the Conqueror trilogy is true, and some scenes – for example, the account of how a Viking raider called Rollo the Strider acquired the duchy of Normandy with which the trilogy begins – are taken directly from medieval sources (in that case the Historia Normannorum, or History of Normandy, written by Dudo of Saint Quentin between 996 – 1015). But when the historical records are inadequate or incomplete I have given myself full license to imagine what happened, to whom, how and why.
Nor is this a straightforward fictionalised biography, whose subject is a protagonist present in virtually every scene. William’s story makes no sense without knowing what happened immediately before his birth, or observing the crucial offstage events that brought the two golden leopards of Normandy to that final battle with the white dragon of Anglo-Saxon England. So this has to be an ensemble piece that gives the other characters and their plotlines the time and attention they deserve.
William the Conqueror was one of the key figures of western history. His world was filled with powerful, complex men and women.
The Leopards of Normandy Trilogy will tell their story in all its wild, intoxicating, unfailingly dramatic glory.