Devil, by David Churchill, is the first book in a planned historical trilogy. The series of books, The Leopards of Normandy, will tell in imagined detail the story of William the Conqueror. This first installment concentrates on William’s parents and the circumstances of his birth. Drawing from known historical facts the author weaves a compelling tale of power, sex and violence. He brings the characters to life.
The Duchy of Normandy was created to bring peace between the King of France and the Viking invaders who had slaughtered, raped and pillaged their way across the lowlands of Flanders, the seashores of Brittany and the vineyards of Burgundy for more than twenty years. Their leader, Rollo, was now in his sixty-fifth year and felt ready to settle down. In exchange for fealty the King offered him land and a title. He became the first Duke of Normandy.
When Rollo’s great-grandson died the Dukedom passed to his eldest son, Richard. However, there was enmity between Richard and his younger brother Robert, William’s father. Both were young men who were all too willing to fight for what they believed were their rights. Overseeing this bloody feud and attempting to broker peace was their father’s brother, Robert, Archbishop of Rouen. Although he sided with his namesake in many areas of contention he refused to condone his choice of partner, a lowly tanner’s daughter named Herleva who became William’s mother.
The detailed history is fascinating but it is the imagined personalities and the causes of each intrigue which make this book so hard to put down. This story is not just about battles won and lost but is a tale of individual courage, risk, a lust for wealth, power and vengeance which spanned a continent. The distances between places matters when the fastest means of transport is a horse which will tire or a boat which may be sunk or becalmed. Hunger, thirst and cold are as deadly as spears, arrows and boiling tar.
The ruling classes in France and its neighbouring countries were closely related through blood ties and political marriages. The elder Robert’s sister, Emma, had married two Kings of England, Ethelred and Canute, bearing each of them sons. Canute had a second wife who also had a son. These children were sent away young to be raised in the countries they were destined to rule. When questions of succession arose in any of these lands it was common to have titles taken by force leaving those with blood rights bearing grudges which they would raise their children to avenge.
The history covered in this book is known so there are few major surprises in the plot. The way in which it is told though makes it a worthwhile read. What is gained is an understanding of why things happened as they did, even those acts which seem brutal and shocking by today’s standards. If history could always be told in such colourful detail it would be far more enjoyable for all.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Headline.