This is the earliest century Jean Plaidy ever published: 11th century France & England and, as an era I am currently researching, I felt the need to write a detailed synopsis of the book, to help myself better remember the events that took place. While this is not exactly a review, I thought I would post it and it comes in two parts. Part 2 will be posted in a few days. I would give a spoiler warning, but the book is written in such a way that it is mostly facts and will only be surprising to those unfamiliar with the time period. The interesting part of the writing is, of course, the personalities and motives she puts to her characters.
The Bastard King covers the life of William the Conqueror, also known as William the Bastard, as he was the bastard son of Robert, Duke of Normandy circa 1027-1035. The story begins in 1026, when Robert spies a beautiful young woman doing laundry in a stream near his castle. He must have her and her only concession is that she be brought on a horse in plain daylight as his official mistress. This is Arlette, daughter of a tanner, and she gives birth to William and a daughter. Though Robert was married to highborn lady, he did not live with her and produced no legitimate children. Feeling the need to expiate his sins, as many did during this time, he decided to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Before he left, he went through the rituals of bestowing the Dukedom on his son, bastard though he may be, and had the vassal lords swear to uphold their promise to obey him. He then made his farewells to Arlette and deposited his son with the King of France, to further his education and to serve as his protector in his father’s absence.
Many times, those who made the arduous trip to Jerusalem never returned, and this is what happened to Robert of Normandy. Per Robert’s prearrangement Arlette married a lord, of whom she grew fond and had more children. William, a boy of 7, stayed with the King of France for a while longer, but returned to his lands when disquiet among his vassals demanded it. During his adolescence there were attempts on his life and many who thought that if a bastard son could inherit, well, there were many such in the land and they all had equal claim. Thus William the Bastard spent his life, from a very young age, fighting for his rights.
William had come to hate the word ‘bastard’. Once, during a siege, the occupants of the castle threw hides over the side and beat them with stick. This, they implied, was to ridicule William for his maternal grandfather, the tanner. He heard their chant of ‘bastard’ and this incensed him. When the castle finally surrendered, he had the men horribly disfigured, cutting off their hands and feet. Normally a fair ruler, this act of horror would be noted by future conspirers, though there were several to come.
As a young boy, William had met and befriended the two sons of Emma and King Ethelred of England, Edward and Alfred, who were in exile in Normandy, as Emma’s second husband, the Danish Canute, had won the throne of England. It was her wish (and that of Canute) that her son from her second husband, Harthicanute, would be the King of England. As events progressed in England, a certain Earl who had come from humble beginnings began to rise: Earl Godwin. This earl married into royalty and affianced as many of his children as possible likewise; he clearly had his eyes on the throne of England, and as he was a Saxon, born and breed, the people liked him better than the Danes or the Normans who held the throne. This ‘kingmaker’ was much like the 15th century Warwick.
On the inside cover of the book (at least if you have the Fawett Crest paperback) you can read an excerpt which details the meeting of William the Bastard and his future bride, Matilda of Flanders. Matilda, smarting from being spurned by a handsome Saxon ambassador, decided the next man to ask for her hand would likewise be spurned, and this happened to be William. She called him a bastard and said that she, as a granddaughter of the King of France, was too high for the Duke of Normandy, owing to his illegitimacy. William then did the most uncouth thing: he rode to Flanders, found Matilda on her way to mass, pulled her from her horse by her hair and beat her. “I received your reply,” he said, “This is mine.” He then rode away, later to feel ashamed of his behavior and complete attraction to the beauty he had abused.
Matlida, amazingly, decided this proud, determined man was the one for her, and the two did have similar ambitions. Though the King of France, disliking William for his vast strength in combat, set the Pope against the marriage, as he felt it would make William much stronger. However, the excommunicated couple happily wed and started a family. William sent a mediator to Rome to work for his cause, as an excommunicated Duke found his underlings begin to revolt with just cause.
An interesting fact about Matilda: until 1954, she was thought to have only been 4’ 2” tall through various historical reports. Her grave was exhumed (in 1954) and her skeleton found to be about 5’. Her stature wasn’t mentioned by Plaidy until her first son was born with extremely short legs (compared to his very tall father). She uses this as one of the reasons Richard, their second son and the one who most favored his father, was William’s favorite, while Robert is Matilda’s. This preference will come to play later in the book, as the happy couple begin to side with one child over the other.
William found he had a claim to England, as his friend, the once-exiled Edward, was now restored to the throne as Edward the Confessor, thanks to the mighty Earl Godwin. As Edward took a vow of celibacy, no heirs were to be born and he chose William to follow him (of course William had royal blood through his father and a stronger claim through his wife Matilda). Godwin, however, had other plans. He had several sons and one was married to Matilda’s sister. Through this link William was kept informed of the Godwin clan, including the most likely to usurp, Harold. As it happens, when old Godwin died (an interestingly supernatural death) and Harold, meaning to visit the Count of Flanders to raise support for his claim, washed up on the banks of Normandy (as Plaidy puts it, “a valuable piece of flotsam”). The two rivals for the English throne had finally met.
This completes Part 1 of the story… come back for Part 2 soon!