review: The Bastard King
by Jean Plaidy
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. This is not exactly a review, and 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.
Harold Godwin had landed in Normandy, though he was aiming for Flanders to negotiate the return of his brother and cousin (who had been taken prisoner in the place of Earl Godwin) and to gauge the atmosphere concerning the upcoming accession of the English crown. Edward the Confessor was ailing, and whether intentional or not, he had let more than one man think he had chosen him as his successor. As the Count of Flanders, Baldwin, was both powerful and wealthy, he made a good ally. Harold’s brother, Tostig, was married to the Count’s eldest daughter, while William of Normandy was married to the younger, Matilda.
But Harold was in William’s hands, and though treated with due respect, was nevertheless a prisoner. Matilda decided it would be best to betroth him to their eldest daughter, a girl of 10 and thirty years his junior. Unable to protest, Harold accepted outwardly, but knew in his heart that his long-time mistress and children were his true family and he would not take this child as his bride if he could get back to England. William had other demands: Harold must send his unmarried sister to Normandy to marry as William pleased and he must swear to help William to the throne of England when King Edward died. If he would swear these things, Harold would be allowed to return to England. This Harold agreed to do and the oath took place in Bayeux.
In front of a large company, Harold placed his hand on a chest draped with cloth of gold and once he made his promises the cloth as removed and the chest opened to reveal the relics of saints. Harold was none too pleased at this bit of deceit, and though he loathed breaking promises made over the relics, he did so under duress, and so believed he would be forgiven. William and Matilda did not believe he would break his promises easily and so they allowed him to return to England.
Soon after his return, King Edward died and the people accepted Harold with alacrity. He was officially crowned and when William heard of this he seethed with anger. He would set forth to England, but needed time to prepare, and while this was being done, he sent Harold a letter allowing that perhaps Harold took the crown because the people asked it of him, though he must move aside (of course) and he asked him to keep to his other promises, of marriage to William’s daughter and to send his sister to Normandy.
The said sister had died, and so Harold jauntily offered to send her body to William, and he added that he had already wed, and so he could not take William’s daughter, nor would he forfeit his crown to William. No, Harold had not married his mistress, but the sister of a couple of troublesome Earls in the north (Northumbria and Mercia) to stop an invasion from that part of the country, which was more willing to take a Viking (Hardrada of Norway) rather than a Saxon.
Of course William was frothing at the mouth at this point. His ships readied, he was only waiting for a fair wind to take them across the channel. Tostig, who had been in Flanders with his wife’s family, decided to stake his claim as well and the best way to do this was to back the Norseman, Hardrada.
Hardrada, attacking the north, found it was ready to fall into his hands. At nearly 7’ tall he was like a god at the head of his army. However, he was defeated by Harold when an arrow went through his neck. With their mighty leader down, the Danish army withdrew and Harold hastened to the south to meet William of Normandy. Because his men were tired and exhausted, William had the upper hand and won the battle, killing not only Harold, but all of his brothers. Both Harold’s mother and mistress came before William and begged for his body and a proper burial, but William sent them away. He wanted no martyred saints to mar his claim to the English throne.
William finally had his prize: England, but not security or peace. The people of England accepted him, but did not like him. He had harsh laws, especially those of hunting in the king’s forests. Soon he sent for Matilda and she was crowned Queen of England. The royal family was looked on fondly once the children were visible to the people. There were uprisings, but William dealt with them quickly enough. His major problem became his oldest son, who wanted his due: the Dukedom of Normandy. This part of the story reminded me so much of Henry II and his sons, as they too fought their father for his lands while he still lived.
Matilda had captured all the events from the Norman Conquest in an exquisite tapestry (now known as the Bayeux Tapestry). Even the comet in the sky (Haley’s Comet), which struck fear into the hearts of many, is depicted on it. Historically, Matilda has been ruled out as the maker of the tapestry, but it fit nicely in the story and gave her a purpose for the times William was away. Even so, she still harbored hate for the Saxon who spurned her and after she became queen, she found a way to get revenge. William had given her permission to build a castle in England on the land of her choice, and so she took Brihtric’s home and had him imprisoned and then killed. William found out the details of this little debacle and took his own revenge on Matilda. He had loved her and been completely faithful, and that she thought of this Saxon all the years of their marriage upset him mightily. So he did as kings will, and took a mistress.
The mistress ended up murdered and, of course, Matilda had arranged it. She and William had a lover’s quarrel and then got over it, as if the murders were of no matter. They then had fights over their sons. Robert, the eldest, was keeping unsavory company just to enrage his father. He then became friendly with the French king. William traveled often to Normandy to take back his castles and strongholds, but Matilda was secretly sending their son funds to keep his army going. This was the final rift between William and Matilda.
During one of these skirmishes with Robert and his vassals, William was injured and fell from his horse. Strangely enough Robert saved his life and they made a truce. Because of this, Matilda died happy, but it did not last. William was later headed to war against the French king and Robert did not show. William died with a prophecy on his lips: though his son Rufus would follow him as King of England, his youngest son, Henry would be greatest of all.