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May 6, 2013

The Bastard King (Norman Series #1) by Jean Plaidy

By God's Splendour, this was a great intro to William The Conqueror!
The Bastard King by Jean Plaidy
May's Group Read for the Gooodreads Plaidy/Holt/Carr group
My personal copy is PAN 1977 edition, 333 pages
Burton Book Review Rating: 4.5 stars

From my back cover:
Princess Matilda at last found the man she would marry- William, the fierce bastard of Normandy. Proud and fearless, the Duke had ridden into the stronghold of his enemies, dragged her by her thick golden hair into the gutter, and left with her heart. It was a love story that would change the face of history.
Battles, triumphs, revenge and jealousy crowd the dramatic years leading to William's fateful conflict with Harold of England and its bitter aftermath as Queen Matilda's love for her children threatens her loyalty to William, Bastard, Conqueror and King.

The Bastard King focuses on William the Bastard (William the Conqueror) and as a history lover, I recognize the date of the year of 1066 as having significance for England, but I had not read anything specific to that historic event having been mostly stuck somewhere betwixt Henry II and Henry VIII. Enter Jean Plaidy: Mistress of good old fashioned historical fiction. With a dose of quiet poisons, traitors, romances, revenge and melodramatics we are treated to an education of William the Bastard that begins with his parents: Robert the Magnificent and Arlette (the tanner's daughter!).

Being the son of a tanner's daughter William was ridiculed and teased but he was also portrayed as being a favored son of the Duke in spite of the taint of the low birth. His father loved him and geared him to be the next Duke of Normandy even though the aristocracy had a tough time swallowing that. Meanwhile, England was going through their typical upheavals of who should rule and William's cousins from England stayed in Normandy for safety during the rule of the Danes. Eventually one of these cousins became King Edward the Confessor who seemed to have a soft spot for William and vice versa. Years later at King Edward's death it is William who wants to have the English crown and it's two-thirds of the way into the book that William decides to assert his claim.

As typical of Plaidy, she expertly weaves us through the factions and the turmoil of the times which includes battles, political alliances made and broken and with a keen eye for historical detail we get a peek into the lives of famous figures. While the focus remains on William and his ultimate reach for England, there are subplots concerning his family and the informative fleshing out of the side characters that make Plaidy's writing style a favorite among the genre. His wife Matilda is of course the flaxen-haired beauty to rival all others yet she shows a sinister streak as she embroiders; King Harold is portrayed as a shrewd but sensitive man and that's the guy that William has to beat in order to win the throne of England, making for an interesting climax. 

There are things that can get repetitive (the fair blue eyed extremely gorgeous English cousins/my temper will destroy you/By God's Splendour!/Robert has short legs) or over the top (people conveniently poisoned and dispensed with) and the heavy use of foreshadowing and omens (throughout the novel) but this story is still very entertaining and worth the read for those learning of the era. This first installment of the Norman series begins with Robert the Magnificent circa 1028 and continues with his son William all the way past 1066 and his eventual earning of the moniker 'Conqueror' and finally ending with his death in 1087 - an ending so very well done, Ms. Plaidy. I was certainly ready to take up a battle cry.

Further reading:
Patricia Bracewell's Shadow on The Crown (my review) precedes this novel time-wise, I am glad I read that first and would recommend it.

The Bastard King
Lion of Justice
The Passionate Enemies

This novel was part of my 2013 To-Be-Read-Pile Reading Challenge hosted by Roof Beam Reader

I read along with the Goodreads Plaidy group, my second with that group. I wonder what we'll read next!