Book review: The Leopards of Normandy: Duke by David Churchill

The Leopards of Normandy: Duke byDavid Churchill
The Leopards of Normandy: Duke byDavid Churchill

Northern Europe in the 11th century was a place of turbulent politics, bitter rivalries and deadly betrayal… and at its heart was William, Duke of Normandy, the man who would famously conquer England.

David Churchill, pen name of an award-winning journalist with a lifelong passion for history, certainly knows his stuff and the second book in his enthralling The Leopards of Normandy trilogy tells William’s story in all its brutal, exhilarating and action-packed drama.

As Churchill points out, there are very few reliable facts available about Norman politics in this period but it has been his joy to plug those glaring gaps with what is known of actual events and a brilliant elaboration of the wildly entertaining gossip at which those intrepid Normans excelled.

The result is a pulsating page-turner, a thrilling tale of ambitious men, conniving women, ruthless enemies, cold-blooded assassins and a pack of royal contenders willing to shed more blood than an episode of Game of Thrones.

In the first of the series, Devil, we witnessed the tumultuous events leading up to the birth of William the Bastard, the ignominious title of his early years, but now we join him as the nine-year-old duke growing up in Normandy and surrounded by a posse of guardians all jostling for power and advantage.

In 1037, William is surrounded by enemies and the men chosen to protect him are falling prey, one by one, to a conspiracy controlled and manipulated by Ralph de Gacé, a relative of the duke and a man who has spent a lifetime being mocked and ridiculed but now burns with the need to be feared and obeyed.

Across the sea in England, the pious but graceless King Edward the Confessor is on the throne but plans for the succession are in chaos and the struggle for the crown has seen his widowed mother Queen Emma lose one of her sons.

Ambitious and determined, Norman-born Queen Emma has two more sons waiting in the wings but Godwin, Earl of Wessex – kingmaker and arch manipulator – has plans to build a dynasty that will outlast them all.

As the noble families of Europe murder each other in their lust for power and fortune, William stands apart. One day he will join the struggle to rule England but for now he must fight just to survive, to reach manhood and then impose his will on those who would oppose him… including the young woman he wants for his wife.

Churchill writes with a vivid, visceral fluency that adds a new and thrilling dimension to the extraordinary personal story of the last man to conquer England. The betrayals, scheming, lust for power and bloody murders that led to 1066 come alive in unforgettable technicolour, creating a vast canvas of medieval history.

By intermingling the leading personalities of William’s life with a beautifully drawn supporting cast of fictional but credible characters, Churchill plays out the heady drama of those events of one thousand years ago by evoking all the raw, savage, perilous and pitiless spirit of the age.

This is real medieval skulduggery told with relish, a romp through time with one of its most influential and compelling figures, and historical fiction at its most exciting and compelling.

(Headline, hardback, £18.99)