Saturday, May 08, 2010

"The Conquerors," by Thomas B. Costain

This first volume in Costain's masterpiece trilogy spans (roughly) the years from the Norman Conquest to the Magna Carta: 1066 to 1215.

His writing strikes a middle course, between the dry footnote-laden scholarly tomes that are a turn-off to the average reader and the all-too-popular romanticized versions of medieval royalty churned out by the purveyors of pulp fiction. He knows how to tell a good tale, weaving what might otherwise be bland historical names, dates, and facts into a compellingly cohesive narrative.

But, the real beauty of it all is that it does not depend on any embellishments. In fact, Costain dispels many of the myths and legends that persist about this important era in the history of the English-speaking world, often deciphering the grain(s) of truth hidden within the legends:

  • William Conqueror is more than just an invading bastard.
  • His son Henry I isn't quite the "beauclerc" his nickname suggests, producing a document that would forever curb the power of the crown.
  • Eleanor of Aquitaine played no part in the death of "Fair Rosamunde."
  • Richard the Lion-heart was indeed a great warrior, but a miserable failure as a king.

My one criticism of this work is that it is dated (1949), and bowed to many of the sensitivities of the era in which it was written. For example, one really must read between the lines about the poor treatment Berengaria of Navarre received. Still, Costain's readable prose proves his argument that the century and a half following the Battle of Hastings forged the Normans and Saxons into a single nation.

Bottom line: Good read if history is your thing.

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