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The Conqueror    by Georgette Heyer order for
by Georgette Heyer
Order:  USA  Can
Sourcebooks, 2008 (1931)
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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Georgette Heyer, justifiably renowned for her witty Regency romances, also wrote several mainstream historical novels, including Royal Escape, The Spanish Bride, My Lord John and An Infamous Army. In The Conqueror (my favorite of her historicals along with An Infamous Army), she tells the stories of two very different couples against the backdrop of the Norman conquest of England in 1066 (a date drilled into the minds of all British schoolchildren).

Those who have studied the history of the time know that William was born in Falaise, Normandy, the illegitimate son of Robert the Magnificent, Duke of Normandy and Herleva, a tanner's daughter. Though Robert named William his heir, he had to survive many plots against him, from a young age. William married Matilda of Flanders in 1053. After the death of Edward the Confessor, Harold Godwinson was crowned King of England and William, who also laid claim to England, invaded, won the Battle of Hastings, and claimed the throne. The Conqueror bookcover calls the story 'A novel of William the Conqueror, the bastard son who overpowered a kingdom and the woman who melted his heart'. But it's much more.

Heyer portrays William as a charismatic leader but also a proud, driven man, deeply hurt by his bastardy and reacting viciously to any slur on his origins. She paints Matilda as fiery and high-spirited, their marriage a loving but volatile one. Heyer contrasts these historical figures with a fictional couple, developing a romance between William's close friend and follower, Raoul de Harcourt (a soft-hearted dreamer by the standards of his day) and Elfrida, a sweet Anglo-Saxon lady and sister to Edgar, who becomes Raoul's close friend. Raoul joins William when they are both in their teens, seeing in him a hope for law and justice in the land. He saves William's life when the young Duke's survival is on a knife edge.

William no sooner sees the widowed Matilda than he decides to make her his Duchess. He woos her harshly. In the meantime, Raoul befriends a hostage at William's court, Edgar, who owes allegiance to Harold Godwinson. When Harold is shipwrecked in France and rescued by William, Raoul loses his heart instantly to Elfrida (who accompanied Harold). But knowing William's long-term plans for England, Raoul fears coming to Elfrida 'as a blood-stained conqueror, a hated foe.' Heyer masterfully develops their love story against a detailed backdrop of the times, rich in authentic historical detail. Like all of Georgette Heyer's excellent historicals, I have read and re-read The Conqueror, enjoying it anew each time.

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