ON BOTH sides of the Narrow Sea that separates continental Europe and Britain, the 1160s are a tumultuous decade for the nobles who rule not only Normandy and England but also an enormous, sprawling region stretching all the way south around the Bay of Biscay to Spain.
Henry II, jointly Duke of Normandy and Aquitaine and King of England, is supported on the throne by his siblings Hamelin the Merlin (an illegitimate half-brother) and Viscount William, the youngest of the late Count Geoffrey the Handsome and Matilda’s three sons. On the periphery hovers Thomas Becket, Chancellor of England, skilful financier and fawning sycophant – a man obsessed with Henry, fortune and fame in equal measure.
With so much land under its control, the Norman Plantagenet dynasty is feeling threatened. To the east French king Louis VII (whose ex-wife Eleanor is now married to Henry) is disgruntled by the Normans’ attack on the city of Toulouse; further north the Germans, under the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, are massing troops for a possible invasion; and in the Vatican Christianity is cannibalising itself as rival factions squabble over the legitimacy or otherwise of two opposing Popes.
England, too, is in political turmoil: the Archbishop of Canterbury is dying and the church is riddled with self-serving degenerates positioned beyond the reach of Henry’s secular laws.
From his base on the River Seine at Rouen, Henry reigns over one of the biggest kingdoms his world has ever known.
In a melee of beautiful, entitled men and powerful, rich women, the Plantagenets and their courtiers jostle for position and favour, surrounded by intrigue and espionage, lasciviousness and piety.
One of Australia’s most multi-faceted authors, Blanche d’Alpuget couples the exacting skills of biography and saga with the irreverence of pop-fiction to breathe life into characters who lived almost a millennium ago.