The story of The Lion and the Rose and the Norman Conquest continues in this spellbinding new historical fiction series from author Hilary Rhodes, pulling back the curtain on the lives of two remarkable women connected across centuries: Aislinn, a seventeen-year-old English girl caught up in the advancing army of the “outlander king,” the man who will become known to history as William the Conqueror. Thrust into the center of the new Norman court and a dizzying web of political intrigue and plotting princes, she must choose her alliances carefully in a game of thrones where the stakes are unimaginably high. Embroiled in rebellions and betrayals, Aislinn learns the price of loyalty, struggles to find her home, and save those she loves – and, perhaps, her own soul as well.
Almost nine hundred years later in 1987, Selma Murray, an American graduate student at Oxford University, is researching the mysterious “Aethelinga” manuscript, as Aislinn’s chronicle has come to be known. Trying to work out the riddles of someone else’s past is a way for Selma to dodge her own troubling ghosts – yet the two are becoming inextricably intertwined. She must face her own demons, answer Aislinn’s questions, and find forgiveness – for herself and others – in this epically scaled but intimately examined, extensively researched look at the creation of history, the universality of humanity, and the many faces it has worn no matter the century: loss, grief, guilt, redemption, and love.
I did not set out to write a book about William the Conqueror. (Much less several.)
I did not, in fact, intend to be studying medieval history, let alone at such a level that I am returning to the UK to start my doctorate in less than two weeks, or expect that my life for the last seven years would be so greatly defined by my involvement with the story that began with The Outlander King and its soon-to-be-released sequel, The Conqueror’s Bane (originally written as one book). And that, I suppose, was the best part.
But first, some background. Indeed, the origins of this exercise can be precisely dated: Friday, October 24, 2008, around five o’clock in the afternoon. What was happening on that day? For a start, I had recently achieved one of my life’s goals, which was to spend my junior year abroad at Oxford University, and I had joined my home college’s tutoring program for underprivileged London schoolchildren. Myself and two other students were putting on a workshop for them, and this workshop just so happened to cover the Normans. While this was something I had been interested in before, my knowledge of matters 1066 had gone lacking. So I scuffed up a few relevant facts and sallied forth.
My job was to get the children to do an imaginative exercise related to the material, and I’d come up
with a few basic story prompts. (1: “Harold, before his death, gave you a secret never to tell the Normans. What was it?” or 2: “William, on his way to be crowned, gave you a gift. What was it?”) Aside from one gratifyingly industrious little girl, this wasn’t taken too seriously; William would no doubt be extremely surprised to find that he bequeathed plasma televisions, one trillion pounds, fancy sports cars, gated mansions, and other such largesse to a bunch of twenty-first-century schoolchildren. The hour went off relatively well, and they all had fun, although I’m not sure how much they learned. But that was only the beginning.
I was in London Victoria station with my counterpart, in the process of finding the bus back to Oxford, when the plot bunny first sidled into my head. “Hey,” it remarked. “You’re a storyteller. Hey. You want to tell your own Norman Conquest story, don’t you?”
“Uh,” I said. “Yeah, sure, I guess.”
The wheels greased up. The bus departed, shortly running into heinous traffic. I sat chewing this over. We drove. I thought. We drove. I thought harder. We got back to Oxford. I disembarked in a muddle, headed into my flat, opened up a document, and wrote the first five pages of Chapter One. I put it aside for a few days. Then I went back to it. It was like touching a match to gunpowder, and the rest of my time in Oxford was spent living this story in every sense. I had thought I was going to Oxford to study writing and psychology. Writing yes; psychology not so much. I switched to medieval history, studying in formal and informal contexts alike, falling so deeply in love with it as to be pursuing advanced degrees and a career in it; indeed, it’s largely due to my book sales that I can afford to go back! Everything has come full circle in a marvelous way and I am very grateful.
I recount this story because I often like to joke that I was ordered to write this book, and there was nothing anyone could do about it, when a force of personality like William was involved. I ended up exploring his life leading up to the Conquest in my other two books (The Lion and the Rose: William Rising and The Lion and the Rose: The Gathering Storm, written during my senior year of college). Hence, it wasn’t a matter of trying to get into his head as much as a matter of frantically trying to keep up and take dictation. It began to get downright spooky at times, as I can’t tell you how many times I’d fill in a minor detail as a placeholder, only to look it up later and find it was completely accurate. Not to mention the fact that my mother and I were mysteriously unable to leave Normandy that summer, due to a never-ending cavalcade of travel mishaps, until I cleared it with His Grace – literally thirty seconds later, everything was solved. But in The Outlander King and The Conqueror’s Bane, though the Norman invasion of England in 1066 drives the plot, William is more of a supporting character. I have always considered the women – Aislinn, the eleventh-century Saxon woman caught up in the Conquest, and Selma, the twentieth-century graduate student researching her life at Oxford University – to be the heart of the book. William’s story was told more in-depth in the Lion and the Rose series.
I’ve spent years now researching, writing, editing, and finally releasing these books, so William and his world have become old friends. As a medieval historian in training, I’ve also grown very annoyed by the overwhelming tendency in fiction and nonfiction alike to depict the medieval era as backwards, dark, and barbaric, and the people who lived in it as simpletons or religious zealots. The only way to write something worthwhile and relevant is to realize that they are exactly as human, complex, flawed, and brilliant as we are. If you start off by judging these people simply for not being lucky enough to be born in our modern era (which has plenty of its own problems) you miss so much of who they are and what they did.
Indeed, the Norman Conquest was an impossible achievement that set the course for eight hundred years of conflicts between England and France, and continues to shape our modern world. One of my favorite statistics that I ran across in the course of my research is that military historians, medievalists, and recreators have simulated the Battle of Hastings many times, and absolutely nobody can figure out how William won. Judging by tactics, strategy, troop numbers, positions, and duration, he should have lost, England should have stayed Anglo-Saxon, and our English language today would be entirely different. But as had been so throughout his life, the odds simply did not matter to him, and for neither the first nor the last time, he changed the course of history.
The Outlander King is on a blog tour!
About the Author
Hilary Rhodes is a scholar, author, blogger, and all-around geek who fell in love with medieval England while spending a year abroad at Oxford University. She holds a B.A. and M.A. in history, and is currently preparing for doctoral studies at the University of Leeds, fulfilling a years-long dream to return to the UK. In what little spare time she has, she enjoys reading, blogging about her favorite TV shows, movies, and books, music, and traveling. For more information please visit Hilary Rhodes' blog.