Jack Ludlow: Conquest

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Jack Ludlow Conquest
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Jack Ludlow



By the time Roger, the youngest of Tancred de Hauteville’s brood, made ready to leave Normandy, the surname of the family was not the obscure appendage it had once been. In twenty years, since the two eldest sons had departed to take mercenary service in Italy, the de Hautevilles had become renowned throughout Christendom: from being obscure knights with nothing but their lances and their fighting ability, they had come to such startling prominence, to serve as an example to all young men who aspired to greatness.

William, known by the soubriquet Bras de Fer, had fought his way to land and titles only to die in his prime. In his wake had come his brothers Drogo and Humphrey to both expand the family holdings and elevate the family name. Two more brothers now held valuable fiefs, but if William Iron Arm had led the way, the half-brother who eventually succeeded to his legacy, known to the world by the single soubriquet of the Guiscard, had surpassed him.

Styled Count of Apulia, he was as famous for his cunning as his military prowess: Robert de Hauteville dealt on equal terms not only with the temporal power of the papacy, but with the imperial authority of the Holy Roman Empire based in Germany, while being in constant conflict with the Eastern Empire ruled from Constantinople. The lands he now held, from the Apennines to the Adriatic seaboard, had for five centuries been the property of Byzantium and, being valuable, the empire was locked into endless attempts at recovery: Apulia and Calabria were thus cockpits of continual warfare, shifting allegiances, endemic betrayal and ceaseless intrigue.

If Robert Guiscard had trouble with the empire in the east he was not spared turmoil in his own backyard: apart from Lombards, Greeks and the native Italians there were other powerful confrere barons south of Rome. No Norman willingly bowed the knee to another and that, on occasions, included his blood relatives. Thus when the baby of the family made up his mind to head south, it was not by invitation: a brother who shared the name and the family ability as a warrior could be as much of a pest as an asset.

All of those who had preceded Roger had left without comment from their father’s liege lord, the Duke of Normandy; it was testimony to how much they had risen that when Roger aired his intentions he was summoned to meet with William the Bastard, an order he would disobey at his peril. Escorted by a party of the family lances, warriors owed in fealty and feudal obligation to the duke, he set out for Falaise, the city his suzerain had chosen as his main residence.

There was, however, one place he was determined to visit, and it was not on the way. It was necessary to bypass Falaise to find the Monastery of St-Evroul-sur-Ouche. It required artifice to persuade the noble abbot, Robert de Grantmesnil, that this near-penniless knight was accidentally passing by his door — and even more to persuade him that he should be allowed contact with his half-sister and ward, Judith of Evreux. Roger and she had met the year before at the annual gathering of knights called to render homage to their suzerain. Seven years his junior, she was already a beauty, he was the most handsome of his family; for both, on a mere meeting of eyes, it had been instant mutual attraction.

Only pleading by a distraught Judith melted the relative’s initial rebuff: Judith was, after all, a cousin to the duke and the idea of Roger de Hauteville paying suit to such a well-connected beauty was risible — she was destined for a more prosperous hand than his, some great magnate with land, castles and lances. His brother might be Count of Apulia but Roger was a landless nobody. Yet the man was not made of stone and her tears were genuine, so he let her have her fantasy that she could somehow marry for love.

‘Italy?’ Judith asked, in a near whisper.

They sat in an arbour with a pair of nuns close enough by, placed there to ensure no proprieties were broken, like the touching of hands. Roger, tall, blond and blue-eyed, had been treated by these Brides of Christ like some kind of rabid despoiler and when the two youngsters sat, their chaperones had ensured there was a gap between them of a full arm’s length. That was enough for two people enamoured of each other; they sat quietly talking in the way only those who have deep affection for each other can: inconsequential to a listener, heart-searing to the participants.

There was no need to explain the need to go south, given it was a well-worn path for the impoverished knights of Normandy. To prosper at home meant a close connection to the duke, not something a de Hauteville was likely to be granted, given the family history.

‘I would have you come with me,’ Roger said. ‘Allow me to ask the abbot to let you accompany me?’

‘As what?’

‘As my wife, Judith, what else?’

There was no need to utter a refusal: her crestfallen look was enough. ‘I had to beg for this, Roger, a few moments alone, and you know I cannot wed anyone without the permission of Duke William. I am his to give away.’

‘Added to that which we had last year our time alone cannot amount to more than half a glass of sand.’

From the church came the sound for which the monastery was famous, the voices of its choir, backed by the musicians her half-brother employed and encouraged. St Evroul was renowned throughout Christendom for this: folk of means travelled long journeys to sit in the chapel and listen to the sweet harmonies, never departing without leaving gifts to an already well-endowed establishment for the sake of their souls.

‘It may be all we will ever have. If you go to Italy I may never see you again.’

‘I have lances with me.’

She knew what he was saying, and if she had doubts they were assuaged by the determined look in his eye, but Judith also knew that to elope was impossible. Duke William would send men after her and, if caught, she would be ruined, forced to take the veil while Roger would likely spend the rest of his life in a damp and rat-infested oubliette. On her breast she wore a pin surmounted by a freshwater pearl, which she took off and stuck to his blue and white surcoat, moving close enough to have the two nuns on their feet, alarmed at the contact.

‘Go south, Roger; become a great man, as I am sure you must, and every time you touch this remember me.’

Judith was gone in a flash: she did not want the man with whom she had fallen in love to see her cry. Roger sat for a while, touching the pearl, then rose slowly and walked, a figure with a bowed head, to join his accompanying lances.

Those steel-tipped lances were for show and he had required the permission of his elder brothers to take them along: once, not long past, they would have been necessary for safety. Duke William had come into his title carrying not only the stain of bastardy, but his own tender years, succeeding aged but seven. He had inherited a province containing numerous powerful vassals unwilling to bow the knee to either his illegitimacy or to his youth, making it a dangerous place to travel, banditry being a brother to rebellion.

During the period in which the de Hautevilles had prospered in Italy, William of Normandy had, with the aid of his uncles, loyal barons and, on more than one occasion, the King of the Franks, fought to first hold on to then subdue his ducal estates. The final battle, fought at Val-es-Dunes, had cemented his position, allowing William to become master in his own domains. That this was so was immediately obvious to Roger on being greeted by a man secure in his own authority; he had first seen his duke as an easily impressed ten-year-old, when William, only three years his senior, had been invested as a knight by the Frankish king to whom he was nominally a vassal.

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