Readers familiar with Norman’s work, including the Adelia Aguilar series written as Ariana Franklin, know of her affinity for 12th-century settings and her admiration for Henry II's judicial reforms. This novel is no exception. King of the Last Days opens at the end of Henry’s life. In 1189, Glastonbury Abbey is in a sorry state, victim of a fire that destroyed its monastic buildings five years earlier. Pilgrims are passing it by, and the prior has no money to rebuild. When four obedientiaries secretly uncover the remains of a tall man and a blonde woman in the abbey graveyard – bodies rumored to be those of Arthur and Guinevere – they see better days ahead. And they find a centuries-old sword lying alongside.
(History records the discovery taking place in 1190. An explanation is provided for this deliberate shifting; in Norman's take, it has to do with the unreliability of a certain Welsh chronicler...)
A monk at a nearby Benedictine house, Ancel of Athelney, is recruited to present Excalibur to King Henry, who’s off in France fighting his rebellious son Richard and the French king. The Glastonbury monks desperately need good publicity and want to use the sword as a bargaining chip. Ancel, however, has a more altruistic outlook on his mission; he owes his very livelihood to the king. Thanks to the newly instituted jury system, Ancel’s mother was able to prove he was born a freedman, and thus able to enter the monastic life.
As Ancel crosses the Channel and wends his way south to Le Mans, Excalibur concealed inside a wooden cross, he meets two others on the same path. Joan, the tart-tongued prioress of St. Mary’s du Pré in Hertfordshire, wants Henry to annul a pesky lower-class Celt’s legitimate claim to her abbey’s property. And Roger Sans-Avoir, a knight tormented by his experiences on Crusade, seeks to rejoin Henry’s entourage because he has no other options. In serving as protector for Joan and Ancel, Roger hopes to absolve himself of an unspeakable sin.
At this point the themes and characters started to seem oddly familiar. A peasant turned monk, a solitary knight, a woman of religion… hmm. Then it hit me: this book isn’t so much a retreading of the same ground as Fitzempress’ Law as an indirect sequel. After the 20th-century interlopers returned to their time, their medieval counterparts live on.
The three protagonists trudge through the northern French countryside, moving from Caen to Fontevrault to Chinon, encountering many colorful characters and a variety of dangers – crafty brigands, deadly illness, and other distractions from the task at hand. Although they unite in a common cause, they don’t always have each other’s best interests at heart. The sword changes hands many times, as does Prioress Joan’s cranky mare. By the end, after their respective journeys have transformed their attitudes, their goal hasn’t changed, but their motives have.
It’s a pleasure to read Norman’s from-the-ground-up presentation of medieval France: the unfamiliar flora and fauna, the heat rising from the landscape as the trio heads south, the rhythms and rituals of its people’s daily existence. The plot branches off in multiple directions, with perhaps too many viewpoints to keep track of, but even minor characters spark into life during their brief time on the page.
Norman depicts medieval people’s perspective on life in delightful fashion, showing how they balance their love for God and fear of mortal sin with a plainspoken irreverence toward the world’s realities. Consider Prioress Joan’s mumblings to herself when she first encounters Ancel on the road:
“Glastonbury. What was a monk from Glastonbury doing with a sword hidden in a cross? They’d always been odd at Glastonbury, too old, too mystic, too much holy thorn and well. Too much Arthur.”But despite the many insertions of sly humor, the novel has an underlying solemnity. Though a fiercely intelligent man who accomplished many reforms, Henry never learned to share his power, and that has been his undoing:
"The trouble with Henry II of England is that he eclipsed people. He had eclipsed Philip's father, Louis, and taken Eleanor of Aquitaine away from him, and then eclipsed her and the sons she gave him. He had eclipsed Becket. He refused to delegate power to those of lesser vision, and they never forgave him for it."At the end of his life, only his illegitimate son Geoffrey stands by him. His personal failings have become England’s as well, and Norman impresses upon readers the tragedy of it all. Nonetheless, Henry Fitzempress has reigned long and competently; his passing will mark the end of an era, just as the death of Arthur spelled the end of Camelot. It’s a brilliant character study of a man and the world he created, as seen through the eyes of those who experienced it.
A splendid evocation of medieval life, with wit and calamity in equal measure.
King of the Last Days was published by Hodder & Stoughton in hardcover in 1981. Non-obligatory FTC disclosure: the publisher did not provide me with a free copy of this book to review. Don’t I wish! This one’s so obscure that it's currently unavailable except via interlibrary loan. Rather, I should thank the Nottingham Libraries for selling their copy (for 30p) some years ago. Perhaps one day we'll be lucky enough to have a publisher bring Norman's backlist into print again. Judging by the number of people who find this blog by googling for her books, there's a real demand for them.