The Splintered Kingdom is superbly and aptly named. The Norman Conquest of 1066 ripped the fabric of England to shreds – aristocrats became rebels, conquering warriors were now owners of hostile land newly divided and the ordinary men and women of England, speakers of a foreign language, were little more than property. They were also caught in the middle as William the Conqueror and his barons strove to keep their winnings safe in their iron fists.
Our hero, if he can be called that, is Tancred a Dinant, a Breton and Norman knight who, after impressing with his bravery at Hastings and in the streets of York (as told in the preceding novel Sworn Sword) is now lord of an estate in the Welsh borders in Shropshire (as it would be called now). Possibly unusually, but perhaps not, Tancred takes his duties as lord seriously and when his tenants are attacked and stolen by Welsh raiders he feels honour bound to protect them. The news comes that his great enemy, Eadger the Aetheling, the hope of the English, has joined with the Welsh to harass the invaders and so Tancred is among the many who follow their sworn lord, in his case Robert, to join up with William the Conqueror’s fearsome armies.
Tancred is not just an anonymous knight in armour, the bloody hand of Norman oppression. He is, one would like to believe, a caring man who has made a career out of fighting and, despite the pull of peace offered by his new property, his relationship with a local girl, pregnant with his child, he is unable to resist the call of his oath to lord Robert and so he steps into the unknown – in this case, the wild, beautiful and hostile landscape of Wales. When the Welsh and Eadger threaten Robert and Robert’s sister, Beatrice, with whom Tancred has a history (see Sworn Sword), everything becomes personal and it’s not just his own life that Tancred puts at risk. You might want to place bets on who will emerge in one piece at the other end of the novel.
The Splintered Kingdom is written from the first person perspective of Tancred. It’s through his eyes that we see the frustration of the English peasants, the ugly spite of Eadger and the wild fury of the Welsh, not to mention the bloodthirsty and punch-happy rivalry of the Norman knights. The women are far more helpless. We see them as nuns burying the battle dead or women carried off for ransom or worse. Men like Tancred can be the knights in shining armour, although here we are a long way away from the chivalrous code of later medieval knights.
James Aitcheson writes very well indeed. Scenes are described so vividly that you can imagine them before your eyes. The use of original Old English town names adds to the atmosphere of a great time in distance having passed, added to by the frequent mentions of the ancient roads that criss cross the land, the legacy of the Romans, as well as the even older hill forts which are reused.
There is much violence here. Skirmishes and battles follow in quick succession, especially that guerilla warfare that ensued as the Welsh were followed deep into their lands. While the first half of the novel takes its time to set the scene, which it does very well, the second half steps up a pace and is especially thrilling – in this section Tancred’s drive for vengeance gains a focus as we follow him deep into enemy territory.
However, while Tancred is likeable and heroic, as with Sworn Sword, the Normans have done nothing to win my allegiance. Despite the first person narrative drawing us in, these are terrible times and England is like a raw wound being picked at. I find it difficult to cheer the Normans on and I am very aware that Tancred is presenting us with the official version. This intriguing perspective, though, makes for an interesting novel and James Aitcheson brings these rough and harrowing years to life on the page. Secretly, though, I was rooting for Eadger.