"Love changes, that is all, it is a shape shifter. The challenge lies in continuing to recognize it." - from THE NEEDLE IN THE BLOOD
In January 1066, the English King, Edward the Confessor, died childless. This prompted a scuffle for the throne. Harold Godwinson was elected King (Harold II). However, Duke William of Normandy claimed that Edward had promised the kingship to him and, furthermore, that Harold had previously sworn to him fealty and support of his claim. William invaded England and defeated Harold's army at the Battle of Senlac outside Hastings, during which fight Harold was killed. William assumed the throne as William I, thus permanently bringing Saxon England into the Norman French sphere of influence.
Accompanying William's army at Senlac was his half-brother Odo, the Bishop of Bayeux. Following the victory and William's assumption of the crown, Odo was granted the earldom of Kent.
The events surrounding the disputed succession, from Edward's choice of successor to William's crowning, and including the battle near Hastings, are depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry - actually an embroidered cloth, not a tapestry - that measures one-half meter by seventy meters and which is on permanent exhibit in Bayeux, Normandy, France. It's thought to have been commissioned by Odo, created in Canterbury, and hung in the Bayeux Cathedral at its dedication in 1077.
There's one particular embroidered scene problematic for historians, which depicts a cleric striking the face, or, alternatively, caressing the cheek, of a woman named Aelfgyva. It's captioned "Ubi unis clericus et Aelfgyva", translated as "Where a certain cleric and Aelfgyva". (See Image 8 at the website "Bayeux Tapestry.") The author of THE NEEDLE IN THE BLOOD, Sarah Bower, has woven her tale around this enigma.
Bower's historical novel begins on October 14, 1066 with Harold's defeat and death, and ends in September 1077. The male protagonist is Odo, the Bishop of Bayeux and Earl of Kent. The heroine, and the one on whom the storyline is centered, is the fictional Aelfgytha ("elf gift"), formerly a lady-in-waiting to King Harold's beloved mistress, Edith Swanneck. Gytha was with Lady Edith when the latter identified Harold's corpse on the battlefield. Gytha, an expert seamstress, is subsequently one of several employed by Odo's (fictional) sister, the nun Sister Agatha, to create the formidable embroidery that he's commissioned; Gytha has an ulterior motive.
THE NEEDLE IN THE BLOOD is a medieval love story constructed around the passionate relationship between Odo and Gytha - a pairing that begins with her attempt to cut the bishop's throat. (OK, so what's unusual about that considering the natural male-female tensions?)
This is shameless ChickLit. However, as my testosterone level has decreased with age, I can appreciate the story, mostly because of the author's characterization of Odo. While not a cleric with even a modicum of holiness, and one even capable of brutal actions, the worldly bishop is perhaps a good and honorable man - especially as a secular leader - when measured against the times and circumstance. Here, Odo certainly comes out looking better than history portrays. A popular on-line encyclopedia has this to say about him:
"Little good is recorded of Odo. It was recorded that his vast wealth was gained by extortion and robbery. His ambitions were boundless and his morals lax."
Also interesting is Bower's treatment of Lanfranc, the Archbishop of Canterbury from 1070 to 1089. While history regards him more or less favorably as an administrator, statesman, and promoter of clerical eduaction and discipline, the author paints him as the closest thing to the villain of the piece. Indeed, he comes across as a conniving weasel you love to hate. Bower herself acknowledges this literary license in the Afterword and even serves up an apology for the liberty she took with his reputation. Actually, I liked her version better.
It's not that THE NEEDLE IN THE BLOOD is without shortcomings. Odo has an extreme aversion to a character named "Sebastian", apparently stemming from an incident at the Battle of Senlac, an explanation for which is never given. And Sister Agatha has issues which make her one of the more intriguing and sympathetic personae of the story. Yet, in the end, the evolution of the plot bundles her off to obscurity without the readers' attention that I think she was due.
The book cries out for a sequel. Since the historical Odo lived until 1097, one is certainly possible if the author wishes to expend the time and effort.