Anglo-Saxons with attitude; Gordon Marsden praises an inspired attempt to re-imagine the events of 1066... and all that
The Battle of Hastings with the Normans on a two-hour lunch break; Edward the Confessor with a gay lover: Julian Rathbone's new novel weaves around the events of 1066 to give us not only the "all that" familiar from school history, but a great deal more besides. Any fictional treatment of the Conquest has to flesh out bare narratives such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, eloquent but spare on personal motives and relationships. Rathbone fills the gap pungently with a health warning: "William, like most successful bastards with guilty consciences, saw to it that history was written the way he wanted it". He peppers his largely pro-Anglo-Saxon novel with vignettes that evoke 11th-century Europe through all five senses.

It opens with his hero, Walt - only survivor from Harold's housecarls, cut down on Senlac hill - stepping ashore in England after a four-year odyssey around Europe and Asia Minor. But Walt is no Odysseus: his only homecoming is the cold embers of his burnt-out manor-house and the carbonised corpses of his wife and child. Rathbone does not spare us the random savagery of rape and murder, but there are wine and roses as well - the luxurious abundance of Byzantine architecture, seafood and religion. He has a very good sense of the seasons: the August "Green Man" ceremony near the Cerne Abbas giant, put on by the Godwins with a bit of faked pagan heritage in a vain attempt to entice Edward into nuptial bliss; Walt and Erica's harvest-home wedding-feast on the eve of Hastings; Edward's last days, dying of diabetes in sickly-sweet putrefaction while Yule is celebrated at his new monument-cum-mausoleum, Westminster Abbey.

With this come vivid characterisations: Emma, the Confessor's mother, sketched like a viperous Chinese Dowager Empress, or Harold's family, the Godwinsons, a cross between a Mafia clan and Men Behaving Badly. Then there is Duke William himself: cold, calculating, determined to make his way as only a man with a slighted birth to avenge can. Rathbone's speculations on the complex politics of the 20 years before the Conquest are a triumph. His characterisation of Edward as a Normanised aesthete, a world away from the gruff Germanics of the Godwinsons but dependent on them, is an absorbing one. If there are echoes of Graves and I Claudius, that is a high compliment.

Some knowing anachronisms do not quite work. Casting William with an Allo, Allo accent and giving Walt a touch of the Hell's Angel with a "Walt 4 Erica" tattoo are two examples. But this does little to diminish the book's power. If the historiography Rathbone evokes is the dated one of the Norman Yoke - plucky, free Saxons pitted against regimented Continental despots - his 20th-century echoes are chilling. William's troops unleash a blitzkrieg on England in late 1066 wearing "polished leather boots with pointed toes". They bring a New Order already glimpsed in the looming alien menace of the Confessor's Abbey: "the men who designed it [were] all foreign".

Does this sound like a blueprint from a 10th-century Albert Speer, with the Bayeux Tapestry as the Conqueror's precursor of Triumph of the Will? Not that far-fetched: the Cambridge historian Elisabeth van Houts has recently compared the experiences of the Conquest to those of Nazi-occupied Europe.

But as Rathbone has William's troops carrying out his orders ("the women were dealt with in the usual way... the infants were impaled. Racial sanitation, he called it"), we do not need to go back to the SS. We are in the 1990s world of ethnic cleansing, and the killing-fields of Bosnia.

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