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The blog of Stephen Arnott (aka S J Arnott). Writer of the Leofric Dark Age adventures and Jack Bleacher.

Review: Leopards and Lilies

Stephen Arnott

Another Duggan review. This and the others I've written are posted to Goodreads, but I thought I'd blog it too. I’ve read all the Duggan ebook titles, now I’m working through the out-of-print second-hand paperbacks.

Leopards and Lilies is real-life tale of Norman Britain set around the time of the demise of King John. Ostensibly the story follows the life of Margaret FitzGerold who was the daughter of King John’s Chamberlain, Lord Warin FitzGerold; however, its main focus is on her husband, Falkes de Brealte, Captain of the King’s Crossbows.

Falkes was the bastard son of a Norman noble who first won fame by killing a knight who was trying to make off with his father’s horse.  According to Duggan’s version, Falkes was stripped to the waist and armed only with a scythe, while his opponent was in full armour. The combat earned our hero (whose real name was ‘Fulk’) the nickname ‘Falkes’, based on the French word for ‘scythe’.

(I'm guessing the front-cover picture is meant to be Falkes himself – you can see the full cover at the bottom of the page – though here he looks more like a cross between Vincent Price and a leather handbag.)

I’d never heard of Falkes till reading this book, but researching him afterwards I found that many sources accuse him of murdering someone with a scythe. However, Falkes was obviously proud of his name and didn’t seem the type to take an insult lying down, so I think it’s more likely that Duggan’s telling is the truer one.

Aside from characters such as Margaret and Falkes, Leopards and Lilies also introduced me to the concept of the Norman diaspora that settled in England after Normandy was over-run by the French. Men like Falkes were eager to return and fight for their homeland while the English-bred Normans were keener on keeping what they had. This led to a situation where the English Normans tended to look down on men like Falkes as upstart foreigners, while Falkes and his like regarded their Anglicised brethren as cowards and traitors. Mentally, I’ve always lumped the Normans together as one group and this division was a surprise to me.

The book's title refers to the leopards of the Angevin Empire (which morphed into the three lions of the Royal Arms of England) and the lilies of the French monarchy, though the story only touches on international intrigues and concentrates instead on England’s attempt to pull itself together after the Baron’s Revolt, Magna Carta and the loss of Normandy. In particular its focus is on Falkes’ attempts to retain his lands and status after the death of King John, the man who raised him up from a common sergeant.

All this action and intrigue is told through the eyes of Margaret, and since she spends much of her time removed from the action we get to learn most of the plot second-hand. This is not an terribly exciting way to tell a story, but it’s useful when Falkes or some messenger visits Margaret to explain what’s going on because it’s really the only chance the reader has of understanding the labyrinthine machinations of the Court and the flock of legal and religious disputes that come to flap around Falkes’ head. 

I would have liked Margaret’s character to have been more interesting and spirited, but Duggan is trying to paint us a picture of a real person and we can’t all be heroes. Instead our protagonist veers towards the snobbish and self-absorbed; though she’s barely fourteen when the story starts so we should make allowances. The following passage sums her up character nicely:

“The world was very unfair to her. She ought to have a beautiful mother, and a dashing elder brother whose gallant friends would play with her in the real rose garden which should surround her father’s castle. But here she was, a neglected orphan, living in a mere palisaded manor. Someone was very much to blame, though it was difficult to name the culprit.”

Over all it’s not one of Duggan’s best books. But I’m glad I read it and, as usual, Duggan introduced me to an obscure slice of history that I’d barely been aware of before. And if you’re into the history of names, think on this: Falkes built himself a large London manor that was known as Falkes’ Hall, which in turn became Fox Hall, then Vauxhall, the name of a central district of modern London, which became the home of the car makers ‘Vauxhall Motors’ (part of General Motors) whose emblem is the gryphon-and-flag that was the heraldic badge used by Falkes himself. So the next time you see one their cars, or hear the name, think back to a bare-chested Norman teenager fighting for his life in a sunny hay meadow.