When Ivon de Clairpont lies down for the night by the blacksmith's fire at Gildenford, sleep does not come easily. The great Norman knight knows himself to be an unwelcome visitor in England, for he is a member of the large party traveling with Alfred Atheling, an exiled son of the deposed English king. Ivon's intuition proves correct, for the evening in Gildenford is his last as a free man.
In darkness, Ivon and his fellows are assaulted and taken hostage by soldiers loyal to England's current ruler. And in the morning, Alfred's followers are systematically executed—until only a handful of their original six hundred remain. Ivon is one of the few survivors, but, to his mind, his is a state worse than death: The once-powerful knight is sold as a slave to Eric Olafson and put to work on the Dane's farm in isolated Northumbria.
Refusing to accept a life of servitude, Ivon ceaselessly plots his escape. After one particularly harrowing attempt to flee, he is nursed back to health by Gunnor, a young bondswoman who is determined to make him her own. With Gunnor's help, Ivon begins to accept the fate that has made him a thrall, but he never forsakes his only inheritance: the memory of freedom.
For Ivon's descendants, this legacy is a bitter blessing. The knowledge of a glorious past rules the dreams of future de Clairponts—who must live with the results of their determination to return the family to what it once was.
A sweeping, often moving tale of English medieval life, this novel depicts historical events--ranging from 1040 to 1215, when the Magna Charta was signed--from the perspective of a family of serfs. When Norman knight Ivon de Clairpont is taken prisoner in England, he repeatedly tries to escape from his Danish master's holdings near York. Crippled during his last attempt, he grudgingly settles down to life as a thrall, marrying another serf but continually reminding their children of their heritage as free people. His grandson, Ivon Oddeyes, is caught up in the harrying of the North--the execution of all men of arms-bearing age and the ravaging of the landordered by William the Conqueror because of the region's continued support of King Harold. Having hated Normans all his life, young Ivon, a talented potter, rejects a chance to gain freedom by denying his French heritage. Later generations suffer the terrible fates that awaited serfs (villeins) who attempted to better themselves. Anand's (Crown of Roses) robust novel, the first of a projected series, depicts the Middle Ages in a more realistic light than is often the case.