Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1420
First published: 1953
Type of work: Novel
Type of plot: Historical romance
Time of work: The late eleventh century
Locale: The Eastern Roman Empire
Roger Fitzodo, a monk telling the tale of his patroness
Lady Matilda, an ambitious wife and the patroness of Roger
Messer Roussel de Balliol, her husband
Roger Fitztancred, Messer de Balliol’s overlord
Romanus Diogenes, Emperor at Constantinople
Michael, his stepson and co-emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire
John Ducas, rival of the emperor
Sultan Alp Arslan, the leader of the Seljuk Turks invading Constantinople
Artough, another Turkish leader
Alexius Comnenus, the heir of the rival house of previous emperors
Nicephorus Botiantes, a eunuch, emperor after Michael’s abdication, and poisoner of Messer Roussel
At a time when the historical romance seemed to be degenerating into thrill-seeking, shoddy journalism, or bedroom farce in costume, Alfred Duggan continued to produce works that are historical novels in the true sense of the word. In his books, it is not the very pastness of the past that is important, the nostalgic appeal of the far away and long ago, but the Realism of his presentation within the limits of his period. He had the ability to create against the background of the past a world so solidly constructed that his novels make ancient Roman or medieval times as real as the present. His men and women live in violent and picturesque periods, but the writer held them true to the experiences that have been common to mankind in all ages.
His success came partly from his handling of a special point of view. In Duggan’s novels, there is no looking backward from the twentieth century toward an earlier time, with all the curiosity or condescension which such a glimpse into the past usually involves. Sensitive to the mood of an age, he refused to let his characters think or feel as they would in a later period. In THE LADY FOR RANSOM, for example, there is no suggestion of anything in time beyond the spectacle of the great Byzantine civilization tottering to its fall and of the adventures of some Norman mercenaries involved in border wars between the Eastern Roman Empire and the Seljuk Turks.
The connection between these events and the First Crusade is made plain by the narrator, a monk who had been ordered by his abbot to tell the story of his experiences for the instruction of some young knights preparing to set out for the Holy Land under Count Bohemond’s banner. The monk had been born Roger fitzOdo, the son of a Greek mother and a Norman smith, in the days when Norman adventurers were craving principalities for themselves in Lombardy and Sicily. Orphaned during a rebel raid, he found a patroness in rough-mannered but kindhearted Lady Matilda, wife of Messer Roussel de Balliol, liegeman to Roger fitzTancred. Messer Roussel is the same valiant “Ursel de Baliol” of the ancient chronicles, believed by some to be the ancestor of the house of the same name among the claimants for the Scottish crown in the time of Robert Bruce.
Messer Roussel was a soldier who followed his overlord without much thought for the future. His wife was more ambitious. For every adventurer in those times there was the example of Duke William, who had seized a kingdom from Saxon Harold at the Battle of Hastings; surely a knight as brave as Messer Roussel was capable of securing some great fief that his sons could inherit. When Romanus Diogenes, the new emperor at Constantinople, offered to enlist Messer Roussel and his three hundred mailed horsemen for an expedition against the Turks, Lady Matilda persuaded him that his acceptance would in no way violate his oath to Roger fitzTancred.
The Normans first took part in a campaign against the Patzinaks north of the Danube and then proceeded to Constantinople. There they were instructed in the mysteries of Eastern Roman politics. Romanus Diogenes ruled only as co-emperor with his stepson Michael. Although the house of Ducas held the Empire, its rival was the great house of Comnenus, which the Ducases had supplanted. Two strong parties divided the government, the tax party and the war party. Messer Roussel was not a shrewd man, but he understood well enough that Romanus Diogenes needed to win a great victory in the field if he expected to keep his crown. Romanus hoped to rout the Turkish hordes who had broken through the eastern defenses of the Empire and were laying waste the richest cities and lands in Asia Minor.
The great army numbered one hundred thousand, the greatest force in Christendom, when it met the Seljuk Turks under Sultan Alp Arslan at Manzikert in 1071. The Christians had expected easily to chase the Turks back over the rim of the world, but mounted horsemen in their heavy mail proved no match for the desert tribesmen. By nightfall, the host of Romanus Diogenes had been scattered or destroyed, and the emperor had been captured. This battle, one of the decisive events of history, broke the power of the Eastern Roman Empire once and for all. The results would have been even more disastrous if the Turks had followed up their victory, but at the time Alp Arslan was more interested in his war with the Sultan of Egypt than he was in the shattered power of Constantinople.
After the battle, Messer Roussel withdrew and occupied the fortified city of Ancyra. There, for a time, he ruled as an independent lord; but when he added Sebaste to his holdings, the Emperor Michael became alarmed and sent an army against him. The Normans defeated the Byzantines at the bridge of Zompi. Messer Roussel became involved in political conspiracy once more when he was persuaded to proclaim John Ducas emperor. While the rebel army was camped outside Constantinople, the Turks began to harry the lands he had left undefended, and he was forced to turn back to fight them. Artouch, a Turkish leader, defeated him and took four hundred prisoners at Mount Sophon.
Lady Matilda paid their ransom with the booty of earlier campaigns, but from that time on, Messer Roussel was a broken man; and the troops would have disbanded if it had not been for his wife’s example. She and Roger fitzOdo led the survivors back to Amasia. There matters went badly for Messer Roussel. Betrayed by the Turks, he was given to Alexius Comnenus as a hostage. He was not blinded, however, as he had expected, but was dealt with humanely in his prison. Emperor Michael and his advisers were prudent enough to foresee a possible use for Messer Roussel’s services in the future.
So it turned out. When rebellion broke out in Thrace in 1077, Messer Roussel was released and put in charge of the city’s defenses. He marched against the enemy and had occupied Athrya when word reached him that the Emperor Michael had abdicated and that Nicephorus Botiantes ruled in his place. Not knowing what to expect, Messer Roussel withdrew his small force to Selymbria. There the treacherous eunuch, Nicephorus, also a fugitive, poisoned him. Roger fitzOdo comments at the end that if Messer Roussel had possessed half his wife’s wisdom and resolution, a decent Frankish state might have been founded, thus keeping the Turks from the Bosphorus. Messer Roussel, he says, was indeed a gallant knight, but it takes more than mere courage to rule the East.
Duggan drew no parallels and pointed no moral. He simply re-created a picture of an age and its people—the violent, brutal, treacherous, yet strangely idealistic world of the Middle Ages, still pagan under its Christian beliefs, ignorant of its directions, and cut off from its past. At the same time, the human element rings true, sometimes with a sly, pawky humor, as when Lady Matilda advises her husband that it is always best to take an honorable course, especially if one does not lose by it; or when Roger fitzOdo praises his master as a man who was capable of facing martyrdom even though he was a sinner, for he had been baptized and was never a deserter. Duggan also stayed close to actual facts. It is true that his story brings together imagination and history, but he wrote for the most part of real people, letting fancy take over only when recorded history supplied no answer to the motives or the plights of his characters in their far-off age of dimming splendor and resurgent barbarism.