Regency Turns 80 — The Conqueror

Silhouettes of a man and woman in Regency dress against a background of the number 80

Georgette Heyer’s second Medieval novel is The Conqueror. However, unlike her first Medieval, Simon the Coldheart, this story is not about a fictional character. It is about a real character from history, William, Duke of Normandy, the only man ever to conquer Britain. Today, romance author, Regan Walker, gives us some insights into this historical novel which is populated with a host of real characters from Medieval European history. Though Regan finds the romance between the main characters sadly lacking, she does share with us that a pair of secondary characters do find true love in this book. Do you prefer historical novels populated only with fictional characters, or do you like a few real historical figures thrown into the mix?

All are welcome to post their views on this novel, or historical romance in general, in comments to this article.

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Brown-haired woman with a low-cut gown in the upper half, and a scene of William on his throne in the lower half of the cover

Despite it’s subtitle (A Novel of William the Conqueror The Bastard Son Who Overpowered a Kingdom and the Woman who Melted His Heart), sadly for us romance lovers, there is very little in this novel by Heyer relating to the relationship between William and his wife Matilda. Though there is a chapter devoted to his determined "conquering" of her (including his beating of her when at first she refused to marry him), it’s not a love story nor a romance.

The story begins in 1028 with William’s birth and continues to his coronation Christmas Day 1066, though most of the book is taken up with the battles for and around Normandy prior to the Conquest.

William is portrayed as a hard man, molded by his dubious beginnings, his relentless determination to have his will carried out and his ambition for the crown of England (ostensibly to secure Normandy’s future). Heyer depicts him (accurately, I believe) as a brilliant strategist in war and exceedingly cruel when it served his purposes. He valued courage and loyalty. In this story, William says that Harold Godwinson is the only man he respects. But, per the legends which Heyer ably captures, that didn’t stop William from using Harold, forcing him to give an oath of fealty (or face a gilded imprisonment in Normandy), the breaking of which he used against Harold to secure the Pope’s backing for the planned invasion of England.

Heyer does a good job of showing how William the Conqueror served his own needs. Any good he did for others was motivated by what it could gain him. Perhaps that is what it took to gain a country like England, but Heyer suggests there was something lost in the man for the effort, as echoed in the reservations uttered by the men who served him. For that, Heyer deserves full marks at bringing to life the real man.

The history presented is interesting and entertaining, though I felt like I needed a dictionary, a map of France in the 1050s and 60s and a notepad for all the names and places thrown at me, particularly when so many men around William had the same first name. (Not that Heyer could do anything about that!) Such things made it difficult at times to understand just what was going on or who the men were behind all those names.

In large part (perhaps the best part), this is the story of a friendship between one of William’s closest knights, Raoul de Harcourt, and a Saxon named Edgar, who held lands under Harold Godwinson, and who was the hostage of William, Duke of Normandy.

If there is a romance here, it’s the love story between Raoul and Edgar’s sister, Elfrida, and that is a good one!

Regan Walker is a #1 bestselling, award-winning author of Regency, Georgian and Medieval romance novels. She has been a featured author on USA TODAY’s HEA blog three times and twice nominated for the prestigious RONE award (her novel, The Red Wolf’s Prize, won the RONE for Best Historical Novel in the medieval category in 2015).

Regan writes historically authentic novels, weaving into her stories real history and real historic figures. She wants her readers to experience history, adventure and love. Her most recent release, Rogue Knight, the second in her Medieval Warriors series, is set just three years after Duke William of Normandy conquered Britain.

Regan lives in San Diego with her golden retriever, Link, who she says inspires her every day to relax and smell the roses.

Connect with Regan online at:
Twitter: @RegansReview (

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  1. Regan, it has been a while since I read this book, but I agree, not really a romance. The historical detail overpowers the story in parts, which makes it a much less reader friendly book, more like a history book than a novel. It seems almost as if she wanted to prove she was a “serious” historical writer. Thanks for the reminder about the secondary characters, you have whetted my appetite to go read it again. This series has added to my tbr pile yet again.
    Kat in answer to your question, it all depends on how well the writer pulls me in to the story. I do think writing real people into a work of fiction has pitfalls, but as we have seen in some of her Regencies, Georgette Heyer was sometimes a master of this too,
    Best, Ann

    1. Ann, I really appreciate that Heyer did this work of historical fiction. It’s a good one and showed she could swim in that pond if she wanted to. In my own novels (Rogue Knight is one of them), there are real historic figures and real history. To me it’s the kind of historical romance that was written in the 80s and 90s that lured readers to the genre. Sadly, little history shows up in much of today’s historical romance. To write that kind of romance, one must do serious research and that takes time and effort.

      1. To write a historical romance well also takes time and effort, which unfortunately too many HR authors today do not do (or do not do enough of). But this lack of research has been discussed in this and other fora many times. Lately I’ve been looking up the dates when a word or a phrase in Regencies first appeared in print. “Bullfinch”, a hedge too high for a hunter to jump over but must rather be gone through, first appeared in 1825; of course the word could well have been used in conversation before that time. I appreciate Heyer’s attention to detail in her historical “romances” such as this and in her “pure” Regency romances. Amazing how much I learn from her.

        1. Judith, one has to be careful in using Heyer’s words. As I recall she made some up just to see who of her contemporaries used them. Of course, now they might be in circulation. She would have loved that.

  2. Very interesting, Regan–having just recently begun reading Georgette Heyer (can’t imagine why I didn’t start years ago!), it’s fascinating to me to discover her range. What a remarkable writer she was! Not sure how soon I’ll get around to this one, having several on my Kindle waiting for me to read. Still, since our dearest friends in England now live in Hastings, I’ve spent a lot of time wandering around the places (mainly Battle, as you can tell by the name!) where the Conquest was begun. History seems to be oozing from the ground.

    1. It’s a fascinating time in history, Beppie. And the period I researched for my medieval series… all are post Conquest stories but William the Conqueror is a character and they are accurate historically as far as I could make them. Visiting the site of Harold’s defeat would be a sad experience for me.

    2. How fascinating, Beppie! Hastings is one place in England I’ve never been to; do you recommend it? (I don’t write medievals, but do have a general interest in English history of all times. I really enjoyed Hadrian’s Wall, for instance, though I don’t write about Roman England either!)

  3. I prefer an historical romance with historical accuracy but with some real human characters within that history and a good romance between the hero and heroine. After all, I’m reading fiction for entertainment and relaxation; and if it’s not entertaining or relaxing, then I might as well read an educational history textbook.

  4. The Conqueror is one of my favorite Heyers. The romance between Raoul and Elfrida is lovely. The relationship between William and Mathilda is harsh and tempestuous but also romantic in its own way. She was a feisty woman and a good match for William, who was such a hard man. I also loved the relationship between Raoul and William–who would not change his mind to suit Raoul’s sensibilities, but valued him deeply all the same. This story really brought that era to life for me (so much so that I ponder writing a story that takes place then, even though it would require a lot of research that I really don’t want to do!). Also, I find Heyer’s balance of medieval words and expressions with modern day English to be brilliant–this is not easy to do!

    1. Trust me, Barbara, you have no idea of the research involved. Even though I do much research for my Regencies, I spent hundreds of hours doing the research on this time period in England’s history for my medieval series (The Red Wolf’s Prize and Rogue Knight are the first two books out now). But it was fascinating. I like your take on Heyer’s story… so many relationships going on in Normandy in the years before the Conquest and Heyer did a good job with them.

  5. I’ve only read “The Conqueror” once, and that years ago, but I found it really interesting. Along with the medieval history and historical detail (much of which was new to me then), I was intrigued by how Heyer balanced reader expectations and history — creating Raoul to serve as a hero modern folks could truly like, and giving him a “nice” romance, leaving Heyer room to have William be who he was (to a great extent)…though she still did throw in a bit of a sop romance for William (which always felt a bit shoved in there, to me.) Contrast what she did here with what we have of “My Lord John” — which always felt to me like Heyer very determinedly NOT giving in to reader expectations. 🙂

  6. Reading Heyer’s bio and studying her novels, I long ago concluded that she did not really respect the genre which she herself created–doubtless because people around her did not respect romances, so could not appreciate her Regency romances for the jewels that they are. I have felt enriched by her historicals but not truly entertained by them.

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