The Needle in the Blood
The Norman Conquest of England was one of the pivotal events of the Middle Ages. In 1066, William the Conqueror and his brother, Bishop Odo, defeated King Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Hastings. England was brought under Norman rule. The story was commemorated in the phenomenal Bayeux Tapestry. Sarah Bower uses the embroidery (and the embroiderers) as the focal point for her passionate account of the conquest, The Needle in the Blood.
The novel primarily follows the fortunes of Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, Earl of Kent, younger brother of William the Conqueror. Ruled by ambition, he is the driving force behind the invasion of England. Seeking a permanent way to document the grandeur of the event for the masses, he commissions the embroidery, asking his sister, a nun with secrets of her own, to oversee the work.
One of the women she brings into her atelier is Gytha. A skilled embroiderer, Gytha was a lady’s maid to King Harold’s mistress. She was at the lady’s side when she was forced to identify the mutilated corpse of the king on the battlefield. Later, Gytha watched as the king’s capital city was invaded, its people killed, its women raped.
Naturally, Gytha hates the Normans, Odo most of all. She agreed to work on the embroidery for the chance to see him again, intending to kill him. However, when they do meet, fire erupts between them. They begin an affair with far-reaching consequences. Odo’s ambition has earned him enemies and his king’s jealous requirements clash with Odo’s need to be with Gytha.
Although the focus of the book shifts largely to the bedroom, it also addresses the larger problems facing a society undergoing so huge a transition. Given the fascinating historical setting, I couldn’t help but be immersed in the read.