VALERIE ANAND's The Disputed Crown follows the fortunes of a group of Saxons and Normans thrown unwillingly together after the Conquest of 1066, and who, by way of intrigue, bloodshed, political expediency, some love and more death, learn to make the best of what all consider a bad job. The ingredients are familiar, but Anand has produced a well-structured, fast- paced story. Her main protagonists are fictional but she does not hesitate to make use of historical personages to further her fictional ends (including Hereward the Wake, about whom Charles Kingsley produced quite the dullest historical novel ever to weigh down a bookshelf), and has managed to invest all her characters with equal veracity if not great depth. Her language is more mid- Atlantic than Middle English, but not irritatingly so, and has perhaps enabled her to lead us through the welter of unfamiliar personal and place names without losing sight of the story -- a hazard at which many a writer has taken a tumble. Each strand of the plot is plaited neatly to a plausible conclusion, and all-in-all The Disputed Crown is a thoroughly satisfactory "good read." Would there were more such.

Flambard's Confession by Marilyn Durham, starts where The Disputed Crown ends, at the death of the Conqueror, and Durham wades into her tumultuous era with infectious gusto and a sublime disregard for the accepted historical opinions regarding her two main characters -- William Rufus, the Conqueror's second son and heir to the English throne, and Ranulph de Flambard, the latter's chaplain, friend and tax gatherer. Ranulph de Flambard is a randy, opportunistic cleric of lowly origins, whose struggles to stay afloat in a Normandy fragmented by the Conqueror's death, land him eventually in the household of William Rufus and in a splendid position to relate the machinations, wars, inequities and occasional benefits of the entire reign and, more or less incidentally, to resolve to complete the building of Durham Cathedral.

Author Durham has set herself a difficult task in painting two full-length male portraits of almost equal importance within the same frame. Flambard, though considerably more than the mere narrator, never quite becomes the "hero" (though whether by intention or not it is hard to say), and this despite the fact that almost everything that can happen to him, does -- from attempted perversion to piracy. As a result King Rufus sometimes tends to disappear for too long. This is a pity, as Durham's Rufus is the more interesting character, precisely conceived and subtly presented, so that we accept this unpopular monarch as a complex and developing human being. Through her eyes, despite his physical and moral shortcomings, Rufus is seen as a basically modest and aspiring (if not always well-meaning) servant and guardian of his people, bedeviled, like the rest of us, more by innate inadequacies than acquired evil, and with more than a tinge of honest generosity underlying the paradoxes of his make-up. He is a man who arouses our interest, compassion and even admiration, all at the same time.

Flambard, however, is less well realized, perhaps because not until near the end (and in what I found the misleading introductory chapters) is he seen through any eye or mind but his own -- and introspection is not one of his faults. The result is that though we follow him at a breathless gallop through England, France, politics, palace intrigues, love affairs, family feuds, war and peace, somewhere in the rush we lose the man in his activities. For example, it is a fact that Ranulph de Flambard, after his fall from grace and the death of Rufus, did embark on the completion of Durham Cathedral, but there is nothing in his character as presented by Valerie Durham that explains this. Towards the end of the book we are asked to believe that her Flambard fell in love with the grandeur implicit in the uncompleted fabric of the cathedral and determined to complete it, but there has been no hint beforehand to prepare us for such a passion in such a man. Was it a desire to leave his mark on his age, to serve (belatedly) his God, or a disinterested enthusiasm for architecture? We can only guess. I found the first chapters misleading because from the many clues dropped I hoped I might be in for something along the lines of Ragged Robin, the late Oliver Onions' exquisite account of the raising of York Cathedral; but alas, the building of Durham, despite the initial promise, serves merely as an unlikely coda.

This said, however, Marilyn Durham has succeeded in producing a remarkable picture of the time, full of those small details of everyday life that give authenticity to a tale of this kind -- and convince us that the author has done her homework! Some of her minor characters remain rather hazy, though Cormac, the homosexual Rufus' Irish lover, is memorable in life and all too-unforgettable in death. Her language is elegant and evocative and her psychological insight makes the conflicts between the characters horribly inevitable.

Curiously, or perhaps, considering our time, not so curiously, I found a common shortcoming in both these novels -- a lack of any appreciation of the spiritual temper of the age. The Church of the 11th century, though still struggling out of the Dark Ages, did produce more than self-seeking prelates and a superstitious peasantry. Christianity was a sophisticated philosophy as well as a convenient talisman against the devil, and the Deity and His attributes rather more, surely, than a mere mother- lode for blasphemy? This lack is not as obvious in The Disputed Crown, but in Flambard's Confession, so much more ambitious a work, I found it detracted from the credibility of the whole.