31 May 2014

300+ years of Plantagenet England with Sharon Kay Penman

The Plantagenets were the longest reigning dynasty in English history, beginning with Henry II in 1154 and ending with Richard III in 1485. Just about anyone who has a passing familiarity with English history and culture is familiar with several of their names i.e. Richard the Lionheart, King John (although most people are more familiar with him as "Evil Prince John"), Edward I "Longshanks" (thank you Braveheart), and the often maligned "Crookback Dick" a.k.a. Richard III (a victim of Tudor propaganda, 'cause history is written by the victors, right?). And oh so many more in between.

Ok, so they weren't all called Plantagenets by their contemporaries... the first three Plantagenet kings were called the Angevins (as in from the house of Anjou -they were the Dukes of Anjou, Normandy and Aquitaine in France, and they were really more French than English), and towards the end it was a dispute (the "War of the Roses" or "Cousins' War") between the rival Plantagenet houses of Lancaster (red rose) and York (white rose), but they were all (Henri II, Richard I, John I, Henry III, Edward I, Edward II, Edward III, Richard II, Henry IV, Henry V, Henry VI, Edward IV, Edward V and Richard III) direct descendants of Geoffroi le Bel, Duc d'Anjou, who -according to legend- used to wear a broom flower on his hat thus earning the soubriquet Plantagenet (from the Latin Planta genista). Oh, and according to legend his family was either descended from Lucifer or from a river goddess Mélusine (or both!), which was supposed to explain their nasty explosive tempers... :p

Sharon Kay Penman first delved into the lives of this epically dysfunctional family with the last of its kings, Richard III, in her first novel The Sunne in Splendour way back in 1982 (yes I'm just discovering her now, well last summer technically, better late than never!). As the story goes, the only copy of her original manuscript was stolen from her car and she had to start all over again! 


Sharon's novels are all meticulously researched, and written in a way that everything - places, events and people -  just seems to come ALIVE! As you advance through the pages of her books, fascinating historical events unfold before your eyes, but what captures you and holds you are the characters and their relationships to each other. Sibling rivalry, familial attachments, devotion to children, love/hate relationships, romantic entanglements, unquenchable desires of vengeance, unbridled ambition... her characters feel like living, breathing people. You can't help but feel for them, even if at times you wish you wouldn't, so heartbreaking are some of their tales!

I first discovered her books last summer, when a family friend - knowing my fondness for historical fiction - recommended them to me. I wavered a bit, the last thing I needed after all was more books to add to my always growing, never shrinking, "to read" list. But then the title of her most recent book caught my eye: Lionheart. I have been fascinated with the figure of Aliénor d'Aquitaine since childhood (epic woman: Duchess of Aquitaine in her own right, married the King of France, was able to manipulate the situation to have the marriage annulled years later then married the man who would become King of England. She went on Crusade, crossed the Pyrenees twice in her old age, and outlived both her husbands and all her children but two). Her favourite son Richard the Lionheart has always been a romantic figure, and fascinated me both as her son and from his "cameos" in the stories of Robin Hood and Ivanhoe. So how could I not pick up that book? Or more accurately download it to my Kindle... When I finished Lionheart I felt I needed more, but the continuation -A King's Ransom- wouldn't be out until March 2014! So what is a person to do? Well I guess the inevitable: delve into the rest of Sharon's bibliography and obsess about her books with other fans on her Facebook fan club page! :p  Sharon seems like such a wonderful person, she interacts a lot with her readers on Facebook and seems very friendly and happy to be talking about her books and characters with her fans. Not to mention occasionally wonderful surprises... more of which in the right spot further down. ;o)

And thus began a 6 month obsession of non-stop reading. All that time I spent waiting around in the hospital last Fall definitely helped with finding time to read. And her books were a wonderful distraction from what was going on at the time... I finished the last one just before Christmas (sitting by my mom's hospital bed, sharing some of the story with her), and found myself wishing March (and her newest book) were a mere days away instead of months away!

April finally came round, her latest novel A King's Ransom was delivered to my doorstep (along with Lionheart in hardback, couldn't have Ransom feeling lonely on the bookshelf now could I? Problem with e-books...) and I found myself once again immersed in Sharon's Medieval England (well, Europe really). Which also meant I could wrap up this post which I've been writing in bits and pieces for the past several months! Didn't figure it would take me another month to warp it up though! :p

So here you have it, my take (a mix of summary and thoughts on the matter) on Sharon Kay Penman's books, in historical chronological order (photos of covers from Sharon's website). Clicking on book titles will take you to their own page on her website. And need I say it? I can't recommend her books enough, I for one couldn't put them down! They caused me many a sleepless night... ;o)


The Angevin "trilogy":

  • When Christ and His Saints Slept (1995) - Maude vs Stephen, Stephen vs Henry... One thing was pretty clear in Medieval Europe: Men inherited the crown and became Kings, because women were "frail" creatures, of a domestic nature, who couldn't affront the harshness of ruling and defending a kingdom. Ha! I guess someone forgot to explain that to the Empress Maude (a.k.a. Matilda), grand-daughter of William the Conqueror, daughter and only surviving legitimate child of King Henry I of England (whose son and heir William dies tragically aboard the "White Ship" in the first pages of this book). King Henry made his nobles swear an oath to uphold Maude's succession, but upon his death most of them turned to a more "suitable" male heir: his nephew Stephen of Blois. This resulted in a bloody, decades-long civil war between Maude's and Stephen's supporters for the throne of England. The novel brings to life some insane events (climbing down a tower and escaping across snowy terrain in a terrible winter?!) and such amazing characters as Maude and Stephen themselves, but also Stephen's equally strong wife Matilda, Maude's antagonistic second husband Geoffroi d'Anjou, her half-brothers (Henry I had a roving eye and many bastard children) Robert and Ranulf (one of whom is fictional but you'd never believe it to read it, they both feel so real!), and finally Maude and Geoffroi's son Henry, destined to be Henry II of England.

  • Time and Chance (2002) - Henry and Eleanor vs the world! Not only has a very young Henry succeeded in forcing King Stephen to recognise him as his heir, he has had the nerve to go and marry the King of France's former wife (and without his consent, cue fireworks!) Eleanor Duchess of Aquitaine! Through this marriage an Angevin Empire is formed that stretches from the Scottish borders in the North to the Pyrenees in the South. King Louis VII had his marriage to Eleanor annulled because she hadn't given him a son after 11 years of marriage ("just" two daughters)... and yet she was to give Henry five sons and three daughters. (Someone needs to go back in time and explain to all these medieval husbands of deposed wives that the sex of the child is determined by the father not the mother! It also might have helped had Louis lived less like a monk... :p) This is the time of Henry and Eleanor in all their glory! The rise of a great knight, and ever loyal, William Marshal, the return to a period of law and order to chaotic England, and strategic marriage alliances for the Plantagenets. The only dark spots: an affair with the fair Rosamund, and the whole Thomas Becket situation...

  • The Devil's Brood (2008) - Henry vs Eleanor; Henry vs Hal, Richard and Geoffrey; Hal and Geoffrey vs Richard and Henry; Geoffrey and John vs Richard; Richard (and then John) vs Henry... Have I left any of them out? Eleanor did the unthinkable: she rebelled (with her sons Henry "the Young King", Richard Duke of Aquitaine - the Lionheart - and Geoffrey Duke of Brittany) against her husband King Henry II, thus scandalizing all of Europe! How could a woman oppose her husband? She would pay for this with an imprisonment that lasted 16 years... How could the couple that were hand in glove at the beginning of their marriage come to this? Henry never seemed able to figure it out, never could understand his sons' constant rebellions against his authority. And yet therein lay the problem: his heavy-handed authority! He gave almost none to his sons, grown men desperate to rule in their own right, and they resented it. They also resented each other which led to a whole other batch of problems! As I witnessed the inevitable unfold in this novel, I kept getting a strong urge to shake some sense into Henry, to make him realize how he was screwing up with his sons time and time again! He never really understood it...
Note: There's a fabulous blog dedicated entirely to Henry the Young King (thus named because he was crowned King of England during his father's lifetime), and a few months back I wrote a guest post there sharing my thoughts on The Devil's Brood

  • Lionheart (2011) - King Richard on Crusade! An almost 70 year-old Eleanor of Aquitaine crosses the Pyrenees to fetch Richard's promised bride and take her to him in Sicily (where he is waiting for the Mediterranean winter storms to end so he can sail on to Outremer a.k.a. the Holy Land), including a crossing of the Alps in winter! Need I mention again what an amazing woman this was?! And there are several amazing women in this book: Eleanor's daughter Joanna the dowager Queen of Sicily, who was fortunate to be reunited for a time with her mother and brother in an age when royal daughters were sent away for marriage and rarely aver saw their families again, Richard's fiancée Berengaria of Navarre... One wouldn't have expected so much of a tale of the Crusades to be centered on women, but it's a brilliant insight into this foreign world! It also makes the legendary Lionheart seem more real, seen through the eyes of his mother, sister, wife... As well of course through the eyes of the men he leads and his enemies. A truly epic figure! And the story is so well written that you'll get seasick on the ships with them and scared during the storms, you'll have trouble breathing through the dust in the Middle East, you'll feel for your favourites during the battle for the Holy Land...

  • A King's Ransom (2014) - King Richard vs Austria's Duke Leopold and the Holy Roman Emperor Heinrich (plus of course the ever-annoying Philippe of France). When kings and noblemen and knights went on Crusade, their persons and their lands were under the protection of Holy Mother Church. There was a truce and no one could wage war on a crusader (or his lands) as he was off doing battle to save the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Or at least that was the theory. We all know (thanks to Robin Hood legends, among others) that "evil Prince John" was plotting to steal his brother's throne, with the help of Philippe August King of France (and eternal thorn in the Plantagenets side, hard to believe he was his mild father's son!). But that's peanuts compared to what Richard's other enemies did: waylaid him on his way home from the Holy Land and imprisoned him for several years, under some rather harsh conditions at times. Released only after an exorbitant ransom was paid (that probably ruined England and Angevin France), despite constant protestations and exhortations by his mother Queen Eleanor to the Pope in Rome and other rulers in Christendom. During which time of course Philippe made inroads into conquering Angevin territories, and Richard had to spend all his time once back waging war against the French to retake them. A King of such bellicose propensities, you know he didn't die peacefully in his bed, right? Another brilliant look into the heart of the Lion (whom Sharon brilliantly portrays suffering from some form of PTSD after his imprisonment), with key appearances by his mother Eleanor, sister Joanna, brother John and poor wife Berengaria (who wasn't enjoying her marriage as much as in the previous book). A fitting farewell to the Angevins, with the Epilogue bringing us to Eleanor's deathbed... *sob*

The Justin de Quincy mysteries: 

(which take place simultaneously to Ransom and to the beginning of Here Be Dragons)

  • The Queen's Man (1996) - Justin de Quincy, the bastard son of the Bishop of Chester, somehow finds himself in the wrong place at the right time and intercepts an ambush of a courier with a special letter for Queen Eleanor who is desperate for news of her son Richard the Lionheart, whom no one has heard of since he left the Holy Land... The courier dies, but not before entrusting the letter to Justin with instructions to get it into the Queen's hands. Suddenly Justin finds himself in the midst of court intrigue, working to help the Queen and trying to avoid Prince John's henchmen. Who can he trust in such a dangerous world? ;o)

  • Cruel as the Grave (1998) - Justin de Quincy may be the Queen's man, but his London neighbours know they can turn to him for help when a murder in their midst needs to be addressed! A poor peddlar's daughter is found dead, with an "obvious" suspect which almost everyone believes guilty except for a friend of Justin's who pretty much badgers him into looking into it. All the while he has to follow the Queen's orders to help keep her son the treacherous Prince John out of trouble in a castle under siege. Justin's definitely got his hands full! :p 

  • Dragon's Lair (2003) - Justin's in Wales! And through his eyes we witness the beginnings of Llewellyn's (see below) Welsh adventures and conquests so YAY!!! Of course Queen Eleanor didn't send him there for that, she sent him because part of King Richard's ransom has gone missing and she needs it back! Treachery and intrigue in the Welsh lands and the Marches, who is friend and who is foe? And what are Prince John and his henchman Durand - Justin's nemesis in a sense - doing in Wales???

  • Prince of Darkness (2005) - These tales just get better and better, I do hope there will be another after this! This time poor Justin has to actually team up with his adversarial -sometime ally- Durand to help out Prince John who is being framed for treachery! Something he doesn't want his brother King Richard to find out about when he comes home from his captivity... Normally Justin wouldn't care, but he knows how much the Queen wants John kept safe (and also surveilled), so off he goes into Brittany on the ironical duty of clearing John's name from the one bit of treason he hasn't actually committed. Hijinks ensue, some people die and it's all great fun to read! :o)
Special note: last winter I wrote on Sharon's Fan Club Facebook page after I had finished Dragon's Lair (which I thought was the the last of her books in print) that I was excited there was a "new" Justin book to come out in the Spring 2014 just after Ransom... I hadn't realized it had already been published in the U.S. in 2005 because it wasn't available in Europe! Sharon asked me to send her an e-mail with my address... and guess what arrived in the mail a few days before Christmas? So AMAZING!!! Again MUCHAS GRACIAS Sharon! :o)




The Welsh trilogy:

  • Here Be Dragons (1985) - King John vs Llewellyn Fawr ("the Great" of Wales). The first book in a trilogy that could almost be called "Wales  vs England", the main thread is about Llewellyn ab Iorweth fighting to claim the throne of Gwynedd (north Wales) and try throughout his life to create a united Welsh front against the encroaching Anglo-Norman lords led by King John. War and peace and broken peace treaties and back to war. Of course King John wasn't too popular among his own lords either, so the tale includes a rebellion by his barons, the beginnings of the Magna Carta and King John's death. There's also a French invasion by Louis, son of Philippe Auguste (King of France and thorn in Henry II and Richard's sides), who want to claim John's throne with the support of rebellious barons (portrayed very weirdly and at the completely wrong time period in Ridley Scott's Robin Hood movie). But the heart of the book is the amazing relationship between Llewellyn and his wife Joanna, King John's beloved illegitimate daughter! Theirs is such a beautiful story, you'll laugh and weep and fight along with them. :o)

  • Falls the Shadow (1988) - Simon de Montfort vs Henry III and Prince Edward. Changing of the guard in Wales (Llewellyn's heirs) and England as King John's very young son takes the throne as Henry III. The beginning of the novel splits its time between Wales and England during Henry's minority, but later the action begins to shift away from the Welsh figures and onto audacious French nobleman Simon de Montfort who manages to reclaim family lands and title in England and marry the King's sister Eleanor "Nell" (another amazing woman)! The heart of the second half of the story is the fabulous relationship between Simon and Nell, and Simon's defence of the "Provisions" which limited the King's power, so an extension of the Magna Carta (we're working our way towards the parliamentary system here). Includes epic and heartbreaking battles, tender and loving moments, heartwrenching goodbyes.

  • The Reckoning (1991) - Wales vs Edward I. We're back in Wales, where Llewellyn's heirs now have to stave off invasions by King Edward I "Longshanks", a much better warrior and stratagem than his father, who takes the offensive against Simon de Monfort's remaining sons and their dangerous ally the last Prince of Wales, Llewellyn ap Gruffydd (Llewellyn Fawr's grandson). Sometimes helped, sometimes betrayed by his own brother Davydd, Llewellyn seeks to maintain Welsh unity and independance against an encroaching England. Students of history know this is a lost cause (Wales is now part of the U.K. after all), but watching this tragic tale unfold is at the same time truly thrilling and simply heartbreaking!

The War of the Roses:

  • The Sunne in Splendour (1982) - Yorks vs Lancasters, the "cousins' war" for the throne of England. This is the tale of the last Plantagenet King of England: Richard III. Maligned by Shakespeare and other Tudor-era writers (propaganda for the victors perhaps?), Sharon gives us the story from Richard's point of view. From his perilous childhood when his father the Duke of York and one of his brothers met a violent (and unnecessary) death at the hands of their Lancaster foes, to growing up in the household of Warwick the "Kingmaker" and witnessing his brother Edward IV's victories over the Lancaster forces and the claiming of the crown, exile with his brother, sharing in his return to glory, the joys of the "three sons of York" victorious, suffering the treachery of those who were once loyal, claiming a rich bride (another lovely love story there!) as reward for his loyalty... to the darker events of his claiming his brother's throne shortly after his brother's untimely death and declaring his nephews (the "Princes in the Tower") illegitimate, and facing the last Lancaster claimant: Henry Tudor. With the all too well known climax at the Battle of Bosworth field.... An epic story with a heartbreaking ending. A polemic figure even now as his remains were found under a parking lot in Leicester and several English cities have been fighting over where to have him re-buried (Leicester won). I for one am curious as to whether the funeral will be a Catholic (as Richard was) or Anglican (as is the current royal family) service. Just another of the many crazy random thoughts that pop into my head form time to time... Anyhow, back to the book: READ IT!!!

There's about a 150 year gap between the end of Reckoning and the beginning of Sunne... and I really hope Sharon decides to fill it in some day! I would love to read her take on the kings involved in the Hundred Years' War... But it probably won't be any time soon as her next foray will take her to Outremer, the Kingdom of Jerusalem during the time of the Crusades! Which should be equally as thrilling as her previous books. Can't wait! :o)

If any members of Sharon's Fan Club on Facebook stop by for a visit, how about if you guys leave a little comment to share which of these is your favourite? It's an impossible choice for me (although I am leaning heavily towards Dragons...)! But I know some of you don't have that problem... ;o)

19 comments:

  1. Very nice, Cristina! I especially love that you included the picture of your signed book from Sharon. What a heartwarming story! Favorite of her books.... let's see... Sunne and Lionheart, because they changed my opinion of the main character so drastically, Falls the Shadow, because I fell in love with the character of Simon de Montfort, a man I'd never heard of before but love his place and role in history, and Saints because it was the first of her books I read, and the one that got me hooked. But like you said, it's impossible to choose just one, because each of them is special in their own way.

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    1. Stephanie I was so amazed and delighted that Sharon would send me the book when it wasn't available here in Europe! And the fact that it happened to be around Christmas? Extra special fuzzy feeling! :o)

      Like you I knew nothing of Simon before going in and was blown away by him! Such an amazing story... happy and tragic and thrilling and... wow!

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  2. Wonderful. It is to hard to pick a favorite but I will go with Saints as that was my first book I read and as Stephanie stated above the one that got me hooked but it also got me interested in the Plantagenets.

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    1. Isn't it interesting how we often feel that special connection to our "first"? ;o)

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  3. I went to the library app and found that all her books are in use, and I am number 22 in line to get Time and Chance. The first book you mentioned isn't available, so I'll start with that one. Looking forward to getting involved in these books! Thanks, Cris! :-)

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    1. It's a pity "When Christ and his Saints Slept" isn't available DJan, I think you'd love the character of Maude!!! But "Time and Chance" is also a good entry point. Eleanor and Henry make one amazing couple and their family never ceases to amaze (both in the good and the bad). I hope you enjoy it! And that number 22 goes down fast!

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  4. I read the Welsh Trilogy at least once a year. This was my intro to Sharon's genius and the books that introduced me to the creme de la creme of HF

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    1. I'm not sure I could deal with the tears of re-reading the WHOLE Welsh Trilogy each year! Dragons yes, but the other two? *sob*

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  5. I thoroughly enjoyed your post, Cristina! Thank you! You have made Sharon proud! Also many thanks for linking to my blog. I 'm honoured!

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    1. I'm glad you enjoyed it Kasia! How could I not link to your blog? You give such a wonderful voice to the "Young King"! :o)

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  6. Cristina, this was very enjoyable. I found Sharon through a discounted paperback of Sunne and instantly became a fan. She graciously inscribed a hardcover edition to me after we met at a reading event for The Queen's Man in Florida. Sunne would have to be my favorite but I LOVE them all and anxiously await her next...whatever it may be!

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    1. Dayle (found you!), I would love to meet Sharon one day at a reading event! But I'm happy as a clam with my own inscribed copy of "Prince of Darkness". She is definitely quite a unique and wonderful woman, I love hearing the stories those of you who have met her share on Facebook! :o)

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    2. Christina, I am so honored and flattered that you'd devote an entire blog to my books--and they are such wonderful reviews. If it is okay, I'd like to post the link on my website? I am definitely sharing it with my editors, too.

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    3. Sharon I would be honored if you linked to my humble blog on your website! All this is thanks to these wonderful books you've written, I just tried to put my feelings down in words, without revealing too much about them so as not to spoil the fun for others. You provided me with 6 months intense and wonderful non-stop reading, and then a short break until another fabulous tale. I can't wait to see what comes next! Big hugs and THANK YOU! :o)

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  8. Great blog for a great author! I have read every one of her books and have thankfully just about replaced hardbacks with digital copies! (I have a small fortune there!) All I can say is be prepared to cry! I have in just about every book and I am normally not a crier! Your love of her works is very obvious here. You did an outstanding job! Sorry about the delete did not realize I was under hubby's account!

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    1. Tina I've done the opposite: I started off with all digital copies of her books, and then bought the most recent ones (and the new edition of Sunne) in hardback for my collection! ;o)

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  9. The very best of historical fiction. My favorite: The Sunne in Splendor. I just cannot make myself read any other book about Richard III... So heartbreaking. I'm readind the Plantagenet series again. Just finished "While Christ...." and making my way to the last three which I have not read yet because I felt I needed to start again at the beginning to get the whole experiennce. I guess I'll be lost to the present world for a time while I travel to the Middle Ages with Sharon's incomparable histories.

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    1. I can't wait for Outremer to come out and see what she does away from the Plantagenets... But at the same time there are so many other Plantagenets she hasn't told us about and I'd love to read her take on them!!!

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Hey there! Yes you! The quiet one in the back... I'd love it if you hung out for a bit and shared your thoughts!

I might stop by your place with an answer, but I'm more likely to reply right here so click on "email follow up comments" if you'd like to see what I and others have to say and come continue the conversation! ;o)