I first came across the novels of Sharon Penman via a book club edition of The Sunne in Splendour and it completely changed my views on Richard III. Not that I knew that much about him, but at that time, his reputation taught in schools was pretty much dyed in darkest evil. Sharon, however, took Richard, his family, his loves and affiliations - and yes, his flaws and made him in a fully rounded living, breathing human being. A man of his time but with whom modern readers could empathise. She afforded the same courtesy to all the other characters in the novel and she never once defamed the dead. I became a fan and I have been one ever since, both of Sharon's epic historicals and her Justin de Quincy mysteries. I eagerly await each new publication because I know I am in for a great read and research I can trust. Very little else matches up in the quality stakes.
With Lionheart, Sharon has again taken another king with a larger than life reputation (although not for supposed nephew murder, that speculation lies in his brother John's department) and put flesh upon bone and given nuance to character. How much of the legend is myth and how much is truth? Sharon goes in search of the man behind the smoke and mirrors of the centuries and renders a fascinating portrait for readers to savour and think about.
Without further ado here is Sharon in her own words. Enjoy.
p.s. She is also very modest. I am at home in the twelfth century but certainly not more than Sharon! I also need to add that I am suffering from more than a touch of serious cover envy. What a wonderful jacket.
Elizabeth, thank you so much for inviting me to do this interview. I am such a fan of your writing; I think you’re even more at home in the twelfth century than I am.
Devil’s Brood was to be the final book in your trilogy about the Angevins. Why did you decide to continue their story with Lionheart?
It was a gradual process. As I’ve indicated elsewhere, for years I had a rather negative view of Richard I, and I’d have been astonished had I been told I’d eventually be writing not one but two books about him. But once I began to research my Angevin trilogy, a different and surprising Richard began to emerge. I discovered that when it came to his discord with his brothers, he was more sinned against than sinning; it was Hal and Geoffrey and then Geoffrey and John who’d attacked his lands in Aquitaine. And I soon saw that Dr Stubbs’s indictment of Richard as a ‘bad son” was open to question, too. Henry is my favorite king, but he made some dreadful mistakes with his sons, and both Geoffrey and Richard had legitimate grievances. So by the time I was finishing Devil’s Brood, I was more receptive to the idea of continuing Richard’s story, which was certainly not lacking in high drama. And of course this would give me another opportunity to write about Eleanor, which you will certainly understand!
I know you did extensive research for Lionheart. Can you tell us something about that? What surprised you the most?
Lionheart was a joy to research for an obsessive-compulsive type like me. Never before had I such a treasure-trove of contemporary sources to draw upon. A number of English chroniclers wrote about Richard’s crusade, but two in particular were invaluable, for they were written by men who accompanied Richard to the Holy Land and were eye-witnesses to the events they wrote about. Life got even better when I found three Saracen chroniclers, two of whom were members of Saladin’s inner circle. I was able to read accounts of battles by the men who actually fought in them; it does not get any better than that! Just to cite one example—Baha al-Din watched as Richard stormed the beach at Jaffa, sword in one hand, crossbow in the other, and he described that scene in his chronicle. For interested readers, I discuss these chroniclers at some depth in Lionheart’s Acknowledgements.
As to what I found most surprising in the course of my research, that is easy to answer. It was Richard himself. The Richard of legend is a like a smoldering torch, glowering, dour, and dangerous. But the Richard I found on the pages of the chronicles was very different, a man with a lively and sardonic sense of humor, unpredictable, playful, imaginative, and shrewd. I’ve said elsewhere that this Richard reminded me of that Johnny Cash song, “A walking contra-diction, partly truth and partly fiction.” He was almost insanely reckless with his own safety, but a cautious battle commander, careful with the lives of his soldiers. He was one of the first princes to take the cross, but he not only formed unexpected friendships with Saladin’s brother and some of his emirs, he even knighted several of them—in the midst of a holy war! He is celebrated for his military genius, but he inherited his parents’ political skills, too. He had his full share of the notorious Angevin temper, but he proved willing to compromise with the French king when need be. He was undoubtedly prideful, yet he was able to laugh at himself. I had not expected Richard the man to differ in so many ways from Richard the myth, and I think my readers will share my surprise. The Richard in Lionheart is more complex than the Richard of legend and therefore more interesting; at least I hope readers think so.
What did you most admire about Richard? What were his less admirable traits?
I already knew, of course, that military historians consider Richard to be a brilliant battle commander as well as a superb soldier, and his courage is one of the reasons why he remains one of England’s best-known kings. But until I read the crusader chronicles, I had not known the responsibility he took for the welfare of his men. It went beyond transporting the wounded back to Jaffa. On his celebrated march from Acre, he showed an impressive grasp of war psychology by forming three lines of march. The safest duty was accompanying the supply weapons for they traveled next to the sea; the most dangerous duty was on the left flank, for those men were expected to fend off the Saracen skirmishers. Richard rotated these shifts; one day a man would be in the line of fire, but the next day he would be assigned to the compara-tive safety of the supply wagons. I was also impressed and surprised by the cordial relations Richard forged with many of his Saracen foes. And he turned out to be a pragmatist, refusing to assault Jerusalem because he’d become convinced that it could not be taken and men would die in vain if they tried; from the first, he sought a negotiated settlement with Saladin.
I would say his less admirable traits were his explosive, Angevin temper and his arro-gance; he could also be very ruthless, but that seems to have been an occupational hazard for medieval kings. Virtually every ruler that I’ve written about in the past twenty-plus years, with the possible exception of the hapless Henry VI, committed acts that are jarring to modern sensibilities.
Did any characters surprise you as the book progressed?
I was surprised to develop some sympathy for Tancred of Lecce, who took the crown after the death of the Sicilian king, William, husband to Richard’s sister Joanna. I became quite fond of Isabella, Queen of Jerusalem, a young woman of considerable courage and intelligence. And I liked writing about Richard’s nephew, Henri of Champagne, so much that I have expanded his role in my next book, the one I hope to write after A King’s Ransom.
Was it a challenge to write about Richard’s queen, Berengaria, since so little is known of her?
It was actually liberating to write about a character about whom so little is known. Berengaria was not even her real name; it was Berenguela, which was then translated into French as Berengere and eventually the English Berengaria. She was surely the only royal bride to spend her honeymoon in a war zone. But she has glided through history like a sad ghost, leaving few footprints behind. We know she was very pious; she founded an abbey where she would eventually be buried and where her stunning effigy can be seen. She came from a close-knit family, so the Angevins must have been something of a shock to her. She had considerable courage, but it was the quiet kind. She endured serious hardships and her life was at risk during the crusade, but if she ever complained, none of the chroniclers mentioned it. She would later need that courage when she had to fight her brother-in-law John for her dower rights; not surprisingly, John treated her rather shabbily. But she made no scenes, certainly not in public, and probably not in private, for she was not a royal rebel like her redoubtable mother-in-law, Eleanor of Aquitaine. Only once does the veil lift, giving us a glimpse of the woman behind the queen’s mask. The Bishop of Lincoln visited her upon learning of Richard’s death at Chalus and it was reported by his contemporary biographer that he’d consoled the “broken-hearted” widow. But was she grieving for Richard? Or for what might have been? Or for the difficult future she may have foreseen without Richard’s protection? Those are secrets the real Berengaria took with her to her grave.
Since we know their marriage was on the rocks after Richard returned from his German captivity, I’d assumed that they’d been incompatible from the beginning. I was surprised, therefore, to learn that Richard went to some trouble to have her with him in the Holy Land. I am not saying that they were madly in love; medieval people—especially the highborn—did not marry for love. And on the few occasions when this actually happened, it usually did not end well; see Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville. There was a reason public opinion was so scandalized by Edward’s secret marriage to the commoner Elizabeth—because in their world, this was not done. Royal marriages were made for the most pragmatic of reasons—to form or cement alliances—and we can be sure Berengaria did not expect to find her soul mate when she made that arduous journey over the Alps to join Richard in Sicily. But what little evidence there is seems to suggest that they got along well enough in the Holy Land.
Whatever went wrong between them happened after their return from the crusade. She then found herself in a difficult position, for Richard had the power to act—she could only re-act, and in the centuries since her death, she has been unfairly criticized for her seeming passivity, for not holding his attention, for not being another Eleanor. Her tragedy was not that her husband did not love her; it was that she’d failed in a queen’s prime duty, to give him an heir. For in the Middle Ages, the woman was always the one blamed for a barren marriage, and sadly, she probably blamed herself, too, for that is what she’d have been taught. I liked writing about Berengaria in Lionheart and hope to do justice to her in A King’s Ransom. As I’ve said elsewhere, I see her as a young woman who was dealt a bad hand and played it as best and bravely as she could.
You’d decided at the mid-point of Lionheart that Richard’s story could not be com-pressed into one book. Can you tell us about the sequel, A King’s Ransom?
I’d begun to panic when I’d realized that I could not hope to meet the deadline for Lionheart. But then a dear friend saved my sanity by suggesting I tell Richard’s story in two books. That was not only inspired, it made perfect sense, for the crusade was the natural breaking point. So Lionheart ends with Richard making peace with Saladin and preparing to sail for home—or so he thinks. Fortunately for him, he does not know what lies ahead—two shipwrecks, an encounter with pirates, a wild dash through enemy territory with only a handful of men before falling into the hands of the Duke of Austria, who bore him a bitter grudge, and then being turned over to the mercies of a man who had none, the Holy Roman Emperor, Heinrich. In A King’s Ransom, I will write about that epic journey, his captivity in Germany, his eventual return to his own domains, where he will fight a bitter war with the French king to recover the lands he lost while he was a prisoner, his death at Chalus, and the first year of the reign of his brother John.