Thursday, April 19, 2012

LIONHEART: Sharon Kay Penman talks about her latest novel and a legendary king.

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.


Rosemary Morris said...

I am looking forward to reading Lionheart, and disocovering more about Sharon Kay Penman's view of the man behind the symbolism of nthe crown,

Anonymous said...

Okay, First of all, to see one of my heroes interviewing the other is just magnificent! It's two superstars for the price of one.. wow!

I am a lowly pre-published author, writing about the York Massacre of 1190. I read a portion in Lionheart where Richard, Eleanor, Jaufre and Richenza are discussing the event. I want to place Eleanor there in York--for a brief visit--shortly before the massacre begins-- before she leaves England. This would be after Richard's coronation- and the trouble with the Jews that occurred during that event.

I have a question, I hoped either or both of you might answer. Henry had always protected "his" Jews, but the mood in England seems to have changed drastically against them once Richard was crowned. Do you believe that Richard knew about the growing resentment against the Jews, and was just too consumed with crusade-fever to really be bothered? Or do you believe that the same fervor that swept England--to fight the Infadels-- bled out into the communities. OR- Do you think that for the most part, it simply gave the nobles who owed the Jews a lot of money a good excuse?

PS--I bought Lionheart the day it came out. I always buy both of your books as soon as they drop.
Lionheart is a fantastic read, as all of your books are. I trust them. And that is so rare today. When I buy a book by Sharon Kay Penman or Elizabeth Chadwick- I know that the story will grip me, entertain me, and that I can trust the historical information. Sharon, for so long, you've made Eleanor come to life for me, and I cannot tell you how much that means!
Thank you both so much! You are my rock stars!!

Stephanie said...

Thanks to both of you for this wonderful interview!

Joansz said...

Thank you so much for this interview, Elizabeth and Sharon. I loved Lionheart. Richard I came to me, like all of Sharon's characters, fully fleshed and surpisingly different from history's version. Looking forward to the second book, although, now that I've come to like Richard, I will have as much trouble reading about his death, as I did Richard III's in Sunne in Splendour.

Maggie Anton said...

As the author of "Rashi's Daughters," I consider myself very much at home in the twelfth century as well. I'm pleased to hear that Henri of Champagne will play a larger role in Sharon's next novel.

But I'm a bit disappointed that nobody brought up Richard's homosexual relationships. It seems that these must addressed; either as true, mere rumors, or political attacks. You can't ignore them.

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Maggie, I don't see that not bringing up the homosexual or not rumours in the novel detract from it. It's only in recent decades that it's been an issue at all. It wasn't back in Richard's day, and this is a novel seen through the mindsets of the time. I don't know if Sharon wants to comment. Sometimes the vagaries of blogger commentary and her PC don't mix!
Thanks everyone for comments so far. Janet, I'll get back to you - been out all day and I need to catch up now, but I'll have a ponder.

Owen said...

First of all, CONGRATULATIONS to you Elizabeth for the award for To Defy a King, the cover of which answers your jealousy comment - it is stunning, as is the book itself. A difficult choice taking all of yours under consideration I think it is my favourite.
Secondly, thanks to both of you for a most interesting and enlightening interview/blog. Having now read Lionheart twice, I am astounded at the amount of detail Sharon has incorporated into her narrative and am pleased that she chose to ignore the "homosexual" rumours which, as you pointed out Elizabeth, are a comparatively recent subject for which, as far as I am aware, there is no substantiation whatsoever. Finally, the dangling carrot of Ransom is a pleasing thought to end on, and I am sure it will be as riveting a read as Lionheart.

Christina Courtenay said...

Great interview with lots of interesting answers! Will definitely put this book on my wish list. Fascinating how they changed Berengaria's name, I'd always wondered where that came from as it's so unusual.

Sharon Kay Penman said...

Janet, those are very interesting questions. I am bogged down now in a very challenging chapter, but will get back to you as soon as it is done.
Maggie, there were no homosexual rumors during Richard's lifetime; the first time this was suggested was in 1948. I have discussed the issue in depth in past blogs and in the AN for Devil's Brood and Lionheart. I'd not researched Richard in depth for his minor appearance in Here Be Dragons, so I went with the Lion in Winter view. :-) BTW, although it is not historically accurate, it is still one of my favorite films. But when I began to do serious research about Richard for Devil's Brood, I was very surprised to discover that there is no real evidence to support this supposition. And Maggie, there were no attacks upon Richard in his lifetime about his sexuality. And given that the medievals saw homosexuality as a mortal sin, the French would never have passed up a chance to accuse him of that if they could. After all, they accused him of betraying Christendom to Saladin, of arranging the murder of Conrad of Montferrat,of poisoning the Duke of Burgundy, and hiring Saracen Assassins to go to Paris to murder the French king!
Elizabeth, thank you again for inviting me to discuss medieval matters on your blog. As a medieval geek, it doesn't get any better than that.

Marg said...

I am late coming to comment, but thanks so much for a fascinating interview between two of my favourite authors!

Even in just these few paragraphs history once again comes alive!