A former history major, I am nuts about the past, especially English kings and queens. But nowadays I get most of my history through fiction. Which is not as silly as it sounds, given that many historical novelists do meticulous research on the latest scholarly findings. As a result, their books often alter the conventional wisdom about celebrated personages and well-trodden events.
"LIONHEART kept me reading, rapt in the descriptions of a rough-and-tumble army camp or the sultry elegance of a Sicilian palace."
Richard III, for example, has been historically and fictionally rehabilitated (by Sharon Kay Penman herself in the novel, THE SUNNE IN SPLENDOR) now that Shakespeare’s portrait of him as an evil, child-murdering hunchback has been revealed as less than the whole truth. His forbear, Richard I, never had such a dire reputation, but he is usually portrayed as a remote warrior king who, after spending most of his life either on Crusade or in captivity, arrives back home just in time to save the country from his treacherous brother, Bad King John. (Of course, John has his own proponents.)
In an Author’s Note, Penman herself admits that “Richard I was never one of my favorite kings.” But that was before she delved into his life. Now she thinks well of the monarch, depicting him in LIONHEART not only as a legendary military genius (“I never feel more alive than I do on the battlefield,” he tells his wife), but a fair-minded and surprisingly progressive leader, politically shrewd but not lacking in integrity.
As LIONHEART begins, Henry II has died (you might remember him and his combative wife, Eleanor, from the film A Lion in Winter), and his remaining sons are jockeying for position. Richard and John, in fact, had allied with England’s archenemy, France, against their father. But almost as soon as Richard is crowned, he takes up a Crusade (Europe’s third) to reclaim Jerusalem for Christianity. The trek to the Holy Land, via Sicily and Cyprus, is packed with storms at sea, fierce battles, and even fiercer politicking (although Philippe of France is ostensibly Richard’s ally in this sacred mission, there is no love lost between them). Actually, Penman portrays Richard’s enemy, Saladin, as a more virtuous and noble ruler than any of the Europeans; their mutual respect is an example of 12th-century tolerance that certain factions in the 21st century would do well to imitate.
And it isn’t just the “infidels” who come off well. Although the novel is called LIONHEART, it is told at least as much from the point of view of the clever, forceful women in Richard’s life: Berengaria, the sheltered but stalwart Navarrese princess he marries; Eleanor, his ever-impressive widowed mother; and his sister Joanna, widowed queen of Sicily. These three have to deal with not only the vagaries of medieval travel (Berengaria and Joanna go all the way to the Holy Land with Richard, while Eleanor defends his interests closer to home) but also the limitations of their gender: “Women like them, however high of birth and resolute of will,” Eleanor muses, “would always be birds with clipped wings, unable to soar in a world ruled by men.”
Penman is obviously fired with enthusiasm for her material, much of it based on chronicles from Richard’s own time, and as always in her novels (this is the eighth, not counting her medieval mysteries), the