Sharon Kay Penman's A King's Ransom

Richard the Lionheart, King of England, Duke of Normandy and Aquitaine, Count of Poitou and Anjou was the very definition of foolhardy. At the approach of his death (no this is not a spoiler as he died in 1199), I found myself angry with the great king for the reckless behavior that ended his life after only a decade of rule. The promise of what could have been died that April day with the Lionheart. If there are moments where the future of the world changes, author Sharon Kay Penman makes you believe that this was one of them. Jerusalem might have been returned to Christian rule had Richard returned to the Holy Land, and if he ruled long into old age, as his mother Eleanor of Aquitaine did, the Magna Carta forced on King John in 1215 at Runnymede would have been unnecessary, and thus even American democracy might have been affected by the Lionheart.

My anger was fleeting in response to A King's Ransom, for there is a deep and abiding sadness that permeates this biography of King Richard, especially when events are viewed through the eyes of Queen Eleanor who outlived all but her youngest son John. Though Death stocked the lives of those who lived through the Middle Ages more than we can hope to comprehend in our modern world of technology and medicine, man's inhumanity to man sets the most lugubrious tone of Penman's book. The Holy Roman Emperor's capture and imprisonment of Richard upon his return from the Holy Land, including a near death experience in the infamous dungeons of Trifels and the extortionist ransom that nearly bankrupted all of England and Normandy, left Richard broken in a way that changed him fundamentally. His sweet, innocent wife Berengaria suffered at least as much as Richard himself, if not more, as she never knew why she suffered so. 

For all the melancholy that permeated the medieval world - illness and death, war and famine, unrelenting fear - one source of comfort should have the Church. Certainly there were priests, nuns, abbots, and princes of the Church who managed to do God's work, but too often, Penman shows us, the Church proved to be guilty of tolerating the misery of humanity, if not causing it outright. From Pope Celestine who was too weak to confront Emperor Heinrich for capturing Richard who was under the protection of the Church to prelates like the Bishop of Beauvais who shielded behind his pallium brazen acts of military and political power. Worst, though, was the Church's adherence to doctrines that focused more on sexual sins and heresy while ignoring sins against human dignity. (A problem still for the 21st century Catholic Church.)

Eleanor of Aquitaine, beside her husband King Henry II, at Fontverault Abbey
Sharon Kay Penman has accomplished something truly marvelous in her two volume historical fiction biography of King Richard, begun in Lionheart and concluded here in A King's Ransom. Through impeccable research of nearly all the extant contemporary sources, and probably every last page written on Richard and his family in the last eight centuries, Penman is as familiar with Angevin dynasty as if she were a not so distant cousin and family chronicler. Her familiarity with the historical sources allows her to enter into Richard's world through her imagination, creating the narrative thread that weaves together the actual chronicles with intelligent speculation and a immensely plausible story that I couldn't put down.

For all the adventures of Richard and the pure enjoyment of his triumphs over Philippe, Heinrich, and the rest, it was the first appearance of Justin de Quincy that literally brought a cheer to my lips. Justin is the main character from Penman's series of medieval mysteries, all centered around Eleanor's rule of Richard domain's during his absence. The second de Quincy book, Cruel as the Grave, was my introduction to Penman's writing, and I have loved every page I have read since.

I have but one complaint that comes not from the trials and tribulations of Richard the Lionheart, but from Penman's announcement in the Author's Note that this is the last book she will write on the Angevins. Eleanor is dead, and after twenty years in service to the great Queen's family, Penman will move on to another medieval family, set in Champagne and the Holy Land called The Land Beyond the Sea. I had hoped for a biography of the Devil' own King John, but returning to Outremer and the Kingdom of Jerusalem is a worthy adventure too.


CrazyCris said…
Brilliant review! I'm only a third of the way through my re-reading of Lionheart before digging into A King's Ransom, so I appreciate the lack of (non-historical) spoilers! ;o)
All of Sharon's work feels so alive, I am kind of dreading how I will feel at the end with the Lionheart's death! :o(
Rutabaga said…
Love this review- read the Welsh trilogy by Sharon for Prince/King John's life - it's a most excellent trilogy - and you might just fall in love with Llewellyn (well, both of them actually) and Simone de Montfort.
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