Reading is a passion (or addiction) of mine, with me always looking for new authors, titles, and even genres. There is almost nothing better than discovering a new author who has quite a few books written in a subject I love. Sharon Kay Penman’s book “Lionheart” fits this perfectly as the novel is an outstanding entry in the historical fiction genre.
Most of what people know about King Richard the Lionheart seems to come from the Robin Hood movies, seeing him only as an absent king, and this does little justice to the complex and amazing man he was. Richard’s family was the ultimate and original soap opera with scheming, conniving, drama and tragedy galore.
Richard’s parents had had a passionate and tumultuous relationship from the very beginning. They married almost instantly after her marriage to the French king, Louis VII, was dissolved over her inability to give him a male heir. Eleanor went on to have eight surviving children with Henry, five of them sons. When Henry’s sons rose up in revolt against him with Eleanor’s help, it resulted in her imprisonment for the rest of Henry’s life. Eleanor was freed as soon as he died and Richard took the throne. She ended up helping Richard run the kingdom and was integral to him for the rest of her life.
Richard and King Philippe II of France both took the cross, which was a holy vow to free Jerusalem from the infidels, and set off on the Third Crusade together. But the two men almost instantly had personality clashes that threatened to derail the Crusade before they even made it to Jerusalem. Richard had also been engaged to Philippe’s sister for years and years, but due to political scheming managed to set aside the engagement, using rumors that Philippe himself had spread, and instead married Benengaria, daughter of the King of Navarre, on the way to the Holy Land.
Richard brought his sister Joanna and his new bride along, leaving behind his brother John and his mother Eleanor to run his kingdom. On their way, Joanna and Berengaria’s ship landed at Cyprus after a storm, and the women were threatened by the ruler, with Richard ending up taking the island kingdom in just days. Richard was considered one of the most proficient warriors of his time, never afraid to lead his men into battle; in fact, he was chastised by his men for being too foolhardy and rushing into dangerous situations.
In the Holy Land, Richard had to work with the different factions there, including the French, who constantly questioned every decision he made, including his attempts to come to an agreement with the Muslims over control of Jerusalem and the surrounding areas. Many times, Richard found himself not only having to defend his tactics, but change them because of the other Crusaders. Philippe soon considered his vow completed even though Jerusalem hadn’t been retaken due to his determination to return home after his wife’s death during childbirth, leaving him with a small, sickly child as his only heir. While battling not only the Muslims and fellow Crusaders, Richard also had to fight off the sicknesses that seem to be a definite part of the Crusades and worry about threats to his throne at home by people he considered trustworthy.
Sharon Penman has done a superb job of not only making this time period come alive, but through her character development, the reader becomes so completely submerged in the story it is difficult to set the book down. One of the most fascinating tidbits I discovered was the use of poisonous snakes by the Muslim as a weapon. My only regret is that this was not explored more in the novel. “Lionheart” gives an in-depth look at one of history’s more glossed over characters and covers one of the most complex and interesting family in English history. I will be eagerly awaiting the next book by her that will continue the story of Richard during his capture, his ransoming and return to England and the loving (and not-so loving) embrace of his family. This book, along with others by Sharon Penman, is available at the Joplin Public Library.