The year is 1192. Richard I and his men are making their slow return home from the Third Crusade, living one day to the next as they inch their way towards England through pirate-infested seas and hostile lands. Richard might have earned the accolade of Coeur-de-lion or Lionheart but with it came more than his fair share of enemies, the most powerful of whom lie in wait, nose to the ground, weapons drawn, between Richard and safety. History tells us that Richard is caught by Leopold, Duke of Austria, a man with a personal grievance against his fellow Crusader, but when Leopold gives his prisoner Richard to his liege lord, Heinrich, Holy Roman Emperor, Richard must prove himself to be as able with his wits as ever he was with his sword in order to survive the months of captivity that lie ahead.
At home fighting for Richard’s liberty, raising a ransom that far exceeds the national income of England, is his mother Eleanor of Aquitaine. We are never allowed to forget the sacrifice that this remarkable woman has made and continues to make. Richard’s wife Berengaria and sister Joanna, the widowed Queen of Sicily, have their own journey to make between Palestine and Normandy, with its own dangers and temptations. But even when Richard is free and reunited with friends, family and secret foes, the struggle doesn’t end. The damage to the English throne and the Angevin inheritance has been done and Richard must fix it while God’s favour is still his.
Sharon Penman (Sharon Kay Penman in the US) is an outstanding writer of historical fiction, one I have read for years, and, if I had to write a list naming my favourite five historical novels, Penman would own at least two on it – Here Be Dragons and The Sunne in Splendour. A King’s Ransom is their equal. There can be little praise greater than that. It stands alone well but ideally it should be read after its predecessor Lionheart.
A King’s Ransom continues and completes Penman’s chronicle of Richard I’s ten-year reign begun with Lionheart. The focus of Lionheart was very much the Third Crusade, not only presenting the glories and betrayals of Richard and his army but also the experiences of his sister Joanna, the Queen of Sicily, and his bride, Berengaria, who shared with Richard the hardship, peril and excitement of Crusade. This is the age of shipwrecks, the infidel, desert battles and sieges, betrayals and disappointments, passion and love, disease and arrows. Richard learned that the infidel could be more honourable than his fellow Christian crusader. He suffers the consequence of this in A King’s Ransom.
While I enjoyed Lionheart enormously, as a novel it is exceeded by A King’s Ransom. I think this maybe because A King’s Ransom is coloured by the event that changed Richard more than any other – his fifteen-month captivity. During these months, Richard, a charismatic, virulent king, learned the meaning of impotence, vulnerability, guilt. As the events of A King’s Ransom play out, Penman portrays a man altered by this experience to his very core. It affects his relationship with his wife Berengaria, his sister Joanna and his brother John. His hatred of Heinrich, Philippe King of France and the devilish Bishop of Beauvais is almost pathological, his memories of the father he betrayed haunt his dreams and he can barely stand to go near his devout young wife. Not that this is ever explicitly stated. Penman is far too subtle and assured for that. Penman’s Richard is alive on the page, speaking for himself, fighting for himself, and it is our relationship with Richard that Penman builds that allows us to have glimpses into a powerful character ripped to his heart by his capture, imprisonment and desperate defence.
But this doesn’t just hold true for Richard. Eleanor of Aquitaine, Joanna and Berengaria are all given time to express their concerns and fears, allowing their own problems to be overshadowed by their love for their son, brother, husband. Joanna’s story in particular is such a powerful force through A King’s Ransom and I would say equal to Richard’s tale. The lot of noble women is shown here time after time to be dismal. Marriages are used as currency while births could be deadly. Even empresses are pawns and there are stories here that made me weep. Knights, lords and kings could lose their lives on the battlefield but their wives faced no less a danger on the birthing stool. Reading this, I was counting my lucky stars.
Sharon Penman introduces a great many themes into her chronicle including Catharism. This particularly caught my attention due to the attractive and irresistible character of Raimond, the Count of Toulouse. The role of the Church in secular and religious affairs during the late 12th century is suspect, as shown by the bishops in armour and the timid popes. Richard is a Crusader and he trusts in the support of the Church but its ears are deaf to him. Secular might, albeit acting in the name of the Church and the Cross, is dominant. By contrast we have Prince John or Johnny, habitually disgraced, skulking around the royal court, listening to tidbits of gossip, while remaining, oddly, difficult to dislike.
Sharon Penman is the most meticulous of historical writers. No detail is too small to be uninteresting. The structure is exceptionally fine. The story is perfectly balanced between Richard’s perspective and that of the women in his life, his mother, his sister and his wife. Each is important. Richard might be the red lion that the rest of his world circles but Penman gives them all equal significance. The research is extraordinary but never obtrusive. It feels precise, captivating, real.
A King’s Ransom isn’t a novel to be read quickly. It is a slow and luxurious read, every page to be savoured. Many readers will be familiar with Richard’s story but its end nevertheless brings great emotion and I’m not ashamed to say I wept consistently through the last chapters of the book. I want a writer of historical fiction to take me to another time, to surround me in it, and to make the gap of centuries shrink away while reminding me of the power of history. I can think of very few that can do that, Elizabeth Chadwick would be one, for example, and Sharon Penman is another.
This is the fifth Angevin novel by Sharon Penman and she has said it is to be her last. It’s a fitting conclusion and I am confident that A King’s Ransom, along with Lionheart, will prove to be the definitive novel of Richard I, our most charismatic of medieval kings.