Lionheart: Sharon Kay Penman discusses her latest medieval epic with Tamela McCann

Tamela McCann

skp-photo-1Amongst the many excellent historical authors working today, Sharon Kay Penman rises easily to the top. Her attention to research and detail has brought readers’ imaginations to medieval worlds long past, creating and recreating lives once hidden in shadow and myth. Penman’s most recent novel, Lionheart, continues the tales of the Plantagenets with its focus on Richard I, son of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, and his unflinching crusade into the Holy Land. With the paperback release of Lionheart on January 1, 2013, it is our pleasure to host an intimate interview with the author herself.

TM: Many of the scenes from Lionheart have stayed with me vividly since I read the novel. Thinking back, do you have a favorite scene from the book?

SKP: I am partial to the scene in which Joanna sees the royal lion of England in Messina’s harbor and realizes that Big Brother Richard has come to her rescue. And I enjoyed doing the scene at Cyprus, where Berengaria and Joanna are saved from capture by the eleventh-hour arrival of Richard and his fleet. That was the sort of dramatic timing that no novelist would have dared to invent.

TM: Even though Lionheart is Richard’s book, his sister Joanna shines in every scene in which she appears. How did you decide to show her personality? Was it a conscious decision that she would be so like her mother, or did she herself decide that as you wrote?

SKP: Joanna has always been a favorite of mine, the daughter who was the most like her formidable mother. Chroniclers said she had as much courage as a man, which was a left-handed compliment in the Middle Ages, for they were implying that she was not properly dutiful and submissive. She proved that by leading an assault upon rebels while her husband, the Count of Toulouse, was away, and she was on the way to ask Richard for military aid when she learned of his unexpected death at Chalus. Since I already had a mental image of Joanna before beginning Lionheart, she did not have much say in her portrayal. That does happen occasionally, though, with strong-willed characters deciding I’ve taken them in the wrong direction. Vladimir Nabokov boasted that his characters were galley slaves, but mine seem to have minds of their own.

LionheartTM: What was the most surprising thing you discovered about Richard while doing research for this novel?

SKP: I think I’d assumed he was a religious zealot because he’d been one of the first Christian princes to take the cross. But he proved to be very pragmatic and actually got along better with his Saracen foes than he did with his French allies. What surprised me most about Richard was learning that he’d formed friendships with Saladin’s brother and some of his emirs. And I was absolutely astonished to find out that he’d actually knighted several of them—in the midst of a holy war! Richard believed that the Saracens were infidels, but he respected their courage and showed himself willing to deal with Muslims as he would with Christian adversaries. That respect was mutual; after Richard had managed to rescue Jaffa from a surprise Saracen attack, Saladin’s brother sent him two magnificent Arab stallions in acknowledgement of this crusader king’s battlefield heroics. That was not the story I expected to find when I began to research the Third Crusade.

TM: Berengaria is something of a mystery to many historical fiction readers. I like your take on her, which brings her to life instead of relegating her to the background. Do your personal impressions mirror those you wrote in the book? And why do you think so many historical authors choose to dismiss the relationship between her and Richard?

SKP: We have only the stark outlines of Berengaria’s life, and we know little of the queen and even less of the woman. Berengaria’s not even her real name; it was Berenguela, translated into the English Berengaria.

I think she had courage because going on crusade was not like a Club Med holiday. We know she was very devout; she founded an abbey during her long widowhood. But only once are we given a glimpse of her feelings, when the Bishop of Lincoln reported he’d sought to console her after Richard’s death. He described her as “almost heartbroken,” but we do not know what she mourned: Richard? What might have been? A difficult future now that she no longer had Richard’s protection? (A justifiable fear, for John treated her rather shabbily). Because we know the last years of their marriage were rocky ones, I’d assumed they’d been incompatible from the beginning, so I was surprised to discover that Richard went to some trouble to have her with him during their time in the Holy Land.

Those who would claim the marriage was not consummated show a depressing ignorance of the medieval world. This is an offshoot of the popular belief that Richard was gay. My research did not support this claim, but even if it were true, Richard would have consummated the marriage because he wanted an heir. We need to remember that medievals looked upon marriage very differently than we do, and what caused their world to view Richard and Berengaria’s marriage as a failure was not that they were not in love—it was that the marriage was childless. And in the twelfth century, that meant that Berengaria was the one blamed.

Another myth is that Richard was reluctant to wed Berengaria and Eleanor had to push him into it; he was actually the one who negotiated the marriage with Berengaria’s father. He was looking for reliable allies, and he chose well, for while in the Holy Land and then as a prisoner in Germany, his brother-in-law, Sancho of Navarre, was very helpful in putting down rebellions in Aquitaine. I never believed what the crusader chroniclers claimed—that Berengaria was Richard’s “beloved.” I don’t think he had a romantic bone in his body. But the marriage does seem to have gotten off to a promising start, only to veer wildly off course upon his return from German captivity. I have an idea as to why this happened, but you’ll have to read A King’s Ransom to learn more.

My Berengaria is kind to Richard’s illegitimate son, but I admit that is my imagination at work; the chroniclers are silent on this, as on most aspects of her life. This does not mean that novelist cannot get it wrong, though! I see Berengaria as a young woman who was dealt a bad hand and played it as best and bravely as she could.

TM: I loved how you brought Richard to life—his authority, his military prowess, and yes, his arrogance. What do you personally feel about him? Is there anything in particular you want readers to take away about him after finishing the book?

dragonsSKP: One reason I wrote an eleven page Author’s Note for Lionheart was because I felt the need to explain how my negative opinion of Richard had evolved since he appeared briefly in Here Be Dragons. Once I began to do serious research about Richard, I found that he had more admirable qualities than I’d originally thought: his pragmatism, his generosity, his intelligence, his concern for the safety and well being of the men under his command. Of course he had his share of flaws—his hot temper, his arrogance, his recklessness where his own safety was concerned. But he also inherited the sardonic Angevin humor, and I will forgive a man a lot if he can make me laugh.

TM: How on earth do you keep track of so many similarly named historical figures? Do you use charts or diagrams, or do you just have a phenomenal memory?

SKP: This is why historical novelists drink—because of the lamentable medieval habit of recycling the same family names! Not only did they have a small name pool to fish in, they sometimes gave the same name to legitimate and illegitimate sons. For example, King John had two sons named Richard (though why he’d name not one but two sons after the brother he loathed is a question only a psychologist could answer; I’ve always thought that all of the Angevins could have benefited from some time on a therapist’s couch). My usual strategy is to use nicknames or variants whenever possible. I had to deal with four Eleanors in The Reckoning, and so I had an Eleanor, a Nell, an Eleanora, and an Ellen. It is always a challenge, though; one reason why I was so fond of Francis Lovell in The Sunne in Splendour was because he was the only Francis swimming in a sea stocked with Edwards and Richards.

TM: Do you ever look back on any of your novels now and think there would be something you would change if you were writing them today? Is there a person you feel you’d treat differently or perhaps a situation that you’ve learned more about that you’d like to include?

SKP: The Sunne in Splendour is the only novel in which English was the mother tongue of my characters. In the subsequent books, they were French or Welsh speakers. I think if I were to rewrite Sunne, I would not have tried so hard to capture the “medieval flavor” of their speech. Sunne was a learning experience in many ways, and after that, I found a “voice” I am more comfortable with; my major linguistic rule is to avoid anachronisms or words or phrases that may sound “modern” to my readers even if they were known in the Middle Ages.

I would very much like to go back and rewrite Richard’s brief scenes in Here Be Dragons, for I get letters from readers asking why Richard in Dragons was gay and in Devil’s Brood and Lionheart he was not. Quite simply, I did not bother to do much research about Richard then, as he was only in two scenes, reading just one biography and accepting the belief then in vogue. Years later, when I began to do serious research for Devil’s Brood, I soon discovered that there is no evidence that he preferred men to women as sexual partners and some evidence to the contrary. The suggestion was not even made until 1948, when it then took off with surprising speed, thanks in part to one of my favorite films, The Lion in Winter.

Sunne in SplendourI was recently asked why I had not addressed in Lionheart the rumors about Richard’s sexuality during his lifetime. The answer is simple: there were no such rumors. Medieval chroniclers do not seem to have doubted that his sexuality was, in the words of his primary biographer, Dr. John Gillingham, “conventional.” He was lectured for adultery, not sodomy, and a thirteenth-century chronicler reported that he’d scandalized his doctors on his deathbed by demanding that he be provided with women. I discuss this question in some detail in the Author’s Note to Devil’s Brood.

I will add something that I’d not yet learned at the time I wrote Devil’s Brood, though. Until I researched Lionheart and A King’s Ransom, I’d not realized the intensity of the hatred burning between Richard and the French king, Philippe Capet. The French chroniclers accused Richard of arranging the murder of Conrad of Montferrat, of poisoning the Duke of Burgundy, of sending Saracen assassins to Paris to kill Philippe, and even of betraying Christendom to the infidels by making peace with Saladin. I find it impossible to believe that they would not have accused him of sodomy, too, if they had such a lethal weapon at hand. Can I say for a certainty that I am right about this? Of course not. But I feel so comfortable with my conclusions that I would very much like to go back in time to 1982 and rewrite Richard’s Dragons scenes, thus sparing my readers confusion and me a lot of explaining!

TM: You weave fictional characters seamlessly into the lives and events of your historical novels. They usually illuminate other characters or situations with a personal touch. Do they reveal themselves to you ahead of time or do you insert them as needed?

SKP: I prefer to write of people who actually lived, but a purely fictional character can serve a useful purpose from time to time. In When Christ and His Saints Slept, Ranulf was such a character, the first time I’d let a figment of my imagination share center stage with real historical figures. I felt that Stephen and Maude were their own worst enemies and that my readers might not be able to take them to heart. So I created a “bridge” character in Ranulf, giving my readers someone to root for until young Henry grew up in the course of the book. I gave Ranulf entrée into the royal circle by making him Maude’s half-brother; since Henry I had at least twenty illegitimate children, I figured one more couldn’t hurt. I had not expected him to become such a favorite with my readers, and I ended up expanding his role into Time and Chance and Devil’s Brood. And now his son Morgan is following in his father’s footsteps in Lionheart and A King’s Ransom.

When Christ and His Saints SleptSometimes I have only a name. We knew that Ellen de Montfort had attendants named Juliana and Hugh, but nothing more, so I had to give them histories and personalities. I’ve had to do this in A King’s Ransom, too. When Richard was captured outside Vienna on his way home from the crusade, he was accompanied by one or two knights (sources differ) and a boy who spoke German. All we know of this youth is that he was very loyal to Richard and quite courageous, for he had to be tortured by the Duke of Austria’s men before he’d reveal Richard’s whereabouts. From this scanty information, I had to breathe life into the Austrian squire, Arne.

TM: Do you have a character with whom you feel particularly connected from any of your novels?

SKP: That is an interesting question. I became quite fond of the Welsh prince, Hywel ab Owain in Time and Chance, for he was one of those characters who took the bit between his teeth and insisted upon getting more “playing time.” Henry remains my favorite king, so brilliant and so heartbreakingly human. Llewellyn and Joanna, of course. And sometimes I find a character great fun to write about—like John. But I would not have wanted to live at his court or to have attracted his attention in any way.

TM: I love your Author’s Notes in the back of your novels, and I especially appreciate it when you give reasons for the changing of an historical fact or event. When do you write these? Is it important to you to see these sorts of notes in other historical fiction?

SKP: When I am working on a novel, I will jot down things that I want to discuss or elaborate upon in the Author’s Note, but I do not write it until the book is done. I actually dread doing them, for I find them more challenging at times than the books themselves. But I consider the AN to be an important means of communicating with my readers—and a way to clear my conscience if I’ve taken any historical “liberties” in the book! I am always disappointed when I finish an historical novel and do not find an Author’s Note. I think they allow us to get a backstage glimpse of the birth of a novel, and who wouldn’t find that interesting?

Time and ChanceTM: What historical novelists do you feel are doing a good job right now of bringing the genre to the general public? Anyone you’d like to see receive more attention?

SKP: I think Margaret George is a wonderful novelist, and her latest, Elizabeth I, is her best yet. She is currently working on a novel about Nero and Boudicca, and I am very eager to read that one. I also recommend the novels of Elizabeth Chadwick, who has made the twelfth century her bailiwick. I am a great fan of Bernard Cornwell, especially his brilliant Saxon series. C.W. Gortner has written several well-regarded novels that feature strong female characters, and I find it ironic because he initially ran into the bizarre publishing bias against male authors writing about women characters and vice versa. I also like Helen Hollick’s historical novels, and I’ve recently discovered the novels of David Blixt, much to my delight. I would like to see historical mystery writers get more attention, too, for the good ones bring readers back in time while spinning out suspenseful plots. Among my favorites are Priscilla Royal, Margaret Frazer, Sharan Newman, Steven Saylor, and Lindsey Davis.

TM: What do you hope readers feel after finishing any of your novels? In particular, what do you hope readers have taken away from Lionheart?

SKP: I hope my readers believe that I’ve done my best to bring these bygone ages to life, that the inevitable mistakes are unintentional, and that I try very hard to obey the historical novelist’s prime directive, as expressed so succinctly by my fellow writer, Laurel Corona: “Do not defame the dead.” As for Lionheart, I hope they will agree with me that the real Richard was more complex than the legendary Richard, and therefore, more interesting. I think I’ve give the last word to Johnny Cash, for a line in one of his songs that could have been written for Richard: “A walking contradiction, partly truth, and partly fiction.”


Sharon Kay Penman’s latest novel, Lionheart, is published in paperback on January 1, 2013, by Ballantine (Random House). For more information, please visit

Read the review of Lionheart from the Historical Novels Review:

Tamela McCann, a US Editor for the Historical Novel Society, is an avid reader/reviewer of historical and young adult fiction. When not reading or writing, she can be found teaching middle school technology in Nashville, TN.

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