The Novelist That Made Me An Anglophile


January 30, 2021

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i'm cassandra marcella

I’m just heartbroken. On January 22, 2021, Sharon Kay Penman died at the young age of 75.

I can’t even begin to express how captivating her novels are. She was – is – my FAVORITE author. Her writing and her characters were and are a part of me. A formative part.

She agreed to friend me on Facebook back in 2009, and we corresponded a bit. I wrote her “And ‘enjoy your writing’ would be an understatement – your writing, stories, get under my skin and invade my consciousness. And wonderfully take me to another world.”

If you have not encountered her yet, you’re in for a real treat.

I majored in history at Vassar because of my love for Sharon’s books and for the love of history they instilled. She always closely followed the facts of what really happened. Her books concluded with an author’s note that sometimes ran up to forty pages. She provided full explanations of what she knew and didn’t know, how she researched her material, and reaffirmed historical events that seemed too incredible to be true. I came to love her characters like friends, and I was keen to know what happened to them later in their lives. Sharon kindly offered hints at what was to come for them in her notes, too.

I’ve loved Sharon Kay Penman’s novels since 1983 when she published her first book – The Sunne in Splendour. And I became a been a fan of Richard III, an obsessive fan. He was not the hunchback of Shakespeare’s play; Shakespeare wrote for the sore winners, the Tudors, who stole the throne. Richard, in Sharon’s hands, became a tragic, romantic hero and loyal brother. Richard’s motto was Loyalty Binds Me. And I didn’t even have to look that up! Loyaulte me lie in French, and that, yes, I did look up to confirm the spelling.

The night before I heard the news, I was listening to a podcast interview with Lord Charles Spencer (Princess Diana’s brother) about the White Ship and his recent book that relays the horror of that medieval catastrophe. I thought to myself that Sharon told it first and told it better in her novel When Christ and His Saints Slept (see below).

In 1985, I was thrilled to be able to attend a lecture at Vassar marking the 500th anniversary of the Battle of Bosworth Field, where Henry Tudor murdered Richard III to steal the English throne. I then proceeded to debate the speaker about the perfidy of the Stanleys. The whole field was alive in my mind’s eye, thanks to Sharon. No one wrote battle scenes like Sharon did.

In 1988, I arranged my entire solo backpacking summer trip through Europe so I could be on the steps of the library in York on the first Sunday of the month for an official Richard III tour from the Richard III Society. (No one showed that Sunday, and yes, I wrote a letter!) I still joined the Richard III Society.

The British unveiled this monument in the month in which I was conceived. This stone marks the land where Simon de Montfort died in August 1265. What an amazing visit 22 years ago!

I went out of my way to travel to Leicester on that 1988 trip too, and I asked at the tourist office where I could find the battlefield where Richard III was killed. The young woman didn’t even know of the battle. Bosworth was the last time an English king died on the battlefield. I gave her some good natured teasing and suggested Americans were the ones who were supposed to be ignorant of history. Thanks to Sharon, I knew all about August 22, 1485, but I myself was ignorant to the fact that where the battle was exactly fought was then still a bit unclear and debated! The field was discovered in 2009.

In 1999, I also made a pilgrimage with my parents to see where Simon de Montfort died. I saw the curve in the bend of the River Avon where his army got trapped and slaughtered. There is now a marker for the Battle of Evesham on that land.

Remarkably, in 2012, archeologists found the remains of Richard III. And yes, I bought everything I could around the re-internment of King Richard III in 2015 including the program for the burial service. And as soon as I can I plan to return to Leicester Cathedral to pay homage to him. And to Sharon.

I met Sharon once, in 1996 when she was in the DC suburbs promoting her first mystery. She was a former lawyer who was now writing history novels; something I myself didn’t yet dream to even try to do. I myself had just finished law school. And I, like her, was from New Jersey. So we talked about law, history and New Jersey. She was as generous with her time as she was with her pages of wonder.

I have and will always hope to have a love like Llywelyn the Great and Joanna did.

And I will believe until my last breath that, of course, Buckingham did it!

I will regret to my dying day I could not afford to go on either of Sharon’s historical trips that she organized for fans. Although set centuries ago, many of the stories Penman captures take place in destinations that still exist be they castles in France, waterfalls in Wales or ruins in England. Maybe we should plan an itinerary!

Penman’s attention to detail combines an in-depth knowledge of medieval Europe with vivid storytelling, re-creating the complex events and emotional drama of the 12th – 15th centuries.
— Library Journal

Sharon Kay Penman, Whose Novels Plumbed Britain’s Past, Dies at 75 – New York Times Obituary, January 29th, 2021


Full disclosure :: if you purchase one of my favorite novels from this collection, I get some wine money. Don’t worry, it doesn’t cost you a thing. Thanks so much!


The Sunne in Splendour (1982)

Last born son of the Duke of York, he would would become the last Plantagenet king of England – Richard III. Richard was eight when his father was ambushed and slain, eighteen when he first blooded himself in combat. Through it all, Richard remained firm in his abiding devotion to those he loved. It was his strength. And his undoing. Richard was raised in the shadow of his brother Edward and served him faithfully: through battle and exile, in war and in peace, despite the scandal of Edward’s Court and the malice of his Queen. Edward rewarded him with honors and lands, with titles and royal commissions, with, above all, affection and trust. Only one thing did Edward deny his favorite brother: the right to wed the woman he adored.

Anne Neville had fallen in love with Richard when they were both mere children. And he returned her love with an all-consuming passion that was to last a lifetime, enduring forced separation, a brutal marriage, and murderous loss. She was the daughter of his father’s closest ally who was now his brother’s worst enemy and she became an innocent pawn in a deadly game of power politics. That game was to inflict wounds of the soul that only Richard’s patient tenderness could heal. This is the story of Richard’s fight to win her and to heal her.

Betrayed in life by his allies, Richard was betrayed in death by history. Leaving no heir, his reputation was like his corps: left to his enemies, mutilated beyond recognition. Sharon Kay Penman brings to life this gifted man whose greatest sin, perhaps, was that he held principles too firm for the times he lived in and loved too deeply to survive love’s loss.

The Land Beyond The Sea (2020)

The Kingdom of Jerusalem, also known as Outremer, is the land far beyond the sea. Baptized in blood when the men of the First Crusade captured Jerusalem from the Saracens in the early twelfth century, the kingdom defined an utterly new world, a land of blazing heat and a medley of cultures, a place where enemies were neighbors and neighbors became enemies.

At the helm of this growing kingdom sits young Baldwin IV, an intelligent and courageous boy committed to the welfare and protection of his people. But despite Baldwin’s dedication to his land, he is afflicted with leprosy at an early age and the threats against his power and his health nearly outweigh the risk of battle. As political deception scours the halls of the royal court, the Muslim army—led by the first sultan of Egypt and Syria, Saladin—is never far from the kingdom’s doorstep, and there are only a handful Baldwin can trust, including the archbishop William of Tyre and Lord Balian d’Ibelin, a charismatic leader who has been one of the few able to maintain the peace.



Here Be Dragons (1985)

Set in the 13th Century, this is the story of King John and his England. A paradoxical man, he was charming, generous, clever — and unstable and brutal. And also the story of Llewelyn the Great of Wales. At 14, he began a civil war; by 21, he held all North Wales. His dream of a free and united Wales, unencumbered by English laws or lords, was to spur a lifelong crusade that left little time for peace or pleasure. But, at its heart, Here Be Dragons is the story of Joanna: daughter to one, wife to the other. Bastard-born, her father the king would cherish her, cosset her, and yet use her as a political pawn, marrying her off at fifteen to a wild Welsh prince. Wife to Llewelyn, whom she came to love, daughter to John, whom she worshipped, Joanna was trapped in the crossfire of their implacable enmity. 

Falls the Shadow (1988)

Henry III, cursed with the Plantagenet temper but lacking the Plantagenet will, inherited a crown — and with it, all the problems left unresolved by the untimely death of his father, King John. His sister Nell, Countess of Pembroke, youngest daughter of King John, favorite sister of King Henry was widowed at fifteen and swore a holy oath of chastity — then broke it to wed an upstart Frenchman, scandalizing the pious and infuriating the powerbrokers, who saw her as a rich prize rashly stolen by a lesser earl — a foreigner at that. Simon de Montfort talked his way into an earldom and marriage with English royalty. Theirs would be a singular union: founded on a lie, defended by intense carnality, yet preserved by a fidelity unimaginable in an age of shifting allegiances based on self-interest alone. Simon de Montfort embodied the chivalric code, stirring passions — for good and for ill — in all he brushed. It was inevitable that he would clash with her brother King Henry III.

The Reckoning (1991)

Five years have passed since the brutal slaying of Simon de Montfort and for his family, these years have meant anguish and exile. For his Welsh ally Llewelyn ap Gruffydd, ruling uneasily over his fractious countrymen, they have meant a tense, unstable truce with Edward I, now casting covetous eyes on Wales. Once plighted to Simon’s daughter, Ellen, but released from that troth by her father’s death, Llewelyn has never married. This bloody finale between English and Welsh is a reckoning that brings disaster for one side or the other. It is also a story of broken fortunes and grim vengeance, of the poisoned love between two brothers and the rare love between a man and a woman who overcame nearly insuperable obstacles to form a bond that would never break.


When Christ and His Saints Slept (1995)

A.D. 1135. As church bells tolled for the death of England’s King Henry I, his barons faced the unwelcome prospect of being ruled by a woman: Henry’s beautiful daughter Maude, Countess of Anjou. But before Maude could claim her throne, her cousin Stephen seized it. In their long and bitter struggle, all of England bled and burned.

Time and Chance (2002)

He was nineteen when they married, she eleven years his senior, newly divorced from the King of France. She was beautiful, headstrong, intelligent, and rich. It was said he was Fortune’s favorite, but he said a man makes his own luck. This novel recounting the tempestuous marriage of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II, this is a magnificent story of love, power, ambition-and betrayal

Devil’s Brood (2008)

A collapse of a royal family whose domains span the English Channel will have dire consequences. This is a story of betrayal as Henry II’s three eldest sons and his wife enter into a rebellion against him, aligning themselves with his bitterest enemy, King Louis of France. But it is also the story of a great king whose brilliance forged an empire but whose personal blind spots led him into the most serious mistake of his life.

Lionheart (2011)

The four surviving sons of Henry Plantagenet and Eleanor of Aquitaine were called “The Devil’s Brood,” though never to their faces. With two such extraordinary parents, much was expected of them. But the eldest-charming yet mercurial-would turn on his father and, like his brother Geoffrey, meet an early death. When Henry died, Richard would take the throne and, almost immediately, set off for the Holy Land. This was the Third Crusade, and it would be characterized by internecine warfare. And, back in England, by the conniving of Richard’s youngest brother, John, to steal his crown.

A King’s Ransom (2014)

Taken captive by the Holy Roman Emperor while en route home Richard, Coeur de Lion. was to spend fifteen months imprisoned, much of it in the notorious fortress at Trefils. For the years remaining to him, betrayals, intrigues, wars, and illness were ever present. So were his infidelities, perhaps a pattern set by his father’s faithlessness to Eleanor. But the courage, compassion, and intelligence of this warrior king became the stuff of legend.


The Queen’s Man (1996)

Epiphany, 1193: The road out of Winchester was hidden by snow, and Justin de Quincy was making slow progress when he heard the first faint shout. It came again, louder and clearer, a cry for help. Spurring his stallion, de Quincy raced toward the source. But he was already too late. As the two assailants fled, de Quincy cradled the dying man, trying to make out his whispered words, “They did not get it,” he rasped. “Promise me. You must deliver this letter to her. To the queen.”

Eleanor of Aquitaine sits upon England’s throne. At seventy, she has outlived the husband who once imprisoned her. But has she also outlived her much-loved eldest son, Richard Lionheart, England’s king–missing these past two months? Only Eleanor’s fierce will can keep her youngest son, John, from seizing the crown. Only a letter, spattered with the blood of a dying man murdered on the Winchester road, can tell her if Richard still lives.

Cruel as the Grave (1998)

She was young-barely fifteen. A poor peddler’s daughter newly arrived in London, she was loved as much for her good heart as for her good looks. Someone had taken advantage of that sweet nature, leaving her dead in a churchyard, a ripped bodice testimony to her struggle, a bloodstained cross the solitary witness to her end.

England, 1193: A land awash in intrigue. While Eleanor of Aquitaine searches vainly for her eldest son, imprisoned by his enemies, her youngest plots to capture the crown. In her service: young Justin de Quincy, the Queen’s Man. What has he to do with common murder, with the death of a poor man’s child? Despite himself, Justin becomes ensnared in the case, seeking to unmask a killer. But can he also bring that killer to justice?

Dragon’s Lair (2003)

July 1193: Richard Lionheart, eldest and most favored son of Dowager Queen Eleanor of Aquitane, languishes in an Austrian dungeon, held for ransom by the Holy Roman Emperor. Lusting after the crown in England, his brother John plots with his country’s bitterest foe, King Philippe of France, to see to it Richard never leaves Austria alive. But the Queen has already begun to meet the ransom demands, and it is only a matter of time before the Austrians turn over their royal prisoner. And then one of the ransom payments vanishes in the fastnesses of Wales, itself wracked by rebellion and intrigue. Into this maelstrom, Eleanor sends her trusted man, Justin de Quincy — and murder soon follows.

Prince of Darkness (2005)
Bowing to an urgent summons from his former lover, Justin de Quincy hastens to Paris only to find that the Lady Claudine was, in fact, acting on behalf of his nemesis Prince John. As the Queen’s man, de Quincy has already encountered John’s murderous side. But now John tells him of a document implicating him in a plot to kill his brother, King Richard. The document is a forgery, and, despite his hunger for the crown, John is innocent of the charge. Still, a brother who looked with amiable contempt at John’s earlier intrigues would hardly risk regicide. John must find the forger and prove the document false before Richard hears of it, and he entreats Justin to help him.

It takes more than John’s wily charms to persuade Justin: It is only when he realizes that the welfare of the woman he serves, Eleanor of Aquitaine, is also at risk that Justin concedes. It is a concession that will take him to a bloody chamber on Mont-Saint-Michel, to a stinking dungeon in Brittany, to a murderous encounter in a Paris cemetery, and, ultimately, to the unraveling of a conspiracy that might have changed the course of history.

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