“A King’s Ransom,” the long-awaited sequel to Sharon Kay Penman’s bestselling “Lionheart,” begins after the Third Crusade and takes us through the remaining years of King Richard I’s tumultuous life. Readers can enjoy this extraordinary book without having read its predecessor.
Marian Woods Books / G.P. Putnam’s Sons ($35)
The novel begins in November 1192. For the past three years, Richard I of England, “Lionheart,” has valiantly battled the Saracens in the Holy Land. The Christians captured Acre and Jaffa but, to Richard’s deep disappointment, couldn’t retake the Holy City of Jerusalem.
Although this failure will haunt him for the rest of his life, he hasn’t the time for self-flagellation. Trouble brews back home in Britain. During Richard’s absence, his conniving younger brother John has been conspiring with Philippe Capet, the king of France, to rob Richard of his domains in Normandy and undermine his rule.
But his long journey home is thwarted from the start. Hounded by storms, Richard has no choice but to travel overland — and in disguise — through Central Europe. As a crusader he theoretically enjoys papal protection from attack, but his enemies don’t care.
Captured near Vienna, he is handed over to his archenemy, Heinrich Von Hohenstaufen, the Holy Roman emperor. Heinrich, who will imprison Richard for a total of 15 months, imposes onerous conditions for Richard’s release, including a ransom of 100,000 marks — twice the annual revenues of Britain and Normandy.
“I recognize no superior but God,” says Richard when he refuses to kneel before Heinrich at his trial before the Imperial Diet. Faced with a litany of trumped-up charges, the Lionheart boldly defends himself on every offense, including his alleged “unholy alliance” with the Saracens.
“Of all the despicable lies told about me, none is more outrageous or shameless than that I would betray the Holy Land. I was one of the first … to take the cross. I bear the scar upon my body from a Saracen crossbow bolt. I nearly died at Acre and again at Jaffa… Even after learning that my own kingdom was in peril, I honored my holy vow and stayed. … It is true that I refused to lay siege to Jerusalem. That is because I knew it could not be taken.”
Heads nod in sympathy as his voice soars through the hall. When Richard completes his defense, the audience erupts into “applause and cheers” and the emperor’s frozen fury is “reflected in those ice-pale eyes.” Never before has Richard “experienced a victory as sweet or satisfying.”
But his triumph is short-lived: Heinrich increases the ransom to 150,000 marks and prolongs Richard’s imprisonment. The Crusades have depleted Britain’s finances, but Richard’s extraordinary mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, raises the ransom by imposing onerous taxes on clergy as well as laymen.
Ms. Penman paints a vivid portrait of the Lionheart, revealing his many sides. In his early years, the invincible warrior did not experience “the crippling fear that other men did in combat.”
But during his confinement, we see a different side of him. On a frigid night in January he feels “desperate…vulnerable…and utterly alone.” And even when he agrees to Heinrich’s demands and is finally restored to his homeland, he bears the stigma of having succumbed to his enemy.
Ms. Penman steers clear of conventional wisdom about her hero’s sexuality. In her author’s note, she says her research yielded no evidence “that Richard preferred men to women as bed partners.”
Still, Richard is not much of a husband. In an excruciating scene, he makes perfunctory love to his long-suffering wife, Berengaria. When he is done, he quickly departs her bed. His eyes, she notes, are “impossible to read, utterly opaque.”
But Richard has a gentle side. He is kind to the men who fight under his command. He adores his mother. When restored to power, he even forgives his duplicitous brother.
Ms. Penman offers more than an in-depth portrait of the legendary king. She opens the window onto the geopolitics of the medieval world, the lust for power and territory. Adeptly switching points of view, she provides insights into other historical figures.
Meticulously researched and dramatically presented, “A King’s Ransom” is historical fiction at its best. At 685 pages, it’s a formidable read, but well worth the effort.
Pamela R. Winnick (Pamelarwinnick@yahoo.com), a former Post-Gazette reporter is completing a historical novel about the American Revolution.