“What family doesn’t have its ups and downs?” — Eleanor of Aquitaine (Kathryn Hepburn), The Lion in Winter
As children, we fall in love with the medieval era through fairy tales of princesses, knights in shining armor, castles, dungeons, and courtly love. How much fun it is as an adult to return to this incredible period of history and learn about the real lives of royal legends whose actions still reverberate in the world today. Sharon Kay Penman’s five-book “Angevin Novels” series follows the multi-generational drama of arguably the most famous family in the Middle Ages — the Plantagenets.
William the Conqueror invaded England in 1066 and began a line of English kings and queens that continues to this day. When Christ and His Saints Slept begins the series with the infamous sinking of the White Ship — a well-known catastrophe that caused William the Conqueror’s granddaughter, Maude, to become heir to her father’s crown. The idea of being ruled by a woman rankled with much of the Norman nobility, and when her first cousin Stephen seized the throne upon her father’s death before she could claim it, a brutal 20-year civil war ensued, with all of England bleeding and burning as the great casualty to this feud for power. This horrific period is known simply as The Anarchy, and, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, “men said openly that Christ and His saints slept.”
Maude’s oldest son, King Henry II, is considered one of the greatest English kings in all of its history and was the first king of the House of Plantagenet, so named for his father, Geoffrey of Anjou, because he often wore a sprig of Planta genista (common broom) in his hat. Henry solidified a vast empire that encompassed most of the British Isles as well as most of modern-day France, but perhaps his most enduring legacy is his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, about whom there is nearly as much gossip in circulation as concrete fact. This is, however, not surprising considering that she bore the titles of duchess of Aquitaine, queen of France, and finally queen of England, in addition to going on the Second Crusade in an era that did not cultivate powerful women. Time and Chance tells the story of Henry and Eleanor’s passionate love affair that risked everything to unite kingdoms — “two high-flying hawks lusting after empires and each other.” It also delineates the famous clash between two best friends turned mortal enemies: King Henry II and Thomas Becket.
Devil’s Brood illustrates the inevitable implosion of a family torn asunder by ambition, misunderstandings, and unhealed wounds as Henry and Eleanor’s four sons — Hal, Richard (the Lion Heart), Geoffrey, and John — rise up in rebellion to claim the power they feel should be theirs. Betrayals and power plays, battles and sieges, young love and arranged marriages are peppered throughout this novel without villains, only flawed human beings entangled in misperceptions and bad judgment.
In the penultimate novel of the series, Lionheart, Richard takes the throne and sets off almost at once for the Holy Land in what would become the Third Crusade, characterized by internecine warfare among the Christians and extraordinary campaigns against the Saracens. Meanwhile back in England, Richard’s youngest brother, John, connives to steal his crown as Eleanor seeks to hold together the empire as regent until Richard returns. Like the first three, Lionheart is a powerful story of intrigue, war, and diplomacy played out against the roiling conflicts of love and loyalty, passion and treachery — all set against the rich textures of the Holy Land.
In violation of the papal decree protecting all crusaders, Richard Coeur de Lion is taken captive by the Holy Roman Emperor on his journey home to England in A King’s Ransom. While Eleanor of Aquitaine moved heaven and earth to raise the exorbitant ransom from his people, Richard was to spend 15 months imprisoned, much of it in the notorious fortress at Trefils, from which few men left alive. For the years remaining to his kingship, betrayals, intrigues, wars, and sickness were omnipresent. But the courage and intelligence of this warrior king was to become the stuff of legend.
Each novel is meticulously researched and is always accompanied by a helpful author’s note in the back, explaining what little was made up and giving further insight into the more incredible historical events of the plot. So captivating that they might as well be the fairy tales we enjoyed so long ago, these books have the added bonus of educating readers in a great deal of history along the way.