A King’s Ransom: A Novel

  • By Sharon Kay Penman
  • Putnam
  • 704 pp.
  • Reviewed by Lisa J. Yarde
  • May 15, 2014

A nuanced portrait of Richard the Lionheart.

A King’s Ransom: A Novel

King Richard I of England undertakes a harrowing sea journey from the Holy Land as Sharon Kay Penman’s latest novel, A King’s Ransom, begins. Faced with the greed and enmity of several rivals, including his own infamous brother John, who is allied with the French king, Richard sets out to reclaim his English kingdom, which is in danger of being wrested away. His enemies are hunting him.

Warned of the dangers presented by the prevailing forces aligned against him, Richard sails in November 1192, braving ferocious winter storms in the company of a varied cast of supporting characters. The weather, as much a threat as his brother and the French, forces him to retrace the ship’s route along the Mediterranean island of Corfu, which brings about an engagement with pirates. Of course, Richard’s magnetism disarms them and he hires the pirate ships for the duration of the journey. Bad weather continues to hound the travelers. Rudderless, the pirate vessels reach marshy ground bordering the northern Adriatic Sea. Richard has no choice now except to travel overland through the territory of his adversaries.

His arrival has brought him close to the city of Gorz, ruled by Count Engelbert who might have a personal grudge against Richard for the death of his relative Conrad of Montferrat. In the guise of pilgrims returning from the Holy Land, Richard’s companions request safe passage through the count’s lands, but Engelbert sees through the ruse. Although Richard’s men go free from Engelbert’s court, another relative of Conrad’s, Duke Leopold of Austria, is not so forgiving. On the pretext of Richard’s guilt, Leopold holds Richard and company for three months until their transfer to the custody of the Holy Roman Emperor Heinrich.

While awaiting payment of the ransom Heinrich demands, Richard spends more than a year in the castle of Trifels, despite the Papal prohibition against harming any crusader. What sort of person will emerge, if ever, from captivity? A downtrodden soul who has lost faith in his own mythical persona? An embittered cynic who sees enemies in shadows everywhere, even among his own family? The valiant warrior king, still set on the purpose for which he left the Holy Land?

As with her earlier novels, the author immerses readers in the medieval period with exceptional attention to detail. She achieves the delicate balance between historical accuracy and dramatic license, which makes historical fiction like hers an exceptional treasure trove of facts. Facets of Richard’s personality emerge on the pages to provide insight into the elements that have made him one of England’s most celebrated kings. Despite this status, Richard’s ten-year reign found him often outside the country, an absentee monarch. The novel strips away the largely idealized view popular culture presents of Richard as the lionhearted combatant, the crusader king. Instead, readers learn about the man he might have been and the people he surrounded himself with, rather than some cherished figure cloaked in the mythos of the past. Richard comes to life with his wit, camaraderie and pragmatism displayed with men-at-arms, pirates, clergymen and rival rulers. We also see his faults, including reckless bravado and recognizable frailty.

Richard laments that while he was able to achieve a sacred obligation, ensuring that Christians might once again make pilgrimage and worship in Jerusalem, the saffron-colored banners of his Saracen enemy, Saladin, still flutter above the city walls. There is a true sense of a heart divided between the duty of crusade and personal interests. He tells how he attempted to broker a marriage deal with his Saracen enemy, offering up his sister Joanna as a bride for Saladin’s brother in a show of wit coupled with political acumen. During his imprisonment, he adroitly defends himself against the charges against him, but recognizes his legacy will remain tarnished by the perceived failure to secure the Holy Land. With Penman’s skilled characterization, he emerges as a nuanced, realistic and complex character.

Among the historical figures, several stand out including Richard’s mother, the indomitable Eleanor of Aquitaine, and her sly son, John, chaffing in the wake of the long shadow Richard has cast. Richard’s poor queen Berengaria not only bemoans her failure to conceive an heir for her husband, but also grieves over her husband’s failure to liberate the Saracen-controlled Holy Land. Like us, Berengaria sees him as an almost legendary figure, which he rejects. King Philippe of France comes across as an angry tyrant throwing temper tantrums because he cannot humiliate Richard effectively. He stands out as a caricature of villainy, emboldened by petty slights often of his own making. 

Penman is able to picture the effects of torture and prison without gory absorption into the details. This book is highly recommended for readers who enjoy medieval history and especially the rule of the Plantagenet dynasty, and for anyone who is a fan of Sharon Kay Penman.

Lisa J. Yarde is the author of six historical novels which take place during Europe’s medieval period, including two works set in England and France, and a series about the last Muslim rulers of Spain. An avid reader and reviewer of historical fiction, Lisa lives in New York City.

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