Books about Medieval England
Here Be Dragons
I love looking at ancient maps. Hand-drawn and coloured, faded and stained by time, showing unfamiliar contours and even stranger places. And I love finding a map where - in the areas beyond the known world - the map maker has written: Here Be Dragons.
These words indicate magical places, steeped in folklore, adhering to unusual customs and fiercely resisting all outside influence - places like 12th century Wales. And there are few books about medieval England as magical Sharon Penman's stories of the Angevins.
In Here Be Dragons Sharon Penman recounts the life and times of the youngest of the sons of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II. King John, nicknamed John Lackland as his father failed to provide him with a kingdom while still in short coats, is known in English folklore as the dastardly brother of the sainted Richard, the Lionheart.
There are many books about medieval England - fiction and non-fiction alike - that focus on John's life and his relationship with his elder brother. Historians are now reasonably certain that neither was Richard a saint, nor John the unscrupulous devil that he's always depicted as. Yes, he was cruel, he was capricious and prone to terrible rages, but he was also an astute administrator - something his famous brother most certainly was not.
In Here Be Dragons Sharon Penman concentrates on John's struggles to subdue the principalities of Wales to English rule and his relationship with his illegitimate daughter, Joanna.
Trying to provide her with a suitable position, and hoping that she will support his political game, he marries her to the Llewellyn, the Prince of Gwynedd.
Soon, Joanna's loyalties are torn between her charismatic husband and her equally charismatic, but excessively jealous father. Trying to reconcile the two of them through crisis after crisis takes its toll on Joanna, forcing her eventually into a potentially fatal mistake.
As usually with Sharon Penman's books, Here Be Dragons is well written and meticulously researched. Penman knows her period and skilfully weaves the details into her stories to add colour and life. And if she takes liberties with any historical events, she makes sure she points these out.
For anyone who loves early medieval history and doesn't prefer dry academic text to a well constructed novel, this book makes a very enjoyable read.