Review : Lionheart

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Sharon Kay Penman is the master of medieval historical fiction.  I've read everything she has written in historical novel form, and I've never been disappointed. Lionheart is another fantastic book to add to my love of the author's work. Meticulously researched and entertaining, this is a no-holds-barred look at Richard I and the Third Crusade. Penman is able to richly bring to the page the man, the times and the landscape. I know we often look at paranormal romance and urban fantasy around here, but trust me, that isn't the only thing we all read.

Keep reading to learn more about this fascinating story and cast of characters.

The Kingdom of Jerusalem before the Third Crusade
We spend the first half of the novel with Richard trying to reach Outremer (modern-day Israel and parts of Lebanon), where he hopes to be able to rescue Jerusalem from the Saracens. Richard is dogged by the fact that his main ally on Crusade, the French king Philippe II, is a reluctant Crusader, even though he has vowed to go on Crusade. It is obvious from the outset that the relationship between Richard and Philippe is not an easy one, as Philippe delays leaving France for as long as he can.

The action of the book takes us from France to Sicily to Cyprus and finally Outremer. Along the way it is a constant battle, as both Sicily and Cyprus are in turmoil and tensions between the two kings continue to escalate. With Philippe trying to block him at every turn, it is a wonder that the French and English even make it to Outremer without killing each other. Every action is viewed and analysed, any slight exaggerated. Phillipe is clearly at odds with Richard. He doesn't have the looks, the battle prowess or the desire that Richard does to rush headlong into battle. You always feel that Phillipe is in a constant battle of one-upmanship with Richard, whereas all Richard wants to do is fight the battle to rescue the Holy Land and go home. Yet even this far from home, the political scheming continues.

One thing I realised while reading is that I tend to forget how fervently people believed in God in medieval times, and how much of their daily lives were dictated by religion. The zeal with which men were prepared to die and their desire to rescue Jerusalem are clearly evident in this book. Both the Crusaders and the Saracens really believe they are doing the will of God. The Saracens are protecting their religious sites and the Crusaders are trying to retrieve them. Meanwhile, it is a constant battle between Philippe, Richard and Conrad Montferrat for control, with Philippe supporting Conrad's claim to the Kingdom of Jerusalem, and Richard supporting his vassal Guy Lusignan. It is clear early on that Guy is not the right person to rule Jerusalem, but the factions have already drawn their lines in the sand, and they don't want to move those lines until the issue of ruling Outremer comes to a head and Richard must make a decision.

I love how tactical and strategic Richard was. Being an Angevin no doubt helped this. After all, with Eleanor Aquitaine as a mother and father Henry II as a father, he would have lived and breathed statecraft and warfare. He spent his teenage years in constant battle with either his father or his brothers.

So, what did I learn?

I didn't know that Richard often battled a debilitating illness that caused him to be laid up in bed with fevers. I don't think he was a good husband to his wife, but I think the neglect was more from thoughtlessness than deliberate. If his wife wasn't right under his nose he didn't give her any thought, because he was so focused on what drama was at hand. Richard put the welfare of his men above all else. Yes he was reckless, but he tended to be more reckless with his own life than with the lives of his men.
"I lead by example,"Richard said flatly."Our men are so willing to risk their lives on a daily basis because they see that I am risking mine, too."..........."Yes, our soldiers greatly admire your courage Cousin. but they fear for your safety as we do," Andre said bluntly. "Last Sunday was the third time you've been killed or captured in a Saracen ambush, the very same ambushes you warn us to avoid. It was foolhardy to chase after those Turkish archers, especially since you all were so lightly armed. You would have been wroth with any of our men for taking such needless chances. Can you deny it?"

Steven Runciman summed up Richard brilliantly: "he was a bad son, a bad husband, and a bad king, but a gallant and splendid soldier." (History of the Crusades, Vol. III) I don't think anyone can take away from Richard I how formidable he was in war. He was creature of war. He grew up living and breathing it and had a natural aptitude for it, which other men envied. He is remembered as one of the great warriors (if not the greatest) of his time, and his prowess on the battlefield is legendary. The Saracens called him Malik Ric (King Ric). There are numerous instances in Lionheart where he seemingly recklessly throws himself into battle, yet he always finds a way to survive. I would be quaking in my boots if I were staring at him across a battlefield. These actions cement his men's loyalty and resolve to fight for him, and so does his ability to quickly evaluate any scene before him. When odds are against him, and they often are, he is able to visualise a way to win, and if he can't win, he looks elsewhere for another advantage.

In the background, there is always the humming of letters from home. It could take months for news to arrive from Europe. Whenever Richard receives word from home, it is hopelessly out of date. While he fights the Saracens, he receives troubling news from home, which causes an internal battle between his desire to do God's work and his desire to maintain his kingdom. Each day Richard is away is another day his enemies strengthen their hold.

Outremer after the Third Crusade
It is breathtaking to think that Penman was able to use actual chroniclers' stories, from both Richard I's side and the Saracens' side, to help her narrate the story. I think that this resource enabled her to bring Richard I and the Holy Land so vividly to life.

Be warned — there is a part near the end that was quite heartbreaking for me and Richard's battle in Outremer. I think it summed up Richard's view of his trip to Outremer, and in some ways it is quite tragic. It also made me think that he really did believe strongly in his purpose for going on Crusade on behalf of God. I don't want to spoil it for anyone who wants to read this book, but it is a very poignant scene. When Richard left Outremer, it looked as per the map here. When you compare it to the map above, you can see that his effect on the area was a considerable achievement, given that he was only there for a short span of time.

This book is part 1 of 2. Penman stated that she had too much material to fit into just one novel, and I can't wait to read part 2, when Richard returns from the Crusade. He already knows that his brother John is plotting against him and Phillipe Capet is trying to take over his domains. This book is must for lovers of medieval fiction.

Official Wench Rating:

Are you a fan of historical novels? What are some of your favorites? Have you read Lionheart or any of Penman's other books? We'd love to hear your comments!

Map source:


  1. Replies
    1. Thanks Zee. Really great book and I think Penman is pretty unbias which helps make it more interesting.

  2. Added to my "to read list",my kind of book.

  3. This book and author look so intriguing to me! I love historical novels and have lost track of what's going on in the genre over the last few years. It has been a long time since I visited Richard the Lionhearted in a book. I recall thinking he was a first-class jerk for leaving his poor wife Berengeria alone at home all those years. (I understand that he couldn't be perfect at everything, but he just abandoned her, and she was a young girl stuck in a faraway land, away from her family and friends. With hardly even a postal service.) I am interested in discovering the reasons why you think this book will make me like him better!

    1. Kathi I had similar apprehensions, but I think now he really didn't think about her unless she was right there. He had so many other considerations. The Saracens, the safety of his men, poor health, continual political gamesmenship with the French and residents of Outremer, plus simply being a king that I think he wasn't very good at juggling a wife with everything else. Yes she was treated poorly, but the worst of it comes in the next book, so my view might change. I will be interested to see how Penman handles this. Also Richard spent so much of his life fighting battles that there was very little time for any kind of domesticity, which perhaps might have made him a better husband - although I doubt he could of sat still. He was a man of action and I think a bit of an adrenline junkie as he often acted recklessly with his own safety. I hope you get a chance to read as I would love to discuss with you.


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