With all the hullabaloo recently regarding the newly discovered remains of English King, Richard III (of which I am still not convinced is true), I am reminded of my favorite Historical Fiction novel, The Sunne in Splendour, by Sharon Kay Penman. This was the first of the genre that I read, and it hooked me instantly. I knew nothing of Richard III when I read the book, but I have always loved Medieval European history, and so the story suited my tastes.
This epic tale of 944 pages includes battles, political alliances, family discord, romance, intrigue, and a little mystery—all things one should expect from a story regarding the English throne. It takes place during the War of the Roses, as the House of York retrieves power back from the House of Lancaster, and puts Edward IV on the throne of England.
The book’s title comes from the standard of Edward IV, and is at first centered on his climb to power and his twenty-two year reign. Richard is portrayed in the book as being fiercely loyal to Edward and the House of York, and is content to serve his brother in any way that he can. He has no ambition to rule, and merely wants to guard his own corner of the kingdom and serve as one of Edward’s closest advisors.
Penman writes this book almost as an apology for all of the horrible things that history has said about Richard III. In her own research, she felt that Shakespeare, commissioned by the House of Tudor, had unfairly portrayed Richard III as a deformed, disfigured monster who brutally murdered his own nephews to take the throne for himself. Shakespeare portrayed Richard III as a dwarf hunchback with a withered right arm and a hideous face that terrified children. Clearly, there is a lot of spin put on that description by the victors (The Tudors), who may not have had as strong of a claim to the throne of England as the Plantagenets. There was never any mention of any deformity before Shakespeare’s time, nor was Richard III ever accused in his own time of murdering his nephews.
Richard’s nephews—Edward IV’s sons—were locked in the Tower of London for safe keeping after Edward’s death, because of a dispute to their legitimacy due to some improper troth to Elizabeth Woodville. There can be no way to know for sure if they were locked up because of Richard’s ambitions, or because Richard wanted to keep them safe from warring factions. If the boys were truly illegitimate, then the House of York would lose the throne, and Richard definitely did not want that.
What is indisputable, however, is that some time during the boys’ imprisonment in the Tower, they were taken away and never seen again. The boys disappeared in 1483, and the remains of two young boys were found in 1674 under the stairs leading to the Tower’s chapel. It was then assumed that the remains belonged to the boys, and that Richard had them murdered so that he could take the throne uncontested. All of this is covered in Penman’s novel.
Many scholars believe that the Tudor spin machine, and then later, Shakespeare, created terrible stories about Richard III to strengthen the Tudor’s claim to the throne after Henry Tudor defeated Richard’s armies at the battle of Bosworth in 1485. The Tudor’s did not have a strong claim to the throne, but they had allied with the Lancasters to dethrone Richard and the House of York.
Penman seems to take the opposite extreme. She portrays Richard as a saintly man; dedicated to the Church, his wife and children, his mother, and his brother Edward. He also helps to intervene on his other brother George’s behalf after George’s treachery against Edward. He doted on Edward’s children, and even tried to accept Elizabeth and her insufferably useless family. Penman depicts Richard as a good man who would never do the horrible things for which history remembers him.
In my own later research, I have come to find a happy middle between Shakespeare’s monster and Penman’s saint. Richard III was certainly an ambitious man; how could he not be? But he was deeply religious and pious, and he was intensely devoted to his family. I have a difficult time believing the portrayal by the Tudors as anything but political spin aimed to make all of England’s citizens hate the Yorks.
And with that, I have a difficult time believing that the remains found in the parking garage in Leicester were, in fact, Richard’s. It would be wonderful to believe that his lost remains were found, and could be buried with honor, but since the remains show a severe curvature of the spine, I am inclined to believe that people are still looking for the historically inaccurate version of Richard. Even if the DNA tests prove that the skeletal remains match the living descendants of Richard’s sister, Anne of York, I am not convinced. It only proves that they found some relative belonging to the House of York, and not necessarily Richard.
After the Battle of Bosworth, Richard was brutally butchered and desecrated by the victorious Tudor army. Local Friars buried Richard in haste, in an attempt to keep his body from being further desecrated, and the grave was quickly forgotten and lost afterwards. Scholars have been looking for the remains for centuries, and now they believe that they found it, but I still think there are too many questions left to ask.
Regardless of current events, Penman’s book is a beautifully crafted epic. It is historically accurate in most parts, and she fills the blanks masterfully with an appropriate voice. Although Edward is the King throughout most of the book, the story is about Richard. Penman creates believable characters that are both beautiful and ugly, which is something that we all face, especially ambitious political leaders. It is the type of book that I love to lose myself in, and then feel a deep sadness when the book ends.
And so, I immediately devoured everything else she wrote. I read the “Welsh Princes trilogy” (Here Be Dragons, Falls the Shadow, and The Reckoning), but I read them in the wrong order, so I want to read them again. I also recommend the “Plantagenet” series (When Christ and His Saints Slept, Time and Chance, and The Devil’s Brood), as well as her historical mysteries (The Queen’s Man, Cruel as the Grave, Dragon’s Lair, and Prince of Darkness). I have yet to read her latest book, Lionheart, which is actually book four of the “Plantagenet” series.
The Sunne in Splendour introduced me to a whole new genre of reading: Historical Fiction. I have read the wonderful Helen Hollick, Bernard Cornwell, Ellis Peters, and so many others thanks to this one book! I have a degree in History, and I have been a lifelong History nerd. I do not know why it took so long to discover this genre. I also plan to use Historical Fiction as a teaching tool in my History classes.