A King’s Ransom, the final entry into Sharon Kay Penman’s Plantagenet series, is another masterpiece from a gifted writer. Meticulously researched, with an unparalleled grasp of the political complexities of medieval kingship, it goes beyond the exploits of the fearless crusader Richard the Lionheart to capture insights into the man behind the legend.
The novel picks up where the companion book Lionheart leaves off. Richard, betrayed by his brother John, his kingdom threatened by the French king Philippe, must abandon the Third Crusade in the Holy Land and return home to defend the Angevin dynasty. However, his adversaries have conspired against him accusing him of murder and conspiring with the great Muslim ruler Saladin, and he must first circumvent those bent on his capture and imprisonment.
History tells us that Richard was captured outside of Vienna on his way back to England, and the first half of A King’s Ransom is a comprehensive account of his capture by Leopold of Austria, his imprisonment by the Holy Roman Emperor, Heinrich, the negotiations by his mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, to secure his release and keep him from falling into the hands of his arch enemy, Philippe, and his brilliant speech and defense before the Imperial Diet at Speyer.
It is during this prolonged captivity and negotiations that we see the human side of Richard. Fearless in battle, reckless with his own personal safety, he suffers physically from fevers, is haunted by his failure to recapture Jerusalem, has recurring nightmares resulting from the harsh treatment he experiences while held at Trifels, is tormented by Heinrich who threatens to turn him over to the French king, and ultimately is humiliated by having to pay homage to the Holy Roman Emperor as a condition of his release.
Finally obtaining his freedom, Richard will spend the next five years warring with Philippe, and Penman dedicates the second half of the book to these military campaigns. It is a compelling and comprehensive account of his efforts to regain the territory he lost while in captivity which ends with his death at Chalus.
Readers may be daunted by the sheer scope of Penman’s work (without the Afterword, Author’s Note, and Acknowledgements the book is 657 pages in length.) However, the novel never flags and there is no better account of this fascinating individual or period in history.
I highly recommend reading all five books in the series, though each one can be read by itself. However, to fully appreciate the many historical characters that populate the books and to really grasp the essence of Richard, both his magnanimity and ruthlessness, I would at least encourage readers to read Lionheart and A King’s Ransom. Your time will have been well spent!