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History Buff is a site
for history lovers everywhere. It is also a site very interested in women
of the past. Although I (sadly) no longer have time to continue these interviews, here is an archive of Q&As about women's lives
in history. And please feel free to stop by History Buff's
sister site for archaeological discoveries making news today. Enjoy!
historical fiction writer I am fascinated by news stories featuring the
past as it's unearthed and reimagined and brought to life. I spend a
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Monday, October 13, 2008
Q&A With Historical Fiction Author Sharon Kay Penman
* DEVIL'S BROOD is the final novel in your historical trilogy on Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. What was it about these two larger-than-life monarchs that fascinated you enough to write three books on them?
It is almost as if Henry and Eleanor lived their lives with the needs of historical novelists in mind. We have Eleanor, the only woman to wear the crowns of both England and France, mother of three kings and two queens. She went on Crusade, stirred up scandal, dared to take her destiny into her own hands by wedding Henry, then dared to rebel against him, only to exercise her greatest power in her twilight years after enduring sixteen years of confinement as Henry's prisoner.
And then we have Henry, who hired mercenaries and sailed off to England to overthrow King Stephen at the ripe age of fourteen. When he ran out of money, he had the audacity to ask Stephen to pay his way back to Normandy, and Stephen was so amazed and amused that he did! Henry then stunned their world by wedding the greatest heiress in Christendom. Eleanor had been divorced by the French king for her failure to give him a son; she gave Henry five. By twenty-one, Henry was King of England, and for the next thirty years he was the dominant figure in continental politics. When he was finally defeated, it took his own son to do it. History's verdict has been kind; Henry is judged to have been a great king. But as a father, he was grievously flawed. It was his tragedy that he loved his sons, yet he could not trust them.
Devil's Brood is really about the implosion of a family, carried out on an international stage. We have a husband and wife at war, intimate enemies who could only watch helplessly as their sons turned upon one another. And then, with an awful inevitability, the final act was played out, father against son, with one last betrayal upon Henry's deathbed, the most bitter of all. Now what writer could resist a story like that?
* How much of DEVIL'S BROOD is based on fact and how much is fiction?
What I do is fill in the blanks, proving motivation for their actions. For example, the facts indicate that Henry's son Geoffrey had a happy marriage with Constance, the Duchess of Brittany. They were almost always together once they wed, a good indication of the health of a medieval marriage. The reverse is true, too, of course, as in the marriage of Geoffrey's brother Richard and Berengaria of Navarre. So what I attempted to do in Devil's Brood was to show why Geoffrey and Constance were drawn to each other; they had common goals and were similar in temperament and ambition, determined to safeguard Brittany and their children's future.
* Tell us something surprising about women in 12th century England.
Returning to their less fortunate sisters in less enlightened countries, I initially found it surprsing that a widow did not have the right of guardianship of her own children. This was true mainly of the highborn, where property was at stake. The wardship of a young heir or heiress was a valuable commodity, too valuable to "waste" upon the widow when it could be used to reward a king or earl's supporters. Sometimes the woman was allowed to retain the physical custody of her children, but she had no legal say in their future.
Widows could be forced into marriage against their will, too. This happened to a character in Devil's Brood, the heiress Hawisa of Aumale, who wed Henry's close friend, the Earl of Essex. When he died suddenly soon after Richard became king, Richard "gave" Hawisa to one of his knights, for she was a great heiress in her own right. She balked at the marriage and Richard then seized her lands, holding them until she yielded. After a few years, she was widowed again and again Richard immediately married her off to one of his friends. When she was widowed for the third time in King John's reign, she paid John the vast sum of five thousand marks for the right to remain unmarried.
* In which ways did Eleanor of Aquitaine defy the conventions of her time?
This was not the first time that Eleanor would pay a high price for defying convention. But she continued to blaze her own path. When her marriage to the French king ended, she shocked all of Christendom by quietly and quickly wedding Henry Fitz Empress, the nineteen year old Duke of Normandy, an act of open defiance to the man who was her liege lord as well as her former husband. She would later cause an even greater scandal by joining her sons in rebellion against Henry. History was rife with rebellious sons, but never a rebel queen, and while Henry forgave their sons--repeatedly--he never forgave Eleanor.
After Henry's death, Eleanor then acted as Richard's mainstay. Crossing the Alps in the dead of winter, she brought Richard's bride to him in Italy. She did what she could to keep her faithless son John from heeding the siren songs of the French king, taking military action against John's castles in Richard's absence. When Richard was taken prisoner on his way home from Crusade, she assumed responsibility for collecting the vast ransom demanded and personally brought it to Germany to secure his release. When Richard's captor, the duplicitous Holy Roman Emperor, pulled an eleventh-hour double-cross and demanded that Richard do homage to him in order to gain his freedom, Eleanor was the one who pragmatically and cynically advised her son to do so. And she played a major role in gaining the English crown for her youngest son, John, after Richard's death.
You notice that I've made no mention of Eleanor as Queen of the Courts of Love. This is one of the many myths that sprang up around Eleanor in the centuries after her death. Another is the legend that she confronted Henry's mistress, Fair Rosamund, in the maze at Woodstock and gave the unfortunate girl the choice of poison or a dagger. When Rosamund died in 1176, having piously retired to the nunnery at Godstow in her final illness, Eleanor was Henry's prisoner and had been his prisoner for the past three years.
Eleanor was a patron of the troubadors, just as her husband, her sons Richard and Geoffrey, and her daughters were. But she was never a disciple of Courtly Love. She was a political being, a duchess, a queen, a woman who enjoyed the exercise of power no less than either of her royal husbands did, and she played the game of statecraft with a sure hand, especially in the last fifteen years of her life, for unlike Henry, she'd learned from her mistakes. I think she would be very pleased that her fame has lasted for almost nine hundred years, not as the Queen of England or France, but as Eleanor of Aquitaine.
* What are you working on next?