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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!

Michelle Moran
Historical fiction author

As an 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
large quantity of time searching for news in archaeology and history. Once in a great while a new archaeological discovery will act as an inspiration for what I'm currently writing. But most of the time the news stories I read are simply interesting tidbits of history. Unfortunately, I have disallowed comments because I travel so frequently that I can neither monitor nor respond to them. But I would still love to share the history that I find fascinating each day. So welcome! And feel free to visit my website at or contact me at authormichellemoran at hotmail dot com.

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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?
As improbable as it may sound, Devil's Brood is based very much upon actual history. Obviously imagination has to play a role, but the book has a strong factual foundation. The internecine warfare between Henry and Eleanor, Henry and his sons, his sons against one another--it all happened as I relate.

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.
What an interesting question. I hope you don't mind if I expand the question to include Wales, for the greatest surprises are to be found in the land of the red dragon. None of this will come as a suprirse to those who've read my book Here Be Dragons. But it is bound to be startling to those who have not. A Welshwoman could not be forced into marriage against her will. Welsh law provided specific grounds for the dissolution of a marriage; this put Wales at odds with the Catholic Church, but gave Welshwomen a greater degree of independence than their sisters in England and France. A Welshwoman could divorce her husband if he contracted leprosy, if he was three times unfaithful, if he dared to bring a concubine into their house, if he was impotent, or if he had foul breath. He in turn could divorce her only if she'd claimed falsely to be a virgin on their wedding night, if her marriage portion was less than her family had promised, or if he found her in compromising circumstances with another man. And she had the right to claim custody of their children if the marriage ended, a right unknown in the rest of Christendom. The husband got the first child, the wife the second. Welsh law does not specify what happened if there were more than two children!

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?
Eleanor always saw herself, first and foremost, as the Duchess of Aquitaine, and marriage to the kings of France and England did not change her outlook. While on Crusade to the Holy Land with Louis, the French king, she objected to her husband's refusal to come to the aid of Edessa. When he insisted his crusader's vow obligated him to continue on to Jerusalem, she announced that she and all of her vassals would remain in Antioch. Louis was stunned by her defiance, by her meddling in those matters best left to men, and his advisers convinced him that she had been bewitched and/or seduced by her uncle Raymond, the Prince of Antioch, who had urgently argued that the crusaders must go to the rescue of Edessa. They could understand Eleanor's actions only if they were the result of adultery and incest, for to medieval men, Woman was above all a sexual being, a daughter of Eve, weak and easily led astray, led into sin. The result was that Eleanor was taken from Antioch by force. This scandal was to shadow her for the rest of her life; more than forty years later, an English chronicler was to interrupt his lavish praise of Eleanor's intelligence and energy with a snide, "Many of us know what I wish none of us did know. This same queen was in Jerusalem...Not another word, please...Hush!"

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?
I am going to miss Henry very much; after all, he was my houseguest for more than fifteen years. But I wasn't ready to turn the page. I wanted to continue the Angevin saga and I am happy to report that my publisher and editor agreed with me. So my next book will be Lionheart, continuing the story of Eleanor and her sons Richard and John and the daughter most like her celebrated mother, Joanna, Queen of Sicily. you Sharon! And feel free to visit Sharon Kay Penman online for more information about her latest novel Devil's Brood.