When ancient mapmakers reached the edge of the known world, beyond which were only hearsay and imagination, they wrote HERE BE DRAGONS on the map. In the 12th century one such place, steeped in folklore, adhering to unusual customs and fiercely resisting all outside influence, were the principalities of Wales. Rent by frequent wars of succession, when brother fought brother, brought to the attention of the English crown through the political games of its contestants, Wales needed a strong, determined ruler, able to unite all the warring factions and forge them into a nation capable of resisting English attack. It seemed as if the leader had been found when Llewellyn ap Iorwerth won the throne of Gwynedd. Not only did he manage to keep a lid on internal strife, he was also so skilled a politician that the English king offered him his daughter as a wife. For a little while it seemed, that in a time of almost constant war and bloodshed, there was a real chance for an independent, unified Wales, free of external interference.
Sharon Penman picks up her history of the Angevin empire by recounting the life and times of the youngest of the sons of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II and his contemporaries. King John, nicknamed John Lackland as his father failed to provide him with a kingdom while still in short coats, is known in English folklore as the dastardly brother of the sainted Richard, the Lionheart. But was John a bad king? While Richard spent barely two months of his 10-year reign in England, and bled the country white to raise money for his crusades, and the ransom to free him from captivity, John seems to have been a better steward of the kingdom he inherited – even if he did lose the royal treasury in the Wash, the East Anglian one, that is. Forever dogged by baronial strife, often triggered by his fierce temper or his high-handed ways, and eventually forced to sign the Magna Charter, granting unprecedented rights to noble and commoner alike, John was nevertheless a shrewd administrator, intent on promoting law and order.
Sharon Penman brings John’s multi-faceted character into focus, by concentrating on his war to subdue the principalities of Wales to English rule and his relationship with his illegitimate daughter, Joanna. Trying to provide her with a suitable position, and hoping that she will support his political game, he marries her to the Llewellyn, the Prince of Gwynedd, not expecting her to fall in love with her husband and defy her father. Throughout the story, Joanna’s loyalties are torn between her charismatic husband and her equally charismatic, but excessively jealous father. Trying to reconcile the two of them through crisis after crisis takes its toll on Joanna, forcing her eventually into a potentially fatal mistake.
As usually with Sharon Penman’s books, Here Be Dragons is well written and meticulously researched. Penman knows her period and skilfully weaves the details into her stories to add colour and life. And if she takes liberties with any historical events, she makes sure she points these out. For anyone who loves early medieval history and doesn’t prefer dry academic text to a well constructed novel, this book makes a very enjoyable read.