The Welsh Trilogy
The Welsh Trilogy
By Miriam R. Kramer
Recently I have gone on a medieval British historical fiction journey, in which I turned to a master of the genre for entertainment and enlightenment. Sharon Kay Penman wrote the Welsh Trilogy, including the books Here Be Dragons, Falls the Shadow, and The Reckoning. Based on real historical figures and set in thirteenth-century England, they focus on a period of upheaval between England, Wales, and France, featuring battles and political machinations that will attract fans of a TV series like House of Cards, or the multitudes tired of waiting for George R.R. Martin’s next Game of Thrones installment.
Penman named Here Be Dragons her favorite of all her novels. She was fascinated to introduce her readers to a Welsh noble known as Llywelyn (Llewelyn) Fawr–Llewelyn the Great. This self-styled Prince of Wales, a strong-willed leader and negotiator who understood his tenuous position as England encroached on his lands, married Joanna, the illegitimate daughter of King John, Henry Plantagenet’s son. A political match became personal as the two fell deeply in love.
Penman paints Wales as a place of fiercely independent people with advanced views of women’s rights, where male or female illegitimacy does not disqualify anyone from inheriting money or land. In this way she continually emphasizes a nascent feminism that took root in a country whose people resisted oversight. In her books the Welsh people’s fatal flaw is fighting with each other over territory, thus weakening their ability to resist the much more heavily populated England.
As King John maneuvered to make Wales more English and a vassal state, Joanna found herself torn between a husband she adores and a father who loved her but acted ruthlessly towards those from her adopted country.
Falls the Shadow becomes the story of Simon de Montfort, a driven, clever Frenchman whose silver tongue earned him an earldom and the hand of Eleanor, also known as Nell. Nell was the sister of King Henry III, an irresolute, temperamental man who could be vindictive but loved his family. Many of Penman’s characters come in shades of grey, rather than black and white, making them relatable even in novels that are about battles and political rivalries.
In time the deeply Christian Simon made an enemy of the king by pushing reforms that would lessen the power of the monarchy while giving more to the nobility and even commoners in the trade guilds in London. Like Joanna, Nell was torn between family members, since her brother eventually wanted to destroy her husband, Simon. In particular, Simon wanted to use his native leadership abilities to create a slightly more democratic society. A woman equally strong-minded as her husband, Nell supported him in the face of her brother’s enmity. Simon’s story is one of a flawed, admirable man, one whose implacable will made inroads into the political development of England.
The Reckoning continues the story of Llewelyn Fawr’s descendants. Llewelyn lost his most cherished links to his family and looked for a successor. His illegitimate son, Gruffydd, was too impulsive and anti-British to unify Wales and keep England at bay, so he looked to Davydd, his son by his English wife, Joanna, to carry his mantle. Wales did not have the strength to battle King John or his successor, King Henry III, so he needed a wily maneuverer who could bend the knee when necessary, but also battle to keep the English from Anglicizing Wales through colonizing its land and imposing its system of laws. Henry III, a feeble king who often made disastrous decisions regarding battles with France and Wales, became weaker and even more irrelevant as his canny, treacherous son Edward I takes control of the country.
Llewelyn’s grandson, Llewelyn ap Gruffydd, had the leadership abilities to rule the country as the self-styled Prince of Wales. He consolidated his internally warring peoples to a level not even seen in his grandfather’s time. In Penman’s books the Welsh engaged in a constant struggle to retrieve territories from British nobles who have seized those on the border, and then British attempts to burrow further into the Welsh way of life. The Welsh regained them, and then the British took them again. Llewelyn battled Edward I, the predatory, tough warrior who became king after his father. Edward I was much more dangerous than Henry III. Llewelyn must also keep tabs on the brother he loves who constantly betrays him, the whimsical, treacherous Davydd.
In marrying Ellen, the daughter of Nell de Montfort, Llewelyn ap Gruffydd achieved happiness despite the many concessions he made to Edward I to release her from his confinement. Penman sometimes temporarily turns her stories into bodice-rippers when she writes the romantic relationships of the Welsh princes, but they are very engaging.
There is an end to the combined tales of these Welsh rulers, and I will not spoil the details. Penman writes a ripping yarn with verve, pathos, and humor. She brings her portraits of nobles to life with vivid descriptions of battles, political parleys, and romance, along with violent, fair-minded, pitiless, and charismatic characters.
Penman describes the casual cruelties of medieval punishments with ease and does not neglect the sad stories of the Jews of London and other urban areas, blamed for usury while restricted from practicing trades. As is the traditional case in history, they were the scapegoats who paid for the vagaries of Londoners’ fortunes. When they had to charge high interest rates because some people would not pay them back, Londoners and others attack them, while rulers constantly consider expelling them from the country. Penman repeatedly includes the theme of women’s rights and prejudices against Jews throughout these stories, hoping to portray them as fully fledged humans in a time that did not consider them as such.
I also recommend Penman’s trilogy to those who enjoy Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth, or anyone who relishes a lively story of that time frame replete with glittering character studies. These novels are less literary than the works of Hilary Mantel, for example, and appropriate for a more casual and fun read. Enjoy visiting medieval England, France, and Wales, and breathe a sigh of relief when you return.