Novel Review–Here be Dragons, by Sharon Kay Penman

The Welsh Princes Trilogy, Sharon Kay Penman

If you love historical sagas, intensely-researched and factually accurate, action-packed, and beautifully rendered, Sharon Kay Penman’s The Welsh Princes trilogy is for you. The trilogy titles are Here Be Dragons, Falls the Shadow, and The Reckoning.


The sprawling tale begins in 1183, in the reign of Henry I of England, with the introduction of 10-year old Llewelyn, fiercely proud of his Welsh lineage, yet consigned to living in Shropshire, an English border town, because his mother has married a marcher border lord. Immersion in English—or as they think of themselves, Norman—life, Llewelyn finds busy town and rich castle society a shock, used as he is to the mountainous crags, the poorer soil and often hardscrabble life of the Welsh. This new life is also brutal. Tales of the English vanquishing Llewelyn’s countrymen humiliate him, and he experiences English loathing as he is beaten by his English peers for being Welsh.

Being raised by kind-hearted stepfather Sir Hugh Corbet tempers his natural hatred for the English, though education by his trusted Welsh tutor Morgan grounds him in his heritage and prepares him for his destiny.

Six years later, in 1189, King Henry dies, leaving the English throne to his oldest surviving son, Richard (aka Lionheart). By then, Llewelyn, aged 16 and resuming his given name Llewelyn ap Iowerth, has returned to seek his birthright, but that’s no easy task. Battling his uncle Davydd for control of the majority of Wales, which was divided into Powys, Deheubarth, and Gwyned, by 1193 Llewelyn controls the majority, and continues to struggle with his uncle while battling the English forces of John Lackland (aka King John during his brother Richard’s absence and King in his own right after Richard’s death).

In 1196, Joanna, the bastard daughter of the womanizing King John and a well-born Norman woman named Clemence d’Arcy, turns 5 years old. Joanna reminds her mother of her fall from grace and from her family, for Clemence’s father has cast her out and never forgiven her. Just after Joanna’s birthday, Clemence dies, the victim of too much wine and perhaps a suicidal poison draught. By the graces that protect small children, little Joanna eventually finds her way to her father. It can be said of John that as King he was ruthless, as womanizer he was unquenchable, but his love for all of the children he fathered was boundless. And for a child who dreads the loss of her mother’s love, who is fearful of and bewildered by her mother’s moods, Joanna is grateful for John’s generous love. She will become John’s devoted favorite.

She will also become a pawn in her father’s plan to bring Wales under English rule, for just past her 14th birthday, Joanna is given in marriage to Llewelyn, now aged 33.

Llewelyn sees a very young 14-year old bride, and does not consummate their marriage, believing Joanna needs time to mature. But by the time Joanna’s fifteenth birthday comes and goes, she sees her husband as both charismatic and courageous. His habit of taking a bedmate for immediate needs and of thinking of the political problems at hand the rest of the time leaves Joanna jealous, angry, and restless for his love. She confronts Llewelyn—in bed with a woman—and then flees to her rooms. When Llewelyn gains entry, she insults him and after he rides away, angry and humiliated, she has his bed hauled into the courtyard and burned.

When he returns, he apologizes, makes her understand that he has been wrong and that she has rights under Welsh law, and, both appeased, they consummate their marriage, beginning a passionate and intelligent alliance. Joanna becomes Llewelyn’s staunchest supporter and his partner in Welsh politics and warfare and gives him a son named David. (Llewelyn already had five children by a wife and bedmates.)

Llewelyn’s firstborn son, Gruffydd, is a hot-headed, stubborn, proud boy whom his father sees as a political liability, who as a man would be instrumental in creating insecurity for Wales’ future. Gruffydd nurtures his hatred for Joanna, born English, for David and his father, who has set Gruffydd aside and declared David his heir. Gruffydd vows eternal war, which includes treason and treachery when they’re useful. His hatred fuels his bitterness until his death, and infects one of his sons, while another remains immune to his bitterness.

Marriage turns out to be a source of pride and pain for Joanna, her husband, and her father. The three characters form a tangled warp to the weft of a brilliant telling of history, of politics, of love and loyalty: Joanna for her husband, John for his daughter, and Llewelyn for his wife. Of the three, I could not help but feel most intensely for Joanna, the well-worn fulcrum on which the power, successes and failures of two kings seesaw, and who was faithful to both men until her death, a death Llewelyn mourned until his own end.

A wonderful telling of history to be sure.