The Sunne in Splendor, by Sharon Kay Penman
Imagine three suns rising at dawn. Would you be terrified or would you see it as a sign of good luck?
In 1460, Edward Earl of March, soon to be King Edward IV proclaimed the astronomical event to be a “vision” from God. He told his troops waiting for battle that here was a portent of victory representing three surviving York sons—himself, George and Richard. Today, we know that what Edward saw and called “the sunne in splendor” was an astronomical phenomenon called parhelion. He could not have known that the vision was of one sun, its light refracting through a cloud of ice crystals.
Edward fought and won the portentous Battle of Mortimer’s Cross at Hereford, England, as he had predicted. Soon after, he was crowned King and remained so for 25 years until his death in 1485. The king expected his older son to succeed, but named his brother, Richard, as Lord Protector. The brothers were Plantagenets, descended from Edward III’s second son, Lionel of Antwerp. Edward was the oldest son, Richard, the youngest.
The Sunne in Splendor is Sharon Kay Penman’s now classic novel of the Plantagenet-Yorkist rule and their subsequent decline over a period of three generations. She chronicles the rise of Edward IV, his marriage to Elizabeth Woodville, the birth of their children, and the political intrigue following Edward’s death. Not the least of these was the imprisonment and disappearance of his two sons.
It seems Lord Protector Richard wanted to become King Richard III and did so. To prevent Edward’s coterie from taking the crown, Richard found it necessary to control Edward’s heirs. As a result, he placed the boys in the Tower of London. He always denied that he had any knowledge of his nephews’ disappearance. Penman’s interpretation puts the burden squarely on the shoulders of a traitor, one of Richard’s men, the Duke of Buckingham.
All of this occurs late in Penman’s tale of the Plantagenets. In the meantime, she has made us fond of Richard and his beloved Anne Neville. When they kiss for the first time, we are roughly a third of the way through the book, and have been completely won over by them. Anne, now a young widow, believes she will never marry Richard, her childhood sweetheart. Penman’s description of their reunion after 15 years apart will have you reaching for your handkerchief. It feels like an ending, but there are 500 pages of story yet to tell.
From page one, Penman depicts Richard as a sweet little boy who admires his older brother, soon to be crowned Edward IV. She reveals a special bond between the oldest brother in this family of seven children and the young Richard. Ned is Richard’s name for his big brother and in the earlier chapters of the novel, we know Richard as Dickon.
Penman’s affection for Richard is obvious as she carries the thread of his life from boyhood to warrior, from marriage to fatherhood, from obedient brother to king of England. He dies at the Battle on Bosworth Field. The Tudors, through Henry VI, claim and win the throne.
Through Penman’s eyes, we never see Richard as the villain. History on the other hand has not been so kind. Many Medieval and Renaissance chroniclers did see Richard III as an evildoer who maliciously disposed of Edward’s sons to protect his own right to the throne. Penman doesn’t believe it for a second. And if you haven’t guessed that by the end of the book, she spells it out for you at the very end.
With Richard now dead, his reputation tarnished forever as the murderer of his brother’s two sons, Penman makes a case for the kindest, gentlest Richard possible. In fiction, she finds a platform for convincing us that Richard’s reputation was destroyed by writers who feared retribution from Henry VII.
At the end of the novel, one of Richard’s nieces opines that Henry VII “has done all he can to discredit Richard. . . . [I]f lies be repeated often enough, people become accustomed to hearing them . . . believe them to be true.”
Penman adds color and substance to the time and place of the Plantagenets. We see where and how they lived, loved, celebrated and grieved. We see the English court where paranoia and intrigue plague every step. History has already told us what happens, but we read on because Penman’s narrative makes us willing participants in the spell she casts.
Published in 1982, the book stands the test of time. Here is a gifted author who has skillfully mixed conjecture, history, and just plain good storytelling to bring the Yorkist saga to light.
It is a long story, however. The author’s tendency to introduce too many characters in too short a space has its effect–a little like trying to remember all the names of every one you meet at a party for the first time. Penman also gives short shrift to villains. Perhaps richer depictions of evildoers would add depth overall, and while she’s long on love matches, she falls a little short in rendering other events. These are small detractions nevertheless, considering how much territory she covers overall. It is a rich period in history, and the more readers know about it, the more entranced they will be by Penman’s re-creation.