The Sunne in Splendour by Sharon Penman

Richard III (1452 – 1485), that controversial king – what was the truth about him? Did he murder his nephews, the ‘Princes in the Tower’, was he deformed, with a withered arm, a hunch back and a limp as Shakespeare portrayed him, was he a cold-blooded, evil villain? Or has he been maligned and been turned into a  monster who killed his brother’s sons in order to take the Crown?

I remembered merely the brief details about the Wars of the Roses, the conflict between the house of York and Lancaster for the throne of England,  from my school history lessons and only became interested in Richard III years later when I read Alison Weir’s non-fictional The Princes in the Tower, which examined the available evidence and came to the conclusion that Richard III was responsible for their deaths. Some years later I read Josephine Tey’s novel The Daughter of Time, which also investigates his role in the death of his nephews and his own death at the Battle of Bosworth and concluded that Richard hadn’t murdered his nephews.

The discovery of his skeleton buried beneath a car park in Leicester in 2012 revealed that although ‘the curved spine on the skeleton does show he had Scoliosis, he did not have a withered arm or other details attributed to him in some characterisations’ (see the Incredible Discovery at the King Richard III Visitor Centre ).

But it wasn’t the discovery of his skeleton that nudged me into reading  The Sunne in Splendour, Sharon Penman’s detailed historical novel, first published in 1982. It was watching A Game of Thrones, which is based in part on the Wars of the Roses – Stark and Lannister/York and Lancaster etc.

The Sunne in Splendour is a fascinating novel about his life from his childhood to his death at Bosworth Field in 1485. Much has been written about Richard, from the time of his death onwards, that Sharon Penman points out has to be considered in the light of the writers’ bias, stating in her Author’s Note at the end of the book:

I once came upon the definition of history as ‘the process by which complex truths are transformed into simplified falsehoods’. That is particularly true in the case of Richard III, where the normal medieval proclivity for moralizing and partisanship was further complicated by deliberate distortion to suit Tudor political needs.’ (page 884)

She states that she had tried to be as accurate as possible, drawing upon facts that are not in dispute, relying on contemporary chroniclers, and when dealing with conflicting accounts ‘to choose the one most in accord with what we know of the people involved.’ 

I think this is one of the best historical novels that I’ve read. It is full of detail, but her research sits very lightly in this book, none of it feels like a history lesson, and it all brings Richard’s world to life. Penman portrays a very likeable Richard, from his childhood onwards he comes across as a kind, generous and brave man, a skilled leader on the battlefield, a loving husband to his wife, Anne, and devoted and loyal to his brother, Edward IV, who was by no means a saint. I particularly liked the way Penman showed his relationship with his family, especially with his brothers Edward and George, the Duke of Clarence.

I could easily visualise the battle scenes, that eventually brought the Wars of the Roses to an end and was fascinated by the view of Henry Tudor (Henry VII) – I’d like to know more about him. It’s his view of Richard that prevailed after his accession to the throne. During his life Richard he had a good reputation and was loved, particularly in the North of England. But he fell victim to treachery and intrigue.

One of the drawbacks of reading historical fiction is that if you have any knowledge of the period you know the eventual outcome. Penman’s skill is such that even though I knew Richard was killed at the battle of Bosworth Field I kept hoping he would survive and defeat Henry Tudor.

As for her solution to who killed the princes, that is one spoiler I’m not going to reveal – I was convinced though by her version of events. I think The Sunne in Splendour is a brilliant book, I was absolutely gripped by it and was sad when I came to the end. It’s a long book, nearly 900 pages and it took me a while to read it, but never once did I think it was too long, or needed editing. I loved it.

Reading Challenges: Mount TBR Reading Challenge – a book I’ve left too long unread as it’s been on my shelves for 5 years!

11 thoughts on “The Sunne in Splendour by Sharon Penman”

  1. I have to say I was very convinced by Josephine Tey’s argument even though I know practically nothing about the subject… so this sounds like a novel I might enjoy. Well done on getting through 900 pages… it’s a bit daunting but I have read books that long so I’m quite tempted by this. Nice review.

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  2. I’m so pleased you enjoyed this book as it’s one of my favourite historical fiction novels. I loved the portrayal of Richard and I agree that the battle scenes were particularly vivid. Since reading this I’ve read quite a few other books about the Wars of the Roses, but none of them come close to this one. I don’t know if you’ve read anything else by Sharon Penman, but her Welsh Princes trilogy is excellent as well.

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    1. Helen, it is now one of my favourite historical fiction novels too. I haven’t read anything else by Sharon Penman, but have two of the Queen’s Man series on my Kindle. I like the sound of her Welsh Princes trilogy – thanks for the recommendation. 🙂

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  3. I have seen this book about but haven’t read it or anything else by this author. It is fantastic to hear that it is ‘one of the best historical novels’ that you’ve read! I think I definitely need to add it to my wish list.

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  4. It sounds wonderful, Margaret. I always like it when authors delve more deeply into complicated characters like Richard III. And sometimes, a book can keep your interest even if it is long. Glad you enjoyed this so well.

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  5. I am so glad you read it and loved it. I agree that it is a superb historical novel, and the portrait of RIII is brilliant. I absolutely love his relationship with Anne, and he shines through as the hero of the time, despite all the bad press. I know how what you mean about rooting for a different ending in the face of historical fact.

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  6. Oh gosh, that is a long book! Sounds great, though; I like the sound of a book that is trying to be in accordance with the known-to-be-factual facts.. I was in two minds about Weir’s Princes book – a lot of information but subject very much to that writer’s bias you’ve included in the extract from Penman. Would love to read Tey’s argument, too.

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