Ask many Ricardians how they got their first glimpse of a non-Shakespearean Richard III, and many will tell you it was one of two novels—Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey or The Sunne in Splendour by Sharon Kay Penman. Sadly, on January 22, Sharon Penman, who continued to be a great supporter of Richard’s cause down through the long years since Sunne was published in 1982, passed away in hospital after a brief illness.
Sharon’s fictional account of Richard was one of the first to give a multi-layer view of Richard’s life, and also to present the Duke of Buckingham as a strong contender for involvement in the enduring mystery of the Princes in the Tower (in which she was quite ahead of her time– the damning document that reads they were killed ‘by the vice of the Duke of Buckingham’ was not found for another few years).
And to think the book nearly never saw the light of day! Sharon had been working on it for several years when she went out and left the manuscript inside her car. When she got back to the car, she found it had been broken into…and the manuscript was gone. That discouraged her so much that it took several years before she was able to write again. She then began to arduous task of re-writing the story from memory.
After Sunne’s great success, Sharon went on to write many other medieval-based novels, including the Welsh Princes Trilogy, The Plantagenet series, and the Justin de Quincy mysteries. Several books reached the New York Times Bestseller lists.
It was in 1983 that I first stumbled on Sunne in my local library. I read mostly high fantasy back then but nothing appealed that day—and then I saw this huge doorstopper book with a sword on the from cover and armoured men on the back. “Interesting!” I thought, picking it up. I read the blurb and was intrigued, so I checked it out and took it home. I was engrossed in it for days and remember excitedly telling my mother, “You know those old Shakespeare stories about Richard III? The hunchback? The Princes? Well—they’re not true!”
I was fortunate enough to meet Sharon at Bosworth Battlefield Heritage Centre many years later in 2013, not long after Richard’s remains had been found and identified. Her publisher had reissued Sunne with a new cover, an author’s note chronicling the recent discoveries…and a correction of the infamous ‘grey squirrel’, which should, of course, have been red!
Sharon was a quiet-spoken, friendly and patient lady. She found time to chat with everyone who attended, and I know she also helped many writers in their own careers through the years.
She will be missed in historical fiction circles and by her legions of readers.
Thank you, Sharon, for your creations, for daring to give us a version of Richard that differed from the traditionalist one, influencing many to continue onwards into the studies of his life and times. Loyaulte Me Lie.
Photos: Sharon Penman signing books at Bosworth Visitors’ Centre in 2013