Sharon Kay Penman, novelist who explored the history of medieval Britain – obituary

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Telegraph Obituaries
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Sharon Kay Penman
Sharon Kay Penman

Sharon Kay Penman, the American author, who has died aged 75, wrote more than a dozen well-received historical novels and mysteries set in medieval Britain, notably her revisionist telling of the reign of Richard III, The Sunne in Splendour (1982).

She began writing it as a student and had completed a 400-page manuscript when it was stolen from the family car as her parents were bringing her back to her university digs. So dispirited was she by the theft that she did not pick up her pen again for five years, only doing so as a solace from the still more lowering experience of working as a tax lawyer.

By the time the book was complete, it came in at 1,200 typewritten pages, its length only reduced by a third when her editor invited her to think of the trees that would be saved were it shorter. None the less, the novel, which spanned Richard’s life from boyhood to Bosworth field, held the attention, taking as it did the line that his reputation had been besmirched after his death by the Tudors.

Sharon Kay Penman's debut novel, which she rewrote after the manuscript was stolen
Sharon Kay Penman's debut novel, which she rewrote after the manuscript was stolen

Sharon Kay Penman became convinced that the true villains of Richard’s protectorship were the Woodvilles, the in-laws of his brother Edward IV. She laid the blame for the fate of the Princes in the Tower on their uncle, the grasping Duke of Buckingham.

Not all readers and critics were persuaded by the case she made in fiction for Richard as being merely a misunderstood, high-minded man with a troublesome shoulder. Yet few could take issue with her diligence as a researcher or with her ability to depict the past clad in vivid raiment.

Historical fact was always the taproot of her stories rather than being used simply as window dressing, and she was so scrupulous that she maintained on her website a list of the errors that she had made. Among these was describing a greyhound as being “brindled” before that colouring had been bred into dogs.

The first of her mysteries set in the Middle Ages: it was nominated for an Edgar Award
The first of her mysteries set in the Middle Ages: it was nominated for an Edgar Award

Sharon Kay Penman was born in New York on August 13 1945 and grew up in Atlantic City, where her parents were waiters. Her father wrote novels in his spare time, but never succeeded in having one published.

After studying History at the University of Texas and then qualifying as a lawyer at Rutgers University, Sharon Kay Penman returned to her native city to practise. Following the success of The Sunne in Splendour, she moved to Wales to begin research for a cycle of stories about the medieval rulers of Gwynedd.

The first of these novels, Here Be Dragons (1985), centred on Joanna, the illegitimate daughter of King John, who was married to Llewelyn the Great. A later sequence (she was published in Britain as Sharon Penman) focused on the Plantagenet kings themselves, starting with the relationship between Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine.

Sharon Kay Penman's final novel
Sharon Kay Penman's final novel

Several of her books became bestsellers in America, where she had a loyal readership who signed up for the historical tours she led. In 1996, she switched to writing mysteries set in the Middle Ages, featuring a sleuth working for Eleanor, Justin de Quincy.

The first of these, The Queen’s Man, was nominated for an Edgar award, and three more followed. Her final book, The Land Beyond the Sea, about the defence of the Kingdom of Jerusalem against Saladin, was published last year.

“History helps us understand our place in the universe,” observed Sharon Kay Penman, “and it teaches us the importance of context – that we are united in our common humanity and there is nothing new under the sun.”

She is survived by a brother.

Sharon Kay Penman, born August 13 1945, died January 22 2021