Devil’s Brood by Sharon Kay Penman follows the latter part of Henry II’s reign and his downfall by his three sons, known as the “Devil’s brood” – deriving from the legend that the Angevin line was descended from the Devil himself – Henry the Young King, Geoffrey, and Richard, who would come to earn the nickname Lionheart for his reputation as a great military leader. Made discontent over their father’s unrelenting control, they decide to rebel and with the alliance of their mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine.
Unlike Time and Chance, which mostly dealt with Henry II’s feud with Thomas Becket, the threat is closer to home and therefore with more devastating consequences for those involved. The twisted psychology of the Angevins, as written by Ms. Penman, as the brothers constantly manipulate one another and their father for personal gain, deceive, double-cross, and backstab one another and draw others into their web are ingredients for high drama that should also appeal to fans of Game of Thrones (the tv show and or books). The brothers’ bickering among each other and with their father will not only ensure their father’s downfall, but the loss of the Angevin empire.
The brothers – Hal (historically known and remembered as Henry, the Young King – to avoid confusion, referred to hereafter as Hal), Geoffrey, and Richard – are united in their rebellion, but each rebels for his own selfish gain. The brothers’ alliance with their mother is historically ambiguous, as it’s unclear whether Eleanor egged them on to defy Henry and gain more control of their inheritance or that she was drawn into their scheming. The seeds for the first revolt was sown when Henry decides to bequeath three castles that were in Hal’s inheritance to his youngest son John, in a marriage arrangement. Influenced by others who saw their own gain in a transition of power, Hal was encouraged to rebel and soon he drew in his brothers, who also had grown malcontent over their own lack of control of their lands.
The king, by the fault of his own need to control everything, promised an inheritance to his sons (except for John, for whom he had no inheritance – from where he had acquired the nickname, “John Lackland” – until bequeathing those three castles), yet continually failed to deliver upon it as he thinks that his sons aren’t ready for such power or responsibility. Despite his reasoning, though, the delay makes his sons long for it and grow bitter; making the rebellion seem inevitable.
For her involvement of the rebellion, Eleanor is captured and for sixteen years is imprisoned. Unable to communicate with her sons, she grows distant from them; her whereabouts largely unknown, she also was moved from place to place. During her imprisonment, the king’s mistress Rosamund Clifford takes ill and dies, shortly after she had committed herself to the life of a nun. During the Elizabethan age it was popularly believed that Eleanor had poisoned Rosamund, but modern historians do not accept this and neither does Ms. Penman, simply by fact that Eleanor was still imprisoned at the time and would not have been able to travel, except for when she was moved.
As I briefly mentioned in my review of Time and Chance, there isn’t an objective way of viewing history; there is always someone else’s agenda to fulfill or coloured by someone else’s bias. Writers of historical fiction are prey to this as well – in research, one might side with a particular person or their point of view – yet Ms. Penman deftly balances all of the different POVs of the various characters, whether they be allies or are warring with each other, to form a whole and balanced perspective so that one never finds himself leaning particularly upon one character’s view of things and therefore invited to have an informed perspective of the entire picture. This was my experience, and in doing so I ultimately developed a deep sympathy for the different characters, and empathized, as I recognized the characters’ fallacies and their misunderstanding of one another and their actions, and sometimes even their not knowing each other as in the case of Eleanor and her son John.
This bias is particularly noted in Eleanor’s case. Some writers, including historians, have painted Eleanor as a virtuous woman who was wronged by her husband and therefore Henry is depicted as evil. This is avoided, however, in Devil’s Brood as the mistakes and wrongs by Eleanor and Henry bob are recognized and the consequences, through introspection and observance on their parts, are explored and taken into perspective.
Even though the odd thing may slip – in particular, an infamous, time travelling grey squirrel that the author has made mention of by way of example – part of my enjoyment of Ms. Penman’s novels is rooted in her level of attention to historical detail. Generally, I barely notice the odd, minor historical inaccuracy if I’m not familiar but two things came to my attention while reading Devil’s Brood, that of the use of “butt” and “whoa.” The first word is used when we’re going through Hal’s thought processes, as he’s realizing that he’s going to have to save his “butt” again, in the wake of his father’s and brothers’ wrath. I’m not asking for every word uttered by the different characters and used in the story to be historically accurate – words and language change, meanings change, or are lost to time; it would be impossible to do, but both words felt slightly jarring when I read them. I looked them up afterward and according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, “butt” (in the sense of one’s behind) is recorded as early as the mid-fifteenth century. As for “whoa”, used by Richard to bring his horse to a halt, in that sense it’s attributed to 1843 but dates back to the seventeenth century as “a cry to attention from a distance”.
That aside, Devil’s Brood is a wonderful book and it was the one I enjoyed the most in the Henry II and Eleanor series, after the first book When Christ and His Saints Slept. The intricacies of the human condition and family dynamics, as well as the humanizing of history, is part of what makes reading Sharon Kay Penman’s works so compelling.