Here Be Dragons, Falls the Shadow and The Reckoning by Sharon Kay Penman
Introduced by Lesley Arrowsmith (in her guise as a medieval re-enactor)
I’m recommending a trilogy here because it’s impossible to choose just one of these books.
There are loads of historical novels about the Tudors, or the Regency period, or the Middle Ages – set in England. There are even some set in Scotland – but Wales? Very few, and of those few, these books are the best.
The trilogy takes one of the most interesting periods of Welsh history and makes it come alive with vibrant characters and well-researched history. When the leader of the re-enactment group I belong to read this trilogy, he asked: ‘Why is nobody else re-enacting this? It’s brilliant history!’ And so he formed Drudion, which covers the period 1180 to 1240, the time of Llewelyn ap Iorwerth’s rule, and we became medieval Welsh mercenaries.
Here Be Dragons follows the story of Llewelyn ap Iorwerth, who became Llewelyn the Great of Gwynedd, as he fought for, and won, the crown of Gwynedd and worked throughout his life to unite Wales. He married Joanna, the illegitimate daughter of King John, and she became invaluable in his dealings with the Kings of England. Fans of the series usually point to the incident where Joanna burns the bed in which Llewelyn has been sleeping with his mistress as one of their favourite scenes from the book!
Falls the Shadow shifts the focus to Simon de Montfort and the civil war which ended, tragically for Simon, at Evesham. The Welsh connection is strong, though, as Simon made a treaty with Llewelyn ap Gruffydd, grandson of Llewelyn ap Iorwerth, and Simon’s sister Eleanor eventually became Llewelyn’s wife – though Edward I did his best to prevent them from ever meeting. The place where they signed the treaty was just up the road from Hay near Glasbury, at Pipton Castle.
And with the third book, The Reckoning, we’re back in Wales, and Llewelyn’s brother Dafydd almost manages to take over the story! Here, Wales is struggling for survival against Edward I of England’s plans of conquest, and Dafydd blithely swaps sides several times. He paid for it in the end – Edward had him hanged, drawn and quartered at Shrewsbury, and Wales ceased to be an independent country. Llewelyn was the Last Prince.
Back when I was an archaeologist, I worked on the dig at Caergwrle Castle in North Wales. It was from there that Dafydd launched the attack on nearby Hawarden Castle, on Easter Sunday, that began the war which ended in his death and the death of his brother Llewelyn and, in fact, every major historical character in the entire book! On the dig, I used to give the guided tours of the castle and talk about the history to visitors, so I knew how badly it ended for the Welsh – but I couldn’t stop reading, even though I was crying for the last 200 pages!
So, romance, betrayal, political intrigue, vivid characterisation, these books have them all!
If anyone has an interest in Welsh history, they have to read this trilogy.