After I read The Sunne In Splendour by Sharon Kay Penman, it was so riveting that I soon looked up her other books. I nearly read Lionheart next, after reading a blog interview with her, but decided to start at “the beginning”, so to speak, and began with her first book in the Plantagenet series: When Christ and His Saints Slept. I didn’t know what to expect with this one, as I did not have as much interest in or knowledge of this particular period in medieval history, so it was with happiness when I recognized that familiar pull as I became swept into the story and involved with the characters very much in the same way as I did while reading The Sunne In Splendour.
Much like the opening of The Sunne In Splendour, when we meet Richard as a child, Ms. Penman strikes a similar note in the beginning of When Christ and His Saints Slept with Stephen as a child, in a moment of vulnerability when he overhears his parents arguing about his father‘s cowardice during the First Crusade and his mother forces his father to make a second pilgrimage. From the vantage point of seeing different characters as children and through their formative years, we are able to watch them grow up and evolve and, in this way, we are better able to sympathize or even relate to them, and, perhaps, understand their actions.
When Christ and His Saints Slept is about the war for the English crown that would last fifteen years, which would ultimately lead to the beginning of the Plantagenet reign. After the death of his only legitimate son in the sinking of the White Ship, Henry I proclaimed his daughter Matilda (called Maude in the book to distinguish from the many Matildas) his heir. This created much disconcertion as a woman had never ruled in her own right back then and despite making his court swear an oath of allegiance to Matilda, after Henry I died, his nephew Stephen of Blois took the crown and was anointed king instead. This begins a long and bloody war for the crown, Matilda campaigning for what she believes is her right and later, fighting for her son Henry’s right as she realizes that her own hopes of being queen are futile.
As Henry becomes older, he also joins in his mother’s campaigns for the crown. This alleviates some of the rising criticism of Matilda’s husband, Geoffrey of Anjou, who had taken no part in her campaigns in England, instead choosing to secure Normandy territories. (Geoffrey’s nickname was Plantagenet, deriving from wearing a sprig of broom shrub in his hat, but it would not be used as a family name until the 15th century when Richard, 3rd Duke of York (Edward IV and Richard III’s father) adopted it and used it to emphasize his hierarchical right to the throne during the Wars of the Roses.) Matilda was eleven years older than Geoffrey – he being only fifteen when they were married – and she was proud to be an Empress, after her first marriage to Henry V, King of Germany and Holy Roman Emperor. Though their marriage had been a diplomatic arrangement, she considered Geoffrey beneath her and had not been pleased to marry him. Due to their differences, Matilda and Geoffrey’s marriage was often stormy, despite being considered a success after the birth of Henry and two more sons, Geoffrey and William. (By contrast, her marriage with Henry V had been childless.)
It also during this period that one of history’s most well-known women enter: Eleanor of Aquitaine. Powerful within her own right, after her marriage to Louis VII of France was annulled (on the grounds that she had failed to produce a male heir), she became engaged to and then married Henry. They were third cousins through Ermengarde of Anjou, their common ancestor. (It’s complicated.) Through his marriage to Eleanor, Henry would rule over England and France.
The title derives from a quote from the Peterborough Chronicle, and it is referenced in the storyline as well. Its meaning gradually became understood by me as I continued to read – as much as I love stories that make me think, whatever the medium, I also love equally thought-provoking titles. When Christ and His Saints Slept, the title, is as thought-provoking as it is a statement that encapsulates the time during Matilda and Stephen’s battle for the crown; when there was seemingly no justice, no right or wrong, on both sides and the common people, especially the poor, suffered dearly for it. Later, Victorian historians would call it “the Anarchy”, to describe the chaos, but it does not nearly carry the same weight or even necessarily the same meaning. The Anarchy describes the chaos, but from the impression created in Ms. Penman’s book, it was not only chaotic but also, the people felt, a Godless time as their prayers were seemingly left unanswered.
Historical fiction, especially that’s well-written, is a great way to understand and learn about history because it humanizes the people and events. Reading When Christ and His Saints Slept I was able to make more sense of that time in England’s history and the beginning of the Plantagenet reign. Although I had some general knowledge of medieval history, it seemed mostly boring and uninteresting to me (especially the Early and High Middle Ages) until I began reading Ms. Penman’s books. With her scholarly attention to detail and historical accuracy, as well as refreshing objective portrayal of the characters, I was compelled to explore further and from there develop a bigger picture of that point in time, while, at the same time, recognizing historical events from reading. It’s on this note that I enjoy reading her author’s note at the end of all her books, where she provides some additional history for context and explains her characterization and provides where she stuck to historical fact or took creative license. However, unlike some other historical fiction I have read before, I have found her creative license is within reason, without taking liberty or for the sake of making something up, or gratuitous.
While the majority of the characters are based on real, historical people, one fictional character that shares the floor, nearly equally, with the main characters is Ranulf, a fictional character created by Ms. Penman as one of Matilda’s (Maude’s) illegitimate brothers. (In the author’s note, she explains that as Henry I had many illegitimate children – at least twenty – she saw no harm in making up one more.) Through him, we are able to witness the human side of the conflict, beyond the politics, including, later, from the viewpoint of the common people. As well and for that reason, Ranulf is probably my favourite character, as he evolves and matures the most: from a selfish person, although noble and with good intentions, to caring for others than himself while revealing a good heart. Welsh from his mother’s side, he eventually reunites with his family in Wales and it is there he that finds himself and heals.
Sharon Kay Penman writes compelling historical fiction with a balance between history and drama that will draw readers in and leave them wishing for more. Case in point – I’m now about to read the sequel, Time and Chance!