[This is a review of a sequel. Read the review of the first book, When Christ and His Saints Slept, here.]
Soon upon finishing When Christ and His Saints Slept, I began the sequel Time and Chance. Whereas the first book mostly dealt with Empress Maud and King Stephen’s war for the English throne, Time and Chance is about King Henry II’s reign and his marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine.
Henry’s ascension to the throne did not signify peace for England. He campaigned to claim Welsh territories and, most notably, would make his chancellor Thomas Becket archbishop and that would cause a long and bitter battle between them for seven years and that would end in tragedy. Aside from his marriage to Eleanor, it is his public argument with Becket that he is perhaps best well-known, and remembered, for.
Although he would not be crowned as King of France, through his marriage to Eleanor, Henry effectively ruled over both England and France: this would become known as the Angevin Empire.
Against Eleanor and his mother Maude’s advice, Henry appoints his friend and chancellor Thomas Becket as Archbishop of Canterbury, although he was never a priest. By making Becket archbishop, he believes he can exert his control and reassert his rights over the Church of England. In a dramatic turn of the tables, however, Becket rejects his old lifestyle and zealously throws himself into his new life, becoming a staunch supporter and defender of the church to the point that a bitter resentment and antagonism grows between the two former friends.
Ranulf’s (from WCAHSS) role is expanded in Time and Chance, as he experiences a personal conflict as his loyalties to England and Wales tied as he acts as advisor to Henry as his nephew prepares to conquer Wales, in an attempt to expand his empire’s territories. Despite the advantage of having greater numbers (English as well as Welsh, enemies of the Welsh king Owain ap Gwynedd*), Henry’s attempts are generally futile as the English are unfamiliar with Wales’ harsh landscape and they are ambushed by the Welsh; in one of these ambushes, Henry nearly loses his own life. Seemingly fighting a losing battle, as a last resort to suppress the Welsh Henry orders the Welsh hostages to be taken to Shrewsbury, where they are mutilated. Two of the hostages being Owain’s sons. Within the story, Ranulf leaves the English camp for Wales, enraged by this decision; neither he or Henry will have communication for thirteen years.
Wherever he goes, it is a battlefield for Henry. While his and Eleanor’s union began as a passionate affair, with mutual attraction, their relationship is put under strain as Henry is kept away from home – and from Eleanor – for longer more than the last, with his political campaigns and his public argument with Becket. This also keeps him away from his children, who, as they grow up, come to know their father as well as a complete stranger.
Eleanor is one of the world’s most famous women in history, and her fame stretches beyond her marital union to Henry II. Another woman would soon become well-known through her connection to Henry as his mistress: Rosamund Clifford. She was not the first but would be the most well-known and her relationship with the king causes a further rift in Henry and Eleanor’s relationship. While her affair with Henry was kept secret, it eventually reaches the ears of the queen and, while heavily pregnant and against better rational judgement, crosses the channel in the winter to see Rosamund for herself.
Throughout all these conflicts, both political and domestic, is Henry’s impressive need for power and utter control…in everything. This ultimately leads in his downfall, when his sons – not content with the lands and titles bestowed upon them – would later rebel and rise up against him in a battle for power.
While Henry’s control of Wales is in patches and temporal, the issue with Becket continues to nag until the king utters, “What miserable drones and traitors have I nourished and brought up in my household, who let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born cleric?” Some of his men take this as a royal command to kill the archbishop and four knights, Reginald Fitzurse, Hugh de Morville, William de Tracy, and Richard le Breton, rode out to Canterbury to confront Becket.
Staged as an ambush, in essence, they hid their armour under cloaks and put their weapons by a tree before entering the church. When Becket refuses to submit to the king’s will, they rush out and retrieve their weapons and kill Becket in a gruesome fashion. (The details of which I will not get into here, although this article is quite sufficient and includes an eyewitness account.)
Whether Henry actually sanctioned the murder of Becket or not is still up for debate, although he is inevitably blamed on all counts. Sharon Kay Penman deftly positions Henry as innocent, but outweighs at the same time with the public opinion that Becket’s death was his fault and he is blamed. As penance, he would submit himself to a hundred lashings.
Similar to when I read When Christ and His Saints Slept, another favourite character emerged while reading Time and Chance: Hywel ab Owain Gywnedd. A poet and military leader, Hywel was a real person and, in Time and Chance, whose mastery of the pen is as mighty as the sword. While Henry II tries to gain control of Wales, Wales was not without its own issues of rulership. Hywel was next in line to the Welsh throne after his father, Owain, died suddenly. Gwynedd was one of the Welsh kingdoms, based in northern Wales. In It wasn’t soon in his succession, though, that his step-mother Cristin schemed to have her eldest Dafydd take the throne and then have Gwynedd amongst Dafydd and her other two sons Rhodri and Cynan. In an ambush led by Dafydd, Hywel was killed.
Set during an interesting time in history and during Henry II’s reign, through her writing, the events and people are effectively humanized and we are able to relate to these medieval characters despite their being worlds away from our modern day sensibilities. While it is argued that there is no objective point of view about history, it was perhaps as an outsider to the events – not to mention centuries of separation – that I sided neither with Henry or Thomas Becket; instead taking the middle ground and merely watching, so to speak, as events played out, while recognizing the parts each had to play.
Henry’s troubles are not over, however, and in the next book Devil’s Brood the battlefield takes place closer to home with that of the rebellion of his sons, aided by Eleanor.