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.