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“When Christ and His Saints Slept,” by Sharon Kay Penman

11 Nov

“When Christ and His Saints Slept,” by Sharon Kay Penman (901p)

When Christ and His Saints Slept is one of American author Sharon Kay Penman’s masterpiece novels of the Middle Ages. Written in 1994, this one tells the story of a bleak time in English history as rival claimants to the throne of England, Stephen of Blois and Empress Maude, fought a needless war for two decades that devastated England. It was the time of England’s history called The Anarchy.

It is 1120, and the son of King Henry I of England, William, is readying to return to England on the brand new royal vessel, the ill-fated White Ship. The seas are rough and the passengers drunk, too drunk to spot the sudden appearance of a reef in the ocean. It tears a hole in the boat and sinks, destroyed and drowning all of its passengers, including the heir to the throne. With no male heir, Henry I is forced to name his daughter, the widowed Empress Maude, as successor and forces his barons to swear allegiance to Maude. But none of Henry’s vassals wanted a woman ruling in heir own right, least of all one married to the hated Geoffrey, Count of Anjou. And so on Henry I’s death one of his barons breaks his agreement and claims the throne himself, making Stephen of Blois the fourth King of England since the conquest. Maude’s allies are outraged and immediately declared war on Stephen, but they were otherwise hemmed into Geoffrey’s Anjou, left with attempted sieges and small fights in Normandy while Stephen controls England. Stephen tries to consolidate his kingdom but the blunders which would characterise his reign surface soon after, eventually forcing the public support of Maude by her powerful half-brother, Robert of Gloucester. Eventually, the war tide favoured Maude enough for her to leave her exile in Anjou and return to England, ready to claim her rightful crown.

When Stephen is betrayed by his cowardly allies at the first pitched battle of the war, the Battle of Lincoln, and captured Maude is able to make her formal claim and hurries across country to be crowned. But she, like Stephen, makes far too many mistakes so quickly and quickly offsets the people of London. Londoners unite to scare Maude and her supporters out of the city before she could be officially crowned. The Queen consort, Matilda, rallies and begins a campaign to free her husband – eventually doing so after the destruction of Winchester, capturing Robert of Gloucester. Robert was traded for Stephen’s freedom, so the King returned to the throne, and Maude would never be Queen.

The two then fight a bloody, desperate and at times pointless war across the length and breadth of England with Maude narrowly escaping capture at Oxford, her legendary escape in the snow to Wallingford brought to life. Intermittent between this is the de facto protagonist, the fictional Ranulf, and his sorry tale of lost love and redemption as he seeks to find his happiness in the world while being one of Maude’s key supporters. After six years of getting nowhere, her dream of being Queen ends when Robert of Gloucester dies, and Maude decides to return to Anjou a defeated woman leaving her campaign in England to the rest of her allies and the Earl of Chester, as Stephen lurched from one political mistake to another, his kingship held together by his brilliance on the battlefield.

The final part of the novel deals with the rise of the future Henry II into adulthood. Together with his entertaining father, Geoffrey, the Angevins sweep across Normandy and completely take it out of Stephen’s control – not only pacifying the Norman barons but then becoming Duke of Normandy in his own right. The young Henry is a brilliant character – confident, intelligent, quick-witted, polite yet commanding. Henry surges to the fore of Anglo-French politics and becomes such a headache for Stephen and Louis VII that they try anything to get an advantage over the rampant Angevins. While on a visit to Paris Henry meets his future bridge, the teasing beauty Eleanor of Aquitaine, Queen of France. Henry conspires with her to force her divorce from Louis and the two fall in love, secretly marrying weeks after Eleanor’s divorce from Louis. Henry was on top of the world then and continued to storm through the campaigning season with victory after victory, not even the sudden death of Geoffrey could keep him down for long. Eventually, Henry returns to England to reignite the Angevin cause in the sickly England, and beats Stephen across the length and breadth of the country. When Eustace, Stephen’s son and heir, suddenly dies, Henry forces Stephen’s hand and gets himself named as the heir to the throne, ending the bloody war at long last. At novels end, Henry Fitz Empress, Duke of Normandy and Count of Anjou, becomes King of England as Henry II and the Plantagenet dynasty was born.

Compared to a lot of historical fiction readers, I’m a very late comer to Sharon Kay Penman’s books. Everything I have heard about them indicates the very tip of excellence in this genre … and I totally see why. This was just superb. Superb writing, superb characters, superb plot devices, and superb dialogue. The latter is particularly true. One of the things I noticed is that most of the story is told in the dialogue, as in it moves from event to event in the dialogue. I kind of imagine each chapter as a short play and the various characters lay out their lives like that. It is quite different from a lot of the things I read where the story moves from various action scene to another, but that did not deter from the reading experience at all. Instead of seeing castles under siege and torrid fighting, you hear about it, and it is left up to your imagination to picture it. I liked that.

The risk of having a novel mainly confined to dialogue is the characters rather morph into one and become the same person. But this is not the case in When Christ and His Saints Slept. All the characters have their own voices and their own defined yet easily recognisable personalities. You know it is Robert when caution and planning is spoken of, you know it is Stephen when chivalry and doing the right thing is spoken of, and you know it is Maude when it is a quick tongue and an impatience with the world around her. I enjoyed these recognisable personalities a lot with characters properly brought to life. Particularly I liked Geoffrey of Anjou, so often over-shadowed by his illustrious son. I felt pity for Stephen, he seemed like a nice person but never suited for rule, and I enjoyed reading so much about what is probably England’s most forgotten monarch. The only character I particularly didn’t enjoy as much was the fictional Ranulf – I felt him to be a little too perfect, you know? He seems to say and do everything right, and I found him to be a little on the nauseating side at times, and would have preferred him to have a little more chinks in his armour like some of his real contemporaries, people who could not be any more flawed if they tried. But he is an exception, and the rest of them are brilliantly developed and constructed people with a very clear voice that beam off the page.

At 901 pages this is one of the meatiest books I have ever read. I think only War and Peace is longer but I made my way through it reasonably fast. It took me a little longer than it should have but that is more because I stupidly chose to begin reading it in the middle of writing a couple of essays, so I went a couple of days without reading. For blokes who have reservations about historical fiction written by woman with a fear that it might be too mushy with romance (hey, there are some), fear not, for there is little of that. It is a rollercoaster ride of ambition, treachery and politics set against the backdrop of the turbulent 12th century, one of the most important in English history. Through Maude, the fictional Ranulf, Stephen, Robert, Geoffrey and Henry the twenty year civil war of The Anarchy unfolds in a truly excellent way, told in a style that is guaranteed to captivate any reader. Despite the length it is easy to read and very simple to understand with a style of dialogue that resonates in this century as well as one 900 years ago. It is very much worth taking the time to read this fantastic novel.