When the heir to the throne dies in The White Ship shipwreck, Henry I designates his only legitimate daughter Maude as future queen. However, he has a whole army of bastard children including the charismatic Robert and young Ranulf who is half-Welsh. Maude is married off to Geoffrey Plantagenet, the lord of Normandy. The marriage is loveless but does produce sons. When Henry dies, however, Maude is too late to claim the crown; her cousin Stephen has already been recognised as England’s new ruler. But Maude, with the help of her stepbrothers, does not submit. And so the Anarchy begins.
I once read Penman’s ‘The Sunne in Splendour’ about Richard III and the Wars of the Roses and then resolved to read the rest of her oeuvre. However, it took years until I dared to start this series, which centers on Henry II and Eleanor Of Aquitaine. The books are thick and full of historical detail. This one was written in the early 1990s.
But When Christ and his Saints Slept reads like a modern historical novel. Penman constantly switches perspectives, letting mainly protagonists have their say (Maude, Stephen, his wife Matilda, Robert, Henry, Eleanor and the fictional Ranulf), but also frequently unknown people who, for a short chapter, recount what they experience.
The book begins with the disaster of The White Ship and the perspective of the butcher’s boy who survives was an instant favourite. In addition, I was extremely charmed by Stephen’s queen Matilda (she, like Maude, is called Matilda, a name that appears several times in the book). I was actually not that familiar with her story and this book did trigger something to find out more about her.
Ranulf comes up perhaps the most often and I was saddened to discover that he is a fictional addition, although I suspected as much. He goes through an awful lot and Penman describes this in detail. I really empathised with him and later in the book his Welsh family.
The Anarchy is a complex period and although I knew the basics beforehand, I still learned a lot about the war. The main battles are covered, as are the protagonists besides the royals including for ex. the famous Earl of Chester and his wife Maude (yes, another Maude), the needless violence towards civilians and the role of foreign nations such as France and Normandy.
Eleanor is absent for three quarters of the book and yet she is always there because as queen of France, she is regularly gossiped about. The end of the book where we get to know Eleanor and Henry read even smoother because this is a piece of history I have read about before.
This is a big book, you spend some time with it. It is a bit dry at times. But is it’s worth every page as far as I’m concerned. This is one of those books to be totally immersed in. I will enjoy reading the next parts, but don’t ask me when :).
Have you read anything by Penham? Or anything else good about the Anarchy?
4 thoughts on “When Christ and His Saints Slept by Sharon Kay Penman”
I love the late Sharon Penman’s books.
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I haven’t read this series yet, but I’ve loved some of Sharon Penman’s other books. I have The Reckoning on my shelf to read soon, then I’ll start this one. It sounds great and I do find the Anarchy an interesting period.
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I still need to start the Welsh series, but first when to finish this series (and it consists of 5 books so that will take a while).