When Christ and His Saints Slept by Sharon Kay Penman

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 :).

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Have you read anything by Penham? Or anything else good about the Anarchy?


A tapestry of treason by Anne O’ Brien

Constance of York, also called Lady Despenser, is the daughter of Edmund Langley – Duke of York, and therefore a granddaughter of Edward III. She is stuck in a loveless marriage with Thomas Despenser but both her husband and brothers have received offices and titles at the Court of Richard II, their cousin. When Henry of Lancaster, another cousin, returns from exile and overthrows Richard’s rule, the House of York must choose their loyalty. Are they with Henry IV or with Richard? And is there still a place for York at the court of the new king? Betrayal lurks around the corner.

O’ Brien often writes about forgotten women from the Plantagenet era. A Tapestry of Treason is one of the many books set during the reign of Henry IV. I had never heard of Constance before, so I was intrigued to discover her story

In O’ Briens other book Queen of the North about Elizabeth Mortimer, Constance already had a supporting role and I didn’t like her there. So I was a bit apprehensive about starting this book. But although Constance is portrayed as a cold-hearted and ambitious woman, you do get some sympathy for her.

I was a bit surprised that Elizabeth doesn’t make an appearance in ‘A tapestry of treason’, as I recall a meeting between the two women in Queen of the north. In this story Constance is made unaware of the the people involved in the plots against Henry IV, which is a strange choice in my opinion.

Ultimately, this book is about a woman who wants to fight for what she believes in and is repeatedly disappointed by the men in her life. Her husband, her brother Edward, the king and even her lover Edmund Holland. After a first betrayal, she keeps looking for ways to make things difficult for the king. In doing so, she discovers love for the first time, but even that is not long-lasting.

I enjoyed reading about the House of York before the Wars of the Roses. That was a first and I now have a better understanding of the early breaches of trust between York and Lancaster. The house of Holland also comes to the story’s foreground and I enjoyed reading about the descendants of Joan of Kent, another main character in one of O’Brien’s other books – ‘The shadow queen’.

It’s amazing how reading about the same events can feel so different every time. I still have ‘The queen’s choice’ about Joan Of Navarre (Henry IV’s queen) and ‘The king’s sister’ about Elizabeth of Lancaster (another of Constance’s cousins, it’s a complicated family tree 😅) to go. O’ Brien will never be my favourite author as her writing lacks some vividness, but she can sure craft a good story.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Have you ever heard of Constance of York before? What’s your favourite O’ Brien novel?

The damask rose by Carol McGrath

Eleanor of Castile is under house arrest together with her father-in-law king Henry III during the Baron’s War. She’s forced to live in poverty and her young daughter Katherine dies of a serious cold. She blames ‘Red’ Gilbert De Clare who switched sides and took her into his custody. Her husband prince Edward is locked up somewhere else but manages to escape. At the battle of Evesham, Simon The Monfort is killed and Gilbert once again declares his loyalties to Henry III. After the war, Eleanor decides to never be dependent on others again and starts to earn lands in her own name. She goes on a crusade to Acre as a princess, but she will return as queen of England.

The damask rose is the second part in McGrath’s she wolves trilogy about three medieval queens of England who weren’t popular with the people and the nobles. I did enjoy ‘The silken rose‘ about Alienor of Provence, so I couldn’t wait to learn more about the next queen called Eleanor. She was the wife and queen of Edward I. It was a love match but with a Baron’s War, a crusade and a lot of their children dying young, the couple did endure much together.

Eleanor wasn’t the loving mother, which makes her a bit of a cold character sometimes, but I could understand why she was afraid to get too close to her children. She lost so many of them and just wasn’t the maternal type. However, I did like Eleanor’s character in this book. She was an engaged queen and trusted her guts to like or dislike the people around her. She starts building up an inheritance of lands, which might have made her unpopular. But I don’t think we can really call her a she-wolf.

The novel isn’t only told from Eleanor’s perspective. We also meet Olwen, a lady herbalist who treats the royal family. She travels with them to Acre to discover new plants and herbals and when she returns she starts to plant new herbal gardens at every royal domain. It was fascinating to read about Eleanor’s intentions to improve the royal residences and their gardens.

Olwen is a fictitious character but I liked her. She offers another insight into the royal court and the politics of the time. Her relationship with both Guillaume and Eugene felt real. Also, Alienor of Provence is still present in this novel. I liked to see how the relationship between the two Eleanor’s progressed. I also got to see another side of Edward I who is often depicted as a ruthless king. McGrath succeeds in building a believable and engaging historical story.

Now I’m definitely looking forward to the third book about Isabella of France, a queen I know much more about than the two Eleanors.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Have you read anything about Eleanor of Castile before? Who’s your favourite queen?

World without end by Ken Follett

In the forest just outside Kingsbridge four young children witness a battle between the young knight Thomas Langley and his two pursuers. Langley is saved and decides to take the vows in Kingsbridge priory. In the coming decades, Caris, Gwenda, Merthin and Ralph all try to find their way in the world, never talking about the incident again. Caris desperately wants to become a doctor after her mother’s death but only monks can study medicine. The younger brother Ralph becomes a squire into the household of a knight while the older Merthin is left behind to be a carpenter’s apprentice. And Gwenda is trying to make end’s meet while pursuing an impossible love.

This is an epic story following the descendants of the characters we know from ‘Pillars of the earth’ through the cruel 14th century. The fictitious town of Kingsbridge is again the setting of the book where the cathedral is still towering above everything but the first flaws are discovered in the structure of the building.

Edward II has just been deposed and possibly murdered by his queen Isabella of France in favor of her son Edward III. A war with France is looming around the corner. Serfs are working the fields for their lords. If the harvest is poor, many of them will die of starvation. And then there’s a pandemic which we now refer to as the Black Death. These really are the Dark Ages. Full of war, filth and disease.

If you’ve recently read Pillars, you will discover the characters of World without end are very alike. A character is either bad, like Ralph or Godwyn, or good, like picture perfect Merthin. There seems no in between. Caris and Merthin remind us of Jack and Aliena, but in some way these characters felt more lifelike. Especially Gwenda who suffers a lot, she was my favourite of the lot.

I read Pillars years ago, so I didn’t mind the similarities. Follett uses the same recipe but it works for me. I was absorbed in this cleverly built medieval story about four people and their families. I read Follett for the first time in English but his writing is so easy to read that I was looking forward to my reading time at night. It’s a big book but it didn’t feel like that at all. I wish there were more books like this.

The next book in the series ‘A column of fire’ takes place during Tudor times and is already sitting on my shelves.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Have you read anything by Ken Follett?

The vanishing witch by Karen Maitland

Wool merchant Robert is one of the richest men in Lincoln. But trade has become difficult as cargo starts to disappear and Flemish merchants are offering to pay for wool at higher prizes. Still, the beautiful widow Catlin seeks Roberts advice to invest her money and he quickly becomes enthralled by her. In the meantime, one of Robert’s tenants is struggling to make ends meet. When king Richard II imposes a poll tax for every head of the family above 15, they have no idea how to come by the money. Suddenly, peasants are revolting against the king and people start dying of unnatural causes in Lincoln.

I’ve never before read anything by Karen Maitland so The vanishing witch was my first acquaintance with her work. The novels opens around 1380 when king Richard II sits on the throne and times are hard. Especially for Gunther and his family. The unrest with the lower classes at the heavy taxation will lead to the peasant’s revolt. Maitland will even take you to the bloody streets of London during the revolt. The peasant’s revolt is the reason that I picked up this one up, but it isn’t the focus of this book. The storyline around Gunther is only secondary to the main plot.

The main story evolves around merchant Robert, his family and the widow Catlin. Robert falls in love with Catlin but soon his oldest son, Jan, smells there’s something wrong about her. Especially as people start to die in strange circumstances and the word witchcraft is uttered. Also a strange hooded fellow is seeking out Robert, Jan and the rest of the household to warn them about Catlin, but nobody listens until it’s too late. I didn’t really care about Catlin and Robert as I found them both annoying at times but the flip in perspective contributed to understand all that happened. There are a range of other characters such as Catlin’s children Edward and Leonia and Robert’s servants Beata and Tenney, and I found these side characters more of an interest to me.

The novel is told from Catlin, Gunther and a third person perspective who tells the tale of Robert. From the first pages onwards you sense that the narrator is a ghost but it’s only explained at the end who this person is and what his relation is to the rest of the characters.

This dark atmosphere is a big part of the book. Every chapter starts with a real medieval text fragment about witchcraft. I found them very funny to read. I challenge you to find out yourself if there is a real witch in this story or not… It’s up to you ;).

In the end, I can say that this is definitely my type of book. It has an interesting historical background, a great cast of characters and a gothic undertone. But in some ways, I found it slow to read. Something in Maitland’s writing style forces you to to take it all in.

This is book 1 for #20booksofsummer

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Have you read anything by Karen Maitland? Do you know of any other books dealing with the peasant’s revolt?

Queen of the north by Anne ‘O Brien

Elizabeth Mortimer has royal Plantagenet blood and is married to Harry Hotspur Percy, the heir to the greatest earldom in the north. She believes her young nephew Edmund Mortimer to be second in line to the throne after the childless and unpopular king Richard II. But many don’t want another child king and support her other cousin Henry Of Lancaster instead. When Henry sets foot in England again after years in exile while Richard has suffered grave defeat in Ireland, the battle for the throne is on. Elizabeth’s husband and stepfather join forces with Lancaster and abandon the Mortimer cause. Will there ever be Mortimer king?

This is the second book I’ve read from Anne O’ Brien after having enjoyed ‘the shadow queen‘ about Joan Of Kent a few years ago. Queen Of The North is one of the books she has written around powerful women during Henry IV’s troubled reign. The novel opens with Henry of Lancaster returning to England to gather support to defy king Richard II. The Percy army in the north is preparing to join him.

We meet Elizabeth Mortimer, the wife of the famous Harry Hotspur. The Mortimers are the heirs of Lionel, second son of Edward III, but through the female line of Elizabeth’s mother Filippa Plantagenet. This weakens the claim of her eight-year-old nephew Edmund should Richard die childless. I’ve never really understood why the Mortimer didn’t try harder to get on the throne. They have a stronger claim (if you ignore the female part of it), but history will be forever talking about Lancaster and York. So I found it really interesting to read this story from a Mortimer point of view.

Elizabeth is also a Percy and thus future ‘queen’ of the north. We meet her ambitious stepfather, the earl of Northumberland, and her husband Harry “Hotspur” as he is referred to by the Scots. The marriage between Elizabeth and Harry is quite happy, although there are some serious clashes between them in this novel, not in the least about the succession. Their relationship is the most compelling part of the book in my opinion. I really could love and hate Harry at the same time.

I had hoped that the rebellion would be the biggest part of the novel, but it happens quite fast and the second half focuses even more on Elizabeth’s development as a traitor to the crown. Near the end of the story, I had more and more sympathy for her feelings.

We also meet Queen Joan Of Navarre and Constance Of York in this novel. About both women O’ Brien has written a separate novel. I have the one about Constance ready on my shelves and am curious if I will like her more than in I did this book.

O’ Brien focuses on the story of women, this also means that the main character is far from the action that happens at the battlefield. There are also some serious time jumps adding to the pace of the novel. All things together, I find O’ Brien’s writing style a bit too dry and distant. She lacks the flair of a Joanna Hickson or Elizabeth Fremantle for example. But she writes about forgotten women with a unique story, so I’ll continue to read her books.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Have you read any books set during Henry IV reign?

The Revolt by Clara Dupont-Monod

Richard Lionheart is rebelling against his father, the Plantagenet king of England, together with his brothers Henry and Geoffrey. The rebellion unites the heirs to the throne with France, the southern lords and Aquitaine, the country of Richard’s infamous mother: Queen Eleanor Of Aquitaine. After having divorced the king of France, Eleanor remarried the Plantagenet only to be cast aside after having bared him 8 children. Now she’s looking for revenge. One thing is sure: this battle will torn the family apart.

The revolt is a short novel that focuses on the rebellion of Eleanor Of Aquitaine and her sons against Henry II, king of England in 1173. The novel is split up in three parts—before, during and after the revolt—and mainly told by Richard Lionheart. Although there are some chapters Eleanor, Henry and Alys (Richard’s ex-fiancé) are at word.

I’m quite familiar with the story and I loved Elizabeth Chadwick’s trilogy about Eleanor very much. But still the author managed to surprise me at some parts. Especially the fact that she chooses to tell the story from Richard’s perspective, even the parts before his birth, was surprising. But somehow, it worked for me as long as the story was focusing on the revolt itself.

At the end, it gets a bit messy when Richard leaves for the Holy Land. It feels like the start of a different story because Eleanor wasn’t near Richard at that time. And it’s her figure that really makes this book compelling.

This Eleanor is mysterious, cold and intimidating. Just how I imagine her. I got some new insights on her relationship with Louis, King of France (Eleanor’s first husband) and the role he played in the rebellion. I found Louis’s relationship with Eleanor’s sons one of the most interesting aspects of the story.

This might not be the best fictional retelling of Eleanor’s life because of its shortness. But it’s a well-written account of the revolt and how it tore a whole family apart.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher to provide me with a copy of this book in return for my honest opinion.

The silken rose by Carol McGrath

At thirteen, Ailenor Of Provence travels to England to wed king Henry III, who’s a lot older than herself. Against all odds, the couple does find happiness and affection together. But as a foreign queen, Ailenor is not liked at court and is seen as a ‘she wolf’ when her Savoyard relatives get high positions at court and in the clergy. Luckily, she finds friendship with two remarkable women. Rosalind, a young embroideress and Nell, the king’s sister. Nell’s love interest is none other than Simon De Monfort, but she’s not free to wed since she has taken a vow of chastity after her late husband’s death. Ailenor sees her chance to act as a modern Guinevere and decides to aid the lovebirds.

The silken rose is the first part in a trilogy about three of England’s medieval queens who were seen as she wolves in their time. McGrath wants to give them a more human voice. This books tells the story of Eleanor Of Provence, Henry III’s queen, but McGrath uses the spelling ‘Ailenor’ to distinguish her from all the English Eleanor’s (it was quite a popular name back then).

I liked to read about Henry III’s reign, as he’s a forgotten king stuck between his father ‘bad’ king John and his son Edward Longshanks, who have both gotten more attention in popular culture. But Henry’s reign was a long one and during all that time Eleanor sat faithful at his side on the throne, so the two of them certainly deserve more attention. I did know something about Eleanor. In particular that she has three sisters who would also make important marriages. Her eldest sister Marguerite becomes queen of France, thus bringing the sisters to opposite sides of the European power struggle.

The book opens with Ailenor traveling to England during a cold and wet winter. She likes her husband immediately but he finds her yet too young to consummate the marriage. Ailenor quickly makes friendship with the king’s sister Nell, who is widowed and has taken a vow to never marry again. Determined to be a good queen and smitten with tales of king Arthur and Guinevere, Ailenor develops a love for poetry and embroidery. She offers Rosalind, a very talented embroideress, her own workshop at Winchester. At the same time she petitions the king to help Nell, who has fallen in love with Simon De Montfort but needs the Pope’s blessing to wed again.

We discover court life through the eyes of this three different women. Rosalind is the only one not based on a historical character and although she has quite an interesting story herself, I liked the focus on Ailenor and Nell more.

Henry’s relationship with Nell’s husband Simon De Monfort is a complex one. Especially when events in Gascony are escalating. Eventually it will lead to rebellion, but those events are not included in this book. That may look as a strange choice, but I do understand that McGrath wants to focus on Ailenor’s story and not on the quarrel between two men.

There are many more things going on in this novel, such as the third crusade, the struggle between Ailenor’s Savoyards and the English nobles, witchcraft, Henry’s second family the De Lusignans causing unrest… You get a full insight into the politics and royal intrigues of the 13th century.

I really liked how the relationship between Ailenor and Henry was portrayed. They have a strong affection for each other, but Henry is a volatile king and the couple knows many ups and downs. Ailenor dares to stand up to Henry, which is not always appreciated.

I’m looking forward to read more about Eleanor Of Provence, and to continue with McGrath’s Rose trilogy as I know almost nothing about Eleanor Of Castile, the main subject of the next book in the series.

Rating: 4 out of 5.