For want of a crown its towns were plundered and torched, its women raped and
slaughtered, its men used as fodder for transitory victories.
This was England from 1135 to 1154. For nineteen years two royal rivals -- one intent
on retaining his ill-gained crown, the other demanding it as the rightful heir -- waged a
violent, bloody war against each other.
In When Christ and His Saints Slept, the newest addition to
her highly acclaimed novels of the middle ages, and the first of a trilogy that will tell
the story of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, master storyteller and historian Sharon
Kay Penman illuminates one of the less-known but fascinating periods of English history.
It begins with the death of King Henry I, son of William the Conqueror and father of
Maude, his only living legitimate offspring.
Penman portrays Maude as a strong-willed woman, fearless, incapable of obeisance,
determined to wield sovereign power at a time when the primary function of women of
royalty, no matter how intelligent or capable, was as dynastic pawns. Having endured two
forced marriages, she was intent on seizing control of her destiny and of the crown she
claimed was hers by birthright. Still, she was thwarted, not only by men lusting for
but by men fearful of the power of women.
Each side had its brief triumphs, its calamitous losses, its betrayals by seemingly
loyal followers. But the greater betrayal was of the country itself, as warring armies
bloody swaths the length and breadth of England and as first one side and then the other
seized advantage, while the people themselves were held hostage, caring little who should
wear the crown, yearning only for peace.
Maude and Stephen took center stage during these tumultuous years, but the supporting
cast was an equally demanding and often dangerous lot: Geoffrey of Anjou, Maude's
second husband, unfaithful and unpredictable; the hot-headed Earl of Chester, who swung
like a weathercock in a high wind; Stephen's brother Henry, Bishop of Winchester, a power
broker for both sides and trusted by neither. Of all the high-stakes players, only Robert
of Gloucester, Maude's bastard half-brother, emerged with his honor intact and was,
perhaps, the only one among them who might have been worthy of the crown.
And then there was Henry, Maude's son and heir. As Stephen and Maude battled each
to a war-weary draw, it was Henry who became the ultimate victor. Intelligent, energetic,
groomed from birth for kingship, he wanted two things above all else: the English crown
and Eleanor of Aquitaine, wife of Louis, the French king. And indeed, he won both.
When Christ and His Saints Slept is a meticulously observed
chronicle of a period thought of as primitive and barbaric. And yet, in the author's
carefully documented re-creation of life and death in the twelfth century -- towns in
flames, encircled by enemy armies; innocent people being starved and battered into
submission -- we might be reading about blighted arenas of our own time. With verve,
intelligence, and high drama, Sharon Kay Penman has bridged a vital link between the
"The magnificent combination of history and humanity that Penman's readers have
come to expect again animates her latest work."
"Tirelessly researched . . . this sprawling historical novel demonstrates
understanding of its time and place, and renders historical figures in terms of flesh and
blood, rather than as cardboard cutouts."