Book Review: When Christ and His Saints Slept by Sharon Kay Penman

When Christ and His Saints Slept, by Sharon Kay Penman, is one of the most magnificent works of historical fiction I’ve ever read. It spans a period of approximately fifty-five years, from the early childhood of King Stephen to the succession of Henry the Second to the throne of England. Penman’s narrative is lively and fascinating from beginning to end.
Henry the First was the youngest son of William the Conqueror, the Norman invader who became ruler of England in 1066. He succeeded to the throne in 1100 A.D. He had numerous illegitimate children but he and his wife Matilda, the daughter of King Malcolm of Scotland had only two legitimate children, William Adelin and Matilda, AKA Maude. After William was drowned in the sinking of the White Ship in 1120, Henry named Maude as his successor, and after her husband Henry the Fifth, Holy Roman Emperor died in 1125, required her to marry Geoffrey of Anjou. Despite the infelicity of the marriage, Maude bore Geoffrey three sons, Henry, Geoffrey and William. Upon the death of Henry the First, Maude was expected to take the throne, but her place was usurped by her cousin Stephen of Blois. There followed a bloody and bitter civil war lasting nineteen years. Penman describes these events in amazing detail and poignant human terms. She brings to life a grand array of historical characters, such as, Robert of Glouster, the illegitimate son of Henry the First, who opposes the usurper Stephen, and becomes her most competent general and most forceful ally. Robert might have been an excellent king, but he was barred from the position by his illegitimacy. Neither Stephen nor Maude were well suited to the monarchy. Stephen was a competent general but was deficient in the use of statescraft, and hampered, ironically, by lack of ruthlessness. Maude was strong willed and would not listen to wise counsel. Penmen also treats reader to portraits of such personages as William de Ypres, the Earl of Chester, John Marshall, Thomas Becket, Henry the Second, and Eleanor of Aquitaine.
Penmen also entertains readers with an intertwined story of a fictional character, Ranulf Fitzroy, an illegitimate son of Henry the First. Plight trothed to the beautiful Anora, Ranulf sees her snatched away from him and married to another nobleman due to his unwillingness to support abandon his sister Maude and support King Stephen. Ranulf will go to almost any lengths to get Anora back.
For the historical fiction fan, When Christ and His Saints Slept is an awesome and fully satisfying experience.

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