Sharon Kay Penman,
When Christ & His Saints Slept
(Penguin, 1995)

Sharon Kay Penman begins a new trilogy with When Christ & His Saints Slept. Set in the 12th century, William the Conqueror's grandchildren clash swords over the English crown, the sound-waves resound from Scotland to France, and Penman plunges her readers into a maelstrom of plot and counter-plot, oath making and breaking, phenomenal determination and fortitude, appalling deprivation and disaster.

She lays firm foundations in the initial chapters on which to build the quirks of Fate and character-forming happenstance of the main protagonists. A young Stephen of Blois is profoundly affected by his father's interpretation of honour and duty; later, there is a frank discussion between Count Stephen and his nephew Ranulph, youngest bastard of King Henry I, the echoes of which reverberate on several levels as the story unfolds. We are privy to the bright-burning passion between Ranulph and his fiancˇ Annora, and we witness the bitter public and private battleground of a marriage between Geoffrey of Anjou and Maude, the daughter and controversial heir of Henry I of England.

The death of the old king unleashes a disastrous and prolonged fight for the crown between his nephew, Count Stephen of Blois, and Princess Maude, Countess of Anjou. The civil war tears England asunder, the desperate needs of each claimant allowing unscrupulous nobility to play one off the other while profiting from both. The battles and sieges fought across the land impoverish the country folk, who cannot till the fields, and the townspeople, whose homes and shops are burned and ransacked. The Church can neither protect its own nor the lives or virtue of those seeking sanctuary.

Stephen is a mild-mannered, honourable, easily influenced man, as well as a likeable and trustworthy husband, father and friend, but his admirable qualities make for irredeemable failings as a monarch. Maude is an unforgiving, contentious, prideful and obstinate woman, but those traits, which make her undeniably her father's daughter, serve to alienate and unsettle those who would otherwise support her. She is determined to recover the dignity, wealth and independence she feels to be her due. Stephen seizes the throne, aided by the Church and noblemen who believe it to be against nature to be under the regal domination of a mere woman. Maude, incapable of taking to the field of battle in person, is further compromised by bearing Geoffrey's children and being dependent upon him and her loyal brother Robert to wage war on her behalf.

When Christ & His Saints Slept is a large and fascinating tapestry depicting of one of the darkest episodes of English history, interwoven with the myriad colours, textures and depths of the characters inhabiting the era. The reader focuses first on Stephen, then on Maude, but each is surrounded and enhanced by a retinue of nobility and servants, clergy and concubines, all of whom have their own part in the picture and their own tales to tell. One can sympathise with each antagonist, empathising with Stephen's desire to do right by his court and his subjects and also with Maude's struggle for recognition as the rightful queen, hampered by her gender in the medieval atmosphere of misogyny. Had Stephen the ruthless, ambitious and unequivocal personality of Maude, he would have been the monarch the country needed and expected; had Maude not been a woman, she would have been an acceptable and successful heir to Henry. Each equally courageous, impulsive and insecure, the combination of their differences would have formed an indomitable personality, tempered by honour and decency, that could have ruled over a strong land. Fate was not accommodating, and so England lay wasted, as factions fought and alliances altered and its citizens were caught between ruin and riot.

It takes a little while to sort out the complexities of the varying degrees of kinship, the loyalties and the large geographical spread as one steps into a time When Christ & His Saints Slept. Once this is achieved, the 909 pages seem to turn themselves as one is held in Penman's spellbinding story. When the final page is turned, rather than drawing breath and returning to the 21st century, one is already reaching eagerly for its sequel, Time & Chance!

[ by Jenny Ivor ]
Rambles: 22 June 2002

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