Ballantine Books, 1994, 784 pages
A.D. 1135. As church bells tolled for the death of England's King Henry I, his barons faced the unwelcome prospect of being ruled by a woman: Henry's beautiful daughter Maude, Countess of Anjou. But before Maude could claim her throne, her cousin Stephen seized it. In their long and bitter struggle, all of England bled and burned.
Sharon Kay Penman's magnificent fifth novel summons to life a spectacular medieval tragedy whose unfolding breaks the heart even as it prepares the way for splendors to come—the glorious age of Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Plantagenets that would soon illumine the world.
Everyone knows that George R.R. Martin's Game of Thrones is loosely based on England's War of the Roses, which took place in the 15th century. But 300 years before that was a much earlier civil war that lasted for almost 20 years, and was very much a squabble for the throne with a large cast of characters.
This book was so good that I spoiled myself for the rest of the trilogy by, uh, looking up Eleanor of Aquitaine on Wikipedia.
It's not as if I'd never read about her before, but let's face it, I've read lots of English history and I still can't always keep the Plantagenets and the Yorks and the Lancasters and the Stuarts and so on straight, plus there's that whole Cromwell interlude. When Christ and His Saints Slept ends on such a high note for Henry II and his wife Eleanor that I had to go refresh my memory on how that turns out for them, and, well, not well.
But that's what made this such an enjoyable novel. Sharon Penman sticks to the historical record as much as possible, but the historical record rarely tells us much about the actual personalities and day to day lives of 12th century nobles. What's written about the most famous people of that era was generally written by either friends or enemies. Penman gives all her "characters" a life as if they were her fictional creations, and imbues them with wills, personalities, and dialog, as they grapple with military, political, and personal struggles, making this a book that's as rich as any epic fantasy. It just happens to be about real history, and there are no dragons.
While Eleanor of Aquitaine is possibly the most famous (today) character in the book, she actually appears only in the latter half, and her story has just begun. When Christ and His Saints Slept is about the origins of the Plantagenets. It starts with the sinking of the White Ship:
This was the greatest disaster of the 12th century for England. A ship full of royals, crossing the English channel, sank within sight of shore, and among those drowned was the only male heir of King Henry I. When Henry dies, it triggers a succession crisis, which is known historically as The Anarchy. One historical record says of the bloodshed and pillaging and suffering wrought upon England over the next two decades that it was as if "Christ and His saints slept."
King Henry did have a surviving daughter: the Empress Matilda (also known as "Maude," which is how Penman refers to her throughout this book). Maude had been married to the Holy Roman Emperor, but when he died, her father summoned his widowed daughter back to Normandy and designated her his heir. This did not go over well with the Anglo-Norman aristocracy, who had no precedent for a female monarch. Maude's cousin Stephen, a grandson of William the Conqueror, claimed the throne instead, and for the next twenty years, England would be split by an early Game of Thrones.
Like all medieval warfare, there was plenty of pillaging and raping and other atrocities, but this was early days, with chivalry still an actual model that lords and their knights at least paid lip service to. So while the battle between Empress Matilda and Stephen of Blois was bloody and miserable for England, there is also a very gamesman-like aspect to the constant switching of sides, the betrayals, the exchanging of prisoners and castles. At times it's almost courtly and civil. Then there are the times when angry armies raze towns to the ground for the sin of having been previously occupied by their rival.
Penman depicts Stephen as a very good man who turns out to be a very bad king. Soft-hearted, chivalrous to a fault, a man who feels genuine guilt at all the hardships his war brings to England, he is a character the reader comes to like and sympathize with, especially when he gets repeatedly betrayed, and then his own son turns out to be a sociopathic little shit. The problem with Stephen is that there is no room for nice guys on the throne. Every time he shows mercy and forgiveness, he just emboldens his enemies and makes his allies respect him less, a lesson he simply refuses to learn.
There is also, of course, the fact that Stephen technically started this war because he just couldn't accept the idea of a woman on the throne.
Maude is clearly the author's favorite. She's proud, stubborn, fierce, and while Penman doesn't quite commit the cardinal sin of putting modern feminist views in the head of a medieval character, you can tell she really wants to. Maude is constantly complaining about how "God saw fit to make me a woman" and how unfair all the shit she has to put up with because of it is. Her marriage to Geoffrey of Anjou, the first Plantagenet, is depicted as long, bitter, marital warfare in which Maude will never let her young husband live up to her dead first husband, the Holy Roman Emperor, and Geoffrey is a headstrong manly man who isn't about to be dominated by his arrogant wife. Which makes it awkward when he has to fight for what is, by law, her crown. Eventually they are both fighting for their son's crown, realizing that Maude herself, though she comes tantalizingly close at times, will never sit on the throne.
The war between Stephen and Maude is full of intrigue, military genius and blunders, and an ever-shifting tide of alliances. Some nobles change sides multiple times. The consequences for betrayal were usually getting your castle seized, but nobles could basically buy forgiveness. War was all just a game to them, though not for the knights and levies who died in mud and snow because someone felt petty this season.
This book takes us all the way to the end of England's first civil war. Henry FitzEmpress, the son of Maude and Geoffrey, picks up the baton left by his mother, weds Eleanor of Aquitaine, the divorced wife of the French king (quite a tale in itself), and finally forces Stephen to sue for peace, by making him his heir. Almost anticlimactically, Henry II will become king peacefully, when Stephen dies. Everything is looking up for him and Eleanor, whom the author depicts as being very much in love with one another. But we know history says things won't turn out so well for them...
I always love a juicy historical novel, and this one was one of my favorites to date. It's not just a veneer of invented dialog and some side characters plastered over historical events. Penman has gone ahead and basically made up whatever she wanted to that isn't explicitly contradicted by history. Did any of these conversations really happen? Were any of these people at all like the personalities the author has created for them? Almost certainly not. This is a tale of how things could have happened. If you didn't know the historical basis, you could easily read this as a rich work of fiction, with as much intrigue, war, romance, and betrayal as in any fantasy epic. It's a first-class bit of historical storytelling, completely believable and at the same time you very much don't feel like it's just a fictionalized history book.
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