When Christ and His Saints Slept
By Sharon Kay Penman
Random House, 1996
About the Book
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.
When Christ and His Saints Slept is set in the twelfth century. It begins with the tragic sailing of The White Ship and ends with Henry II ready to be crowned king of England. For readers who like numbers, that would be 1120–1154. This covers the later part of Henry I’s reign: his grief and desperation over the loss of his son and heir, his wanting his daughter, Maude, to be his successor; it covers the war—which lasted over ten years—between Stephen and Maude for the crown of England. Readers also get a chance to see Maude’s son, Henry, grow up to become Henry II.
This is a novel with many strengths. One of its greatest, perhaps, is in the wide range of characters or narrators. Stephen and Matilda, on one side, Maude and Geoffrey, on the other. Readers meet the men and women who supported Maude, including many of Henry I’s illegitimate sons. Readers meet the men and women who supported Stephen’s claim to the throne. If there is a point to When Christ and His Saints Slept, it is this: War is ugly and cruel and pointless. Readers see Stephen and his supporters—his army—do horribly cruel things in the name of war. Readers see Maude’s army do some equally horrid things. One side is not holier than the other. While neither army was as cruel as they possibly could be all the time, without ceasing, year after year, the truth was that England suffered greatly during this tug of war. The truth was very few cared who ruled England, so long as England was ruled peaceably and practically. The burning, the stealing and looting, the raping and killing, the holding of hostages—England was in a big, big mess if this was the best either side could manage.
If the novel has one hero, one main character, it would be Ranulf, a fictional illegitimate son of Henry I. It is not a stretch to fit him in historically since Henry I recognized over twenty such sons! Ranulf along with Robert and Gilbert and Miles and Brien, and countless others supported Maude and her claim to the throne. Although the novel does focus on the battles, the war, the political mess, it also gives a personal side to the time period. Readers see Ranulf grow up a bit, fall in love, make mistakes, find true love, and settle down to marry and raise his own family.
If the novel is allowed to have more than one hero, well, an obvious choice to me is Henry II. The book covers his teenage years, 14 to 19. The last third of the novel truly focuses on Henry, on his relationship with his parents, his relationship with Eleanor of Aquitaine. Those last few chapters are far from clean.
I loved how many characters we get to meet and know. I loved that we get to know men and women from the time period, most of them historical figures, though not all. I loved that readers get introduced to real history. Penman’s pacing was wonderful, I felt!
For readers who enjoy history, When Christ and His Saints Slept is easy to recommend. Penman gives you enough context so that you’re not lost—or at least not past all hope! But it never weighed the text down in my opinion. I admit that being lost in a history book is all a subjective matter based on what one does or doesn’t know heading into a book, but I thought she did a good balancing job.