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Plantagenets #1

When Christ and His Saints Slept

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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.

784 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1994

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About the author

Sharon Kay Penman

54 books3,786 followers
Penman received her bachelor's degree from the University of Texas at Austin, she majored in history, and also received a Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree from Rutgers University School of Law, and later worked as a tax lawyer.

The Sunne in Splendour, a novel about Richard III of England is one of the most popular books on the Historical Novel Society's list of best historical novels. In 1996, following the success of When Christ and His Saints Slept (which dealt with the Anarchy and the early career of King Henry II of England), Penman ventured into the historical whodunnit with four mysteries set in the court of Eleanor of Aquitaine during the reign of Richard I. The mysteries did not enjoy the same success as her "straight" historical novels, to which she returned in 2002, with Time and Chance, again covering the life of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II. In 2008, she published Devil's Brood, which was to be the final book in her trilogy about Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. She soon realized that there was still more of the Angevins' story to tell and the result was Lionheart , followed by The King's Ransom. Henry and Eleanor's celebrated and controversial son, Richard the Lionheart is the major character in both books, although Eleanor, John, and Richard's favorite sister, Joanna, also get to spend time on center stage. She has just finished The Land Beyond the Sea, set in the Kingdom of Jerusalem in the late 12th century. It will be published in the U.S. by G.P. Putnam's and in the U.K. and Down Under by Macmillan and co; the publication date is early March, 2020.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 974 reviews
Profile Image for Emily May.
1,963 reviews294k followers
July 2, 2020
“Why is it honesty when a man speaks his mind and madness when a woman does?”

So 12th century England is basically A Game of Thrones.

I really enjoyed what Penman did with this book and it's made me eager to seek out her other stuff. When Christ and His Saints Slept complements another historical fiction book I love - Follett's The Pillars of the Earth - by filling in the historical and political background. This book focuses in more depth on the conflict between Empress Maude and the usurper King Stephen.

Maude (aka Matilda) should have become the first queen of England when her father, Henry I, died in 1135. Instead, before she could claim the throne, her cousin Stephen stepped in. He was supported by the church and by many of England's barons, who did not want to be ruled by a woman. Maude did not give in, though. She launched a long and bloody campaign to win back her throne.

What really made this stand out for me was the way Penman portrays the complexities of Maude's character. Maude is often portrayed by historians and writers as hot-tempered, fueled by a desire for vengeance that led to a number of mistakes on her part. Here, Penman introduces us to a woman who was shipped off to Germany when she was eight years old to be betrothed to Henry V, a man twenty years older than her. When she reached puberty, they were married. After his death, she was married off yet again to a man she hated, Geoffrey of Anjou. Later, not only was she denied the throne because of her sex, but she was often met with sexism from her loyal supporters. These men acted out of duty, but still could not conceive of a woman ruler. Penman shows what it must have been like for Maude. If she showed kindness and mercy, it was because women are weak. If she showed strength and fire, it was because women are crazy. She couldn't win.

There's a lot going on and, even at 700+ pages, it flew by fast. There's so many fascinating characters and a complicated web of relationships and alliances, not to mention competition for the throne, backstabbing, secret romantic liaisons... like I said, A Game of Thrones. Though I will say I appreciate how the author made this time of violence, raping and pillaging very not gratuitous.

Oh, and I now know about Gropecunt Lane, which is... quite something. There's a Donald Trump joke in there somewhere, to be sure.

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Profile Image for Jeffrey Keeten.
Author 3 books248k followers
September 27, 2020
You will look at this book and find the 742 pages daunting, but I will relieve your mind on that score. The book reads fast. Penman keeps the pages moving bringing history to life and putting flesh on the bones of a vast array of characters. Despite the plot involving so many historical figures I never found myself to be lost. I have read quite a bit about the Plantagenets and that may have helped me to decipher the where, why and what more easily, but I do think a reader with less background of the period will still find themselves swept up in the plot and left at the end of the book with a burning desire to know more about the Plantagenets. In fact I fully intend to read the other two books in the trilogy in the very near future.

The trouble, you see, all starts with the White Ship. The legitimate heir to the throne of England, William the only son of Henry the first drowns in a tragic shipwreck. Many English lives would have been spared if William had survived. Henry I dies after a meal of lamprey eels. On his death bed he forces his most ardent supporters to swear fealty to his daughter and only legitimate heir Maude. Some of his supporters do end up supporting Maude, but a majority of them go over to Stephen, her cousin, and he becomes king of England. This is one of those points in history where legitimate and illegitimate blood lines become such a factor. Robert of Gloucester, a competent, well respected illegitimate son of Henry I displaying all the characteristics of a man that would have made a good king is kept from the throne by law. If Robert had been allowed to be crowned king many thousands of English lives would have been spared in the more than a decade of civil war that followed the coronation of Stephen, for Maude did not go quietly in the night.

Maude married Geoffrey of Anjou, a handsome, dynamic, powerful man who got more than he bargained for in his marriage to a King's daughter. She married him for military support and he married her with that thought that a son of his would one day sit on the throne of England. Their marriage was stormy and it is a miracle that they ever managed to compromise long enough to sire a son. One of the reasons why Maude had difficulty in gaining support was of course first and foremost because she was a woman, but secondly she was too imperial with her subjects. She exhibited a coldness that kept all, but her key people at a distance. Stephen on the other hand was very charming and personable to a fault. He wanted everyone to love him and as the war continued that became his Achilles Heel. He was unwilling to execute and destroy those that opposed him. Qualities today that we would find commendable, but in the twelfth century was perceived as a weakness. As the civil war continued supporters blew with the wind, sometimes changing sides three or four times. By the time Henry, oldest son of Maude and Geoffrey, became old enough to become involved in the conflict the war was nearly over. Stephen, after the untimely death of his son Eustace (another deadly meal of eel),named Henry as his successor thus ending the conflict.

I have been so enthralled, for good reason, with the reign of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitane that I knew very little about Stephen and Maude. I had always known more about their weaknesses than their strengths and Penman did a wonderful job giving me a more balanced perception of both Stephen and Maude.
Profile Image for Shannon.
891 reviews225 followers
March 24, 2014
Penman's broad epic scope focuses on the dynastic struggle for the crown of England. This takes place in the early 12th century when Henry I, who had over 20 illegitimate children, loses his one legitimate heir in the White Ship Ordeal (i.e. basically, a chunk of the fleet sank in the British storms). Upon Henry I's death it was settled that Henry's daughter, Maude, would rule. For his barons this was quite unpopular as women were not supposed to rule, which opened the doors for a cousin, Stephen of Blois, to usurp the crown.

What followed was an 18 year struggle in which both sides controlled the throne.

The interesting aspect of this tale was that both potential rulers had serious flaws which blocked them from truly ruling. Stephen was kind and gentle yet his kindness was sometimes taken as a weakness by his barons. Additionally, his stubbornness at the Battle of Lincoln (i.e. when his vassals urged him to retreat and he refused) almost cost him his life and resulted in his capture. But then, Maude underestimated Stephen's wife, as well as the Londoners, who tossed her out and put her in a precarious position. She then escaped but soon found herself forced to leave her army behind which endangered her illegitimate brother, Robert, and resulted in his capture.

Thus, Robert was exchanged for Stephen and the war continued after a truce.

Eventual fighting led to Maude's army being confined at Oxford. Matters got so bad for her during this siege that she and three others wore white cloaks and snuck past Stephen's army during a snowstorm (this truly happened historically)!!!

Stephen, who eventually captured the castle, was flustered (i.e. during the first battle from long ago he had allowed Maude to leave the castle in an act of gallantry. His barons blamed him for this much later and, even when he tried to capture her, she always managed to slip away).

Victories came and went for both sides, and vassals continued to switch sides. Maude lost her main supporter, Robert, who died in the later years of this struggle. Because of this, Maude's vassals could no longer be held together and she was forced to flee across the waters to Normandy (i.e. northern France).

Note that during this war Maude's husband, Geoffrey, Duke of Anjou, had managed to seize many of the British territories, giving Normandy to Maude.

But kingship for Stephen left a bitter aftertaste. His wife, Mathilda, died and Stephen continued to have problems with the Church and unruly vassals. Meanwhile, Maude's son, Henry, was securing Normandy and ended up marrying Eleanor of Aquitaine, which only made him more powerful by leaps and bounds.

In the end, and, in less than two years, Henry landed in England, where he was supported by his own troops as well as British lords. Stephen put up resistance, but the tides of war were against him. Bad omens and war weary vassals eventually convinced him to pass his title to Henry upon his death.

And, in the end, Henry II took the throne of England with very little bloodshed.

Penman's writing strengths are in her vivid descriptions, her real and varied characters, her build up of conflict and conclusions and, of course, let us not forget that her love stories are pretty good, too. In this particular novel the dysfunctional relationship between Maude and Geoffrey is engaging.

Overall, this is sterling silver quality, so read it right away.

STORY/PLOTTING: B plus to A minus; CHARACTERS/DIALOGUE: A minus to A; HISTORICAL AUTHENTICITY: A; OVERALL GRADE: A minus; WHEN READ: 2003 (3rd reading in 2011)(revised review end of June 2012).
Profile Image for Gary.
941 reviews205 followers
August 29, 2018
What makes Sharon Penman's historical novels set in medieval Britain so amazing is how they combine sticking quite close to historical facts, with making a thrilling read enjoyable to modern readers, together with an engaging cast of characters.
This novel documents the nineteen year civil war between Empress Maud, Countess of Anjou and Lady of the English and King Stephen, a war which ravaged England and caused great suffering to the people.
Penman outlines the complex characters of Maude- proud, imperious and impetuous, named heir to the throne by her father King Henry I, but denied the crown because she was a woman, and Stephen, gallant, compassionate, and indecisive.
Most of the characters are of real historical note, except Ranulf Fitz Roy, a fictional character who could easily have been real as one of King Henry's illegitimate children , but was not.
But the space exists for him, because of the untold story of King Henry's other many illegitimate children.
Penman also touches on her fascination with medieval Wales, introducing Ranulf's Welsh cousins, including his blind bride to be Rhiannon.
It also introduces the saga of Harry (later to be Henry II) and the beautiful and passionate Queen Eleanor.
I never lost interest throughout the novel, filled with intrigue, war, politics, relationships, sex and character analysis.
Memorable scenes include the sinking of the White Ship, and the drowning of Henry I's only legitimate male heir, William, the passionate love between Ranulf and Annora, and their later adulterous union, the escape by Empress Maud at Wallingford, the many shifting allegiances by the leading nobleman, the ravaging of England and cruelty of Geoffrey De Mandeville, and the rescue by King Stephen of John Marshall's young captive son from execution.
Profile Image for Iset.
665 reviews475 followers
August 5, 2011
It was with great anticipation that I returned to Sharon Penman’s When Christ and His Saints Slept, the first book by Sharon Penman that I ever read at the tender age of 10, and which for good reasons immediately became one of my favourite books of all time and in all the years since has never been displaced from its solid and thoroughly deserved status as the cream of the crop not just of historical fiction but across genres. This is the only book for which I have ever stayed awake without sleep all night simply in order to read. I'd always meant to re-read When Christ and His Saints Slept someday, and I loved it just as much the second time round as the first, if not more, and I daresay that’ll be equally true of the 100th reading.

Re-reading When Christ and His Saints Slept was a joy and a delight. Sharon Penman is one of those exquisitely rare writers who can’t put a foot wrong. The vocabulary she can draw upon would put professors of English to shame, her understanding of the language is almost unmatched, and her consummate fluidity of writing and fluency has few rivals. Moreover, Sharon’s writing style is supremely natural and elegant in its simplicity – though it’s plain that Sharon has the linguistic knowledge to bewilder and befuddle us with hideously complex constructions and obscure tongue-twisters, she doesn’t. Her efforts are consistently devoted to lucidity and creating the best reading experience possible. Sharon shows us rather than tells us, and where she does tell it fits so seamlessly into the narrative that you’d hardly notice its presence at all. Her dialogue is unforced and appears effortless. Her descriptions are that rare beast; concise yet perfectly clear and astonishingly vivid and real. Scenes of laugh-out-loud acerbic humour are written as adroitly as scenes of moving poignancy. This book is not just "interesting" or "engaging", those words are not fit for purpose when describing When Christ and His Saints Slept. It’s amazingly easy to pick this book up and within a paragraph find yourself sucked into a wondrously detailed and thoroughly authentic Medieval world, and emerge an unknown amount of time later to discover that hours and hours have passed by. This book is completely absorbing, utterly enthralling, and resplendently captivating. I read it as if spellbound, for When Christ and His Saints Slept is a literary dream.

Sharon’s research is ever-impeccable to the point where I must admit to a mixture of enviousness and a truly uncommon admiration. This is an author who berates herself over the anachronistic appearance of hoods for hunting falcons in this very book, and details such as the colour of dog hair in Medieval canine breeds – inaccuracies of such miniscule stature that surely fewer than one in a thousand would ever pick up on them, and of those that do forgivable without a second thought. I’m in awe of Sharon’s dedication to historical accuracy; now this is the level of historical accuracy that I expect of all historical fiction, I only wish all authors were as devoted to it as Sharon Penman. Sharon sticks to events as closely as possible and lets the history speak for itself, devoid of embellishment except in a few scarce instances. She makes no attempt to dumb down events for her readers by simplifying, but gives her readers the credit they deserve and trusts that we’re intelligent enough to comprehend the complexities of the actual history. This is something I’d sorely like to see more of in the historical fiction industry. The picture that Sharon paints on the page with her words is so detailed, so thorough, I feel sure that Sharon must know every speck of dust in her world, and I’m half-convinced that she’s discovered the secret of time travel. Such a vivid, realistic picture brings the Medieval world to life before your very eyes; four-dimensional, subtle, sophisticated, and fully-formed.

Even more impressive is Sharon’s ability to infuse her characters with such depth and understanding and subtlety that you’d swear they were old friends. Whether fictional or real historical figures, Sharon seems to know and understand her characters like the back of her hand and creates tangible portraits of subtle, complex people, rooted in their times but distinctly modern, firmly dispelling the notion of past peoples as somehow alien in relation to ourselves. These are real, flawed people; intelligent, driven by complicated yet understandable motivations, starkly human, one feels as close to the real life historical individuals as one is ever like to get. Not one of them is unintelligible or lacks for empathy. Even if you find yourself taking sides and disagreeing with the decisions of certain characters, their reasoning is deftly illuminated, their motivations crystal clear. I must confess to becoming rather fond of the hot-headed Count of Chester, and even Eustace, whose actions are indisputably reprehensible, was understandable if not at all laudable. I must admit to whole-heartedly getting behind Maude whenever I read this book, warts and all as she comes, but at the same time Sharon Penman’s Stephen is no ghoulish villain designed with the express purpose of invoking the reader’s loathing; in actual fact he is often highly sympathetic. There are no black-and-white "sinners" and "saints" here as in so many other, lesser works of historical fiction which tend to play "the good guys vs the bad guys", only varying shades of grey. Sharon treats her historical characters as carefully as she does the historical facts: with objectivity, refinement and intricacy. All grow organically. She focuses on painting as accurate a picture as possible whilst standing back to let the reader make up their own minds about the people from history, she never tries to impose her own conclusions on us.

Sharon remarked in her author’s note that "This was the first time that I’d allowed a fictional character to share centre stage with historical figures, and I wasn’t sure if I’d feel comfortable with Ranulf." I simply adored Ranulf Fitz Roy, quite possibly the most significant fictional character in any of Sharon’s books, from the word go. Not quite in the same way as, for example, Llewelyn Fawr in Here Be Dragons – surely a romantic hero of historical fiction if ever there were one – but because I found Ranulf eminently identifiable: clever, enquiring, sensible, moderate, tolerant, unquestionably loyal but troubled at the realisation that war is never so simple as right versus wrong, the voice of sanity for many other characters but blind where it came to his own personal passions. I love Ranulf because he reminds me of myself. He’s that character that makes you say "Well, that’s what I’d do", and that’s why he’s such a roaring success. Sharon’s uncanny knack at recreating the grey characters from history comes less from her knowledge of the historical people and more from her understanding of the human condition. She’s applied the same understanding to creating Ranulf, and as a result he fits in flawlessly with Maude, Stephen, Henry and Eleanor. My only regret was that Ranulf was fictional, and thus could never take up Maude’s proffered earldom without warping history; I rather wished that Sharon would let the history slide just this once and allow Ranulf to take up the earldom he so clearly deserved!

Sharon weaves together all these elements to create a spellbinding yet authentic story of at once epic and human proportions. There is no heavy-handed laborious "message" here, again readers are free to make their own conclusions, rather one is struck by a simple truth well known to historians: history is often random and accidental, and its inhabitants are a colourful maelstrom of individuals who are impossible to define as wholly right or wrong, good or evil. I haven’t even mentioned points such as the novel’s pacing, point of view or length – such elements are so spot on that they are unnoticeable, and that is the mark of a good book.

The Sunne in Splendour may be Sharon’s Wars of the Roses magnum opus, the platinum standard for all other Wars of the Roses historical fiction, her Welsh trilogy begun with Here Be Dragons may be a sweeping tale of romance, triumph and tragedy, but When Christ and His Saints Slept will always be my favourite. A simply wonderful epic of the complex machinations and manoeuvrings of bloody civil war and the sophisticated, extraordinary, human characters it encompassed.

10 out of 10. Enough said.
Profile Image for WarpDrive.
272 reviews388 followers
July 4, 2021
This is a remarkably riveting and felicitous delivery of highly engaging medieval historical fiction, successfully presenting a great mixture of good historical accuracy and a set of memorable events and characters.
Literary escapism at its very best, this book deserves a full 5-star rating.
Profile Image for Bryon.
Author 2 books16 followers
July 6, 2008
I liked this book, and am a fan of Penman's...but there were a few issues that I had with this one:

1.) "Head-hopping": Sometimes it's really hard to tell who she's talking about, and you have to go back and re-read to figure it out.

2.) Many scenes seem to have this basic structure:
1. Some major characters, most likely nobles, are talking about something eminently important.
2. Suddenly...A rider/knight will rush in to tell them that someone has died/been born, or a castle/city is under siege/taken, etc.

It just seemed like there were too many scenes where people just ahppened to be sitting around, discussing something important, at just the moment that such a herald of joy/doom would barge in...
Profile Image for Tania.
1,202 reviews271 followers
December 11, 2015
"A man can be our enemy, Eustace, and still be a decent sort.

I've read all of Philippa Gregory's king and queen books, and this is only my second title by Sharon Kay Penman. I enjoy them both but for different reasons - PG shows you all the intrigues in the courts, but you're never really aware of what is happening to the man on the street. These are quick, easy and very intriguing reads. SKP shows the effects of the kings wars and decisions on the country as a whole. I found it especially sad that none of the common people could actually care who ruled them, yet they were the ones who suffered the most in this prolonged war between Empress Maud and King Stephen. The second reason I really enjoyed this book is that we get so many different POV's, which enables us to have sympathy with both sides. I especially loved Stephen - who knew that the same characteristics that makes you a decent and generous person, also makes for a bad king. Thirdly, I liked the fact that she used quotes from the newspapers/chronicler of the time to give us a true reflection of the mood of the times. I can't wait to read the rest of this series about the Plantagenet's. I highly recommend this author if you have not tried her before.
Profile Image for Sud666.
1,944 reviews158 followers
December 20, 2020
"Never before had there been greater wretchedness in the country....And they said openly that Christ and his saints slept."
-The Peterborough Chronicle

This superb historical fiction novel covers a very tumultuous time in English history- a period lasting from 1135-1153 known as the "Anarchy" (though not in this book as this is term does not come into existence till the Victorian Era, where historian William Stubbs wrote a book on "The Constitutional History of England" and his student, John Round, coined the term to describe the period).

Since there are no such things as spoilers when it comes to history, I can freely describe the events in the book. It starts with the infamous White Ship incident. In 1120, the White Ship sank en route from Barfleur in Normandy to England. Onboard was the son of Henry I (Heir to the Throne William Adelin). Henry then decided to do something unusual- he made his daughter, Maude, his heir. Considering this is 1100's England it is safe to surmise the magnates and nobles were not overjoyed with the prospect of a Queen ruling England. Maude, formerly married to Henry V, the Holy Roman Emperor, styled herself as Empress. At the insistence of her father, upon Henry's death, Maude married Geoffrey V of Anjou. Geoffrey was also known as Geoffry le Bel (Geoffrey the Handsome or Fair). He is also famous for the epithet "Plantagenest", which comes from the yellow broom plant that Geoffrey sometimes sported (the plant is called "genista" in medieval Latin)- though the Plantagent namesake didn't really come into use till the 15th century when it was used by Richard of York, the 3rd Duke of York.
This tumultuous marriage created quite a powerful union (but much disliked in England by the English and the Normans)- the Angevin Geoffrey with the Empress Maude brought the might of Anjou to her side. When Henry I died, it was Stephen of Blois who became King. Stephen was was the son of Stephen-Henry of Blois, one of the powerful counts of northern France, and Adela of Normandy, daughter of William the Conqueror. Stephen and Matilda were thus first cousins.
This conflict over the throne is the period known as the Anarchy.

As the story moves along it eventually turns to Henry II, Maude's son, and his marriage to Elenaor
of Aquitane, the former wife of the French King Louis VII. This joining of the Angevin and Aquitanian houses was a truly powerful combination. In time, Stephen would agree to finish his rule and then named Henry his heir.

That's the gist of this incredibly complex tale. These real life people would impress any Game of Thrones fan. A superbly researched and phenomenally well written historical fiction. Penman manages to humanize many of these key players who are often hyperbolically referred to as the Devil's Brood or Enlgand's most bloody dynasty, as if they were all merely bloody minded psychopaths (yes Dan Jones..I'm looking at you). They were no more nor no less bloody minded than any other ruler at this time. I appreciated this more nuanced version and while by NO means are any of these people "soft"- from Maude to Elanor, from Henry II to the Earl of Chester- for power, wealth and status any of these people would gladly bathe in blood and did, however this is the case for most royal houses of the time.

In fact the only "decent" person here is Stephen. Sadly, a good man makes for a terrible King. His innate decency, his chivalric disposition and his deep sense of honor did not serve him well during his reign. On an interesting note when Stephen died he is supposed to have said, in regards to Henry II, "I hope the lad gets more joy from his kingship than I do mine..." Ummm spoiler alert-he doesn't. But that is a story for another book.

A wonderful read. If you would like to know more about this time period and get a great understanding of all the politics and family disfunction of the Anarchy then you will love this wonderful book. Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Manybooks.
3,126 reviews104 followers
January 4, 2019
Now I read Sharon Kay Penman's When Christ and his Saints Slept many many years ago (I purchased a hardback copy with much anticipation when it was first released, mostly because of my adoration of Ellis Peters' brilliant Brother Cadfael series which takes place in the same historical period) and I must admit that I have neither the energy nor even the inclination to consider a detailed and intense rereading (at least at present) in order to pen a longer and more involved review, as my reading experience, while indeed very much informative, was also not really all that much of a pleasure (if at ALL). And indeed, I would actually have to meticulously reread When Christ and His Saints Slept, as there is oh so much I do not all that closely remember, so that the vast majority of the details, themes, plotlines, the very facts presented, I only vaguely now seem to be able to recollect and really without much if any amount of accuracy.

But be that as it may, my main (and very personal) issue with Sharon Kay Penman as an author has always been that I while I appreciate and even tend to adore, to love, the subject matter of her books, the same cannot unfortunately be said with regard to her writing style. It is simply not usually a successful and enjoyable fit with me, as I tend to find both Penman's word building and vocabulary choices, as well as her narrative flow, her sentence structure, tedious, slow and distracting, at times even to the point of major annoyance (and that has been my experience with almost all of her novels so far, and I have attempted a goodly number of them). For background information on the civil war between King Stephen and the Empress Maud (also known as Mathilda), I do much appreciate When Christ and his Saints Slept, but as I did not find the book all that readable and enjoyable, I am thus likewise also not that keen on reading the remaining novels of the series (at least that is my opinion at this time, and I doubt that it will change any time soon, if ever). And yes, if I should want a refresher on the civil war (the uncivil war) between Stephen and Maud, I will once again and with much joy and personal pleasurs reread Ellis Peters' Brother Cadfael series, for her writing does to and for me, what Sharon Kay Penman has never managed to do, not only to totally enchant me, but to also transport me into the time periods presented and depicted.
Profile Image for Misfit.
1,637 reviews278 followers
August 20, 2008
A Sad and Tragic Period in England's History and truly a time when Christ and his Saints slept. A fascinating, complicated tale with a huge cast of characters, many with similar names. It was hard to keep track of at times, a list of who's who at the front of the book would have been helpful, as SKP did in the next book, Time and Chance.

The characters were well written, and I appreciated that neither Stephen (who did steal the crown) nor Maude were written as black and white/evil vs. saint -- all had flaws in their characters. Adding the fictional Ranulf gave a nice perspective to the tale. I also appreciated the way the author brought us the viewpoints of the common folk, who didn't care who ruled, as long as there was peace.

The first 2/3 of the book are mostly about the civil conflict between the two parties and can drag on a bit, but the last part when Henry started coming into power and married Eleanor of Aquitaine the sparks were fairly flying off the pages. I am now starting on Time and Chance (Ballantine Reader's Circle) and eagerly awaiting more on this dynamic pair. As I said, a great book to read. It isn't quite Here Be Dragons, et al but enjoyable all the same.
5 reviews1 follower
March 13, 2013
This is not a great example of historical fiction. The story is thin and feels like it is just there to connect the historical elements that the author had researched and wanted to tell us about. It's hard to develop much interest in any of the characters. Really, this isn't so much a novel as a seemingly endless series of vignettes. I'm struggling to get through it, but sticking it out for some reason. I definitely wouldn't recommend.
Profile Image for Orsolya.
609 reviews287 followers
July 8, 2016
Before the Tudors and before the Plantagenets; England, France, and much of Europe was comprised of territories up for conquest. Although history always highlights men, there were women groveling for crowns, as well. Ever hear of Empress Maude versus King Stephen? Sharon Kay Penman traverses this period in her novel, “When Christ and his Saints Slept”.

A warning must initially be signaled that Penman’s novel is a heavy one. The pages immediately introduce a multitude of characters and the story is told from so many points of views that even Anglophiles are left resorting to the genealogical for guidance. This noticeably makes “When Christ and his Saints Slept” choppy and somewhat disjointed resulting in some difficulties in reading.

Despite this qualm, the pages of “When Christ and his Saints Slept” are bursting with activity and are thick with an emphasis on history in the HF equation. In a sense, you have to read quickly in order to understand the quick pace (sort of like how you have to be crazy to understand craziness). Penman never slows down with her story so there is certainly a lot to take in with the plot.

Penman’s language and prose is beautiful both in accuracy with the era and literary language, arousing the reader. It is undeniable that Penman is a superb writer. Although, the phrase, ‘For certes’ is overused and becomes annoying.

Slightly after the 200 page mark, Penman smooths out “When Christ and his Saints Slept” and reading becomes easier and more cohesive as the story focuses on less character point of views. Also gratifying is Penman’s characterization of Henry (future King of England) and Eleanor of Aquitaine. Penman uses devices to build excitement towards these figures without pushing them into the foreground perfecting the building of their stories. This is excellently done.

There are some tedious ‘filler’ moments in “When Christ and his Saints Slept” which seemingly have no involvement in the plot. There spots can be skimmed by readers choosing to do so without any depth of the tale being lost.

As the novel progresses, both the writing and story become heartily better so don’t give up too early. The plot is stronger and highly visual. There are some repetition flaws, however, when characters discuss events from their perspective which were already ‘lived’ on previous pages therefore backtracking slightly.

Penman eventually focuses “When Christ and his Saints Slept” on Henry’s quest for the English crown and his relationship with Eleanor. These pages are a bit thinner and less rounded than former portions of the novel as the depictions of Henry and Eleanor are too much like other historical fiction novels focusing on lust and a lack of development. The story still progresses forward and is an enjoyable read; but simply feels different from the rest of the book. This is especially true when it seems that Penman rushes to finish the story and set the environment for the next novel.

The conclusion of “When Christ and his Saints Slept” isn’t as powerful as one would hope but it sets the scene for the next novel and certainly encourages topical interest. Penman also includes an ‘Afterword’ explaining the end courses of the figures in the novel plus an ‘Author’s Note’ presenting the historical accuracies and liberties taken (readers will be satisfied to know that “When Christ and his Saints Slept” is very heavy on the accuracy).

“When Christ and his Saints Slept” is a thick novel that starts off slowly and, on some level, confusingly; but stick with it to be met with joyful reading. Penman refrains from fluff and her writing his highly visual creating a tour de force to be reckoned with. “When Christ and his Saints Slept” is suggested for HF fans of both England and France.
354 reviews122 followers
July 8, 2018
This was a great book written about the eleven hundreds in England and Normandy. It speaks of the fierce fighting for the crown and many betrails of the heart. I recommend it highly.
Enjoy and Be Blessed.
Profile Image for Krista Claudine Baetiong.
259 reviews32 followers
November 3, 2021
"And so began for the wretched people of England, a time of suffering so great that they came to fear "Christ and his saints slept.""

Now I understand what the fuss on this book is about! It is a clear-cut narration of historical events leading to the Anarchy and what it was like for people from all standing to live through and suffer the tribulations of this particular period, starting from the day Stephen and Empress Maude fought over England’s crown. Reading this is like poring over a history book sans the lackluster and languorous style; we read the characters’ minds and envision them talking, laughing, or crying. The narration is detailed and cleverly written it seems like Penman has come straight from the Middle Ages and witnessed the dark years of the Anarchy firsthand.

The story is told from different points of view, which for me gives an objective representation of history. I learned more about Stephen’s chivalrous nature but fragile leadership, Empress Maude’s determination and astuteness that were often overlooked because of her gender, Henry II’s indomitable spirit and competence, Eleanor of Aquitaine’s guile and timeless beauty, the vassals whose loyalty depended on whether which side offered the better part of the bargain, clergymen who profited immensely from political meddling, and the masses, who, sadly, were the expendable pawns in times of war. There is an interchange of viewpoint from the characters—particularly Stephen and Maude’s—that gives a neutral feel to the story and somehow encourages the readers not to take sides. I find myself sympathizing with Maude as a woman, yet I am also drawn to Stephen’s often flawed gallantry. I can’t blame them for the unpopular decision that brought England to almost two decades of civil war for they both had their reasons, although I still wonder sometimes what would have happened if Maude was allowed to rule or Stephen did not claim the crown.

A number of stark realities of living in this period are also captured in this book: women, notwithstanding their rank, were always regarded as inferior; the Catholic Church was a major player in making or breaking a kingdom; most noblemen changed allegiance because of their vested interest; the ordinary people cared less who ruled them as long as they had food to eat; innocent deaths were inevitable in war; starvation was rampant, and emotional scars were forever imprinted in the hearts of those who survived. It also showed that at the heart of this ugly war were remarkable women like Empress Maude, Queen Matilda, and Eleanor who proved to feudal Europe that women were not to be taken lightly, honorable men like Brian Fitz Count who remained a loyal ally until the end, and the resilient masses who rebuilt their lives with optimism and a call for peace.

I was truly impressed with the author’s writing style. She narrates historical events in a manner that is agreeable and easy to read and adds interesting tidbits or trivia as well. She has made 12th century England/France an exciting period to delve into even to a non-English/European reader like myself. She actually reminds me of another historical fiction writer, Elizabeth Chadwick, with her fluent grasp of medieval life and great love for reliving historical icons.

I also liked that the author gave life to a few fictional characters—mostly ordinary people—and showed us what it was like for them to be trapped in someone else’s war. I especially adored the most prominent imaginary character in the book, Empress Maude’s half-brother, Ranulf. I loved his character because he serves his own conscience and treats the common people with deference the way a person of his rank never will. He is not corrupted by the dictates of his society as he acknowledges and learns from other people’s way of life. And he is so bursting with sentimentality that he has become a pleasant change to everyone’s grim temperament and indifference.

I’m glad I have finally read a Sharon Kay Penman work; this book is historical fiction at its finest and another reason why I find it truly hard to leave this genre just yet.
Profile Image for Karen.
805 reviews1,012 followers
April 1, 2020

“In time of war, the Devil makes more room in Hell.”

What a fascinating tale of history this was. It has taken me over 2 months to finish it, but I am just getting started here. The Plantagenet line has just begun for England, and I cannot wait to read on. Having been to some of these sites several times, I have always been intrigued by the incredible lives that have shaped our history. Fascinating stories of men and women, some of valor and glory and so many of treachery and betrayal. Brothers killing brothers, all for the price of a crown.

The title says that this is the story of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. And it most definitely is, but much of the story precedes these two and tells of how they came to power. It is mostly the story of a stolen crown. A woman's place in history that was taken away by her cousin, who mistakenly thought he was doing her a favor, or more aptly doing England a favor. But at what cost?

"You must not give up hope, Lady Maude."
"I inhale hope with every breath I take."

The author here did an amazing job bringing this story to life. There were quite a few characters involved, many of whom shared similar names, many who were related as cousins or half-brothers, bastard brothers etc. It was initially hard to keep up with them all. So I would occasionally have to slow down a little and do a little research on the side to figure out who was who. But eventually I got them all straight. The writing was excellent, and easy to follow. I read this mainly on audio, and the narrator, Anne Flosnik did a brilliant job with it.
May 13, 2011
It still boggles the mind to think that England went through twenty years of civil war because men just couldn't stand to see a powerful woman on the throne. When Christ and His Saints Slept is a very long book, which would make for a very interesting miniseries. This novel is the real Game of Thrones, played against a backdrop of shifting loyalties, clashing armies and the suffering of innocents. One cannot help to feel some sympathy for Stephen, the man who should not have been king. I wanted to dislike him for cheating Matilda (called Maude in the novel), out of her throne, but he's no villian. He truly believes that he was meant to be king of England. Unfortunately for him and for the era he lives in, he's just not ruthless enough.

What's ironic is the mindset of most of the male characters in the book. They firmly believe that women as the weaker sex, have no mind or stomach for politics or for war. Practically every woman character--from the driven Maude, the Stephen's wife Matilda, to the alluring Eleanor of Aquitaine--prove them all very wrong.

The saddest part of this book, and of the real life events it chronicles, is the suffering of the poor who find themselves at the mercy of battle-hardened soldiers, especially when on the losing end of a battle. Twenty years England was torn apart as two strong-willed people battled for what each believed rightly to be theirs.
Profile Image for Robin Wiley.
170 reviews26 followers
March 6, 2013
It called to me, so I decided to reread it.

Wow, what a completely shitty time to live in England or France! It amazes me that one could carry on a war for 20 years and just dismiss the misery one is causing people. The common people didn't care who wore the crown. They just wanted to live their lives and feed their families. But every year or so you mow down their town on the way to the next castle, fort or stronghold. Your army marches on it's belly, so you take everything edible on the way through. And instead of paying your army, you just let them pillage.

So, why read the book? That's pretty depressing.

Because the battles are cool. Understanding how it went down is helpful. The white ship, the choices made. Henry II had one of the greatest reigns in English history, but part of why it was so great, is because of the horrible misery caused by Stephen and Maude.

I am amazed how much I loved Stephen and hated Maude in the beginning, and found myself completely reversed by the end.

If you are a Pillars of the Earth fan, this is another view of the exact same time in history.

Also, the last third of the book the Henry & Eleanor story really takes off, and although we've all seen A Lion in Winter and know how their story ends, it's great to see how it begins.
Profile Image for Nate.
483 reviews20 followers
March 21, 2013
This truly epic novel covers the years between 1101 and 1154 in England and some duchies in France as the nobility fought an astonishingly long and destructive war over who would sit the throne of England; Stephen of Blois or the Empress Maude. A huge cast of characters populates this book and their conflicts with each other and themselves are what propels this story. All of them have distinctive personalities and personal motive is a huge factor in this story, as sides were changed often and loyalties were totally suspect most of the time. The main character of this story, if any, is Ranulf Fitz Roy, Maude's fictional half-brother. A lot of historical fiction uses the great tool of using a fictional character as our eyes and legs in the world and he's a great character in that tradition.

It's so odd to see characters that we only really get to see on paper or in a few paintings living and breathing in such a realistic way. This kind of focus on characterization only helps the vivid sense of place and time in this book, as these characters are human beings; complex, flawed, and not always likeable. The most obvious and probably best example is the two people at the center of the conflict; Maude and Stephen. Maude's severe and stubborn and can be a bit cold, but she's also strong and clever and just utterly fucking refuses to stop fighting for her and her son's rightful throne and really cares for her loved ones. Stephen is charming, funny, brave dotes on his wife and children but is way too easily manipulated by people who have their own interests in mind rather than what's right for the kingdom...and he's also a usurper. Honestly, no one comes out looking like the big bad in this; just people who are compelled for many reasons, some just, to continue the war. Ultimately though, you will probably feel the need to pick a side.

Another huge facet of Penman's writing that shines is her knowledge of the time. Details on everything from what people ate to castle architecture to the genealogy of nobles just abound in this book. All of this information is woven into the story in a way that you don't feel like you're reading a list of events but that you're picking up these facts as you go along and sink deeper into the world of the book, which is definitely substantial. She also manages to imbue these but really strong moods into the whole story; it's sad and moving and infuriating and and all kinds of good stuff.

I really felt for two parties in this book: the commoners and Maude. The common people just get used and disposed of as pieces in the horrible chess game of a war the nobles were waging and Maude is denied the respect, power and title she deserves because she's a woman. Seriously, there were times when people in this book would say shit like "Yeah, Stephen sucks but do you really want a woman on the throne?" It's just ridiculous. If Maude had held the loyalty that male monarchs commanded at the time just for being born male Stephen's head would have been crowning Bristol's gate two weeks into the war, yet she had to fight tooth and nail for decades just to get her son rightfully recognized. It takes a special kind of book to really stoke that kind of uncomfortable emotion and still make you want to keep picking it up.
Profile Image for Louis Muñoz.
143 reviews55 followers
August 22, 2022
4.5 stars rounded up to 5.
This is one huge book, almost 750 pages, so that right there is all some people will want to know, either because they like a big, epic read, but probably more often for the OPPOSITE reason for many others. Well, "I like big books, and I cannot lie," and this is one big, enjoyable, and immersive read, both on its own and as part of a FIVE part series of similarly large books about the early Plantagenets.

The book's basic starting point is the same historical tragedy that launches Ken Follett's "Pillars of the Earth," the sinking of the White Ship and the death of the male heir to the English throne in 1120, and the book covers, in MUCH detail, the next 34 years of struggle between the Empress Maude, Henry I's only surviving legitimate child, and her cousin Stephen, who usurped the throne. A VERY large cast of characters, high and low, populate this novel, but there is a helpful dynastic chart at the beginning of the book, plus maps of England and France, to help you place people and locales. (A glossary of the characters would have been better, as one often finds in other books like this.)

Full disclosure: I first saw the movie "The Lion in Winter" as a kid, and have seen it again MANY times since, and I've been fascinated with Eleanor of Acquitaine, Henry II, and others from that era, so the story that Sharon Kay Penman created was going to find a willing and quite captive audience in me. But I would venture to say that there are many people would enjoy this book, as the characters are well-drawn and multi-faceted, for the most part, and even though I'm very firmly "Team Henry," I came away actually caring for King Stephen a fair bit, and that surprised me. Also, even knowing a lot of this history - and you don't really need to, to enjoy the book - I definitely held my breath many times. (Can't really say why or when without going into spoilers!)

All in all, a very entertaining book. The book ends in 1154 - you could look up why - and I very much planning on traveling further with the Plantagenets.
Profile Image for Samantha.
Author 16 books346 followers
February 25, 2014
Sometimes I have a difficult time deciding how to rate a book. I expect to find that a 5-star book stands out among the millions of written pages out there. This one does. I have read it before and knew exactly what would happen, but that didn't stop tears from forming in my eyes at times as Penman skillfully made history come alive.

Even the title is more eye-catching and thought provoking than most. When Christ and His Saints Slept was an era of English history fraught with unfortunate events beginning with the sinking of the White Ship in 1120. Henry I, who had managed to sire at least 20 illegitimate children, had only one legitimate male heir. William was expected to be England's next king until he got on board the beautiful but doomed vessel.

Henry I makes his daughter Maude (Matilda) his heir in one of the worst considered last testaments of all time and throws England into a 20 year civil war so bloody and tormented that it was believed that Christ and His saints slept. Maude intends to fight for the crown that few believe any woman should wear, and is shocked when her cousin, Stephen of Blois, is the one to steal it from her.

Enough of restating history, you can find the details of the struggles between Maude and Stephen easily enough. What you will not find is a telling of their lives that is as detailed, moving, and well-written as Penman's. The cast of characters in this novel is amazingly large, but developed well enough that the reader can track them as though they are friends (or enemies). The rich detail of scenery, battles, and historical detail is second to none. The reader will learn as much as if reading non-fiction, while at the same time be entertained by the personalities, humor, and just a little bit of romance. No other author creates a whole world as realistically as Sharon Kay Penman. She is in a league of her own. The reader can sympathize with Maude and cry for Stephen and not find any reason why that should not be so. Picking sides is as difficult for those reading their story now as it was for their nobles those many years ago.

After the back and forth, years of sacrifice and struggle, this installment concludes with the ascendancy of Henry II. He seems like the golden savior of England, and I was almost brought to tears again seeing the beginning of his rule so full of hope and knowing how it is to end. His and Eleanor's story is just beginning when this novel ends, but is continued in the next volume, Time and Chance.
Profile Image for Deborah Pickstone.
852 reviews90 followers
September 5, 2016
I have read this several times but realised during this re-read how much more critical a reader I have become - not necessarily a good thing, in some ways. So, the complaint first; writing forsoothly. I wish she wouldn't. Also, the use of the term 'lad/lass' every time someone speaks to someone else gets REALLY irritating. I know it's an English habit but not everyone uses it and I doubt it was different then. It's part of the writing forsoothly. I think it's one of the dangers of writing about English history in the US.

My gripe being over, this is probably the best biographical novel there is about this short and harrowing era of English history. For the most part the history is sound and well-researched. Ms Penman only falls down on the sort of detail that can slide past the eye - buying a tablecloth at the market to go for a picnic, for instance. I am no expert in the history of tablecloths and their use. While they were in use in that time, the sort of table that would have worn one would have demanded a very large one. Your tablecloth's job would have been to announce 'I have lots of money' and was not something you'd expect to find on a picnic - not one where adultery was the main course, anyway! Perhaps he could have bought a horse blanket? Oh, just call me Miss Picky!

This is a long book and for me it reads fast! I find the Anarchy an especially fascinating period, peopled by some characters who are truly unbelievable. There are almost no invented characters in this story - just one of the main cast and a few supporting cast - and no-one could have made up Stephen; a new man, a dreamer, humane and chivalrous and yet a much respected warrior, so long as he wasn't involved in anything that went on for too long or he'd wander off and find something more interesting to do - making anyone under siege by him not very worried at all! The most fascinating and least well-known character in the story is his wife, Matilda, who could besiege and stick with it and who captured Robert of Gloucester, thus redeeming Stephen from imprisonment and the end of his reign.

We get to Eleanor of Aquitaine toward the end but I am not as beglamoured by her as people seem to be. Unsurprisingly, Henry, child of that shrinking violet the Empress Maude, found himself a woman of strong personality to marry - and to fall out with, eventually. Henry is the personality of this era and this look at his formative years is most interesting.
Profile Image for Kathryn Bashaar.
Author 2 books88 followers
September 12, 2016
This is a long book: 746 pages in the edition I read. Sadly, few 21st-century readers have the attention span for such a long novel. I felt that this book started slow, and when I contemplated its length, I was tempted at first to just not finish it. But it gets better as you continue to read, especially when the fiery characters of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine are introduced. It is worth the time it takes to read.
As someone who is in a leadership role at a major financial institution, I especially appreciated how astute Penman was at showing how both good and bad leadership work. Both Stephen and Maude were reasonably capable and decent people in their own ways, but neither had the special qualities that are needed by a king or queen. Their failings made them unhappy, and caused inexcusable misery in the nation they battled over. But, a natural leader like Henry is rare. Many of us who are in leadership roles are not quite adequate to the task. Let me just say that I'm really glad that it isn't a whole country that has to suffer for my failings!
Like my reviews? Check out my blog at http://www.kathrynbashaar.com/blog/
Profile Image for Kirsten .
1,593 reviews255 followers
September 2, 2015
Sharon Kay Penman is the all time master of historical fiction. (Her Welsh Princes trilogy even made my Dad cry!)

This is the first in her Plantagenets series. It starts with the death of the only *legitimate* son of King Henry I and what that leads to. Will his daughter take the crown back from her cousin Stephen? What happens when her son Henry meets the Queen of France, Eleanor of Aquitaine?

This is some of the most dramatic and romantic of historical times. Names from history litter this book including a young clerk named Thomas Becket. (Hmmmm....)
Profile Image for Cindy Rollins.
Author 22 books2,022 followers
October 13, 2019
At over 36 hours on audio,
Perhaps this sort of long form historical novel is not for everyone. It is the sad story of the 18 years civil war between Stephen and Maud. If you read the Brother Cadfael novels you will likely enjoy reading more about this war and the people who inhabited it. Sharon Kay Penman is a master at characterization and capturing a time. Writing one novel like this is astounding; writing as many as she has is almost incomprehensible.
Profile Image for Steve Donoghue.
156 reviews482 followers
February 23, 2019
Well! My first impression, back when this book appeared in 1995, was that it ran aground on all the author's research and failed really to ignite as a big sprawling work of fiction. But now, returning to the book a quarter-century later, I saw SO much more of its merits. In some very real sense, this could be viewed as a work of dramatized history rather than historicized drama - it's fantastic and well-paced and genuinely empathetic throughout. So glad I re-visited this one.
Profile Image for Gareth Russell.
Author 12 books185 followers
August 3, 2021
At 909 pages (paperback), this is an epic novel in length and scale. A standard compliment for epic novels is to say that they don’t feel as long as they are, but that is not the case with “When Christ and His Saints Slept”. This is a 909-page book that feels like one. There were weeks in which I had finished reading one chapter without feeling any desire to start another. In that, it embodies the relentless priapism of the Anarchy, the 12th-century English civil war during which it is set - its long sieges, the difficult journeys, the slow communications, and the sheer endless drudgery of medieval combat in which the occasional bloody battle intermittently pierced yet another stalemate.

With its Tolstoy-defying cast size, “When Christ and His Saints Slept” will be very hard to keep track of for those readers with no working knowledge of the twelfth century. Even those that do, will, I imagine, eventually let most characters wash over them as background detail. The fact that so many of them have similar names - an occupational hazard of writing any fiction set prior to the seventeenth century - does not help with bringing them into the foreground of the reader’s mind.

And yet, it’s somehow the sheer size of its focus, its oscillating between the panoramic and the plodding, which gives “When Christ and His Saints Slept” its appeal. Very few works of historical fiction allow their period to breathe in the way Penman does with the 1130s and 1140s. It’s particularly refreshing to see medieval religion relatively accurately portrayed, rather than ignored or dismissed as hypocritical nonsense which readers in our more secular age could not possibly sympathise with. Like the historical originals, Penman’s characters are a pious bunch, with the details of their faith as expertly captured as their food, fighting, and fashion. It reaches such a sense of credibility that it is genuinely quite shocking when, towards the end of the book, Eleanor of Aquitaine makes a slightly off-colour religious joke to Bernard of Clairvaux, which helps us see how contemporaries might have reacted. It makes the period come to life as much as it can. There’s a sense of being at a fireside as Ranulf discusses which move to make next against King Stephen or when the Dowager Queen Adeliza muses about life in a convent. When the moments of high drama arrive, they are conjured beautifully - of particular note are how Penman plots the historical incidents of the “White Ship” disaster, the Battle of Lincoln, the Siege of Oxford, and the Burning of Cambridge.

In a forest of supporting characters, there is always a risk of missing the principals, which Penman avoids by fleshing out the nuances of their psychology to make the leads into believable characters, rather than simply two dimensions clunkily lifted from history. The cousins feuding over the English throne - King Stephen and the Empress Maude - are a wealth of contradictions, as are their spouses, Stephen’s queen Matilda of Boulogne and Maude’s husband Geoffrey of Anjou. Ranulf Fitzroy, the Empress’s bastard half-brother, is one of the few fictional figures included here - given the number of “speaking roles” given to the historically-inspired, a fictional addition might seem redundant - but Ranulf’s subplots and personality are engaging.

As an evocation of the geography and sensibilities of its setting, this novel is remarkable. Its commitment to the scale of the story it decided to tell is also inspiring. Penman sacrificed the racing pace of a modern page-turner in favour of a grand, almost stately, chronicle. Extraordinary in its ambition and attention to detail, “When Christ and His Saints Slept” leaves the reader in awe at the research and imagination of Sharon Kay Penman.
Profile Image for Tracey.
170 reviews9 followers
February 2, 2022

Just, bloody brilliant!

As always SKP has outdone herself with all her meticulous research. She absolutely gives you complete immersion into the feudal middle ages of England and Normandy. And hallelujah a little peek into some more Welsh history and her people. Her book Here Be Dragons is my all time favorite and I honestly didn't think she could top that, but she comes so dag-gone close.

She has such a way of bringing real historical figures to life rather than just simple characters on a page. I was aware of who King Stephen & Maude were but had no knowledge of their fight for the crown and the 20 year Anchary that ensued in England. I also loved the little glimpse we got of young Henry II and Eleanore of Aquitaine. I am so ready to jump into the next, but because all her books are around 800+ pages I am going to wait just a little while so I don't possibly become burnt out, however, I find that highly unlikely.

I highly recommend ALL her books! You will not be disappointed.
Profile Image for James Burns.
175 reviews13 followers
May 12, 2016
I have always loved historical books about Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II, and even though this a work Historical Fiction it was well researched and meets my criteria for Historical Novels. 1st, is it historical accurate describing Battles, and Characters. 2nd, are the characters described real people and how many fictional people are there. 3rd, Can the book come to life as if I'm living the story.
I don't have the words to describe how much I enjoyed reading this book.
The first chapters is about, Henry I, and the death of his only male heir by drowning when the ship he was on crossing the English Channel,before his death , he named his daughter Maude (Matilda) as heir to the throne, and made all the Barons and titled men, swear an oath of fealty. After hearing about the death of the king, His nephew Stephen usurped the throne,while his cousin and lawful heir, was in the Duchy of Normandy. King Stephen had all the Lords and Barons swear an oath of fealty to him. The King, the Barons and lords justified their breaking their oath of fealty to Maude, stating that the Oath was not valid because it was made under duress. So begins a bloody Civil war for the crown of England, finally it was settled after the death of the Kings oldest son, King Stephen and Henry II came to terms. Stephen would remain King as long as he lived, and adopted Henry and named him, heir to the throne.
Eleanor of Aquitaine, played a substantial role in this story and history, Eleanor was the Queen consort of France.The Marriage of Eleanor and King Louis of France was annulled do to the fact that they were Cousins and was illegally married.
I always try not to spoil the book by giving to much information.There are two events in this book, that I have tell. the first event made me laugh so hard that I cried, and the second event made me cry at the death of Robert and Maud's half brother born out of wedlock. One of the injustice in English history was not named his fathers heir, in my opinion, he would of made far better Ruler than either Stephen.
The 1st event was when Henry invaded England at 14, hiring mercenaries, after suffering a couples losses, he could not afford to pay his men and they were getting restless. Maude Sent Ranulf ( a fictional Character) her half brother to try an convince him to return back to Normandy at that she would give money for him to pay his soldiers. when Ranulf broached The subject Henry told him he had the money. of course his uncle was curious where he got the money, he asked him if he was getting it by illegal means. and he was taken by surprised when Henry had Wrote his cousin, King Stephen for the money.
The 2nd event was the death of Robert, half brother to Matilda, his death was so touching, that I couldn't help but cry, I was half expecting to read, here lies the greatest knight of all. Robert was a true Knight in the sense of Arthur's Knights of the round table.
I Highly recommend this book . This was Sharon Kaye Penman at her best.
Profile Image for Pam Baddeley.
Author 2 books45 followers
July 11, 2019
I have meant for some years to read this author's long novel about Richard III, so when this one instead appeared in a charity shop was tempted. I didn't know much about the period it covers other than remembering that the war between King Stephen and Empress/would-be Queen Maude (aka Matilda) forms the background to the Cadfael series by Ellis Peters.

I enjoyed this book in parts, principally when the scenes developed naturally with some nice interaction between historical characters such as Henry, future King, and Eleanor of Aquitaine. And the book was educational as I certainly know more about the period than beforehand. I wasn't so keen on the huge chunk that revolved around the imaginary character Ranulf and his friends/relations and his strung out hopeless love affair. I can see the point of putting such a character in scenes to interact with the real historical characters, to give a third party onlooker with whom the reader can identify and who can perhaps help to convey key facts, but there were extended interludes based around this character's misadventures elsewhere. I felt that the section in Wales was put in to allow the author to display her research about medieval Welsh society. In an already very long book, Ranulf's interactions away from the historical events must have added at least 200 pages of padding.

I also wasn't keen on certain aspects of the book's structure. There was a repeated style of scene where characters are discussing the events of the day and then someone bursts in, either with a message or to announce the arrival of a messenger. This was repeated so often I came to expect it whenever people were sitting down having a discussion. It made for a certain staleness and sense of deja vu. There were also quite a few places where someone explains all about something or someone to another character in an extended infodump, quite often done between made up characters who only appear for that purpose.

I also appreciate that there were a lot of characters in the real history, and many had the same or similar names, but it did get quite confusing at times and I just couldn't remember who someone from among the minor characters was, especially if they had been out of the picture for a few chapters. The list of characters at the start of the book only lists the main ones plus Ranulf and his invented friends and relations.

These issues made it a bit of a struggle to get through the book although I did persevere as I did want to know what happened and found the character of the future Henry II attractive. Therefore my overall rating balances out at 3 stars.

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