Joyce Lagow's Reviews > When Christ and His Saints Slept

When Christ and His Saints Slept by Sharon Kay Penman
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's review
Apr 20, 2010

really liked it

For 20 years during the middle of the 12th century, a civil war raged in England over the succession to the crown between the daughter and the nephew of Henry I himself a most likely usurper of England s throne. Although Henry I had designated Maude his heir, Stephen claimed the crown for himself. Reluctant to accept a woman as ruler, most of the barons willingly accepted Stephen as king. However, enough remained loyal to Maude and among those whose support was crucial was Robert of Gloucester, the illegitimate oldest child of the former king that Maude was able to mount an assault on Stephen, plunging England into civil war.[return][return]Maude and Stephen s armies and those of their ambitious adherents ravaged the English countryside, causing such misery that the people called it  the time when Christ and his saints slept , the title of the book. Eventually, the war came to an end, with Maude s son Henry proclaimed as the heir; within a year of the truce, Stephen was dead and Henry ascended the throne as Henry II, one of England s greatest kings.[return][return]These are the bare historical facts upon which Penman writes an excellent novel of the era. She writes from the points of view (in the 3rd person) of many different characters, many historical figures such as Stephen, Maude, Stephen s wife Matilda, Henry, and Eleanor of Aquitane, but also from fictitious ones; the most prominent non-historical figure is Ranulf, one of Maude s illegitimate brothers who supports Maude loyally throughout 19 years of fighting.[return][return]The format works extremely well, allowing Penman to bring in all sorts of details about the life of the people at the time and how devastating the war was for the ordinary English who had no personal stake in the crown itself. The book is rich in historical detail the siege of Winchester and Oxford, the rise and fall of the tide of success for each side, the betrayals and counter betrayals of various powerful nobles as they sought to turn the war to their own gain. [return][return]Penman does a good job with characterization; these people are believable. Maude has always gotten a bad press, thanks to the hostility of the monks who wrote the history of the time. Penman does an excellent job of redressing the balance, favoring neither Maude nor Stephen but showing the strengths and fatal weaknesses of both. We do get tantalizing glimpses of Thomas Beckett and especially Eleanor of Aquitane, Henry s wife, that clearly belong to another volume in Penman s excellent historical series. However, the book stands totally on its own merits which are many.
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