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When Christ and His Saints Slept by Sharon…

When Christ and His Saints Slept

by Sharon Kay Penman

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1,714566,475 (4.25)1 / 285
In the wake of King Henry I's death in 1135, the Countess of Anjou, his beautiful daughter, prepares to claim the throne despite the reservations of the late ruler's barons, but her position is usurped by her cousin. 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.… (more)

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Showing 1-5 of 56 (next | show all)
What can I say that hasn't already been said about Sharon Kay Penman? Her novels are superb. Subject matter and research are wonderful.
Poor Stephen. He's a good man, kind, compassionate, forgiving, humorous. He makes a great buddy, but these qualities alone do not make an effective ruler. He lacks ruthlessness and a firm grasp of political reality. His cousin Maude, on the other hand, has all of the latter but none of the former. In addition to being female, good heavens! No man would choose to be governed by a woman, even a strong one, it just isn't "manly". So they choose the weaker willed Stephen, and it plunges England into 20 years of civil war and lawlessness.
This is the first of four novels about Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine and their offspring. Oh well, I did read them backwards and still have SKP's latest to read. I can safely recommend her books to anyone. ( )
  a1stitcher | Jun 22, 2019 |
This is excellent history on a seldom touched upon subject, 12th century English history, more specifically, the succession crisis which ensued when Henry I, son of William the Conqueror died without a male heir. He designated his only surviving legitimate daughter, Matilda (Maude) to succeed him. Instead, his far more popular nephew, Stephen, usurped the throne, leading to almost 20 years of non-stop war and bloodshed, before Maude’s eldest son, Henry, finally prevailed, becoming one of the most successful English kings in history as Henry II. In addition to the main characters, several other historical personages are presented, most notably Eleanor of Aquitaine, Louis VII of France and several religious figures of the era.

While the subject is ripe with possibility, execution of this piece of historical fiction was sub-standard in my opinion. First, the book was about 200 pages too long, becoming agonizingly repetitious at times. I can’t testify to the accuracy of the history, but have to believe that about half a dozen of the twenty or so sieges and maneuverings could have been omitted without detracting from the work. Second, the dialogue was not well done and was at times laughable. I can’t say for a fact how 12th century English nobles conversed, but I’d be surprised if it were anything like presented in this novel. Finally, the characters were so one dimensional as to become almost cartoonish. Perhaps Eustace, Stephen’s presumptive heir was a bad person, but maybe not the worst person in the world, all the time, to everyone, with no redeeming value whatsoever.

In any event, despite reading every evening for an hour or two, it seemed to take forever to finish the book. The key word being “seemed”. ( )
  santhony | Mar 26, 2019 |
Ms. Penman paints a detailed and interesting portrait of Maude and Stephen's struggle over the English crown. While staying true to her source material, the author clarifies the politics and intrigue of the time, making this book a pleasant and engaging read despite its length. I also appreciated how each character is drawn, filled out, brought to life within the pages of this work, and even how the more devious and despicable players are given a human side to their heinous deeds.

An excellent read, and soon to be followed by the next book in the series, Time and Chance. ( )
  fuzzi | Mar 5, 2017 |
"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 a 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 feudal Europe that women are 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.

(Note: This review was first posted on Goodreads) ( )
1 vote Krista02 | Jan 11, 2017 |
When Christ and His Saints Slept - Penman
4.5 stars

I enjoy historical fiction. Most of my knowledge of world history begins with an interest generated from a good novel. So my knowledge of this medieval civil war came initially from a fondness for Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael. I knew about Maud and Stephen’s competing claims for the English throne. I knew that Maud was the mother of the second Henry. That was about it. I was not prepared for the feminist slant given to Penman’s massive plotting of this conflict. I wasn’t prepared for the weird way this medieval history would strangely dovetail with the feminist issues in my recent nonfiction reading.

Maud was an empress. She was a queen. She was forced into a bad marriage and not only was she forced to obey her egotistical, self-serving, abusive husband, none of her (ostensibly) loyal Dukes and Barons, really believed that she was capable of ruling a kingdom. Penman captured her angry frustration and poured it into every disastrous decision of Maud’s attempts to reign over England. And then, there was Stephen’s Matilda. The conflict was over. Stephen was a prisoner, under lock and key. So, Queen Matilda gathers the troops, backs Maud into a corner and forces Stephen’s release. (Even though Matilda has serious doubts about her husband’s ability to rule, and even less faith in her son.) It was quite a chess game, if you could overlook the pain and suffering it caused for the powerless innocents caught up in the game.

Penman does not overlook that pain and suffering. She gives Maud, Ranulf, a fictional half-brother. Ranulf connects the story to some of the more down to earth suffering of the common people. He also helped to move the plot along. I was always relieved to see him pop back into the story when I found myself getting lost among the endless battles, similar or duplicated names, and continuously changing loyalties.

The book ends, of course, as the war finally ends, with Maud’s son, Henry II and his Eleanor of Aquitaine. It took me almost 20 years to get around to reading this first book in Penman’s Plantagenet series. I’m very glad that I read it, but I’m not ready to tackle the next one, not yet.
1 vote msjudy | Jul 11, 2016 |
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Never before had there been greater wretchedness in the country ... And they said openly that Christ and His saints slept.
The Peterborough Chronicle
To Valerie Ptak LaMont
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Stephen was never to forget his fifth birthday, for that was the day he lost his father.
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Penguin Australia

An edition of this book was published by Penguin Australia.

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