The reign of England's King Henry II, and his stormy marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine, is, for me, history's most fascinating story. I was afraid that Sharon Kay Penman's treatment of the beginning of that tale in her historical novel WHEN CHRIST AND HIS SAINTS SLEPT would be a frivolous chick-book. Not so.
It's 1135, and England's monarch, Henry I, dies. His designated heir is his daughter Matilda, the widow of the German Emperor, who's now married to Count Geoffrey of Anjou. However, many of England's nobles are unwilling to kneel to a woman, and so they persuade Matilda's cousin Stephen, the son of Henry I's sister Adela, to claim the throne. Thus follows a nineteen-year civil war as Matilda contests for the crown, first for herself and then for her first-born son by Geoffrey, Henry. King Stephen fights for himself, and for the right of his son, Eustace, to inherit.
If this book had been pure fiction, the author could have been faulted for dragging it out over 738 paper-backed pages as the fortunes of war see-saw back and forth, and England's powerful land barons change from one side to the other, and back again. But the major events of the conflict are all based on historical fact, and one wonders why JC and his saints would sleep so long while the countryside and its inhabitants were caught between opposing sides and brutalized. Were they on illegal substances, you think?
During the first five-hundred or so pages, before young Henry is of sufficient age to take serious part in the bloodletting , the author displays fancy footwork in providing a protagonist for the reader to like. After all, Stephen makes an odd villain. He's an honorable man, loving father and husband, and a courageous soldier - but a poor king. Matilda, on the other hand, is brave, steadfast, and a loving mother, but infuriatingly tactless and totally inept at winning and keeping the loyalty of her potential English subjects. So, Penman creates the easy-going character of Ranulf, a fictional illegitimate son of Henry I and a loyal supporter of his half-sister in the wearisome struggle. As Ranulf follows Matilda from slaughter to slaughter and crisis to crisis, he has the time to carry on an adulterous affair with an old flame, and then find his own true love in the mountain fastness of Wales. (Come to think of it, maybe this is too much a chick-book!) In any case, at the risk of unnecessarily extending the storyline, he makes for an engaging character.
The last two-hundred pages pick up as the young Henry meets Eleanor of Aquitaine, who's then married to King Louis of France. It's during this last part of an excellent book that we see the man and monarch that Henry is to become, and which makes me look forward to the next volume in the trilogy, TIME AND CHANCE, especially since, through my knowledge of English history, I know what's going to happen. Count Geoffrey otherwise gives us a clue when he advises his eldest son:
"The best marriages are those based upon detached goodwill or benign indifference. But unfortunately for you, the one emotion you will never feel for Eleanor of Aquitaine is indifference." How true.
For anyone interested in the genesis of the Plantagenet royal dynasty of England, this well-researched book is a pure delight.