Review: When Christ and His Saints Slept

When Christ and His Saints Slept, by Sharon Kay Penman

rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Book Source: Local bookstore

The remarkable Eleanor of Aquitaine Trilogy by Sharon Kay Penman began in 1996 with the publication of When Christ and His Saints Slept. Thus begins the remarkable story of the Angevins and their conquest of the English throne.
Men thought it God's inexplicable joke that Henry should have sired twenty-three children, and of them all only two born in wedlock...
When Christ and His Saints Slept
In the fall of 1120, off the coast of Normandy, the infamous White Ship ran aground, leading to the drowning of William Adelin. This in itself may have just been a footnote in history but for the fact that William happened to be the only legitimate male offspring of Henry I, Duke of Normandy and King of England. As you might imagine, this presented quite a problem.

This is where Penman's fascinating tale of royal machinations and scheming begins. The novel follows the story of Henry I's daughter, Maude (remembered historically as Matilda, but to avoid confusion Penman -- thankfully -- uses the interchangeable name of Maude) and her quest for the throne of England, which was skillfully wrenched away by her likable, politically inept cousin, Stephen of Blois.

The politics and players of the time were numerous and convoluted, but Penman doesn't simplify to appease readers. Instead, she embraces it and the result is one of the most intelligent, informative novels of historical fiction to grace our bookshelves. Tangled relationships are clearly defined and twisted motives are neatly presented, making for a historically accurate account of one of the longest, bitterest fights for a throne that was to last well over a dozen years and ravage the English countryside. The devastation and death it brought to the English people was so complete that chroniclers of the day referred to their period as the time "when Christ and his saints slept." (Catchy, huh?)

At 768 pages, this isn't a light read by any estimation. The thirty-four years covered in this novel ends with the death of Stephen, leaving the rapt reader to rush over to Wikipedia to find out what happens next. Thankfully, it also left the door open for a sequel, the second book in the series, Time and Chance.

As usual, Penman provides the reader a thorough author's note to explain any historic deviations in her story. She explains the use of any fictional characters and carefully clarifies time and place, which only adds legitimacy to her already meticulous presentation.

If you haven't yet picked up a Penman novel, When Christ and His Saints Slept is the perfect introduction to a writer renowned for her command of historical fiction.

Title: When Christ and His Saints Slept
Author: Sharon Kay Penman
ISBN: 978-0345396685
pages: 768
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Date: February 6, 1996


  1. Indeed, Sharon Kay Penman is one of the best. When Christ and His Saints Slept was the first of her novels that I read. Since then I've read them all with the latest, Devil's Brood, on order.

  2. Awesome review! I'm counting down the minutes til I can leave work and run to the bookstore to pick up Devil's Brood - it better be there or heads will roll!

  3. I keep looking at the clock every couple of minutes wondering where, oh where, is my FedEx guy?

    Every time I've pre-ordered something from Amazon, it's been right on my door step the morning of release. But that was back when we lived in an actual city and not way, way, way out here in Sasquatch-land.

    Maybe bigfoot ate my copy of Devil's Brood? WHERE IS IT?!? (And it's only 8:30 am)

  4. Great review - This was one of the early books I read when I started reading historical fiction and I really enjoyed it. I should probably go back sometime and read it again. Some of the complex relationships and political goings on would probably make more sense to me now.

  5. You know, that's true, Daphne. It's interesting how our appreciation of a certain book increases after more exposure to the genre or a certain time period (for HF, anyway). Books I didn't appreciate when I was new to the genre I later came to appreciate.

  6. And this one is on the TBR list, too. Great review!



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