Christmas revelries at Westminster were lavish that year–deliberately so, as if rich fare and dramatic spectacle could somehow validate Stephen’s contested kingship, as if roast goose and spiced red wine and baker’s dozen of minstrels could make people forget the burning of Worcester, the sacking of Nottingham, the newly dug graves, and the uncertain tomorrows that lay ahead. The great hall of WIlliam Rufus had been adorned with so much greenery that it resembled the forest in which Rufus had met his death, decorated with evergreen boughs and holly and beribboned sprigs of mistletoe. The meal had been so bountiful that the leftover goose and venison and bread and eel scraped from the trenchers would feed Christ’s poor for days to come. The entertainment was equally extravagant: a woman rope dancer, a daredevil who juggled daggers, a Nativity play that offered not only the requisite shepherds and Magi but even a few sheep as props. Then the last of the trestle tables were cleared away and the dancing began, the irresistible, exuberant music of everyone’s favorite, the carol.
When Christ and His Saints Slept by Sharon Kay Penman
On February 2, 1141, known in those times as the Feast of Candlemas, King Stephen of England was defeated at the Battle of Lincoln by the forces allied with his cousin the Empress Maude. He was taken prisoner, and Maude became Queen of England–for a little while.
I just finished reading When Christ and His Saints Slept by Sharon Kay Penman, a historical romance set in the twelfth century, the same time period that Ellis Peters writes about in her Brother Cadfael mysteries. While Ms. Peters’ books feature murder and mystery in and around a Benedictine monastery in Shrewsbury, Sharon Kay Penman writes about the personalities and political events of the time. No doubt about it: Stephen and Maude were HUGE personalities. Stephen is portrayed in the novel as strong enough to steal the crown of England from his cousin Maude, the designated heir to King Henry I, but too weak to rule effectively. Maude (aka Matilda), who was known as the Empress Maude because of her first marriage to the German Holy Roman Emperor, was a strong woman and a strong ruler, but she couldn’t overcome the prejudice and insubordination of the English barons who were unwilling to be ruled by a woman.
The title of the book, When Christ and His Saints Slept, refers to the suffering of the English people during the prolonged civil war between adherents of Stephen and supporters of the Empress Maude. Penman writes about the kings and queens, ladies, lords and barons of the time, but she also gives us fictional characters who embody the common people and their experiences during such a violent time of war and lawlessness. Jews, serfs, orphaned children, common soldiers, and Welsh mercenaries all play a part in this story that gives a vivid picture of conflicted and turbulent times. I found myself wanting to go back read my favorite history of these times, The Conquering Family by Thomas Costain, always a good sign of an engaging novel.
The ending of this novel, with the marriage of Maude’s son Henry to celebrated beauty and heiress Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry’s ascension to the throne of England, leads into the sequel by Penman, Time and Chance. I plan to pick this one up right after Christmas; I already have few other books on my list for the month of December.
More reviews of When Christ and His Saints Slept:
At Rambles, An Arts and Cultural Magazine by Jenny Ivor
Kommentary by Kritter