Book Review: Sharon Kay Penman’s Henry II Trilogy


Sharon Kay Penman has recently cemented her place in my pantheon of favourite authors. I love historical fiction, and she is one of the shining lights of the genre today. Her specialty is the Middle Ages of Great Britain and France, and her attention to detail in that time period is every bit as impressive as Colleen McCullough’s Masters of Rome series. She write hard historical fiction: The history always comes first, and the fiction is sprinkled in just enough to make the real events and people of that time period into a novel.

sunnesplendourcovI first came across her work with the Sunne in Splendour. I’ll review it on this blog sometime in the future, I’m sure, but for the moment let me just summarize how much it impressed me: She took the life of Richard III –the last of the Plantagenets who was so vilified by the victorious Tudors that he is remembered as a hunch-backed monster who walled his young nephews up in the Tower of London– and extrapolated who he really was before his enemies twisted his memory. That’s quite a feat, and it shows she’s not afraid to take on enormous challenges in the pursuit of her art.

It was her first novel, and the finished manuscript was stolen along with her car before publication. She had to rewrite the entire thing from scratch, a blow and a display of true grit in the face of adversity that would win my admiration even if her prose was bad. It’s not. The novel is wonderful, and it led to a string of others, the latest of which is a trilogy of books covering the life of Henry II.

Penman_WhenChrist_ppbkThe first book in the trilogy is called While Christ and his Saints Slept, which is something of an awkward title until it is explained to be a passage from a contemporary source: Most of England’s history during the Middle Ages was recorded by the clergy; England was torn apart by civil war in the years immediately following Henry’s birth, and when the monks chronicling those dark times cast about for an explanation as to how such misery was allowed to happen, they lamented that Christ and his Saints Slept.

The story begins with the sinking of the White Ship on November 25th, 1120, a tragedy as famous at the time as the Titanic today. Among the scores of nobles who drowned in the cold waters off the coast of France was the only legitimate son of Henry I.

Henry I had a great number of bastards, many of whom had august rank, but Church law and all custom forbade any of them from becoming his successor. Henry had a daughter, though, and so he made her his heir and married her –against her wishes– to Count Geoffrey V of Anjou. His daughter Maude, also known as the Empress Matilda, was meant to be the first Queen of England, and he died knowing that his grandchildren by her would continue his dynasty.

Henry’s barons and bishops were loathe to see a woman become God’s Anointed, and when the old king died, her cousin Stephen raced to Canterbury Cathedral and was crowned king instead of Maude. Thus begins the time when Christ and his Saints slept.

Maude left her young sons, Henry, Geoffrey, and William, and sailed for England with her bastard brother Robert, the Duke of Gloucester. With him as her war lord they tore England apart. Her husband, Geoffrey of Anjou, set about conquering Normandy for her, and her sons grew up in her absence.

Penman’s character studies are incredibly well done. The horrible marriage between Maude and Geoffrey is dealt with in great depth and detail, and she does a magnificent job showing how this impacts her relationship with her children. Stephen, meanwhile, is not portrayed as a villain: He is a kind-hearted man of honour who could not resist a crown that was offered to him, and he finds little happiness with it on his brow. He is shown to be an admirable man, but a poor king. Several times he could end the war and the dozens of rebellions among his barons with a display of ruthlessness, but his innate gallantry leads him to do the moral thing rather than the right thing.

Maude is not a heroine in the classic sense, either: At one point following a decisive battle at Lincoln, Stephen is imprisoned and the throne lies open to her, but her own self-righteousness and iron will cost her the support of the London mob, and she is driven from the palace of Westminister before she can be crowned. Stephen is freed, and the civil war continues to rage, with cities burning and castles under seige and barons switching sides or taking advantage of the anarchy to rape and pillage their way across the kingdom.

Young Henry grows up knowing that his distant mother is fighting for his crown, and his character is formed in the fire of that war. At fourteen he hires a band of mercenaries and invades England without his mother’s knowledge. He runs out of money, and asks King Stephen for the cash to pay his mercenaries in exchange for going home. Stephen give it to him. Poor Stephen.

There are two scenes that make this a giant of a book: At one point Maude is besieged in Oxford Castle in the dead of winter without hope of relief. She climbs over the battlements, dressed all in white, and walks through Stephen’s siege lines under the cover of darkness and a howling blizzard. Later, Stephen is besieging the war lord John Marshall, who offers up his five-year-old son William as a hostage for a truce. John Marshall uses the truce to fortify his position, and then dares Stephen to hang his boy, saying, “I still have the hammer and the anvil with which to forge still more and better sons!” Stephen’s barons, led by his son Eustace, insist the boy must hang for his father’s treachery, and only as the noose is put around the lad’s throat does Stephen demand the execution be halted.

As the book reaches its last act, the most important character of the trilogy is finally introduced: Eleanor of Aquitaine. She is already famous throughout Christendom for her beauty, her fabulous wealth, and her unhappy marriage to the king of France. Henry and Eleanor meet at the French Court, and thus begins one of the most famous romances in history. Within three months, Eleanor is divorced from Louis Capet and married to Henry. Europe would never be the same.

Penman’s handling of Eleanor is something to behold. This is a modern, empowered woman, who also happens to be deeply rooted in the traditions of feudal aristocracy. She can make the world dance to her tune, and in Henry she finds an equal. Together they are unstoppable, and the book ends when they are at their happiest: Stephen dies after being forced to name Henry as his heir. Henry becomes King of England at the age of 21, and Eleanor becomes the only woman in history to have been the Queen of both England and France.

While Christ and his Saints Slept is an incredible read in its own right, it also sets the stage for two sequels. With glee, I went to the book store and picked them both up.

Pennman_Time_ChanceppbkThe next book in the trilogy is Time and Chance. This book centers around the conflict between Thomas Beckett and Henry II, but it makes mention of all the important events of Henry and Eleanor’s life during this time. Henry has a gift for both war and government, and his fiery temper is much in evidence. Eleanor begins to chafe under the constraints Henry places upon her. They have a multitude of children, and each of them is given their own turn in the spot light.

It is a satisfying read that I shot through in a week, but I admit now I can’t recall it in the same depth that I do the beginning and the ending of the trilogy. In a way, that is a high compliment for a middle book of a trilogy: It doesn’t stand out in my mind as being it’s own story, so much as a continuation of Slept and a precursor to Devil’s Brood.

Penman’s greatest achievement in Time and Chance is the character of Thomas Beckett. His actions, viewed from the twenty-first century, are difficult to find motives for, so Penman returns us to the time and place in which they occurred to ground the reader. Beckett has an iron-will and a sense of righteousness rivaled only by Henry. When they work together towards a common goal, they are fast friends. When Henry elevates his friend to the Archbishopric of Canterbury, however, Beckett’s purpose is the defense of the Church at the expense of the King, and their battle of wills shatters lives just as effectively as the civil war between Maude and Stephen did. Eleanor, for her part, warned Henry against trusting Beckett with such power, and the fact that she was ignored becomes a source of constant tension between her and her husband.

I did not mention it when talking about When Christ and his Saints Slept (I had rather a lot to say), but Penman’s love of Wales was indulged in that book through a fictional character named Ranulf. Originally used as a way to show the goings on of the lower levels of the aristocracy in the time period, the end of Slept sees Ranulf settling down in Wales with a blind wife. In Time and Chance Penman returns to Ranulf and uses his position as a bastard uncle to Henry as a way of bringing Wales into the plot more fully, and the whole arc is no less satisfying for its fictional participants. Wales sees the death of a strong prince followed by a power struggle among his sons, and the back and forth of this lets us use Ranulf as an interesting and welcome diversion from the high stakes tension between Henry, Eleanor and Beckett.

I’ll admit I was left feeling a little cold with Beckett’s death, but I don’t blame Penman for that. Beckett’s murder in Canterbury Cathedral is one of the best documented episodes of the Middle Ages, and so Penman can do very little to speed up or boil down the juggernaut in her book. The fact that the reader knows what is going to happen three hundred pages before it does can’t be worked around, and Penman’s approach of telling things exactly how they happened left me a little anxious for her to get to the point. In the end, his death was well done, and its impact upon Henry was left in no doubt. The novel ends soon afterward, with Henry going to Ireland to await the Church’s reaction to Beckett’s martyrdom (and eventual Sainthood).

Time and Chance is a great middle book to a trilogy. The fact that it is dwarfed in my mind to what came before and what comes after is not a knock against it: In a trilogy, one part is always going to be slightly weaker than the others. Isn’t it better for the middle arc to blur a little, rather than to have a shaky beginning or a disappointing end?

I will say this about Time and Chance: I wouldn’t want to read it again as a stand alone novel, which is something I might very well do one day with Slept and the next novel I’m about to discuss.

devils_broodDevil’s Brood is the book I expected to read when I learned there was a trilogy about the life of Henry II. I didn’t know a great deal about Henry before reading this trilogy, but I did know (from the movie The Lion in Winter, among other places) that he went to war with his sons.

Stop and think on that for a moment: Henry II, at his height, was the most powerful king in Europe since Charlemagne. He ruled as King of England, Count of Anjou, Nantes and Maine, Duke of Normandy, Aquitaine, and Gascony, Lord of Ireland and, at various times, controlled parts of Wales, Scotland and other parts of western France. The man was a colossus, but from the time his sons were old enough to pick up a broadsword, they were swinging it at him, and his wife Eleanor helped them. What a story!

I don’t want to recount the plot at great length. I do want to praise Penman’s way of dealing with it, though. Her handling of Eleanor, again, is incredible. Eleanor, who feels her husband ignores her. Eleanor, who favours her son Richard over everyone else. Eleanor, who risks all, loses, is imprisoned for over a decade by her husband for her treason, and yet over the years comes to sympathize with him: They were the parents of a devil’s brood. It was both of their failings that made their children into the men they became.

Another fascinating choice of Penman’s was to lavish so much attention on the middle son, Geoffrey, who Henry made Duke of Brittany. Geoffrey is the least documented of Henry’s adult sons (one dies in infancy), and he is the only one who never wore a crown, and yet Penman gives Geoffrey as much attention as she does to Hal or Richard or John. I knew so little about Geoffrey that I did not even know his fate, although I suspected it: Thanks to Robin Hood I know John succeeds Richard as King of England in a few more years’ time, and that would be a hard thing for such a weak ruler to do if his older brother was still around to contest the throne.

Devil’s Brood is satisfying from the first page to the last. I’ve already praised Penman’s treatment of Eleanor and Geoffrey, but the over-arching narrative is of Henry’s tragedy. He is the most powerful man in Christendom, but his stubbornness and pride lead his sons into rebellion, and though he can win the wars time and time again, he can never have victory: Victory, for him, would be to hand his kingdom off to his eldest on his deathbed, safe in the knowledge that his other sons are lords in their own right, and that their fraternal bonds will ensure peace in the Empire he has built for them.

That dream is slow to evaporate from his mind, but his trust is not so reluctant. After the blows Beckett and Eleanor burned into his soul, he cannot bring himself to trust his sons once they cross him. Their impetuousness in their teens ruins them for him, and he uses his vast power and intellect to manipulate them, play one off against the other, and yet he still loves them and cannot understand why they do not love him back.

Henry’s end is tragic, but his life, in a way, is worthy of Greek Tragedy. He is born into a world of turmoil, but he is favoured by God and finds love and success beyond the wildest imagination in his youth, only to see it all slip through his fingers because of his own selfish will. How many parallels are there between Henry and any of the Greek myths? Indeed, Henry has been immortalized in plays like Beckett and The Lion in Winter as just such a tragic hero. After reading Penman’s trilogy, I really feel I’ve come to know him not just as a character, but as a man.

I don’t think of the trilogy as Eleanor’s, even though she is a driving force in it, for certes. She is not introduced until the last third of Slept. Her early life is told second hand, and she does not die at the end of Brood (indeed, Penman uses the elderly Eleanor in other books). No, Slept, Time, and Brood are about the rise and fall of Henry II, and they are a picture as true to life as anyone could make them. Where Penman fabricates, she confesses freely and explains herself in a historical note at the end. Very few writers of historical fiction hold themselves to that level of authenticity. She is less a novelist than a journalist who is permitted to invent dialogue due to the understandable limitations of writing about people who have been dead for nine hundred years. The greatest praise I can give her is that, having read their story, I feel I know them as flesh and blood people, who had dreams and desires and needs, heart-breakingly few of which were fulfilled. She took history, and made it come to life.

I don’t have a rating system, but I would give all three of these books top marks. If you enjoy well-researched, well-thought out, thick, deep, broad historical fiction, these are the books for you. Enjoy! I know I did.

2 thoughts on “Book Review: Sharon Kay Penman’s Henry II Trilogy

  1. Pingback: My Favourite Authors of Historical Fiction: Sharon Kay Penman « Face in the Blue

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