Sharon Penman: When Christ and his Saints Slept

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Sharon Penman When Christ and his Saints Slept
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    When Christ and his Saints Slept
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Sharon Kay Penman

When Christ and his Saints Slept


Chartres Cathedral, France January 1101

Stephen was never to forget his fifth birthday, for that was the day he lost his father. In actual fact, that wasn’t precisely so. But childhood memories are not woven from facts alone, and that was how he would remember it.

He’d come with his parents and two elder brothers to this great church of the Blessed Mary to hear a bishop preach about the Crusade. He didn’t know who the bishop was, but his sermon was a long, dull one, and Stephen had fidgeted and squirmed through most of it, for he was safely out of his mother’s reach. She had no patience with childhood mischief, no patience with mischief of any kind. “Remember who you are” was her favorite maternal rebuke, and her older children had soon learned to disregard that warning at their peril.

But it puzzled Stephen; why would he forget? He knew very well who he was: Stephen of Blois, son and namesake of the Count of Blois and the Lady Adela, daughter of William the Bastard, King of England and Duke of Normandy. Stephen had never met his celebrated grandfather, but he knew he’d been a great man. His mother often said so.

Stephen knew about the Crusade, too, for people talked about it all the time. His father had taken the cross, gone off to free the Holy Land from the infidel. Stephen was still in his cradle then, and two when his father came back. There was something shameful about his return. Stephen did not understand why, though, for he was convinced his father could do no wrong, not the man who laughed so often and winked at minor misdeeds and had promised him a white pony for this long-awaited fifth birthday. Stephen had already picked out a name-Snowball-so sure he was that his father would not forget, that the pony would be waiting for them back at the castle.

Stephen had hoped they’d be returning there once the Mass was done, but instead they lingered out in the cloisters with the bishop, discussing the new army of crusaders that was making ready to join its Christian brethren in the Holy Land. Ignored by the adults, bored and restless, Stephen soon slipped back into the cathedral.

Within, all was shadowed and still. With the candles quenched and the parishioners gone, the church seemed unfamiliar to Stephen, like a vast, dark cave. Sun-blinded, he tripped over a prayer cushion and sprawled onto the tiled floor. But he was not daunted by a scraped knee, scrambled up, and groped his way down the nave toward the choir.

He was curious to get a better look at the Sancta Camisia, draped over a reliquary upon the High Altar. Up close, though, it was a disappointment, just a faded chemise, frayed and wrinkled. He’d expected something fancier, mayhap cloth of gold or spangled silk, for this shabby garment was among the most revered relics in Christendom, said to have been worn by the Blessed Lady Mary as she gave birth to the Holy Christ Child. Stephen’s eldest brother, Will, had once dared to ask how it could have survived so many centuries and their mother had slapped him across the mouth for such blasphemy. Carefully wiping his hand on his tunic, Stephen was reaching out to touch the Sancta Camisia when the door opened suddenly, spilling sunlight into the nave.

Stephen ducked down behind the High Altar, willing these intruders to go away. Instead, the footsteps came nearer. When he peeped around the altar cloth, he gasped in dismay. It would be bad enough to be caught by a priest, but this was far worse. He feared his mother’s wrath more than the anger of priests and bishops, even more than God’s, for He was in Heaven and Mama was right here in Chartres.

Adela stopped before she reached the High Altar, but she was still so close that Stephen could almost have touched her skirts. The second set of footsteps was heavier and familiar. Some of Stephen’s anxiety began to abate now that his father was here, too. He still hoped to escape detection, though, for discipline was his mother’s province.

“I cannot believe you hold my life so cheaply, Adela.” Stephen knew his parents had been quarreling for days, but his father did not sound angry now; to Stephen, he sounded tired and even sad.

“I am your wife, Stephen. Of course I value your life. But I value your honour, too…more than you do, I fear.”

“That is not fair! When the Crusade was first preached, I took the cross, more to please you than God, if truth be told. And now you would have me go back? Are you that eager to be a widow?”

“I am not sending you back to die, Stephen, but to redeem your honour. You owe your sons that, and you owe me that. You must fulfill your crusader’s vow. If not, you’ll live out all your days haunted by the shame of Antioch.”

“Christ Jesus, woman…I’ve told you again and again why I left the siege. I was ailing and disheartened and sickened by all the needless killing-”

“How can you say that? What greater glory could there be than to die for the liberation of Jerusalem?”

“Jerusalem has been liberated, Adela, more than a year ago-”

“Yes, but you were not there to see it, were you? No, you were back at Chartres, taking your ease whilst Christians were being slain by enemies of the True Faith!”

There was silence after that, lasting so long that the little boy risked a covert glance over the top of the High Altar. His parents were standing several feet away, looking at each other. “You’ve shared my bed for nigh on twenty years, Adela; you know every scar my body bears, battle scars, all of them. You ought to have been the last one to doubt my courage. Instead, you were amongst the first. So be it, then. I will do what you demand of me. I will take the cross again, go back to that accursed land, and make you proud,” the count said, so tonelessly that his son shivered.

Stephen did not hear his mother’s response, for he’d thrust his fist into his mouth, biting down on his thumb. His vision blurred as he sought to blink back tears. Footsteps were receding, a door clanging shut. Getting to his feet, Stephen left the shelter of the High Altar, only to find himself face-to-face with his father.

The Count of Blois was clearly taken aback. He caught his breath on an oath, was starting to frown when Stephen whispered, “Do not go away, Papa…”

“Ah, lad…” And then Stephen was swept up in his father’s arms, being held in a close embrace as he dried his tears on the count’s soft wool mantle.

“Why do you have to go, Papa?” He’d once asked his father what the Holy Land was like, and still remembered the terse reply: “A hellish place.” “You do not want to go back,” he said, “so stay here, please do not go away…”

“I have no choice.” His father rarely called Stephen by his given name, preferring “lad” or “sprout” or a playful “imp.” He did now, though, saying “Stephen” quietly, sounding sad again. “I’d hoped to wait until you were older…When I was in the Holy Land, I made a mistake. It did not seem so at the time. It was, though, the greatest mistake of my life. We’d been besieging Antioch for nigh on eight months. I’d been taken ill with fever, had withdrawn to nearby Alexandretta. The day after I left, our forces captured the city. But then a large Saracen army arrived and trapped them within Antioch. They seemed doomed for certes, and I…well, I chose to go home, back to Blois.”

He paused, ruffling Stephen’s hair, the same tawny shade as his own, before resuming reluctantly. “But the crusaders besieged in Antioch were saved by a miracle. You see, lad, they found an ancient lance in one of Antioch’s churches, supposedly revealed in a vision from God. Whether this was truly the Holy Lance that had pierced Our Lord Christ on the Cross or not, what matters is that men believed it to be so. They marched out of Antioch to confront the Saracen army, and against all odds, won a great victory. So Antioch was spared and I…I was shamed before all of Christendom, what I saw as common sense seen by others as cowardice…”

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