You will look at this book and find the 742 pages daunting, but I will relieve your mind on that score. The book reads fast. Penman keeps the pages moving bringing history to life and putting flesh on the bones of a vast array of characters. Despite the plot involving so many historical figures I never found myself to be lost. I have read quite a bit about the Plantagenets and that may have helped me to decipher the where, why and what more easily, but I do think a reader with less background of the period will still find themselves swept up in the plot and left at the end of the book with a burning desire to know more about the Plantagenets. In fact I fully intend to read the other two books in the trilogy in the very near future.
The trouble, you see, all starts with the White Ship. The legitimate heir to the throne of England, William the only son of Henry the first drowns in a tragic shipwreck. Many English lives would have been spared if William had survived. Henry I dies after a meal of lamprey eels. On his death bed he forces his most ardent supporters to swear fealty to his daughter and only legitimate heir Maude. Some of his supporters do end up supporting Maude, but a majority of them go over to Stephen, her cousin, and he becomes king of England. This is one of those points in history where legitimate and illegitimate blood lines become such a factor. Robert of Gloucester, a competent, well respected illegitimate son of Henry I displaying all the characteristics of a man that would have made a good king is kept from the throne by law. If Robert had been allowed to be crowned king many thousands of English lives would have been spared in the more than a decade of civil war that followed the coronation of Stephen, for Maude did not go quietly in the night.
Maude married Geoffrey of Anjou, a handsome, dynamic, powerful man who got more than he bargained for in his marriage to a King's daughter. She married him for military support and he married her with that thought that a son of his would one day sit on the throne of England. Their marriage was stormy and it is a miracle that they ever managed to compromise long enough to sire a son. One of the reasons why Maude had difficulty in gaining support was of course first and foremost because she was a woman, but secondly she was too imperial with her subjects. She exhibited a coldness that kept all, but her key people at a distance. Stephen on the other hand was very charming and personable to a fault. He wanted everyone to love him and as the war continued that became his Achilles Heel. He was unwilling to execute and destroy those that opposed him. Qualities today that we would find commendable, but in the twelfth century was perceived as a weakness. As the civil war continued supporters blew with the wind, sometimes changing sides three or four times. By the time Henry, oldest son of Maude and Geoffrey, became old enough to become involved in the conflict the war was nearly over. Stephen, after the untimely death of his son Eustace (another deadly meal of eel),named Henry as his successor thus ending the conflict.
I have been so enthralled, for good reason, with the reign of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitane that I knew very little about Stephen and Maude. I had always known more about their weaknesses than their strengths and Penman did a wonderful job giving me a more balanced perception of both Stephen and Maude.