Another Time and a Different Chance

One advantage of having so many children and so many enemies, Henry acknowledged wryly, was that they’d never run out of something to talk about.
Time and Chance
Sharon Kay Penman

An artist's depiction of Eleanor and Henry from an Internet images search
An artist’s depiction of Eleanor and Henry from an Internet images search

Cold winds are blowing; snow sifts over the fallen leaves. The furnace sighs and kicks on. Dark comes on, with no pause and no subtlety, by 6 PM.

After eating dinner and putting the dishes  to rest, it’s time for a snuggle in the reading chair, afghan pulled tight around my shoulders,–time for an escape into other worlds. Sharon Kay Penman’s Time and Chance is waiting for me.

Penman’s story–the marriage of Henry II and Eleanor Aquitaine and all the intrigue and drama that weave into and around it–was immortalized in the film A Lion in Winter. So I know the ending, know the betrayals and triumphs still to come, but Penman’s telling takes the old story and makes it fresh and immediate.

The power of these people! There’s Eleanor, with her strong–some said headstrong— personality, her beauty, and her clear-eyed plotting. She was a smart, savvy woman in a time when those feminine qualities weren’t rewarded, but she circumvented rules and made it work. She ditched the King of France for a boy–Henry–eleven years her junior. Pooling their resources, they wrestled history into submitting to them, and they crowned him Henry II.

The surprise, in a time of marriages made for reasons of convenience and collaboration, was that Eleanor and Henry, at least in Penman’s telling, fell deeply in love. And why not? They were arrows from the same quiver, shot sure and strong towards power. They were attractive and lusty–they had eight children together, the last born when Eleanor was well into her 40’s.

Eleanor is credited with developing the culture of courtly love, she and her daughter; oh, the charm she must have exuded to draw so many people to her flame…

But Henry, ultimately, eleven years her junior, cast his eye on not someone older and equally strong, not a sparring partner with privileges, but on a young and innocent, willing and adoring, beautiful maiden. In Time and Chance, the liaison with Rosamund Clifford is the turning point, the pivot after which the Henry-Eleanor alliance begins to crumble.

Henry’s elevation of Thomas Becket to archbishop of Canterbury and the ensuing drama provide a strong framework for Time and Chance, as well.

Henry and Eleanor are, of course, surrounded by sycophants and toadies; there are liars and opportunists abounding. But there are thoughtful, conscience-guided characters in this book, as well. Ranulf, Henry’s uncle, is torn between his English/Welsh heritage and his personal devotion to his nephew. The breaking point comes when Henry takes captives close to the Welsh King Owain and to his nobleman, Rhys. Rhys and Owain do not, despite their young kinsman being at the mercy of the English king, comply with his dictates. Ranulf learns that Henry plans to kill all the hostages, and he hurries to court to see if he can change that.

“I’m not going to kill them,” Henry magnanimously reassures his uncle. Ranulf has a moment of relief; then he learns that Henry plans to blind and geld the hostages instead.

What a raw and savage time. A father whose boy child is hostage to King Stephen at the book’s beginning tells Stephen to feel free to hang the four-year-old. He has, the father informs his king, the hammer and the anvil to forge more heirs. Stephen is, ultimately, unable to send a four-year-old to the gallows, and the child grows up to serve the Lady Eleanor.

It’s a fascinating tale, Time and Chance, sad and heroic, mean-spirited and plotting, magnificent and despicable, all at once. And it’s far enough removed from all those features in our own time to make it an escape. I pull the afghan tighter, gasp at the audacity of a king and a queen, the plotting of their enemies, and the arrogance of a man of God. The winds buffet my window–but I am far away.


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