Sharon kay Penman's new chronicle of medieval England begins with the rule of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitane. Henry's intention is to bring long-awaited peace to a country too long divided by civil strife and bloodshed over the throne of England. Henry is blessed with an exceptional command of statecraft, his leadership skills equal to the task.
When a vacancy opens for the position of Archbishop of Canterbury, Henry prevails on his chancellor, Thomas Becket, to accept the archbishopric, thereby performing a dual role as representative of the Church and advisor to the King. As history proves, this is the most critical error of Henry's reign. Henry refuses the advice of his counselors, including the truest and most loyal, Eleanor, the queen. The first ominous hint of serious trouble occurs when Becket returns the seal of Office of Chancellor to the King, literally throwing down a gauntlet that Henry refuses to acknowledge. Until matter reach an impasse, Henry cannot believe he has so misjudged Thomas Becket.
In a novel filled with Penman's usual assortment of characters to fill in the historical background and depth, Becket and Henry II are by far the most dominant personalities. In Time and Chance, the archbishop and the king engage in the most intricate and convoluted jockeying of one-upmanship, frequently frustrating both camps of followers, as the squabble over every issue.
This is an historical battle of Church vs. State, with no room for compromise, that ends in bloody murder.
This novel is intriguing, if not as spellbinding as Penman's previous excellent works. For this reviewer personally, Time and Chance is particularly informative. After twelve years of Catholic education, I remember this Archbishop of Canterbury as a so-called "saint", revered for his stand for respect of the Church's integrity, and, of course, the wealth of the Church. It is interesting, therefore, to note how single-minded and arrogant Becket's decisions seem in the light of history. Cloaked in the mantle of religion, he seems fanatical and riddled with self-pride, including the penitential hairshirts worn under his clerical robes. I find Penman's perspective, given her access to historical documents of the time, to be far more instructive of the human failings that exist behind the fašade of leadership.