England, Arise by Juliet Barker

I’m never sure about getting books by Juliet Barker.  Bernard Cornwell recommended her book on Agincourt quite highly, so I obviously began by buying the sequel, Conquest, about the English ruled land in France in the decades after the battle.  This wasn’t a glamorous book – England falls, France rises and the kingdom stutters to an ignominious defeat.  Barker showed a great head for numbers – money and men were thrown at the kingdom, but never as much as was needed.

Agincourt was a more heroic book, but again Barker carefully separated the myth and the fact, and fleshed out the war with logistics and figures.  The attention to detail was interesting to read, but at times hard to push through – although she kept both books fairly concise, they do not feel like a light read.

England, Arise (from 2014), her take on the 1381 “Peasants’ Revolt”, fills a similar role.  The myth is one of John Ball, Wat Tyler, Jack Straw and a proto-protestant, proto-communist revolt by the oppressed masses.  As ever, it is more complicated than that.

The background to the trouble was one of financial trouble for the kingdom, as it struggled to pay for faltering wars in France – Barker has tread similar ground before, but here she gets to show the effect on the people.  In the aftermath of the plague, wages should have increased (and informally did) but this was opposed by restrictive laws and taxes.  Corruption was rife.  A series of taxes were imposed in an attempt to raise money to continue the wars abroad, but bad organisation and a young king led to increasing resentment against the aristocrats and bureaucrats.

This eventually spilled over into what Barker concludes was a co-ordinated and organised uprising by the men of Kent and Essex, beginning in Brentwood (now better known for TOWIE).  There was not a wholesale slaughter, the targets were focussed – officials or landowners seen as greedy or corrupt.  In many cases the rebels simply went after the documentation, in an attempt to revoke land grabs or unfair dealings.  There was looting of course, but this was no out of control mob.

The young king Richard II met the rebellion and promptly agreed to all their demands, giving them encouragement to continue doing what they believed was the king’s work.  He changed his mind some time later, while safely out of harms way.  Barker concludes though that his sympathies may have lay closer to the rebels than often portrayed.  The revocation came late and only under the direction of his council – this forced retreat may have helped form his later hostility to much of the aristocracy.

The other big names of 1381 play only small roles here.  Little is known about Tyler, and less about Jack Straw.  John Ball is present, but the best known parts are made up, and the role of religion in the uprising may be overstated by sources later trying to discredit the rebels and religious factions like the Lollards – John Wycliffe, the influential founder of this movement, disapproved of the revolt and was closely linked to many of its targets.

Like her other books, this is an authoritative and detailed account – but sometimes a bit too detailed, and it is easy to get lost in anecdotes or sidetracks about medieval customs and culture.  The lack of myth and legend is justified throughout, but does feel a little disappointing – it never really sparks to life.  It does, however, probably leave me better prepared to go and read some trashy Hollywood version with all the great speeches and quotes reinserted!

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Decline and Fall of Roman Britain by Neil Faulkner

As I often do, I skipped the preface to this book and went straight into the main text.  Because of that, it was only about half way through that I realised Neil Faulkner was a Marxist – all the references to class war finally started to make sense.

In this book, actually charting the whole history of the Romans in Britain, this approach has advantages and disadvantages.  Roman society was undeniably full of inequality and, in an otherwise dry book, Faulkner does succeed in bringing that to life.  His descriptions of the settlements, showing the disparity in wealth, are bolstered by plenty of archaeological evidence.  His explanation of the effects of Diocletian’s economic reforms is much more vivid that I’d thought the history of taxation could be.

On the downside, his conclusion, that the end of Roman Britain would let a peasant revolt kick out the landlords and live a brief but ideal agrarian society before the Saxon warlords moved in, comes across as far fetched and lacking any real basis to back it up.  His descriptions of the Roman empire outside of Britain are short and one-sided, mostly existing to show either Britain’s role in the empire or the inequality in the system.

I’m not as well read on Roman Britain as I should be, but this stands as an interesting if occasionally uneven take on that particular fringe of the Empire.  Worth reading, but perhaps best balanced with an alternative point of view.

Iron Kingdom by Christopher Clark

I picked this up from my local library recently for a holiday to Berlin.  As it turns out, there’s maybe not a whole lot of relevancy for such a city break – Berlin has been so rebuilt from the time of old Prussia in both physical form and outlook; and, in any case, the history of Prussia was always dominated by the fringes.  The eastern Dukedom that provided the name and the old military Junker families is now back in Polish hands, and the rest of German has found an easier, less Prussian, form of German unification.  It was however a fascinating book.

With the reputation that Prussian has, I was expecting fairly blunt military history but Clark delicately covers the social, religious and economic aspects of history too.  We don’t just get the monarchs (inevitably called either William or Frederick, sometimes both) and the aristocrats, but also the working people – both native Prussians and minorities, often Polish or Jewish.  Packing all this in, the book is a big one.  It is not, however, heavy going – Clark writes accessibly, even on the more difficult topics.

As Prussia forms and leads a unified Germany, the book could become more of a standard history of the World Wars.  Thankfully, Clark finds his own angle on this.  Alongside the main narrative of the rise of the Nazi Party, for instance, we see the Prussian state dominated by the Social Democrats.  Throughout the book, there were a lit of similar bits, previously unknown to me, that came together to help explain the path that Prussia took through history.  It may not have quite been the perfect holiday book, but I really enjoyed this.

Athelstan by Tom Holland

I’m a big fan of Tom Holland.  His book Rubicon (following after Robert Harris’ Cicero series) was a large part of what got me back into reading about history.  I was a bit surprised then to find this book in the library, having managed to completely miss it.  Part of the Penguin Monarchs series, it’s a beautifully presented hard-back book of only 90 or so pages.

The book is largely a discussion of the work that Athelstan (king 924 to 939) did to unify the Anglo-Saxon and Viking kingdoms into a single English kingdom.  As such it starts from the roots of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Wessex and Mercia, and it is surprisingly far through the book before Athelstan rears his head.  As the book concludes this pacing makes sense; although the existence of a single English kingdom seems simple now, it is something that was never inevitable and often a struggle.  This wasn’t concluded in one generation, it was the culmination of work by Athelstan’s predecessors – Edward the Elder and Alfred the Great.  All three of these kings struggled with succession, other brothers and cousins laid strong claims to the Kingdom or parts thereof.  The single English kingdom could have easily fragmented before it was even born.

Also facing this was the idea of Britain as a whole: the Scots had the kingdom of Alba, a gaelic term referring to the whole island; while the Welsh had prophecies about their reclaiming their old lands across the island.  After wars in Scotland, Athelstan was proclaimed “rex totius Britanniae”, King of all Britain, in addition to his title “Rex Anglorum”, King of England.  One of these would stick and one would not.  As England formed as a single entity, so would Scotland and Wales.

Athelstan is often left as a postscript to the story of King Alfred.  It’s good to see him and his achievements presented and discussed in this way, as a crucial period in shaping Britain.

Shakespeare’s Local by Pete Brown

I’ve been to The George Inn on Borough High Street several times.  It’s a lovely looking building, all lop sided balconies and dark old-fashioned windows, with a layout of rooms that don’t seem to go where you expect.  Typically it’s packed with tourists and the beer (from Greene King) is average (though it is slightly less obnoxious than nearby the Anchor Bankside).  There is an atmosphere however.  Even on a busy summer’s day, it’s possible to find a space somewhere and soak in the history.  And there is quite a lot of history.

shakespeares-local-the-george-inn-borough-high-street

The title of this book suggests that Shakespeare frequented the pub – Brown admits that this isn’t backed up by evidence.  Like many stories around the pub though, it’s a reasonable guess.  The inn next door, The Tabard, was used as the starting point for Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.  The George was one of many inns known for theatre and entertainment during the Tudor period.  It later became one of the big coaching inns for travellers to and from London, before popping up in Dickens in the early Victorian era.  It wasn’t the biggest or most famous of pubs in the are, but it is the one that survived.  By telling the story of Southwark and its pubs in general, Brown manages to focus in on the George as it somehow survived through changing and often turbulent times.

In tone, I didn’t enjoy it as much as Hops And Glory (where the author brews a traditional IPA and transports it to India).  Occasionally the humour doesn’t land and the stream of anecdotes can feel a little relentless.  In terms of the topic though, I really enjoyed it.  That humour does take the edge off topics that could otherwise be dry (a short history of road transport?).  It was interesting to note the changes that have happened in Southwark even in the short period between this book in 2011 and now in 2017.  Reading this just after the attack at London Bridge, when the area was very much in mind, it was a reminder of how things change in London and how they remain the same.