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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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.

Pytheas the Greek by Barry Cuncliffe

Subtitled ‘The man who discovered Britain‘.  This could be a great exercise in how to stretch out as little information as possible.  Pytheas, a Greek explorer from Marseille in the 4th Century BC, wrote about his exploration of north western Europe and it seems to have been well known among later Greek and Roman writers, but the problem is that only fragments and quotes have survived to us today.

With this in mind, Cuncliffe sets out to describe the Mediterranean culture that the explorer set out from in 325 BC and the lands that he may have discovered.  Each fragment or reference to Pytheas in Pliny or Strabo or Diodorus Sicilus is examined in depth, and the author speculates on locations based on archaelogical finds.  As speculation goes, it’s a better job than The Ancient Paths by Graham Robb.

Concerning Pytheas, or even the ancient Celtic culture, there’s not really much to get a grip on but the general information on ancient travel, agriculture and the tin trade is interesting enough.  Piecing together these from archaeological sites reminds me of Philip Parker’s descriptions of Vinlandia in The Northmen’s Fury, but with even less evidence to go on.  Other bits of information were even dismissed by ancient commentators as fanciful – the lurid tales of the cannibal Irish or Britons sharing wives between a dozen or more men.

Pytheas claimed to have circumnavigated Britain and visited the mysterious island of Thule to the far north.  Whether or not he did so, the debate over the location of Thule has trundled on ever since.  Pytheas was an educated man and was able to make measurements of latitude and give a rough description of his six day journey, ending in drift ice.  Iceland is one possibility, and Cuncliffe sticks squarely to it and sets out his arguments against the other options of Norway and Shetland.  As far as evidence goes, it’s like bald men fighting over a comb.  The whole thing could just be Pytheas passing on rumours and hearsay from further North.

The style is friendly enough, and the hand drawn maps are cute if not entirely useful!  It is a lot more grounded than Robb’s book and less poetic and rambling than In The Land Of Giants by Max Adams (another take on ancient Britain), but at times I found it hard going – jumping from archaeological finds to excerpts from classical texts, often leaves the main narrative.

We will probably never know how the full story of Pytheas’ journey, but what we do makes for interesting speculation.  It’s probably a bit too speculative for me, but it’s an interesting starting point for ancient exploration.

Alfred The Great by David Horspool

The quote on the front of the book says “If you only have time to read one book on the great man, you should make it this one”.  I wouldn’t entirely agree with that.  David Horspool’s book is largely a critical review of the myths and legends about King Alfred.  It doesn’t give a chronological narrative of Alfred’s life; there’s none of the the colour and myths and grandeur with which he often appears – but it is none the worse for it.

Book CoverThe real historical evidence and the growth of the legend are covered, and with some wit.  There’s a memorable phrase where Horspool describes the Victorian ideal of Alfred as a “Anglo Saxon head boy king”.  There is great detail on contemporary sources like Bishop Asser; on Matthew Parker, the Tudor archbishop who used the myth to boost the newly independent Church of England; and on later romantic portrayals in painting and theatre, all the way up to Bernard Cornwell’s Last Kingdom and the 1969 epic film starring David Hemmings, Michael York and Ian McKellan.

Continue reading Alfred The Great by David Horspool

Edward IV and the Wars of the Roses by David Santiuste

Book coverFirst off, “and the Wars of the Roses” isn’t a subtitle used lightly. This 2010 release from Pen & Sword focuses very much on the military history side of things. It doesn’t function as a complete biography – his later reign is only skimmed through, and the details of his often extravagant lifestyle don’t really feature. It does however make a case for Edward being the most successful general of any English monarch.

His record is blotted by the fact that most of his campaigns were fought against his compatriots in civil wars and rebellions, rather than the French like Henry V (they were, of course, a much more acceptable target), but the achievements do stand up. He never lost a battle, and was equally willing and able to delegate command, negotiate, or retreat if necessary. When he did finally invade France it was a bit of a wash out, with the promised support from Burgandy disappearing – but his eventual peace treaty was a respectable end, and showed a level headed response to these problems.

After a brief introduction to the setting and the upbringing of noble children, the author gives a run through of the Wars of the Roses, with all its characters and machinations. Better tellings of the full story could be found elsewhere; here it is just average (but also necessary to understand Edward’s role). For the battles however, it is much more successful. Aspects of the preparation, tactics, and the aftermath are covered and paint a lively picture of the 15th century campaigns. Edward’s personality too does feel rounded, it may not elaborate but we get enough to understand his more playful or personal side. Despite the focus on the military and on Edward, other characters like Warwick “the Kingmaker” (his role much downplayed here) or Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, do come across well.

In all, it’s worth a read. The military side is very well written and there is enough insight to the politics, personalities and everyday life to keep the rest interesting – I just wish it had been a bit more complete in places.

Post 66: Wolf Hall on tv

It’s not brilliant, is it?  There are some great actors with very good performances.  Mark Rylance and Damien Lewis are very good, and it’s nice to see Mark Gatiss in a serious role.  The story stays fairly tight to the book (possibly a good thing when dealing with history and such good source material).  The settings and costumes are impressive.  There are many positives, but it seems to lack direction – both in pacing and (for want of a better word) in direction.

Continue reading Post 66: Wolf Hall on tv

Post 65: Peter Ackroyd’s The Tudors [History of England Volume 2]

The TudorsI have an odd relationship with Peter Ackroyd’s books.  I have read a few of his novels and like his use of history, he clearly has knowledge about and passion for the periods he chooses.  I generally enjoy his style of writing (though parts of Hawksmoor were trying).  Unfortunately I find the books a bit light on anything actually happening, any particularly compelling characters or occasionally any point.  That sounds harsh, he’s not far off but it generally just doesn’t click for me.

However, that intimate knowledge of history – particularly in England and particularly in London – makes him a very good writer for popular history.  He builds scenes and atmospheres well.  He brings the world to life.  He throws in odd little facts and stories that add colour and depth to the narrative.  He is currently in the middle of writing a history of England, with the first book Foundation taking things up to Henry VII and the third covering the Civil War.

Continue reading Post 65: Peter Ackroyd’s The Tudors [History of England Volume 2]