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.

The Northmen’s Fury by Philip Parker

This is probably the first Viking history I’ve read since Horrible Histories, when I was a kid. I’m certainly wasn’t disappointed – Parker gives a narrative history of the Vikings through their early raids in Ireland, France and England, to the high points of the great Heathen Armies and the Danelaw, and finally the settlement into various Christian kingdoms. Alongside this he covers the sagas and writings that have preserved this Norse culture so we can read it today.

This book ties in with a few other things I’ve read recently – Gospel of Loki by Joanne M Harris and The Empire Stops Here. There is a little bit on mythology here, but by and large Parker is focused on fact (or at least the more possible sorts of legend). The myths of Loki, Odin and Thor are mentioned, but only to explain how the fit into the Viking world. Actually, Christianity plays as big a part in this history, and much of our story is on the conversion and settlement of the pagan raiders. By avoiding telling these myths for their own sake, Parker actually gives the book a greater sense of purpose. It allows an almost unbroken focus on the raiding and colonization of the Norsemen; one can get a sense of the connections and development throughout Scandinavian societies.

In comparison to The Empire Stops Here, I preferred Parker’s style here. Although he clearly has a solid take on the dry details, Parker’s writing is at his best when he has a colourful story to tell. The Viking world isn’t short of those! Harald Hardrada in particular stands out, for me, as a highlight. He was a man who seemed to collect good stories, even when they were blatantly stolen from elsewhere!

The chapters on Iceland, Greenland and (what we know of) Vinland are also good. They give a good picture of how the societies in these lands were built, and what may have went wrong (in the case of the latter two). Parker deals with the problem of evidence well; in many situations we just don’t have historical evidence to fill in a complete picture.

Parker keeps a pace and a vividness that makes the Viking age just as interesting to read about as the stories one reads a a child. Maybe a bit more factual, but also more varied – the Viking influence spanned such a geographical area (from North America to the Middle East) and time (Norn was being spoken in the Scottish islands as late as the 19th century!). It’s just a luxury to encounter them from such a distance.

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]

Post 41: The Search For King Alfred

Dr Tucker and AlfredI recently went to a talk by Katie Tucker in a pub in Southsea/Portsmouth*. She’s the leader of a group from the University of Winchester that has potentially found the bones of King Alfred the Great. As she’s an archaeologist specializing in bones the talk was a bit short on biographical detail, but nonetheless provided a fascinating description of the investigation into and the story behind his remains and final resting place. In the aftermath of Richard III’s re-appearance this search was splashed all over tabloid front pages with lurid headlines and dubious mis-quotes. The results may not be quite as complete as that of the University of Leicester but Dr Tucker’s investigation was quite a different one with a brilliant conclusion in its own way.

When Alfred died in 899 AD, he was originally buried in the old Minster at Winchester but within a few years he had be shifted to the New Minster next door, built by his son as a dynastic church for the family. So far so good*, but the difficulties start when the Normans arrived and decided to build a new cathedral on the site. Alfred’s remains, and those of some close relatives and companions, were packed up and taken to a new abbey at Hyde on a new site. They were reburied here, although the exact position is disputed. Then in 1538 the abbey was dissolved and demolished, and in 1788 the site had a prison built on top. This is where the location of the bodies starts to get messed up – contemporary reports suggested that the bones were scattered by the building work.

Continue reading Post 41: The Search For King Alfred

Post 36: Agincourt by Juliet Barker

AgincourtAgain with the poor timing: I’ve just finished reading Agincourt by Juliet Barker and was considering whether I can be bothered holding on until Saint Crispin’s Day (25th October) before I post this – obviously not. And so this post is coming out exactly 599 years after some point in the middle of the Siege of Harfleur. This book covers that as well but it’s not quite as dramatic, is it? Anyway … I thought I’d write up a bit of a review of this book, and its follow up Conquest. These books come well recommended, with Bernard Cornwell quotes on the cover and much praise from other reviewers and historians.

I feel somewhat out of place to then say that I found these books disappointing. There’s so many positives in them – they are tightly written, cover the story with an expert eye from the grand scheme to the small details, contain some wonderful anecdotes*, characters and events, and are placed at a level that should be perfect with me (not too scholarly but assuming a certain level of background knowledge for their off hand references to Lollards or Richard II’s usurpation). However, I find these positives backfire and much of this detail is delivered flatly in a tone and pace that remains unswerving whether it is covering the peak of the battle of Agincourt or the production of cloth in the pre-war preparations. I know this is unfair, it’s a very well researched book and it never strays in irrelevancy, but it just doesn’t spark into life for me when it should.

Continue reading Post 36: Agincourt by Juliet Barker

Post 18: John Young, who lived to be old but died young

I was walking through Headington in the north east of Oxford the other day, passing some time before the time came for my reservation at the Black Boy gastropub (that makes me sound terribly posh), and came across an old church – St Andrews. The graveyard in front was a bit of a mix of stones, some newer ones from the early twentieth or late nineteenth century at the end and older, lichen covered, barely legible ones closer to the church. One of the gravestones stood out as being a clean, clear carving. Looking at the epitaph, it had the riddle-like one below.

Here lyeth John
Who to ye king did belong
He lived to be old
And yet dyed young

Continue reading Post 18: John Young, who lived to be old but died young

Post 11: Historical Pubs: Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem (1189)

Having said in my recent post on David Crowther’s History of England podcast that I should probably check out their Facebook group, I did and reading a few of the posts there was inspired to write a blog entry on this old pub in Nottingham. I’ve got a few other old pubs in mind too, so I may well end up doing a few of these. I was in Nottingham for reasons related to work, but took the advantage of some free time to look around the city. The pub, which claims to be the oldest in England – founded in 1189, is near the castle on the West side of the city centre. It’s probably one of the most impressive locations for a pub that I’ve seen, overshadowed by and more or less built into the huge limestone cliffs, just around the corner from the statue of Robin Hood.

Continue reading Post 11: Historical Pubs: Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem (1189)