Thursday, January 21, 2016

The English and Their History


Rating: 3 Stars


This book is exhausting. So exhausting, in fact, that I am not even sure I can review it properly. I have read more than my fair share of books. One might say reading is my 'thing'. I am especially fond of that little island now called England and its amazing history, going way back to the Iron Age people, through Roman Britain, the Anglo-Saxons, the Normans, the Plantagenets, and the Tudors. Beyond that, my interest starts to wane. In the past with books about the history of England, I have always given up a bit after James VI/I. Sometimes I make it through the execution of his son, Charles I, but rarely. I vowed this time, with this one, to make it through. And so I did. Barely.

So, this one began in what is typically still referred to as the Dark Ages, despite our knowledge of the time growing more clear all the time with new discoveries. The Anglo-Saxons and Alfred are possibly my most favorite of the eras in England's history, so it is always nice to see him given his due. Alfred is, after all, the only king in the country's history to be called 'the Great'.

My concerns with the book come very early on though, as I feel there were many aspects of England's history that were glossed over or not mentioned at all from those early years, in favor of much more material covering the last two hundred years. For example, while we see Edgar Aetheling mentioned, there is almost zilch about his grandfather Edmund Ironside and his brief co-reign with Cnut - it is generally thought that Edmund was murdered by or on Cnut's orders so he could assume complete power. Subsequently there is nothing about Ironside's sons who were spirited out of the country and Cnut's reach. That in itself is a fascinating story and deserved a place. The course of history might look very different for England had someone aside from William I become king. There were many other times that this lack of detail jumped out at me - perhaps because these are among the time periods I know best. The author calls the circumstances of William II's (William Rufus) death 'mysterious', but does not fully elaborate. It is considered mysterious for a number of reasons, considering he was shot in the chest with an arrow and the culprit left the scene immediately - while Henry I (his younger brother, the youngest son) headed straight for the treasury to secure it and the crown, effectively stealing it from Robert who was next in line. Further more, it was strange to me that the author considered Matilda (Henry I's daughter) the antagonist in the civil war between her and her cousin Stephen. When Matilda's brother Henry died on the White Ship, she became the only legitimate heir. At least twice Henry I made his nobles swear an oath to support Matilda's claim as queen, but given the fact that there had never been a queen who ruled in her own right, as soon as Henry I was dead they naturally (for the time period) looked elsewhere. Stephen was the usurper, the antagonist, though Matilda certainly did herself no favors by alienating some who she needed support from. In the end, Stephen agreed for Matilda's son to become king as Henry II, despite Stephen having a son of his own. So began the 300 year rule of the Plantagenets.

There was very little attention given to another of my favorites - Eleanor of Aquitaine. She is hardly mentioned, and only as Henry II's wife. We get a glimpse but that is it and no where does it say that without her gathering the ransom, her son Richard I would likely never have been released from prison. While Richard cared very little for England and preferred his lands in Aquitaine, or the Holy Land on Crusade, him being overthrown by John even earlier could have caused even more destruction.

By the time we get to Elizabeth, all of my favorite periods were covered. This amount to roughly 200 pages out of nearly 900 (1,000 if you count the end notes, index, etc). For the rest of the time it was pretty rough going for me, because it just does not hold my interest the way early England does. I truly don't even understand it myself, how I can be totally enthralled by the first 1,600 years and not care one iota about the last 400. But I was determined to slog on through. As a result, it took me a while and I frequently set it aside for something else. I have to be quite honest and admit I skimmed the Industrial Revolution. Glad it happened and all, but it is a terrible snooze to read about.

I found the Victorian era more interesting to read about this time around, so perhaps there is hope for that in the future. World War I and World War II were great reads from the English perspective, as anything I have read about them in the past have been strictly from an American viewpoint. Throughout the book there were tons of maps to aid the reader with the text, which I have always found especially helpful when discussing battles and troop movements. My only real complaint about WWI material involves the omission of Gavrilo Princip. You may not recognize the name, as so often he is simply referred to as 'the assassin of Archduke Franz Ferdinand'. I feel like it is a disservice to history that his name is routinely ignored. Like it or not, for better or worse, hi actions set of a chain of events that culminated in The Great War, which in turn lead directly to WWII.

I can't speak for the accuracy of the rest of the text due to my limited knowledge of those eras, but I at least found them somewhat engaging - enough to continue reading anyway. This is certainly not a book I would consider as my first if I knew nothing about England's history. It is quite the endeavor and not one to enter into lightly if you are looking for a quick read. On the other hand, if you are more interested in the time periods after the Tudors that are less interesting to me, then this may just be the book for you, as that is the bulk of the material.

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