This was a disappointing read. 'False, fleeting, perjur'd Clarence' is a truly intriguing figure, living in a turbulent, tumultuous era, involved in g...moreThis was a disappointing read. 'False, fleeting, perjur'd Clarence' is a truly intriguing figure, living in a turbulent, tumultuous era, involved in great events, brother to two kings - and yet this book bored me. I've not read any of John Ashdown-Hill's books on Richard III, and based on this I don't think I will.
Between the pop psychological analysis of George, absurd speculative conclusions on his personality based on his height(!), assumptions and guesswork about what he 'might' have thought and what he 'might' have felt, and the completely groundless hypothesis that Richard's curvature of the spine may have been caused by an accident at sea during the boys' first exile, this book completely lost me less than halfway through - and I have to confess to rather skim-reading the rest, which is very rare for me. And I'm sorry, but no self-respecting academic and historian should ever be citing Wikipedia in the notes field!
It is true that history has rather neglected Clarence, dazzled by the splendour of Edward IV and the controversy of Richard III, but sadly we are still waiting for a biography to really do him justice. This is not it.(less)
I've long wanted to visit the Alhambra, one of the greatest remaining traces of the Islamic culture that once flourished in Spain. After reading this...moreI've long wanted to visit the Alhambra, one of the greatest remaining traces of the Islamic culture that once flourished in Spain. After reading this book, I want to visit all the more.
al-Andalus as it was named by Abd al-Rahman, last remaining heir of the Islamic Umayyad dynasty of Damascus, was a perhaps unique moment in time and space, a brief few centuries when Islam, Christianity and Judaism co-existed in relative peace. The Caliphate of Cordoa created a vivid, vibrant culture that lingered long after al-Andalus had fragmented into city-states, before being weakened by internal division between the more tolerant Islamic of the Umayyads and the new fanaticism of Berbers from North Africa, and subsequently conquered bit by bit by the Catholic monarchs of Spain.
This is not history as I've ever read it before - if I had to pick any one word to describe this book, it was be an elegy, of sorts. What Menocal has written here is a love song, her own 'memory palace' devoted to memorialising a time and a place long-since destroyed. It's an incredibly romantic, bittersweet read, and you can understand why the memories of al-Andalus have lingered for so long, why Arabs and Sephardic Jews still lament the loss of cities like Granada and Cordoba, why palaces like the Alhambra were built to serve as remembrances. al-Andalus itself was for Abd al-Rahman an evocation of his lost life in Damascus; the Alhambra was built to evoke Cordoba, and so on.
That said, I'm sure serious students of the era could pick apart a lot of this book, and a large amount of less romantic material must have been omitted or glossed over - no era in history could ever as been as idyllic as this! Whilst tolerance flourished to a degree, Jews and Christians in al-Andalus under the Caliphate of Cordoba were still very much second-class citizens; the word of a Muslim outweighed that of a Christian or Jew, and justice was very uneven. al-Andalus may have been an incredibly tolerant and culturally diverse society for its time, but it was no earthly paradise, I'm sure.(less)
The Norman Conquest is one of those seminal moments in English history - the BC:AD of English history, one might almost say. Everything that came befo...moreThe Norman Conquest is one of those seminal moments in English history - the BC:AD of English history, one might almost say. Everything that came before 1066 is almost another country, another England, as if the country we know as England only really came into being with the Conquest. You only have to look at the number of English history books that skate over the pre-1066 years in a few pages and only really begin to focus in with William the Conqueror - 'dinosaurs, cave men, flint arrows, wearing furs, Romans, Vikings, Saxons, Conquest....ah, now we're getting somewhere'!
So Marc Morris' book is a real revelation. He doesn't just start in 1066 but goes back many decades, setting the scene in both England and Normandy, with the unrest in England that began with the Vikings invasions. The Conquest was, after all, not the first time England had been invaded by a foreign power and its throne and aristocracy taken over. Indeed, one could argue that it was precisely that Danish invasion, with King Cnut (or Canute, of tidal fame) that led inexorably to the Norman invasion - with the king who would be Edward the Confessor fleeing to Normandy, the home of his mother, and establishing the connections that would lead to him supposedly promising the throne to his Norman cousin, then known more infamously as William the Bastard.
It was a complex and confusing time, and the amount of documentary evidence historians so often rely scarce, contradictory and open to bias, but Morris lays it out so clearly and succinctly that the narrative in this book is never confusing, even when alternating between events in England and Normandy. I found the chapters focusing on the years after 1066 particularly interesting - years when the native English aristocracy and middle classes slowly vanished, replaced almost wholesale by Norman imports. By the time of the Conqueror's death, the upper levels of English society were almost exclusively Norman - Norman earls, Norman knights, Norman bishops, Norman abbots - the the native English 'middle classes' had slowly slipped into peasantry and slavery, dispossessed of their lands and taxed into penury. 'Englishness' only really survived at the lowest levels of society, which only furthered the divide between conquerors and conquered, as to be English was to be seen as base and degraded.
It's a fascinating look at perhaps the most important event in our history, and it's a shame it's an event that most people know so little about. That it happened is about the extent of most people's knowledge, I would imagine - and that is a real real shame. Our country deserves better than that, given the birth pains it went through to get to this point!(less)
Henry IV is a curious figure in English history - a man whose reign is so utterly intertwined with the stories of those other much better known kings,...moreHenry IV is a curious figure in English history - a man whose reign is so utterly intertwined with the stories of those other much better known kings, his grandfather Edward III, his cousin Richard II and his son Henry V, that his own story tends to get lost. Henry's role in history sometimes seems often to serve little more purpose than to pave the way for the glories of his son Henry V. And yet what would the path of history have been without him? Henry V's glories must to a certain extent be ascribed to Henry IV as well, for it was he who weathered the storms of rebellion and treason in order to pass on a kingdom at peace to his son.
It is impossible to recount the life of Henry IV without telling that of Richard II as well, and Ian Mortimer is as always a master at bringing characters to life, at delving into the historical records to try and draw out some flavour of personality. In doing so, reading this book you begin to understand why history unfolded the way it did, why Henry could have done little else but return in 1399 and challenge his cousin, and why Richard II behaved the way he did. I'm not one for fate or prophecies, but it seems Richard and Henry were always on a collision course, always competing with one another, always compared against one another, and their rivalry shaped both of their lives.
Henry IV comes across as an endlessly contradictory man - a man pious and devout in his religious beliefs who yet executed an archbishop; a man who believed strongly in loyalty, who yet deposed his cousin and ordered his death; a man who believed in mercy, and was yet forced by rebellion and dissent to take actions that made his promises of mercy a lie; a man greeted by the country as a saviour, who then suffered numerous rebellions and assassination attempts. But Henry's defining characteristic was his pragmatism - he did what needed to be done, to safeguard his life, his family, his dynasty, his reputation and his kingdom. And, as Mortimer argues, it was this pragmatism that made his reign a success, when judged against the context of his times - unlike Richard II Henry could bend, be flexible, could accommodate and submit when needed, could weather criticism, withstand indignities. Henry's greatest success was the fact that he was only the fourth king in nearly 200 years to die peacefully in his bed of natural causes and pass on an uncontested throne to his son.(less)
Roger Mortimer has always been one of the more shadowy figures of medieval history, obscured by centuries of historical assumption and oversight and b...moreRoger Mortimer has always been one of the more shadowy figures of medieval history, obscured by centuries of historical assumption and oversight and by his own determination to remain the power behind the throne, the figure in the shadows pulling the strings. And that's a shame, because in this excellent biography from Ian Mortimer, he comes across as a truly fascinating figure and quite a sympathetic one too - ironic for a man who quite probably earns the title of 'greatest traitor', who deposed a king, had a passionate affair with the queen, usurped the power of the Crown and ruled through the young Edward III as the true power in the land.
Roger Mortimer's greatest tragedy seems to be that he was not royal - if he'd had even the faintest shadow of a claim to the throne, one suspects he would have proved to be a very good king. He was honest and honourable, utterly loyal to the Crown until pushed too far by Edward II, a skilled tactician and warrior, a good administrator. He made an excellent servant to the Crown until he and many of the other nobles could no longer tolerate Edward II's tyranny, favouritism and mismanagement, and then he made a very very bad enemy.
And from that point on Mortimer's fate was set. The deposition of Edward II was popular, supported by nobles, commons and clergy, and Mortimer's actions to that point could be seen as entirely justified. But once Edward III was in place, Mortimer's actions increasingly became self-defensive, more about preserving his and Queen Isabella's position ruling in the young king's name, than about what was best for the country. And Edward III was only going to grow into his role and chafe against the rule of his mother and her lover.
Ian Mortimer (no relation, I'm sure!) is in my opinion one of the best writers of popular history out there. I have enjoyed every one of his books, and this is as well-written, interesting and engaging as the rest. I was particularly fascinated by his theory on the survival of Edward II, which he presents quite convincingly. Won me over, at any rate. If only all popular history was as enjoyable as this!(less)
The Wars of the Roses has long since been one of my favourite periods in English history: the interrelatedness of all of the participants, the back-an...moreThe Wars of the Roses has long since been one of my favourite periods in English history: the interrelatedness of all of the participants, the back-and-forth of the Crown between Henry VI and Edward IV, the mystery of the 'Princes in the Tower', the historical debates about Richard III - but most histories have all but ignored the female participants in this dynastic saga. And given how interrelated all the combatants were, given how much of a family struggle the war for the throne actually was, it has always seemed a shame that the women of the York, Lancastrian and Tudor families were given such short shrift in most histories written on the subject.
Sarah Gristwood sets out to rectify that, and I would say she succeeds splendidly. As I said, I've read many a book on the Wars of the Roses, and many historians are guilty, notable as they might be, (Alison Weir, I'm looking at you), of displaying a definitive bias towards or against some of the participants. Gristwood's book is refreshingly free of any of that; she never once falls into the common historians' trap of assuming knowledge that simply cannot be substantiated; she acknowledges openly where the source are simply silent on an issue on which we would dearly love more clarity on.
The women of the Wars of the Roses are a fascinating group, so different in their own ways, all displaying their own kinds of strength: Cecily Neville, Marguerite of Anjou, Margaret Beaufort, Elizabeth Woodville, Anne Neville, Elizabeth of York, Margaret of Burgundy. They thoroughly deserve to step out of the shadows cast not only by their husbands and fathers, brothers and sons, but by the white-washing or vilifying by popular novelists and television dramas.(less)
If only every historical biography was like this! This is probably the best I've ever read, bar none, and the fact that it's about a figure as shadowy...moreIf only every historical biography was like this! This is probably the best I've ever read, bar none, and the fact that it's about a figure as shadowy and mysterious as Perkin Warbeck/Richard, Duke of York only makes it more impressive.
The book really brings the medieval world to life through Wroe's wonderful writing - she doesn't just write about what people did, what they ate, what they wore, but how they would have thought and felt. It's about the medieval mind and mood, as much as it is about a time and a place and a moment in history. She never comes down to a side as to whether 'Perkin' really was the son of Edward IV or a boatman from Tournai, which in my opinion makes this a better book, because it is impossible to know. Any historian who claims otherwise is deluded.
Was Perkin really one of the Princes in the Tower? We'll never know, but I like to think that maybe he was.(less)
I've always been fascinating by the history of the Crusades - if only because the reverberations of what happened so many hundreds of years ago is sti...moreI've always been fascinating by the history of the Crusades - if only because the reverberations of what happened so many hundreds of years ago is still so terribly relevant to the world today. The impact of the Crusades on the East/West, Muslim/Christian divide is impossible to overstate: the metaphor of a 'crusade' is used today in everything from politics to entertainment; the Muslim concept of 'holy war', jihad is enshrined in the very core of the religion, and the arguments and political and physical strife over Jerusalem continues to this very day.
In this book Phillips charts the narrative history of the Crusades, from the first Crusade' successful recapture of 1099 to the final collapse of the Levant states in 1291, as well as the crusades declared against the Cathars in southern France and the pagan states in the Baltic, and the political and military wrangling over Constantinople. He also looks into the lingering legacy of the crusade as a concept, its place and use in today's society and the impact the word is, George Bush's use of the term after 9/11, for example.
It's a very good book, and it manages to make clear what was often an incredibly tangled and complicated era, with competing monarchs, military orders, Outremer nobles, sultans and monks all adding to the complications. I would have possibly liked a little more about the role and history of the military orders such as the Knights Templars, Knights Hospitaller and the Teutonic Knights, as their involvement in many cases was far more than just military and they placed an enormous role in the development of Outremer. But as this after all a quite concise exploration about several hundred years of immensely convoluted history, that omission is understandable.(less)
I have to confess to being a little bit disappointed with this, although I suspect that probably comes from having more than the usual familiarity wit...moreI have to confess to being a little bit disappointed with this, although I suspect that probably comes from having more than the usual familiarity with the history of the British monarchy. As a primer or an introduction to the subject, I have no doubt it would be very good. But I found it a little too lacking in depth. Its scope is admirable, and I was pleased for once to find a book that traces the history of the monarchy beyond 1066 and William the Conqueror. But the flipside of tracing such a lengthy period of history is that it only really scratches the surface.
Added to that is the fact that it is essentially serving a dual purpose - a history of the monarchy as an institution and a history of the monarchs themselves. Being very familiar with the history of Britain's monarchs, I was hoping for more of an analysis of what makes Britain's monarchy unique, how it survived and evolved, where it is heading. I found this book didn't focus enough on that aspect for me. Perhaps it could almost have been separated in two volumes?(less)