Book Review: Kings & Queens of Great Britain: A Very Peculiar History

Book Review: Kings & Queens of Great Britain: A Very Peculiar History by Antony Mason

For about 12 centuries, the English have been ruled by monarchs, and eventually this form of government spread to all of the British Empire.  That’s a lot of history, and many kings and queens to take account of.  This small volume with cartoony illustrations gives the reader an overview of those people and what they did.

Kings & Queens of Great Britain: A Very Peculiar History

There’s a brief discussion of monarchs before the official first king of the majority of England, Alfred the Great, starting in 871 C.E.  This includes the legendary King Arthur who may or may not have been based on an actual person.  After that is a chronological listing of English kings and queens, with a paragraph or page for each, with chapters cutting away to the Scottish monarchs.  (The Irish kings do not get the same courtesy.)  With King James I & VI, the lines are consolidated, and after that they’re all British kings and queens.

This is very much a highlights-only history book, with only the most famous bits of each reign mentioned for most of the monarchs.  There are, however, frequent sidebars on such subjects as palaces, revolutions, jewels, the Magna Carta and mistresses.  The serious scholar of British history is unlikely to learn anything new.  The book finishes up with a glossary, timeline, and index to make it easier to find the particular monarch you’re looking for.  It’s current as of January 2015.

Due to some salacious subject matter, I’d rate this as suitable for senior high students on up.  (There’s also a lot of violence; many of these people left the throne via murder.)  This would make a nice gift for your Anglophilic friend or relative, or Game of Thrones fans who have somehow never read the history that show is loosely based on.



Book Review: The Greatest Knight

Book Review: The Greatest Knight by Thomas Asbridge

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.  My copy was an uncorrected proof, and there will be changes to the final edition.  Specifically, there will be maps, genealogical charts, and an index.

The Greatest Knight

William Marshal started life as the younger son of a minor noble, so little regarded that when he was taken hostage, his father pretty much said, “go ahead, I can make more.”  But a combination of superior battle prowess, a gift for political maneuvering, and a certain amount of luck caused William to rise through the ranks of knighthood, until he ended his career as regent of all England, acting for the boy king Henry III.  In some ways, he came to define what people expected a knight to be.

We know more about William Marshal than many other figures of the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries because his family commissioned a flattering  biography of him, the sole remaining copy of which turned up in the 1860s, and was finally read and translated in the 1880s.   Now, I say “flattering”, but as the author points out, what people in the 1220s considered admirable traits do not necessarily conform with what Twenty-First Century folks consider to be the ideal of chivalry.   William often acted out of naked self-interest to gain rewards of land and titles.  It’s also pointed out when The History of William Marshal skips over or obfuscates events we know from other sources that William was involved with, but don’t reflect well on him.

William Marshal’s life was strongly tied to the fortunes of the Angevin dynasty, and this book covers the political situation of the time, as well as a general discussion of  knighthood as it then existed.  It puts the treachery of John Lackland against his brother Richard the Lionheart into perspective when we see that their entire family was like that (Richard was actively trying to overthrow his father when the old man suddenly took ill and died.)  It’s just that King John was much less competent at it than most of his relatives, so he got saddled with the worst reputation.

While the writer has to speculate in places, it doesn’t feel forced.  He has the advantage of writing about an interesting subject who lived through many historic events.  But William Marshal soon fell into obscurity; all his sons died without heirs, and his biography was written in the days before printing presses, so only a few copies were ever made.  By Shakespeare’s time, he was reduced to a cameo in the King John play as “Pembroke.”  Thus you may be hearing about him for the first time.

While this book is written for adults, it should be suitable for junior high students and up.  I’d especially recommend it to readers who love tales of knights and kings, and Game of Thrones fans who want deep background.

Movie Review: The Crusades (1935)

Movie Review: The Crusades (1935)

It is the 12th Century, and the Holy Land has been seized by the Saracens, under the command of Saladin (Ian Keith).  Crosses, Bibles and other Christian symbols are burned, and the Christian inhabitants of Jerusalem taken into captivity.  A hermit (C. Aubrey Smith) confronts Saladin and declares that he will call a crusade.

The Crusades (1935)

Sure enough, we next see the hermit at the court of King Philip of France (C. Henry Gordon), who accepts the call to go on crusade against the infidels.   But first he must secure his kingdom against invasion, so it’s off to England to marry his sister Alice (Katherine DeMille) to her betrothed, King Richard the Lionhearted (Henry Wilcoxson.)

Richard, as it turns out, is a boisterous fellow who enjoys hanging with his bros and participating in violent sports in preparation for serious fighting.  He especially loves harassing his minstrel friend Blondel (Alan Hale), who fights back with joking rhymes.  Richard is in no mood to get married, especially to the dour Alice.  To be honest, Richard is kind of a jerk who cares little for God.

So when the hermit arrives to call the crusade, Richard is lured not only by the thought of combat, but by the fact that the pledge of the crusader overrides all others, including arranged betrothal.  The hermit can tell that Richard’s motives are not pure, and warns him that he’ll be humbled, but accepts his pledge nonetheless.   Richard is less enthused that Alice has taken the crusader’s oath as well and will also be going to the Holy Land.

Meanwhile, Prince John conspires with the Marquis of Monferrat.  It would serve them both well if Richard did not return to England.

When Richard’s troops arrive in Marseilles, he discovers that he really should have brought more gold with him, as the King of Navarre (George Barbier) isn’t taking IOUs for his cattle and grain.  A reluctant bargain is struck; Richard will marry Navarre’s daughter, Berengaria (Loretta Young) in exchange for the supplies.  Richard sends his sword to the wedding ceremony as a stand-in, which ticks the bride off no end–she wasn’t keen on an arranged marriage in the first place, and the groom can’t be bothered to even show up for it?

The next morning, Richard finally sees Berengaria and realizes that she’s the hottest woman in Europe.  He pretty much abducts his reluctant bride to the Holy Land with him.

Richard’s actions create discord among the assembled crusader kings, especially drawing the enmity of King Philip, who is understandably infuriated by the insult to his sister.  Richard and Berengaria’s relationship is also pretty rocky; she’s coming to admire his moxie, but still considers him a jerk.  And Saladin also is taken by Berengaria’s beauty, adding more intrigue to the mix.

This highly romanticized tale of the Third Crusade was directed by Cecil B. DeMille.  This is most obvious during the exciting scenes of the siege of Acre, with war machines and hundreds of extras battling it out by and on the walls of the city.  There’s also a wonderful set piece with the Crusaders arranged on stairs, trying to get a glimpse of the True Cross.

By this time, the Hays Code had come in, so the violence is relatively subdued, and the sexual overtones are considerably reduced.  (Doesn’t stop Berengaria from having a dress that clings to her curves, mind you.)

After an ugly scene at the beginning where Christian women are sold into slavery, the Muslims aren’t shown as being particularly bad people, just militarily opposed to the crusaders.   Saladin himself is a noble fellow, and a worthy opponent to Richard.  (Indeed, he winds up negotiating peace with Richard, and returning the captured Berengaria, allowing Richard to keep his vows without further violence.)

The treatment of women in the movie, however…they are persistently treated as property and bargaining chips.   Alice is more or less okay with this.  She’s fiercely devoted to protecting France by marrying the King of England (whoever that might turn out to be) and maintains her dignity throughout.  Berengaria is much less pleased, and it takes her most of the film to reconcile herself to Richard.

Richard, on the other hand, goes from a self-centered jerk who doesn’t care about the consequences of his actions on other people, to a humbled warrior who is willing to pray to God for aid, and abide by treaty.

As a movie, this is a fun, well-shot, well-acted film.   However, it’s very much Hollywood history, and should not be taken as at all a serious examination of the Third Crusade so much as a romantic epic.

For another romanticized look at the Third Crusade, see my review of The Boy Knight by G.A. Henty.


Book Review: The Boy Knight

Book Review: The Boy Knight by G. A. Henty


G.A. Henty (1852-1902) was a writer of children’s historical fiction, who began his career as an author after a friend heard him telling bedtime stories to his kids.  Like many Victorian authors, he’s out of favor these days, but my parents found this book at an estate sale.

Cuthbert is fifteen when the story begins, a lad of mixed Norman and Saxon blood during the reign of Richard I (Richard the Lionheart.)  This gives him ties to both his late father’s cousin, the Earl of Evesham, and his mother’s relative, the landless freeman Cnut.  Learning that the Earl plans to rid the forest of the landless men, Cuthbert warns them in time, then happily finds a way for the woodsmen to help save the Earl’s daughter from his real enemy, the Baron of Wortham.

Recognized for his bravery and cleverness, Cuthbert is made the Earl’s squire when a Crusade is called.  The noble (in the best sense of the word) lad is quickly noted by King Richard, and soon becomes a knight.  Alas, after many adventures the old Earl dies without a male heir, but before he goes convinces Richard to appoint Cuthbert the new Earl of Evesham and the betrothed of the old Earl’s lovely daughter.

More adventures later, Cuthbert arrives back in England incognito, to discover that wicked Prince John has appointed one of his unpleasant cronies as Earl and betrothed.  Now Cuthbert must defeat the false Earl, save the maiden and find the missing true king.  With a little help from Robin Hood and Blondel, he accomplishes all this.

The prose is rather stiff with an antiquated vocabulary–today’s children might get the impression that they’re reading a book for grown-ups.  Those looking for deep characterization are likely to be disappointed.  Cuthbert begins the story honest, kind, brave and clever, and remains so throughout.  His primary character flaw is that he is, perhaps, just a little too boyishly fond of adventure.  When not engaged in battle, even the lowliest of persons is formal of speech.

This is not to say the work is free of moral ambiguity.  It’s admitted that the Crusades had generally bad results in spite of their lofty purposes, the Muslims have valid reasons for opposing the Crusaders, and King Richard’s selfish actions are shown to have negative consequences even while he remains the great hero of the story.  Parents reading this with their children may wish to discuss how easily religion can be used as an excuse for war, and the real history of the Crusades.

This book can also be found under the title “Winning His Spurs.”  It’s a good example of children’s literature of a bygone age, and with some caveats is suitable as a bedtime story even today.  As it’s in the public domain, there have been some inexpensive reprints in recent years.

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