Richard Nisley

Twelve-Hundred Years of British History in Five Minutes
History - World Released - Oct 19, 2014

FOUR SHORT BOOK REVIEWS, from the Roman invasion to Magna Carta

ROMAN BRITAIN AND EARLY ENGLAND 55 B.C.-A.D. 871, by Peter Hunter Blair. -- None other than Julius Caesar led the invasion and conquest of an island off the northwest coast of Europe they named Britannia. Why conquer Britain? Because they could, and to exploit the island’s resources: iron, lead, copper and tin, plus cattle, hides, corn, wheat, dogs (British dogs were highly sought after in Rome) and slaves. After the conquest, it was a matter of maintaining military, administrative and commercial control; building a network of communications roads (10,000 miles in all, arrow-straight and stone paved), establishing fortified cities such as London, Chester, Bath and York, and creating villas for the military elite, by the sweat of slave labor. When the Romans departed 400 years later the Anglo-Saxons filled the void through a series of migrations over many years, as opposed to a sudden hostile invasion as once was thought. The Anglo-Saxons were farmers. In the beginning there were a number of Anglo-Saxon kings, each ruling a separate territory. They were forever at war with one another until Egbert of Wessex consolidated English rule under his authority. Anglo-Saxon rule was highly arbitrary, whatever the king and his cronies decided. Egbert’s grandson, Alfred the Great, changed that with the introduction of uniform written laws that with time evolved into English Common Law.

The author's careful research has shed considerable light on a number of ancient sources that in turn have dispelled the notion of Britain ever having undergone a "Dark Age" like the rest of Europe. Toward the end of his book, Blair focuses on the impact of Christianity--introduced by the Romans--and its lasting effect on English culture. Blair sums up: "Although Roman roads remain today as the most strikingly visible legacy of four centuries of occupation, there is substance in the claim that the most precious legacy of Roman Britain to posterity was the Christian faith."

ALFRED THE GREAT: THE MAN WHO MADE ENGLAND, by Justin Pollard -- Why read a biography of a ninth-century English king? Because he was a great military leader? Compared with, say, Julius Caesar or with Alfred's near-contemporary Charlemagne, King Alfred was hardly that. He did stop Danish invaders from over-running England, but that alone isn’t what made him great. What made Alfred great was what he did for English culture and the rule of law. At a time when Latin was the language of law, education and religion throughout Europe, Alfred wanted his court, his clergy, and his people to learn to read and write in their native tongue. To do so, Alfred had several important literary works translated into English, including certain sections of the Bible (fully five hundred years ahead of John Wycliffe's epochal translation). He rewrote Anglo-Saxon law and made it accessible to all, thereby establishing a legal framework that in time would be known as "English Common Law." In effect, Alfred started a literary revolution that led to a greater involvement in law, a higher degree of literacy, and a closer involvement with documents even amongst the lowest echelons of society. In short, he began a process that would take government out of the realm of folk memory and the monopoly of a Latin-speaking elite, and put it squarely into the hands of the people. The end result would be a democratic society.

The author of this informative book, Justin Pollard, is a joy to read. You know you're in for lively story-telling when in the introduction the author writes: "This is not an academic discussion of the nature of Anglo-Saxon kingship--there are enough of those already--but simply an attempt to tell the story of Alfred's life, using wherever possible original sources from his time." Indeed, there are virtually no footnotes. Says Pollard: "This is not to say that this book does not rely on a vast academic corpus of books and papers but I hope the authors to whose work I am indebted here will be content with a place in the bibliography and will forgive their every point not being noted individually in the text."

1066: THE YEAR OF THE CONQUEST, by David Howarth -- A country of 1.5-million people invaded and taken over by an army of 50,000? As impossible as it seems, that is exactly what happened to England in 1066. William of Normandy dreamed big. Coupled with a streak of incredibly good luck--and King Harold's streak of incredibly bad luck-- William and his band of mercenary Normans, French and Bretons conquered England in 90 days. How they did it is vividly explained in David Howarth's concise (201 pages) and smartly written book, "1066: The Year of the Conquest."

Howarth spends much of the book setting the stage. The Anglo-Saxons (themselves invaders of Britain some 500 years before) were mostly peaceful farmers, governed by a king and nobles they approved as rulers, and living under the rule of law. Yes, under the rule of law, as established by enlightened monarch Alfred the Great 200 years before. England was a land of small farms and sleepy villages, with a few inland trading centers such as London and York. Fortifications were few, and castles nonexistent.

Normandy, on the other hand, was governed by a warlike king and warlike lords who, when not engaged in fighting Frisians, Germans and French, amused themselves with jousting and other warlike games. Chivalry was the law of land, and dueling was common. Anyone of means lived in a castle for protection. The Normans spoke French, but their forbearers were fierce Norse warriors who had pillaged and settled the land 150 years before.

It remains unclear, but it's likely that the King of England, Edward the Confessor, promised William of Normandy the English crown, upon Edward's death. When William learned that Edward had died and Harold had been crowned, he sought revenge. He built hundreds of ships capable of transporting horses, armor, weapons, and fighting men. He then waited some time for the wind to blow up from the south so his forces could safely cross the channel. That the wind did not change suddenly and dash them against the rocks of either shore or blow them out into the Atlantic, is one of the miracles of the invasion.

Harold was fully prepared. He had received word, assembled his army along the south coast of England, and waited to smash William's army as it disembarked. However, he was called away to York to fight another invading army, of King Harald Hardrada of Norway. He defeated the Norwegians, then turned around and marched his army 250 miles back to the south coast to fight the Normans who by then were safely ashore. Even so, he still should have won. At Hastings, he held the high ground and had superior numbers. Why he lost, and how the Normans managed to take over England so quickly, is fully explained in Howarth's entertaining and informative little book.

Final word: the Normans did more than introduce castles and dungeons into English culture. They did away with slave labor, made London the capital city, and consolidated power in a central government comprised of the king and a body of lords that became the Parliament. They added hundreds of French words into the English language and scores of French phrases, such as "savoir-faire" and "piece-de-resistance." Did you also know that the English adopted their French names? Had NOT the Normans invaded England, today we inheritors of the English tradition would be calling each other Aethelwulf, Beorhtric, Osberht, Egbert and Tostig, instead of John, Robert, Charles, Richard, and William.

1215: THE YEAR OF MAGNA CARTA, by Danny Danziger and John Gillingham -- Having read "The Life and Death of King John" by William Shakespeare, I decided to read "1215: The Year of Magna Carta" by Danny Danziger and John Gillingham. Both are about King John, but the differences are startling. For one, Shakespeare's King John is a more interesting character, as well as treacherous and power-hungary, but never dull or predictable. He dies a somewhat respectable death, at the hands of a zealous monk. The historical King John was another story. He was treacherous and power-hungary too, but also lazy and self-centered, who suffered a painful death from gluttony. The other difference has to do with Magna Carta: while Danziger and Gillingham devote a fair portion of their book discussing it, Shakespeare avoids the subject entirely.

What Danziger and Gillingham do particularly well is set the scene, by describing how people lived in 13th-century England: what they ate, what they wore, how they made a living, the state of housing and castles, the state of education, law and the courts, the conditions of roads and bridges, and so on. When the authors get around to King John, they show how John's treachery led to the loss of England's cross-channel empire in France, that once stretched as far south as the Pyrenees. Prior to these losses of 1203-4, John and his brother Richard had been French princes, ruling their empire from castles on both sides of the English Channel, decidedly French in outlook and language. After 1204 the center of gravity shifted and John and his descendants became English kings who spoke the language. While John's loss of empire was disastrous from a political point of view, in the long run it proved to be a good thing, say the authors. Most English historians agree because "the French possessions were an encumbrance that endangered the sound development of a truly English state and culture." And, "the noble language of Milton and Burke would have remained a rustic dialect, contemptuously abandoned to the use of boors." In other words, John's treachery was England's making.

King John's treachery also led to the creation of Europe's first ever written constitution--the Magna Carta, which John was forced to sign on the field at Runnymede. Having come at great cost, the Magna Carta was for several centuries thereafter ignored by English kings, which is probably why Shakespeare failed to mention it in his play. "Yet it survived," the authors tell us, and like the leaven that leavens the whole loaf, influenced every aspect of English society. "In 1770 William Pitt the Elder called it `the Bible of the English Constitution.'" Transported to the American colonies, "it influenced both the Constitution of the United States and the laws of individual states."

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