Magna Carta: The Making and Legacy of the Great Charter- Dan Jones

Kindle Edition, 144 Pages

December 2014

23813301“On a summer’s day in 1215 a beleaguered English monarch met a group of disgruntled barons in a meadow by the river Thames named Runnymede. Beset by foreign crisis and domestic rebellion, King John was fast running out of options. On 15 June he reluctantly agreed to fix his regal seal to a document that would change the world.

A milestone in the development of constitutional politics and the rule of law, the ‘Great Charter’ established an Englishman’s right to Habeas Corpus and set limits to the exercise of royal power. For the first time a group of subjects had forced an English king to agree to a document that limited his powers by law and protected their rights.

Dan Jones’s elegant and authoritative narrative of the making and legacy of Magna Carta is amplified by profiles of the barons who secured it and a full text of the charter in both Latin and English.”

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Great little book and Introduction to the people, places and background of the Magna Carta, helping readers realize why it was created and why it was important. The last chapter explores its legacy up to the modern age, and how it influenced the reformers of the 17th century England and later America- even when they read ideas into the charter that did not actually exist, such as modern notions of democracy.

Its also a good research tool, with some useful appendices, including the text of the Magna Carta in Latin and English, a timeline of events, and Brief Biographies of the leading figures.
I for one tend to be a little skeptical of ‘popular’ history books written by people who are not trained historians, but Dan Jones’ research seems to be sound, and this has whet my appetite for his next book, 1215 due for release later this year.

1215: Year of the Magna Carta?

Published June 2005- 312 Pages

From bestselling760238ng author Danny Danziger and medieval expert John Gillingham comes a vivid look at the signing of the Magna Carta and how this event illuminates one of the most compelling and romantic periods in history.

Surveying a broad landscape through a narrow lens, 1215 sweeps readers back eight centuries in an absorbing portrait of life during a time of global upheaval, the ripples of which can still be felt today. At the center of this fascinating period is the document that has become the root of modern freedom: the Magna Carta.

It was a time of political revolution and domestic change that saw the Crusades, Richard the Lionheart, King John, and in legend Robin Hood all make their marks on history.

The events leading up to King John’s setting his seal to the famous document at Runnymede in June 1215 form this rich and riveting narrative that vividly describes everyday life from castle to countryside, from school to church, and from hunting in the forest to trial by ordeal. For instance, women wore no underwear (though men did), the average temperatures were actually higher than they are now, and the austere kitchen at Westminster Abbey allowed each monk two pounds of meat and a gallon of ale per day. Broad in scope and rich in detail, 1215 ingeniously illuminates what may have been the most important year of our history.

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Generally, a great introduction to the social context and the ‘world’ of the Magna Carta, everything from Political Culture, to Law and Order, rural and social life.
An era that saw the birth of the English Legal system, and the establishment of Europe’s Great Universities and centres of learning- of which one was said to have been home to the legendary female physician, Trotula.
As an aside, it also explains the origins of the story that Richard I was homosexual- the misinterpretation of a Medieval Chronicle that speaks of him having kissed the King of France- which carried no sexual connotations at that time period.

Only the chapter on the ‘Wider World’-which inevitably includes the Crusades did I have some argument with. Saladin was not always the honourable man he is often hailed as in the West- and as the book often presents him to be. No mention seemed to be made of his duplicity, especially in the matter of the siege of Acre.
Also, there is evidence of trade with far flung regions such as the Middle East and even India long before the eleventh century- Byzantine Coins have been found in England dating from the Seventh century, as well as Lapis Lazuli stones which hail from Afghanistan.

Overall though, a useful and interesting book, which seems to make good use of contemporary sources, and co-authored by a renowned historian, John Gillingham. Yet..I add a question mark, not interpolated in the title, for as was recently suggested by historian David Starkey, it is possible that on that June day in 1215 Magna Carta did not exist in any written form, but as a verbal agreement , put into writing later on. Indeed the Great Charter was redrafted a number of times, with some clauses edited or dispensed with entirely- and the four surviving copies we know today are of a later re-issue.      This said, 1215 was still a significant date that has rightfully gone down in history.

A Little Gem (and not the Pocket Collins kind)…..

1531699A Dictionary of Medieval Terms and Phrases, Boydell and Brewer, 318 Pages            

First Published September 2014              

Occasionally, I believe, one comes across a book that proves invaluable or useful in some wonderful way. Some such books are not exceptionally well know or appreciated, one such is the A Dictionary of Medieval Terms and Phrases by Christoper Coredon and Ann Williams.

I picked up my rather battered copy over four years ago on Amazon after spotting and exploring it amongst the collection of someone I worked with. It seemed a great idea and resource, and although its not exactly the Medievalists equivalent of the Oxford English Dictionary with every word one could ever conceive of, its still informative and useful. Yet its one of those books I unfortunately often leave on my shelf, perhaps sadly and undeservedly  neglected.

So why the sudden attention? Well, whilst wading the the murky waters of late Medieval English Feudalism, some definition was necessary in the midst of ploughing through a weighty tome on The Decline of English Feudalism. Okay, so I know about the workings of feudalism to some degree, I know about alienation, land disputes and the legal complexities, but what actually is the definition of ‘Enfeoffment to Use’, ‘Disseisin’ and ‘Distraint’ ? The Dictionary provides short, sharp, concise definitions, ideal for the scholar in a hurry (and one who wishes to get their information for something other than Google).

Exploring and flicking through the book provides some more wonderful gems, with words I certainly never knew existed.Like:

Estrif – A form of poem, popular in the 13c. particularly, which took the form of a debate, often between unlikely pairings. For example, The Owl and the Nightingale, The Thrush and the Nightingale, The Fox and the Wolf.’

Hushe – A fifteenth century hunter’s term for a group of hares’.

Alright, so knowing such words is not going to be amazingly useful in everyday life, but for scholars and history geeks who might be delving in depth into obscure and specialized subjects of all shapes and forms. Personally, I think a Medieval Dictionary if a cracking good idea. Well worth buying or borrowing if you can get it, and a delight just to look though for fun…maybe?

The Thistle and the Rose- Jean Plaidy

New Edition 2006, Arrow, 374 Pages
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

1149373Synopsis from Goodreads- When King Henry VII negotiates peace with Scotland, his daughter’s hand in marriage to James IV is the ultimate prize. A true princess, Margaret Tudor leaves her beloved England and accepts her fate unquestioningly. But to her surprise she falls madly in love with the fearsome Scottish King and, as Queen of Scotland, for a while she is happy.

But neither the marriage nor the peace are to last. When James IV is defeated in battle by Margaret’s own brother, the widowed Queen is torn between fleeing to her home and staying to protect her son’s future as the new King of Scots. It seems that once again Margaret’s destiny is not to be her own…

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Decent story, covering events and a period I am not really familiar with, namely the life of Margaret Tudor (sister of Henry VIII)  in Scotland. However, far too much emphasis on sex and Margaret’s love life for my liking.
Not that there was anything graphic, it was just tiresome for her falling for one handsome man after another, and incessantly being reminded of how ‘passionate’ she was.
As such, it was hard to sympathize or relate to her as a whiny, sex-mad overgrown spoiled brat who seemed incapable of realizing the damaging consequences of her own decisions, and having spent most of her life chasing men- yet always wanting men to ‘love’ her for who she was. If the fictional depiction was anything to go by- there was nothing much to love.

Also, her attitudes and values, and those of other characters did not seem very plausible for the time period- she seemed far too liberal in her attitude to divorce and sexuality for the time, and hardly cared for religion at all. The view of preachers as crazy fanatics also did not seem very authentic for the time.

Overall, not a satisfying read- more one I wanted to get finished with. I would have liked more of an overview of major political events and perhaps more developed well-rounded characters, or some notion of their personality and motivations. In spite of many good reviews elsewhere this was certainly not my favourite Plaidy.

Name Change…..

Status

Okay, you may have noticed the sudden name change on this site. In a way, its well overdue, as ‘Medieval Reader’ has for a while not not seemed entirely fitting considering I sometimes write posts on movies or TV series.

Of course, I don’t actually sit in a monastic scriptorium, but I thought the title seemed clever and appropriate. What do my regulars think?

The Edge on the Sword- Rebecca Tingle

288 Pages, June 2003, Speak Publishers

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


798539When fifteen-year-old Æthelflæd is suddenly and reluctantly betrothed to an ally of her father, the king, her world will never be the same. For as a noblewoman in the late 800s, she will be expected to be meek and unlearned-and Flæd is anything but meek and unlearned.

Her marriage will bring peace to her land, but while her royal blood makes her a valuable asset, she is also a vulnerable target. And when enemies attack, Flæd must draw upon her skills and fight to lead her people to safety and prove her worth as a princess-and as a warrior.

 

Though technically a children’s book, The Edge on the Sword is a satisfying read for adults as well. The story is a speculative account a year in the teenage life of Æthelflæd, firstborn daughter of Alfred the Great, who would become known as ‘The Lady of the Mercians’. Sixteen year-old ‘Flead struggles to come to terms with her betrothal to Lord Athelred of Mercia, and the challenges of growing up, when all she really wants to do is have adventures in the marshes around her family’s home, and read poetry.

However, trouble is afoot, as the West Saxons soon learn that the region around Alfred’s Burh is teeming with Danish raiders, so a ward named Red is appointed to guard the young ‘Flead. The presence of the mysterious stranger at first proves annoying and frustrating, but it time the loyal Mercian envoy teaches and advises ‘Flead, his example guiding her to maturity, and to face the greatest danger of her life.

‘Speculative’ historical fiction has the potential to be rather problematic, but this story was on the whole, plausible, accurate and well written. I for one enjoyed the way in which the author wove Literature into the story, including Beowulf, Judith and The Maxims- which the title is derived from. It is known that Alfred had his children educated during the time of his great reform programme, and possible that the sharp and quick- witted Æthelflæd may have benefited from this, so the references to her being taught to read and write seem wholly credible. Also, whilst there is no direct evidence that she ever actually physically fought, or was trained to use weapons, the novel has her doing so, which does ‘work’ in the context of the story. Who knows, maybe it’s not impossible…

Those expecting high political drama and battle scenes will be disappointed, as most of the story is devoted to an account of ‘Flead’s life, relations with her family, and experiences growing up- with the youthful impetuousness , stubbornness and occasional indecisiveness and general difficulty that any teenager or parent of a teen could identify with.
However, whilst ‘Flead has reservations and resentment about the changes which her position in life and responsibilities force upon her, these aspects did not ultimately prove anachronistic or jarringly modern as they do in other stories.

Such an approach is interesting from a social historical perspective, giving a ‘feel’ for what the life of a 10th century Saxon princess may have been like, though the story could be a little slow and repetitive in places.
My only gripes were this, and the occasional Americanism, but nothing heinous. It even proved useful for my studies- which was one of my intentions in reading the book, but also an enjoyable pleasure read. I would certainly consider reading the sequel Far Traveller. I would recommend this for all lovers of historical fiction, the Anglo-Saxon period, or just those wanting a good, clean read.

Parents considering the book may wish to know there is some violence towards the end, none of it particularly graphic, but at a level which may prove upsetting for some children.

The Revolt of the Eaglets- Jean Plaidy

Revolt of the Eaglets: The Plantagenet Saga #2

Arrow Books 2007, (New Edition), 430 Pages

1327500I may be in the minority for having not tremendously enjoyed this novel, as all reviews on Amazon are four stars and up. However, I just don’t feel a higher rating was deserved. For one thing, the writing style seemed very repetitive, and, as other reviewers have said, Plaidy seemed to have been very much in the habit of telling rather than showing what was happening. I don’t really hold that against her, as that may have been a style common to the ‘70s when this book was first published.

It was good in places, showing the breakdown of the relationships between Henry and his sons, and illustrating how his apparent desire to keep power for himself seems to have contributed to it. The strong personalities of both King Henry and Eleanor also came though, with the friction between them quite well written. However, perhaps due to the constraints of space it did seem as though things were a little rushed, and events covered very quickly and not in great detail. To me, the novel seemed to read a little like ‘A Brief History of’ book in some places.
Perhaps I’m just not so used to the older style, though I have read other works by this author, and found The Queen from Provence more compelling.

My only other gripe was that I was not sure of the accuracy of the incidents presented. Now I know no novel is going to be entirely accurate, and authors need to use artistic licence, but it seems that the alleged homosexual relationship between Richard and King Phillip II of France is little more than a myth, albeit one that seems to have been common at the time (in light of a similar insinuation in ‘The Lion in Winter’). I believe modern writers and historians are starting to question to whole idea that King Richard was ‘gay’.
I don’t know of any contemporary evidence the he was, and it’s now known that he did have at least one illegitimate son. Personally I think that just because the two men had a close relationship it does automatically follow they were romantically attracted to each other- and even for two men to share a bed did not necessarily carry sexual connotations at this time.

What with this and the mention of King Henry seducing Richard’s betrothed at the age of 11, which was cringe-inducing (which also may not have happened) I believe this may have been a case of artistic licence carried too far.

So in overall summary, Revolt of the Eaglets is worth reading, but may be prove frustrating for people who are more familiar than me with the details of the life and reign of Henry II, and those more used to recent writing styles.

The Knight who saved England….

The Knight Who Saved England: William Marshal and the French Invasion, 1217  Richard Brooks
April 22nd 2014, Osprey Publshing, 350 Pages

21898010This was the first biography of William Marshal I have read, though I recently became more interested in him, due perhaps in part to Thomas Asbridge’s recent BBC Documentary. I can’t make comparison with others, though I really should make an effort to read David Crouch’s William Marshal: Knighthood War and Chivalry in the near future.

I would describe this book as more of a military biography, with extensive attention given to battles, campaigns, strategy and logistics. There is some danger of getting ‘bogged down’ in the detail (and there is a lot of detail) but it’s a book worth persevering with- though I confess it took me nearly two months to finish it, which is not usual considering the Kindle edition is only 250 pages. Not that the book is bad (and I can plead mitigating circumstances), on the contrary it’s a fascinating, crammed full of detail, asides and interesting tidbits (I never knew Archbishop Stephen Langton was the man who divided the Bible into chapters) but those expecting a quick, light and easy read may be disappointed.

However, anyone seeking a well-researched overview of the life, times and historical legacy of ‘The Marshall’, to give them a good ‘sense’ of the period should be pleased. I wouldn’t agree with all of the author’s conclusion’s or comparisons (he does seem to judge by modern standards every so often), the structure could have been better, and perhaps he has fallen in love with his subject. Yet for all his failings, which any failings he did have, it would be hard not to admire William Marshal. How many septuagenarians, even today could lead a charge in battle or a regency government?

It would be no crime to finish this book with the belief that William Marshal is one of the great (if not the Greatest) largely unsung heroes of English history, who has been unfairly forgotten and side-lined. How many have heard of the Battle of Lincoln, or the naval debacle at Sandwich? Like King Alfred having been unjustly reduced in the popular memory to little more than the King who burned the cakes, William Marshall deserves more credit and popular recognition.

Altogether, recommended reading. I received a ebook version of this title from Netgalley in exchange for review. I was not required to write a positive one and all opinions expressed are my own.

The Bone Thief – V.M.Whitworth

Wulfgar- Book 1, September 2012, 464 pages

13536871Edward, son of Alfred the Great, has inherited the Kingdom of Wessex and achieved a precarious set of alliances through marriage and military conquest. But the alliance is uneasy and the kingdom of Mercia has more reason than most to fear the might of Wessex. Their Lord is elderly and perhaps mortally sick, and his wife fears that she does not have the power to withstand hostile takeover. She also knows too well what her neighbour is capable of — after all, King Edward is her brother.

The chance to rescue St Oswald’s bones, beloved patron saint, to consecrate her new church and unite the people behind her, is too good an opportunity to miss. But they are rumoured to be buried a long way north — outside Lincoln, deep in hostile territory. Her secretary, Wulfgar, groomed for the priesthood since he was a boy in the elegant cloisters of Winchester cathedral but naïve in the ways of the wider world — is surprised to be sent on this mission. It will prove an incredibly dangerous journey, requiring resources and courage Wulfgar did not know he had, and support from surprising allies along the way including a maverick priest and a Viking adventuress whose loyalties are far from clear.

 

This novel was recommended to me at a conference, mainly because it was set in Mercia during  the reign of Æthelflæd, daughter of Alfred the Great and ‘Lady of the Mercians’. This period is not simply one of personal interest, but of current research for me. There does seem to be a strong ‘sense’ of period, and some of the detail was very interesting. Also, as another reviewer mentioned, the Catholic religious beliefs of the Saxon characters are not treated with contempt, ridicule or vilified as seems to be the case in some novels.Mrs Whitworth is clearly familiar with the era she writes about, and can re-create it convincingly for the reader using real events as an inspiration for the story.
The glossary was useful for the unfamiliar terms, and although its over 400 pages its not a heavy or tedious read.

Also, I have to admit though he may not be according to everyone’s taste I did take a liking to Wulfgar- aside from often loose tongue and his unhealthy infatuation with the Viking woman Gunnvor resulting in part from a certain scene in which he sees her in undergarments.
Yes he is weedy, was bullied by other boys as a child so has serious confidence issues, he’s a whiner, green around the gill’s and certainly not the sharpest tool in the shed- but I think I related to him as the unappreciated underdog who makes an unlikely hero.

His companion Ednoth seemed to be a typical hard-man, a useful balance with Wulfgar’s lack of fighting ability- and subtlety.
The other clerical character, Father Ronan had a grittier and more realistic outlook on life and his outlook and experiences seemed quite realistic for people for the Christians living in the Danelaw in which the established hierarchy of the church had broken down, and in which there might be nobody to perform ancient rites like baptism or confession. That said, I didn’t find him entirely likeable, perhaps because I thought him to be rather sycophantic and willing to compromise what he was supposed to stand for.

Gunnvor, the aformentioned Viking woman I found hard to warm to. She seemed little more than eye candy or and a potential Romantic interest for Wulfgar. Her strength of character, independence and having rescue the men from potentially dangerous situations seemed something of a stereotype perhaps intended to appeal to modern notions of girl-power.

Historically, I couldn’t find many problems, though I am not an archaeologist and so I’m not familiar with material culture and probably wouldn’t spot any errors in this regard. The main issue I had was the language, which often seemed rather too modern with characters using many contemporary terms and phrases. Perhaps this was necessary to allow for better understanding, but language which is too jarringly modern in historical fiction is an issue for me generally. Perhaps it’s just a matter of taste.

My only gripes with the story were that it could perhaps have been resolved more quickly and seemed to drag a little and some of the characters’ actions didn’t seem wholly consistent or plausible.
Without wanting to give away the story, it just seemed incredibly unwise for the other characters to expect Wulfgar go off on his own after all that had happened to them- and I’m really not sure that the Lady of the Mercians would have risked openly allying herself with Æthelwold, the rival claimant to the West Saxon throne.

Overall, this was a good story with some memorable and lovable characters (in spite of their failings) which might appeal to those who aren’t so keen on novels full of battle or bedroom scenes.  I’m certainly interested being re-united with Wulfgar the next book, The Traitor’s Pit and only hope his heroism doesn’t involve abandoning his beliefs and convictions.