The Return of ‘The Hollow Crown’- Henry VI Part 1(and a bit)

Ever since the original BBC adaptation the first four in Shakespeare’s series of eight Plantagenet History plays, I have been hoping that one day they might move onto the Henry VI trilogy and Richard III. His aptly known ‘Wars of the Roses’ sequence. Yeah, I confess, these little known works of the bard are among my favourites, even though at more than 6 hours in length making it through all three parts of Henry VI requires some concentration and commitment.

In a way I was delighted to see that this series was finally on the way, although I had reservations when I heard about casting choices and the content. I still don’t think they should have cut the three parts of Henry VI down to only two. I watched the premiere of the much-anticipated new series last night (yeah we know, cashing in the massive resurgence of interest in the Wars of the Roses and all that)- and all in all, I was left rather disappointed. 

To me the whole thing seemed disjointed,hollow-crown-large_trans++pVlberWd9EgFPZtcLiMQf98oAmGZYX8Vqbq2hlobTFc rather rushed and just not put together well. Cutting out over a third of the material from the original plays is pretty savage, and I think a lot has been ‘lost in translation’ so to speak. Take the curious decision to start the second scene with Richard of York visiting his dying Uncle Edmund Mortimer- who lays out his claim to the throne with a family tree ready to hand and then York hastily explaining it to Warwick and Salisbury. They basically spliced together two scenes from two separate parts of the plays, and put them right at the beginning. 

Okay, so it might be argued this scene was necessary to put York’s later actions and the Wars into context. Yes, but here’s the thing.  It misses out the background and context of these scenes themselves which was important in itself. The thing about York in the plays is that he does not show his hand hand and openly claim the throne until the very last-minute, when things are getting heated and he’s sure of the loyalty and support  of his comrades. Which pretty much follows the historical reality that York did not press his claim until the year of his death.

...and that scene with Mortimer in the Tower. Well its all about context too. It from Act II Scene V of Henry VI Part One, following the famous garden scene when the characters pluck white and red roses from the bush. In the original play it has nothing to do with claims to the throne. Rather if follows Somerset and York who had been embroiled in a legal dispute, and ask their fellows to decide between them. It was an argument that got out of hand because Somerset called Richard of York a ‘yeoman’. Basically, saying that because his father was executed for treason, his blood was corrupted and he was no better than a commoner. York got a bit upset, the swords came out, and the others had to intervene to prevent things getting really nasty. 

Its only after that York goes to see Uncle Mortimer- and then asks him about the events surrounding his father’s execution. Yeah, fair enough people are throwing it in his face and he wanted to know- and that’s when the whole matter starts to come out. From that point on, pretty much, York thinks himself wronged, has it in for the House of Lancaster, and comes to fancy himself as the heir to the throne.  Now this is all very much after all the action in France, and the rise of Joan of Arc- not before. In fact, in this version the war in France is relegated to little more than a few minutes Joan of Arc, Margaret of Anjou- Talbot gets killed- and then its back to England. John Duke of Bedford is not even in it. That is what I call a travesty. Totally ignoring the role and career of Henry V’s other brother. 

But that was not my only problem.  It’s not just context and basis of the character’s actions that is lost with the BBC’s editing. It’s also much of the sense, tension, conflict and interactions between characters of the original play. The bitter rivalry between the

1462568268-660613f954558d914c7a8cd0a430075b-600x900

Good Duke Humphrey Duke of Gloucester

Bishop of Winchester and Gloucester is not there. Nor is much of the early action with Suffolk. Suffolk is present, but he does not do much. Instead his character is curiously amalgamated with that of Somerset to the point that in one place Somerset was called William. Yeah, that might sound pedantic, making a big deal about getting a name wrong but it shows how the two characters are confused. Suffolk’s name was William de la Pole- Somerset was Edmund Beaufort. Two very different characters who have very different roles. Somerset was really just York’s foil in the original play, but it was Suffolk that stole much of the show, and drove on most of the action.

Then there was the downfall of Gloucester. That’s all from Part II and its depicted as a pretty complicated affair involving all the major characters scheming and conniving to bring about Good Duke Humphrey’s demise. Suffolk is the main player, the one who actually has him ‘bumped off’, not Somerset and he’s not in bed with Margaret of Anjou in the meantime. Yeah, that totally unnecessary bedroom scene was not in the original play. It was thrown in for er,  ‘good measure’ by the Beeb to show how ‘corrupt’ Somerset and Margaret supposedly were. Not that there’s a shred of evidence Margaret ever had an affair with Somerset, or anyone for that matter. That was Yorkist gossip from much later spread to destroy her reputation.

Which brings us to the final point. For some undiscernible reason York is removed from
much of the intrigue and scheming in the BBC adaptation. He is not involved in Gloucester’s demise, and is positively horrified by the whole thing. Not so in the original play.  There he’s very much in the centre. He’s every inch the Machiavellian schemer,  pretending loyalty whilst planning to bring down the whole regime and conniving with the others against Gloucester.  His ambitions and intents are spelled out in masterful soliloquies. None of that is present in this version. I for one have a nasty feeling that this is all done with the intention of exonerating York- making him out to be a sort of righteous and moral hero in the making. He is almost the innocent on the sidelines, who is driven to rebellion only by the injustice and corruption around him.

97097363-bonneville-hollow-crown-arts-large_trans++pVlberWd9EgFPZtcLiMQf-0Jyi0jPPD6Zx1hiwTPhlc

York the Innocent? Second from Right

Its seems too much like the overly simplified ‘Yorkists good, Lancastrians bad’ idea which is becoming rather too prevalent in the popular view of the Wars of the Roses. That is not something this historian is comfortable with because the whole thing was a lot more complicated and messy then that. There was greed, ambition, selfish intentions, bad blood and violent misdeeds on both sides. Neither was Lily white but neither was entirely evil either….and that was part of the genius of Shakespeare. He often did a great job of portraying the complexity of history, and the subtleties of its human agents.

All the characters have their own intentions,  motivations and ambitions. They weren’t cardboard but outs who went around doing this that and the other simply because they were bad (unless one counts Richard III in the later parts but that’s a different story). One could feel sympathy even for the antagonists like York. Sadly, the makers of the latest version have lost sight of this, at the expense of audiences unfamiliar with the original plays.

 

The Anglo-Saxon Age- Martin Wall

Amberley, September 2015

272 Pages, Hardback and Ebook

 

26038836The discovery of the Staffordshire Hoard in 2009 has captured the imagination and stimulated renewed interest in the history and culture of the Anglo-Saxons. The discovery poses some interesting questions. Who owned the treasure and how did they acquire it? Was it made locally or did it originate elsewhere? Why was it buried in an obscure field in the Staffordshire countryside?

To answer these questions, Martin Wall takes us on a journey into a period that still remains mysterious, into regions and countries long forgotten, such as Mercia and Northumbria. This is a story of the ‘Dark Ages’ and the people who lived in them, but darkness is in the eye of the beholder. This book challenges our notions of these times as barbaric and backward to reveal a civilization as complex, sophisticated and diverse as our own.


Martin Wall’s nonfiction debut is a great introduction to- well- the Anglo-Saxon age and its leading figures, events and developments. I greatly appreciated the chapter on Ethelfleada of Mercia, the daughter of Alfred. The early chapters were also interesting and useful, even if they stray from the current, fashionable notion of a gradual, small scale invasion. Personally, I could not help agree with the author’s take on Gildas and Bede.
Both appear to have been men of great learning (we know Bede was) who were eyewitnesses, or had access to first-hand accounts and good sources of their own. What reason did they have to lie, or to make up everything? Why, then, should be dismiss their accounts of the Adventus Saxonum out of hand? As for bias, if we admit it, we all biased sometimes, but we don’t reject everything our fellows tell us on this basis.

Not that I agree with everything the author says- like the assumption that Oswald of Northumbria had the last surviving son of Edwin killed. Not much evidence seemed to be given to back up this claim, and it doesn’t fit what I know of Oswald. Nor did I appreciate the assertion that Edward the Confessor must have been homosexual or impotent because he did not have any children. It really gets on my nerves when people automatically jump to such conclusions about historical figures on this basis.
There are, sadly, biological and gynaecological reasons why some people cannot have children today- so why can be not give people in the past the benefit of the doubt? The attempts to link the Robin Hood stories to ancient paganism at the end just struck me as odd, unnecessary and rather tenuous. I understand the author is something of an expert on myth and folklore, but in the last chapter it comes across as- dare I say it- something of a fixation?

Aside from the complaints detailed above, I did enjoy the book and would recommend for it for general readers interested in the period. I would certainly be interested in Mr Wall’s next book The Anglo-Saxons in 100 Facts that is due for release in a few months.

I received a PDF copy of this book from Amberley Publishers for review. I was not required to write a positive one and all opinions expressed are my own.

Ivory Vikings- Nancy Marie Brown

Ivory Vikings: The King, the Walrus, the Artist and the Empire That Created the World’s Most Famous Chessmen

September 2015, 256 Pages, Palgrave MacMillan

23848067

In the early 1800’s, on a Hebridean beach in Scotland, the sea exposed an ancient treasure cache: 93 chessmen carved from walrus ivory. Norse netsuke, each face individual, each full of quirks, the Lewis Chessmen are probably the most famous chess pieces in the world. Harry played Wizard’s Chess with them in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.

Housed at the British Museum, they are among its most visited and beloved objects.Questions abounded: Who carved them? Where? Nancy Marie Brown’s Ivory Vikings explores these mysteries by connecting medieval Icelandic sagas with modern archaeology, art history, forensics, and the history of board games.

In the process, Ivory Vikings presents a vivid history of the 400 years when the Vikings ruled the North Atlantic, and the sea-road connected countries and islands we think of as far apart and culturally distinct: Norway and Scotland, Ireland and Iceland, and Greenland and North America. The story of the Lewis chessmen explains the economic lure behind the Viking voyages to the west in the 800s and 900s. And finally, it brings from the shadows an extraordinarily talented woman artist of the twelfth century: Margret the Adroit of Iceland.


I listened to the audio book of a previous title by this author, and the synopsis and reviews piqued my interest in her new book.

In some ways, I was a little disappointed. There wasn’t a great deal of information about the wider world and Viking relations to it. I also didn’t much appreciate the fashionable revisionist approach of trying to downplay the violent aspects of Viking culture, and making them out to have been peaceful traders.
Its even implied that Charlemagne caused the Viking raids by attacking the Saxons, and the claim that they weren’t so bad because everyone attacked and raided churches at that time seemed like a pretty lame excuse.

Why did the Norsemen attack England if it was all Charlemagne’s fault, and why did Lindisfarne last until that time if everyone attacked churches? There were also some assumptions and historical generalisations. For instance, its claimed (with perhaps a palpable hint of wide-eyed admiration) that Viking women had more freedom than virtually all other European women, as they could inherit land, and were entitled to certain rights in marriage as well as divorce, run households and hold notable positions, and even fight.

Yet this was not so unique. Women in England even under primogeniture could and did I inherit land- and they were alsdo entitled to one third of their husband’s property when he died. In England and many other states, women ran businesses and their households. There are even illustrations apparently showing female stonemasons etc. Furthermore, Alfred the Great’s daughter led armies and defended her kingdom against the Danes, and she was admired. So what was so special about Viking women?

There were some good points. For instance the book made some fascinating points about the sagas which make me want to dig into them, and the parts covering Norwegian history in the 11 th to 13th centuries.
Worth a read, but one to take with a pinch of salt.

I received an eBook edition of this title from Netgalley for review. I was not required to write a positive one, and all opinions expressed are my own.

In The Land of the Giants- Max Adams

25333057

Head of Zeus, 416 Pages

10th September 2015, Print, e-book and audiobook

The five centuries between the end of Roman Britain (410) and the death of Alfred the Great (899) have left few voices save a handful of chroniclers, but Britain’s ‘Dark Ages’ can still be explored through their material remnants: buildings, books, metalwork, and, above all, landscapes.

Max Adams explores Britain’s lost early medieval past by walking its paths and exploring its lasting imprint on valley, hill and field. From York to Whitby, from London to Sutton Hoo, from Edinburgh to Anglesey and from Hadrian’s Wall to Loch Tay, each of his ten walk narratives form both free-standing chapters and parts of a wider portrait of a Britain of fort and fyrd, crypt and crannog, church and causeway, holy well and memorial stone.

Part travelogue, part expert reconstruction, In the Land of the the Giants offers a beautifully written insight into the lives of peasants, drengs, ceorls, thanes, monks and kings during an enigmatic but richly exciting period of our island’s history.”


I knew that this was part travelogue part history book when I requested it, and was exited as the theme and subject seemed to relate to that of The King in the North: The Life and Times of Oswald of Northumbria.

It is certainly a fascinating and lively account, in which the two genres mixed together mostly very well. Almost like Bill Bryson ‘going history’. It certainly gives the reader and appreciation for the heritage and priceless relics from the past that survive to this day- many of right under our proverbial noses- and yet largely ignored.

It certainly made this historian want to visit more of the sites in question and helped me to understand and appreciate some of the social and economic circumstances of the pre-conquest era. (How people might have responded to strangers, social and diplomatic etiquette and acceptable conduct etc- which might help explain certain events).
The purpose of bringing the past to life, and exploring the legacy of the period dubbed the ‘Dark Ages’ (often with unfortunately and unjustly derogatory overtones) was met well with this book. For the general reader, the tone and style was suitably engaging and uncomplicated. Yes, there were some details on archaeological digs- but little of the minute discussion of minor details that might put people off a more academic tome.

My complaints were few. Firstly, the book did seem to be largely focused on the North Country and Scotland. I don’t know if that was because the Kingdoms and tribal divisions of that region were more politically significant at certain times- but I would really have liked to see more on the South. A bit on London and Essex, some Dorset and West Country and Sutton Hoo, and that was about it. Whereas the former Kingdom of Northumbria seemed to get chapter after chapter. Seriously, do places like the ‘Home counties’ or places like Sussex, and Midlands not have any Dark Age history or remains to speak of? I’m sure they do! What about the heartlands of what was once the Kingdom of Mercia. Tamworth etc?

Also, the asides into modern politics (or fairly modern politics) and current affairs might not have been entirely necessary. Nor indeed the designations applied to some persons and groups both historical and modern. Judging the past by the standards of the present is not generally considered good practice, and I suppose some passages just came across as obsessive and judgemental in some parts. Was this a, perhaps slightly self-conscious attempt to be ‘relevant’- or part of the over-arching narrative to make a point about the world not having changed greatly and there being many parallels between ‘then and now’? I suppose the latter, but I don’t think it always worked well.

I received an e-book edition of this title free from Netgalley for the purposes of reviewing. I was not required to write a positive one and all opinions expressed are my own

The King in the North- Max Adams

The King in the North: The Life and Time of Oswald of Northumbria

August 29th 2013, Head of Zeus, 448 Pages

 

18397528Oswald Whiteblade lived one of the most influential and colourful lives in early English history. Before his death in battle against the pagans of Mercia cut short his reign as king of Northumbria (634-42), he remodelled his northeastern English homeland as a Christian kingdom, founded the monastery of Lindisfarne, introduced a culture of learning which influenced all Europe, and became the most powerful ruler in Britain.

Max Adams’s thrilling account rescues Oswald from Dark Age obscurity to reveal an unjustly forgotten English hero – a king whose return from exile to reclaim his birthright was the inspiration for J. R. R. Tolkien’s Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings. But The King in the North is more than just a biography of the first great English monarch; it is a stunningly researched, wide-ranging, beautifully written and revelatory portrait of early medieval England in all its aspects.


As someone who’s slightly obsessed with the Anglo-Saxon age, and especially the early Kings of Northumbria, even though I don’t live in that region. I blame Bede! I already knew a little about Oswald and his near contemporaries- his Uncle Edwin and brother Oswui from the classic Ecclesiastical History.

In some ways, this book bought the so called ‘Dark Ages’ to life, and shed light on a number of details I was not aware of (who knew that Oswald had Irish relations or an ancestor with the decidedly Gothic sounding name of Theodoric?) In a sense, the book does exactly what it says ‘on the tin’- and provides and wonderful guide to the dynamics of Oswald’s family ‘The Idings’- named after an ancestor in the era before surnames), and their relations to the other tribes and peoples of the region.

However, those looking for a traditional biography of Oswald will be disappointed. The actual account of his reign is short, and although he crops up regularly, many subjects that are not directly related to him are covered. I suppose that is to be expected of any good history book that tries to recreate the ‘world’ of a historical figure.
However, I did feel that the author had a tendency of going off on tangents- devoting many pages- sometimes more- on various subjects that the reader might not care much for- such as buildings and evidence or use of land. Typical for an archaeologist- but not everyone is necessarily interested by such content or will see its relevance. Also, the references to some kind of ancient pagan connection to this or that account in the life of Oswald or some saint may be fascinating initially, but the continual reference to ‘pre-Christian head cults’ etc may become grating in the end.

I also found myself distinctly disagreeing with some of the author’s conclusions. He is very much of the ‘no mass Saxon invasion and replacement of the population’ theory, which I have never been especially convinced by. I don’t mean to disparage Mr Adams in any way, as he clearly knows his stuff very well (and don’t we all have certain ideas and interpreations about historical figures or events?)
Yet what I found the most frustrating was what seemed like an effort to make the evidence fit the theory, even when it seemed to suggest something to the contrary.
Something like- this or that building and burial suggests these people were from the Germanic tribes who came to Britain in the fifth and sixth century- oh but DNA evidence says that most of us are Britons- so it must be wrong, and they must really have been Britons who adopted Germanic culture wholesale. After all people eat MacDonald’s in China, but that doesn’t make them American.

I’m sorry to sound overly sceptical- but as said above- not only am I not convinced about the ‘Germanic enculturation’ theory- I have also heard of other Genetic studies which suggest the populations of various areas of England have a very high percentage of Anglo-Saxon/Germanic DNA. In other words the genetic evidence is not clear cut- and there may have been more of a Saxon influence then some in the historical community would care to admit.

I also dislike this tendency to assume that ancient writers who witnessed, or were closer to events than us must have been wrong or lying , because some ‘smart’ modern technology doesn’t turn up a ‘smoking gun’ as evidence of X, Y and Z. Like ‘oh look- people were farming! That means there was not mass annihilation of the indigenous population like the sources say- oh but there was a plague and a famine- but its effects were gradual and life went on much as before’. Maybe because I’m a historian instead of an archaeologist, I don’t have such a great understanding of these things- but I also tend to think that those who were actually ‘there’ knew more about what happened then we do. Not a fashionable notion, but one I still hold to.

Nevertheless, The King in the North is a useful and fascinating book, with a lot of helpful resources for those who might otherwise get lost and confused, like maps, family trees and a handy pronunciation guide. For those like me already interested in this period, and those who want to learn more it’s an indispensable guide, even if you don’t agree with every point.