Review of “The Life and Times of Richard I” by John Gillingham

John Gillingham has written a diverse range of books on medieval England, yet if there is one subject which he has made his own, it’s Richard Cœur de Lion. In addition to his work on the Angevin empire over which he ruled, Gillingham has written three biographies of Richard, as well as a collection of essays focused on the king. His contribution to Weidenfeld and Nicolson’s “Kings and Queens of England” series was the first of these, a deft overview of Richard’s activities that emphasizes his participation in the Third Crusade.

It’s a choice that likely reflects the target audience for the series of a popular readership, one that is underscored by an extensive use of photographs illustrating the locations and events described in the text. Yet for all his academic qualifications, Gillingham never talks down to his audience, providing instead a clearly-written text that offers a straightforward explanation of his subject’s activities. Beginning with an opening chapter that skillfully summarizes both 12th century England and Richard’s life prior to his accession to the throne, he moves on swiftly to his preparations to join the Crusades. Richard seems almost monomaniacally focused in these pages on his involvement, determined to get there as fast as circumstances will allow.

The three years that Richard spends on journeying to the Holy Lands and campaigning there takes up half of Gillingham’s book. These chapters provide a dramatic recounting of his activities, focusing on his activities as both a general and a statesman. Gillingham’s portrayal of Richard is positive to the point of glowing, as he explains how he managed both the complex diplomatic environment of the Mediterranean and the relationships with his prickly and ambitious allies. Gillingham regards Richard as the outstanding military commander among the crusaders, and explains clearly why the king made the judgments he did on his campaign and how his achievements were the most that were possible given the circumstances that he faced.

Because of Gillingham’s focus, the events of the final six years of Richard’s are condensed into just two chapters. This reflects at least in part the lack of information available about him, as Richard’s captivity in Germany does not seem to have generated many records for Gillingham to use. But the choice seems more questionable when it comes to covering Richard’s arguably more significant clash with Philip Augustus, given both the span of years involved and the significance of the war to the history of the two realms. While the events are efficiently described, the contrast with the level of detail provided for Richard’s Crusades escapades is striking. Though I’m reserving any final judgment in this respect until I’ve seen the coverage of this period in the other biographies of Richard that I plan to read (including Gillingham’s contribution to the English Monarchs series), it does seem an unwarranted and distorting choice.

This is perhaps the greatest flaw in what s otherwise a highly enjoyable book. Gillingham goes far in this book in demonstrating why Richard enjoys the standing he possesses today in the popular imagination. While the imbalanced coverage of his reign makes it difficult to imagine that this will be the final “one book” on which I will settle, as an introduction to a monarch I knew little it does a fine job of giving me the basics while whetting my interest for reading further. In that respect Gillingham does an admirable job in a way that many authors would envy.

Review of “The Life and Times of William I” by Maurice Ashley

Up to this point, the majority of the biographies of English monarchs that I have read for my project were written specifically for a series produced by a publisher. The more of these I read, the more I wonder about the selection process that the editors employ in choosing authors for the various volumes. Oftentimes the choice seems an obvious one, as was probably the case of Frank Barlow with Edward the Confessor, or Richard Abels for one about Æthelred. With others, though, the author’s qualifications make their selection a little more puzzling. Were they the best choice, or simply the best one available?

I suspect that the latter might have been the case when Maurice Ashley was commissioned to write a volume on William the Conqueror for Weidenfeld & Nicolson’s “Kings and Queens of England” series. Ashley’s background is a fascinating one: a graduate of Oxford, he worked as a literary assistant for Winston Churchill when the future prime minister wrote his biography of the Duke of Marlborough. This led to a distinguished career as a journalist and editor, during which he wrote a number of histories and biographies. While his credentials as a historian are impeccable, though, his training and focus for most of his career was as a historian of the 17th century. This would make him a natural choice to author a book on Charles I or James II, yet instead he was asked to write a biography of a monarch who reigned seven centuries earlier. It certainly makes for an odd fit between his specialty and the subject.

In some ways, however, it may have been an asset, as free from the lifetime immersion in his subject may have aided Ashley in writing a highly accessible introduction to his subject. Doing so involved familiarizing himself not just with 11th century England but contemporary Normandy as well, and after months spent focused on the Anglo-Saxon world I found it to be a refreshing change of pace. I took a lot from Ashley’s chapter on William’s dukedom, and it certainly sharpened my desire to learn more about it.

Yet Ashley’s focus is understandably on the kingdom Duke William conquered. This he covers in four chapters, providing both a description of his realm and how William asserted his control over it. The most interesting of these chapters was his one on feudalism, as Ashley provides a clear explanation that nonetheless offers a nuanced description of it. Like his chapter on Normandy, it points to another topic that I expect will get more detailed coverage in the other biographies of William awaiting me, and one that I look forward to reading with much anticipation.

Though it may seem as though I found Ashley’s book dissatisfying, it was anything but. His well-illustrated volume does exactly what it sets out to do, which is to provide a comprehensible introduction to William and his era. Whether the foundation he provides is a firm one remains to be seen (though his reliance on Douglas’s book, which is the next stop on my tour through the literature, suggests that it is), but it certainly sets the standard for judging the other books that seek to make William’s world intelligible to the modern reader. I look forward to discovering if any of its counterparts can match it.

Review of “The Saxon Kings” by Richard Humble

I decided to begin my journey through the lives of the monarchs of England with Richard Humble’s book. This was for a variety of reasons: from the description it looked to be a survey of the kings from an era with which I am not all that familiar with, one that would provide coverage of the pre-“English” kings which I have decided not to address, and it promised coverage of the kings for whom I have been unable to find stand-alone biographies and would thus fill in some of the gaps that would otherwise exist in my project

And Humble’s book delivered as a surprisingly enjoyable introduction to the subject. As part of Weidenfeld and Nicolson’s “Kings and Queens of England” series it was a work geared towards a general audience, and to that end provides a decent amount of helpful context in its presentation of the period. Yet the author himself deserves most of the credit for the accessibility of his material: Humble was a prolific author of several books on a variety of historical subjects, and in his text he asserts his judgments with confidence, making his interpretation of the era clear.

Though Humble begins his book with a chapter on the “seven kingdoms” of the early Anglo-Saxon era, with the exception of a few of the most significant figures he largely glosses over the various monarchs of the period. His coverage sharpens once he reaches the Wessex king Alfred the Great, and he spends the subsequent chapters covering the reigns of his descendants in detail. Only his son Edward “the Elder,” Æthelstan, and Edgar (the last surviving male heir) receive stand-alone chapters; with the rest divided into groups of two or three and their reigns summarized in turn. Humble finds most of these monarchs praiseworthy, with Æthelred, Harold Harefoot and Harthacnut coming in for the most criticism for the failings of their time as kings.

In this respect Humble provides a lively overview of the House of Wessex, though his book falls short in a few respects. Foremost among them is that it is less of a succession of biographies than it is a political history of the later Anglo-Saxon kings, with little effort made to describe the other aspects of their reign. Even their personal lives receive minimal coverage outside of the parts that are relevant to this focus. To some degree this is probably a consequence of the limitations of the sources available for the era, but Humble’s reliance upon them is surprisingly narrow. Many paragraphs seem to be little more summaries of, and commentary on, the relevant passages on his subjects in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. Better sourcing might have clarified this impression, but the absence of any sort of endnotes makes such an effort impossible.

These limitations define the scope of what Humble provides. While a good overview of the political history of the reign of Alfred and his successors, as a collection of biographies it falls short. I’m glad to have read it first, though, as it gave me a necessary grounding in the period and certainly whetted my interest in reading more about some of the remarkable kings Humble describes in its pages.