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England, Arise
England, Arise
by Juliet Barker
Edition: Hardcover
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4.0 out of 5 stars THE RIFLING TIME, November 20, 2014
This review is from: England, Arise (Hardcover)
Juliet Barker’s books are all worth reading. They are invariably reliable, well-written and thoroughly researched; but I am not sure how much this version of what we call the Peasants’ Revolt adds to existing accounts, such as those by Oman (1906) and Dunn (2002).

The book is too sympathetic to the rebels. Whilst she tells us of the widespread violence, destruction of property, thefts, assaults and murders, Barker nevertheless contrives to say that the rioters were ‘ordinary people defying authority and tradition and asserting their basic human rights’, just as Dunn told us that 1381 was ‘the first time the people of England found a voice.’ Well, this was not what anyone in authority thought at the time; and in East Anglia in the Pastons’ day, respectable people of all classes looked back on the events of 1381 as ‘the Rifling Time.’ Similarly, I doubt if many of us think now that the riots in England in 2011 were a justifiable way of expressing discontent at social conditions. Accordingly, we should not condemn writers such as Thomas Walsingham, Jean Froissart and the Anonimalle Chronicler for ‘bias’, when they condemn the rebels of 1381 as criminals.

Barker provides us with plenty of evidence that ‘the Peasants’ Revolt’ was neither a single revolt with a common motive, nor a movement involving peasants only, but rather a series of riots, involving a wide range of people with many different kinds of grievance, who exploited the weakness of the government during a royal minority to stake out particular claims, and did so with extreme violence. In some cases the ‘rebels’ were indeed peasants, seeking revenge on their masters, in others (e.g. in St Albans) they were townsmen with a grievance against the local Abbot, in others labourers seeking to escape the effects of wage control, in others, river-folk who hated foreigners, in others again people with a private grudge to settle. Why dignify these disparate groups as ‘the people of England?’ when they cannot have represented more than a tiny minority? And why assume, as I am afraid that Juliet Barker does, that all members of the upper classes, and all officials who stood out against the rioters, were grasping and ruthless exploiters of the masses?

I think the reason for the sympathy shown to the rebels by historians is that they apply modern ways of thinking to a medieval situation. They assume that people entertained notions of equality and human rights, when nothing was further from the medieval mind. In her account of the way in which the Revolt was suppressed, Barker also assumes that it was part of the judiciary’s job in the 14th century to be independent, as between the Crown and the subject; but the Judges regarded themselves as being ‘Lions under the Throne’ as late as the 17th century.


The Hundred Years War: A People's History
The Hundred Years War: A People's History
by David Green
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $11.73
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A BRILLIANT SYNTHESIS, October 26, 2014
This is a great work of synthesis, based on a fresh approach to the Hundred Years War; and there is a great deal of material here which will be new to many readers. David Green’s work is sound, well researched and attractively presented; and sensibly, it takes an analytic approach rather than a chronological one.
The book is subtitled ‘A People’s History’ and this recalls the approach taken by the Marxist A.L.Morton in the 1930s; but whereas Morton’s was a book about English history, this book is as much about France as it is about England. More importantly, Morton’s was a book of stonewalling Stalinist orthodoxy, peppered with anachronistic generalisations about society, for which there was no real support in the evidence. Whereas Green’s deals with many different topics which were of real concern to people in the 14th and 15th centuries – like chivalry, the Church and national identity. In particular, I found chapter 5 both convincing and new. Likewise I found chapter 4 on Making Peace refreshing, because the discussion of peacemaking during the Hundred Years War is so often muffled by the drums of war.
I have one quibble, though it is impossible to say how much it matters. How much of the developments which Green describes was due to the War, and how much to the Hundred Years?


Napoleon the Great
Napoleon the Great
by Andrew Roberts
Edition: Hardcover
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars NAPOLEON THE TYRANT, October 23, 2014
This review is from: Napoleon the Great (Hardcover)
This is a superb book. It reads well and is thoroughly researched and should appeal to both the general reader and the scholar. Andrew Roberts has read all the literature, visited nearly all Napoleon’s many battlefields and drawn on a new archive of over 30,000 letters written by the Emperor. There is much information which was new to me. For example, I knew that the retreat from Moscow was a disaster, but not that the initial invasion of Russia was also disastrous: the expedition was affected by an outbreak of typhus almost from the beginning.
Where I part company with Roberts is in relation to the value judgement contained in the title: ‘Napoleon the Great’. In 1946 the Dutch scholar Pieter Geyl published ‘Napoleon, For and Against’, where he attempted to produce the arguments on either side of the debate in France, which had begun in the Emperor’s own lifetime, indeed during his reign. Geyl attempted to be neutral, though it was perfectly clear that he regarded Napoleon as a tyrant. Roberts takes the opposite point of view: he thinks that Napoleon was a great man, not only because he was a military genius, but because he was a great lawgiver, administrator and ruler, as well as a polymath who could hold his own with the best scientific minds of his day. He was not a totalitarian dictator, and his reputation has unjustly suffered from comparisons made with Hitler since 1945. I wonder. In fact, I am inclined to think that Geyl was more nearly right than Roberts.
Roberts is very fair. He reproduces all the material to support an indictment of his hero: the massacre of the prisoners at Jaffa; the assassinations of the Duke d’Enghien and the German and Austrian patriots Palm and Hofer; the colossal loss of life which the Napoleonic campaigns entailed (3 million military deaths and 1 million civilian); the re-imposition of slavery in Haiti. How he can then stand back from all this, in the Conclusion and state that Napoleon was a great man, I fail to understand. In legal terms, it seems like a perverse verdict.
The man portrayed in this book was not - to my way of thinking – the latest model of an 18th century benevolent despot. A despot, certainly, but benevolent? Napoleon was above all, an imperialist, interested in power and the expansion of the French Empire. He practised nepotism on a gigantic scale. He placed little value on human life. He picked quarrels with other states, confident in his army (though he had a blind spot when it came to the Navy). Yes, he drew up constitutions, but these were only a means to an end. Yes, he exported one of the values of the French Revolution – equality before the law – but where were liberty and fraternity? And where was representative government, and the rule of law? Roberts thinks that the letters reveal a man who was a universal genius and could ‘compartmentalise’, so that he worked very effectively and efficiently. Having worked in the Civil Service, I see him rather as one of those Permanent Secretaries who ignore the first rule of management: ‘Manage the people, not the work’. Napoleon retained all real power in his own hands, did not like to delegate, and constantly interfered at every level. Consequently, he paid the price of all dictators, and ended up believing his own propaganda. Except that, at the end, when it was too late, he realised that his generals were feeding him false information.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Nov 15, 2014 8:11 AM PST


Agincourt: My Family, the Battle and the Fight for France
Agincourt: My Family, the Battle and the Fight for France
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars NOT ABOUT AGINCOURT, October 2, 2014
Despite the title, this book is not really about Agincourt. The discussion of the battle does not really begin until well after the hundredth page. Instead, it is principally about the author’s ancestors, of whom there were rather a lot. The theme is that these men (and women) were jolly important; and that this, and the author’s previous experience as a soldier and explorer, qualifies him to write about the Battle of Agincourt. Why this should be so, escapes me. I would have thought that the theory of IMP (inherent military probability) - that the soldier knows what is likely to have happened because he has ‘been there’ - went out in the 1950s, with Colonel Burne’s books on the Crécy and Agincourt wars, highly readable though these were.

There are some howlers. Calais is not in Normandy (pp. 183, 285). England and France were not the two greatest military powers in the world: their armies would have been dwarfed by those fielded by the Chinese or even the Turks (p. 200). A pyx was not a religious ornament: it was a utensil (p. 184). On page 188 Fiennes refers to the difficulty of marching in armour while suffering from diarrhoea – something he almost claims to have done; but he has already told us that most of those on the ‘march’ from Harfleur to Azincourt rode on horseback; and if they did march, how likely is it that they marched in full armour?

One cannot have much confidence that the author has properly researched his main subject (the expedition of 1415), because his reading list is both thin and odd. There are none here by Anne Curry, or Nicolas, or Wylie, or even Colonel Burne, but no less than three by Ian Mortimer, of which only one is about Agincourt. Fiennes does not include primary sources of any kind, though in the body of the text he occasionally quotes from chronicles. The research on the Fiennes family, English and French, could have provided interesting new material, since it is based on a private archive of some kind; but there are no footnotes or endnotes and we have no way of knowing what is in that archive, or how reliable the information is.

In the first few chapters we are given a potted history of England between 1066 and 1415 which is rather like reading Sellars and Yeatman’s ‘1066 and All That’, without the humour. I am not sure why all these chapters are included, except to tell us about the Fiennes’ part in just about every important event, or non-event: one of the ancestors apparently advised William the Conqueror not to proceed with the Conquest of England. When we eventually get to Henry V we are given an entirely conventional portrait, and the author seems to be blissfully ignorant of the many controversies surrounding both Henry and the battle. If you want to know more, a few pages by Anne Curry are worth hundreds by Fiennes.

In the end, the constant references to members of his family, always emphasized by Italics, is tiresome, to anyone who isn’t called Fiennes. I was reminded of my late aunt, who seemed to think that if a person wasn’t called Cooper, they didn’t really count for much in this world; but of course the difference is that the Fienneses are, and evidently always have been, famous. Their family tree begins with Charles Martel and includes the Emperor Charlemagne, Pepin the Short and Charles the Bald. I am only surprised that Ranulph didn’t begin it with Noah, or even Adam, as the more vainglorious of Tudor genealogists used to do.


Instruments of Darkness: Witchcraft in Early Modern England
Instruments of Darkness: Witchcraft in Early Modern England
by J. A. Sharpe
Edition: Paperback
Price: $19.98
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4.0 out of 5 stars THE EMPEROR HAD NO CLOTHES, September 21, 2014
James Sharpe, who is an authority on crime in Early Modern England has written the last word on witchcraft in that period and country. This is fitting because the dark art was treated as criminal – and indeed as a capital offence. Hugh Trevor-Roper’s European Witch-Craze of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries was little more than an essay, though it dealt with a much wider geographical area; and it was largely based on treatises. Sharpe’s book is far more substantial, despite its narrower focus. It is based on a wide variety of sources, including an exhaustive analysis of trials.

This book is one of many which has caused me to change my youthful view of the so-called English Revolution of 1640-60.

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven!

The picture of those years painted by Christopher Hill was indeed enchanting. But it did obscure, or fail to explain, the horrors, including the violence done by the Army to constitutional government in England, Cromwell’s treatment of Ireland and the unprecedented series of witch-hunts in East Anglia in 1645-7. How could a Revolution which was supposed to bring progress, enlightenment and scientific advance all at the same time, also bring us Matthew Hopkins? Sharpe provides several answers, but there is still a puzzle if we cling to the Whig or Marxist analysis of the Civil War. It we look at it as a Revolution, and on the whole as a ‘good thing’, the renewed interest in witchcraft is indeed hard to explain. If we look at it in the same way as the Earl of Clarendon did – as a Rebellion, and a ‘bad thing’ – we may change our mind on many things. There is nothing surprising then about the witch-craze; or, indeed about the persistence of the belief in witchcraft into the 19th century, despite a fundamental shift in attitudes towards the world in general.

This is an excellent book, but I did not always found it easy to read, because the author is reluctant to accept his own generalisations. He provides a wealth of evidence and he constantly draw conclusions, but they are not all to the same effect. He is also a little repetitive. Nevertheless, this is a masterly survey; and it is still fascinating to read in detail how credulous people were, and how rapidly those who ought to have known better came to see that the Emperor had no clothes, while many in the ignorant multitude continued to believe fervently that he did.


Thomas Cromwell: Servant to Henry VIII by David Loades (2013) Hardcover
Thomas Cromwell: Servant to Henry VIII by David Loades (2013) Hardcover
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5.0 out of 5 stars THE POWER OF PERSONALITY, September 8, 2014
Sixty years ago, Geoffrey Elton (d. 1994) resurrected Thomas Cromwell from the Machiavellian grave to which he had been consigned by Cardinal Pole in the 16th century, and Merriman in the early 20th. In fact he created a hero out of a villain. David Starkey and John Guy cut this hero down to size. Hilary Mantel, in her trilogy of novels (as yet incomplete) out flesh on the bones in a way that appealed to many. It has been left to David Loades to produce the pukka academic biography. He steers a nice course between the Scylla of Elton and the Charybdis of Cardinal Pole; and he even has a final chapter on the Historiography, which I found immensely illuminating.

I learned much from this book. One thing is the enduring power of the English aristocracy. People were bemoaning or celebrating its demise from the late Middle Ages; but it does not seem to have finally died as a significant political force until about 1930 – the result of death and taxes. In the Tudor period, it was still very strong. The Duke of Norfolk described Thomas Cromwell, who started with nothing but cleverness and a gift for languages, as ‘a foul churl’; and in the end, the Duke prevailed.

The second thing is that Elton exaggerated Cromwell’s power. He was only ever the servant – first of Cardinal Wolsey, then of Henry VIII; and what a lousy master Henry was! Ignorant yet learned; a lover but also a great hater; a man who believed in Purgatory and transubstantiation, but also denied the efficacy of pilgrimages and could not abide the power of the Pope. The wonder is not that Cromwell was executed in 1540, but that he survived so long.

The third is that the portrayal of Cromwell as Henry VIII’s evil genius in the play ‘A Man for All Seasons’ is at best simplistic, at worst a simple adoption of the Roman Catholic point of view, emanating from Cardinal Pole and before him from ‘St’ Thomas More. There is more, much more, to be said, while avoiding the Foxite deification of Cromwell.

Historians are fond of generalisations, comparisons and contrasts. They dislike personality and chance. This book shows, with some brilliance, that personality counts. How else to explain the myriad complexities of the relationship between Cromwell and his sovereign?


Blazing Star: The Life and Times of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester
Blazing Star: The Life and Times of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars POOR FEEBLE SCRIBBLER, September 5, 2014
Alexander Larman has written a life of the Earl of Rochester (1647-1680), the Restoration rake who was also a poet. The book is part biography, part history and part literary criticism. It succeeds in none of these areas.

The author is a product of Winchester and Oxford, where he obtained a First in English, so the book is well-written. The problem with it, as biography, is that the evidence is too thin to bear the weight put upon it. The book doesn't really begin until chapter 4. Until then, we are given information about what Rochester may well have done, at school, University and on the Grand Tour - not what he actually did. When the biography really gets into gear, in the 1660s, the author relies largely on the few dozen poems attributed to Rochester, plus a few additional facts. It is tolerably clear that we do not really know enough about the subject to be able to make sound judgements.

The history is also thin. The important question must be how England was ostensibly so puritanical in the 1650s and how she became so free and easy (not to say debauched) in the 1660s. Larman's explanation seems to be that in the 1650s, England was ruled by Cromwell, who was `all-powerful'; but he manifestly wasn't. His problem was that he could never build a reformist, let alone a republican, consensus; and in the absence of one, the country rapidly reverted to its old loyalty to the Stuarts. Likewise, we get no sense of what Restoration politics were really all about. Larman attributes the worst aspects of religious persecution to Charles II; but these were surely the work of the Cavalier Parliament, to which Charles was obliged to consent. The reader in search of a coherent explanation of the history and politics of the period would do better to read Ronald Hutton, or for that matter David Ogg.

As for the literary criticism, I have always thought that enjoyment of poetry is entirely subjective, so there is little point in going on about it. I was certainly surprised by just how filthy many of Rochester's poems were; and I enjoyed `The Imperfect Enjoyment' and `A Satire on Chares II'; but I find it hard to believe that there is any particular merit in Rochester's oeuvre as a whole. Larman seems to admire the poet's `integrity'; but what integrity would that be, other than unswervingly selfish devotion to sex and drinkl? Rochester seems to have been the quintessential toadying courtier, while affecting to criticise the demi-monde in which he moved. He got away with sundry crimes, including being an accessory to murder, never seems to have shown true regret; and never displayed any interest or concern in the well-being of others, even of his wife and children.

I once had a friend who wasted his life on drink. Rochester wasted his on booze and women. What is there to admire in his endless descriptions of the pleasures of either?
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A History of Witchcraft in England From 1558 to 1718
A History of Witchcraft in England From 1558 to 1718
Price: $2.99

5.0 out of 5 stars THE SLOW DEATH OF WITCHCRAFT, August 24, 2014
There is vast literature about the history of witchcraft, both in this country and in Europe. I decided to go back to this book, written in the early 1900s; and I was not disappointed. It is a model of clarity and explains the history of witchcraft in the UK between the early modern period – from 1556 to 1735. To my way of thinking it is a more satisfactory book than Hugh Trevor-Roper European Witch Craze in the 16th and 17th centuries, because it provides a better narrative. Indeed one could say that there are too many cases here and not enough analysis; but that suited my purpose.

The book is entertaining. I liked the story of William Harvey’s dissection of a toad, which an old lady said was her ‘familiar’. It turned out that it was an ordinary toad, with no sign of the Devil on it, or in it; but the old lady was most displeased that Harvey had cut it open.

The book is particularly good on the legal aspects of witchcraft prosecutions. It shows that the Act of 1604 was brought in at the behest of James I, and that this made it a felony, for the first time, to conjure spirits. (Previously, the prosecution has to show that the witch had brought about someone’s death). This Act remained on the statute book until 1735; but in the meantime, it had become virtually impossible to secure a conviction, because first the Judges and then the public became convinced that, in fact, spirits did not exist; and witches were in the main pathetic old women who suffered from delusions.

But it took time to arrive at this position, because many feared that if there were no spirits, then there was no Devil and if there was no Devil, then there was no God. So for many years those who wrote in favour of a change in the law were liable to be accused of atheism.

I think the book demonstrates clearly that it was not 1640 which brought about a mental revolution in relation to witches, but 1689. The Enlightenment and not the English Revolution caused a fundamental shift, away from superstition and towards rational and scientific thought.


Counter-Revolution: The Second Civil War and Its Origins, 1646-8
Counter-Revolution: The Second Civil War and Its Origins, 1646-8
by Robert Ashton
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $69.57
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5.0 out of 5 stars THE ANTIDOTE, August 23, 2014
This is a very useful antidote to all those books which were published in the 20th century praising Oliver Cromwell, the Puritans, the Levellers and the Diggers. Whereas Christopher Hill concentrated on pamphlets and literature and almost entirely ignored archives, Robert Ashton spent a lifetime’s careful research in them. Ashton shows how the English Royalists, who had been comprehensively defeated by 1646, nevertheless found sufficient support to take up arms again in 1648; and he asks why this happened. The answer is ‘revolutionary illegality’ - the way in which the victorious Parliamentarians, both in Parliament and in the New Model Army, abused the new power they had gained as a result of the Civil War (or ‘English Revolution’, as Hill liked to call it). Parliamentary committees had assumed and exercised new and arbitrary powers and levied extraordinary taxes, at a level and on a scale which made the royal abuses complained of in the Petition of Right of 1628 look paltry. Meanwhile, the victorious soldiers of the New Model often insisted on the imposition of martial law.

The result was the Second Civil War of 1648, so exhaustively chronicled here. The Royalists were comprehensively defeated, as they had been in the First; but were ultimately vindicated by the Restoration of 1660.


The Tyrannicide Brief: The Story of the Man Who Sent Charles I to the Scaffold
The Tyrannicide Brief: The Story of the Man Who Sent Charles I to the Scaffold
by Geoffrey Robertson
Edition: Hardcover
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2.0 out of 5 stars SPECIAL PLEADING, August 23, 2014
Geoffrey Robertson’s is the most up to date and possibly the most complete account of the trial of Charles I. It was written in the wake of the invasion of Iraq in 2003, while Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussain were both awaiting trial for war crimes. The author is a leading human rights barrister, and a campaigner who took the view both that the invasion was unlawful under international law, although Saddam deserved, morally, to be overthrown, and ought to have been tried (in an appropriate forum) for tyranny. His view of the trial of Charles I is that of a radical – that the trial established important principles of lasting importance. He is very dismissive of the Whig view that it was the Glorious Revolution of 1689 which truly secured the liberties of the English (he calls that Revolution ‘constitutional milksoppery’). Accordingly, he sees the central event of 1649 as winning parliamentary sovereignty, judicial independence, no taxation without representation and no detention without trial. I would say almost all of this is wrong; but the more important point is the way in which Robertson’s politics affect his view of the law and of the trial itself.

In his attempt to portray that trial as unprecedented but lawful, Robertson emphasizes the legal niceties which were observed: the fact that the Rump Parliament and the Army agreed to put Charles on trial at all – rather than simply murder him, or subject him to court martial; the fact that he was tried in public and given the opportunity (which he rejected) of defending himself, having counsel and testing the evidence. None of these opportunities was afforded to the accused after 1660, when the regicides (including Robertson’s hero John Cooke) were dealt with in a very summary and to our minds illegal fashion.

But, when it comes to other, perhaps more fundamental, legal aspects of the trial, Robertson seems blind to the most obvious injustices. Thus Charles objected to the jurisdiction of the court itself. He was not allowed to pursue that argument, because he was required to plead ‘guilty’ or ‘not guilty’ and, when he refused to do so, the court took that as a guilty plea (this much at least was in accordance with precedent). But Charles had several good points here: that the court had been established by the House of Commons alone, and even then by a House of Commons shorn of the ‘Presbyterian’ opposition; that the House of Commons was not the same as Parliament and had never purported to act as either legislature or judicature on its own before. In short, Robertson justifies the trial on the basis that the regicides did – that they were acting on behalf of the people; but the truth is as Lady Fairfax said, that they were only acting on behalf of some of the people, and possibly a small number. Others regarded them simply as usurpers.

As for the charges, Charles never addressed these directly; but it seems that he had a very good defence to these two. High treason? He could say that this had always involved some attack on the person of the King, or those close to him. Murder/war crimes? He had been not only the commander in chief but the sovereign at the time; and sovereign immunity was always recognised in international law – as Robertson points out – until the last of the Pinochet judgments was handed down in the House of Lords in 1999. Lastly, ‘tyranny’. Robertson is clear that this was not an offence when Charles allegedly committed it: it became an offence because the Rump made it one, in 1649. To try Charles for this would be retrospective penalisation, which is contrary to common law and now prohibited by Article 7 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Here again therefore, Robertson seeks to justify the charges and thereby his hero John Cooke, when he knows full well that he is arguing for what the law ought to have been, not what it was.

The argument here is powerfully presented - the author is one of the UK's leading barristers; but in the final analysis, this is a very biased account. The critique of Charles I stands in sharp contrast to the extravagant praise heaped on John Cooke, the lawyer who accepted the so-called tyrannicide brief. Such praise may be deserved, if one looks only at Cooke’s career, and his ghastly execution in 1660; but it should not be asserted that he was alone in arguing for the rule of law, or indeed that the revolutionaries alone had fundamental law on their side.


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