Gareth Russell's A History of the English Monarchy: From Boudicea to Elizabeth I gives a fresh perspective on the overall history of Great Britain, with a focus on the kings and queens. The author is able to consolidate over a thousand years of history into one volume in a lively and engaging manner. Each monarch is presented in an original way. Russell meticulously explodes many myths while often introducing little known facts about the various royals. He also includes information about what was going on in Ireland, which is left out of most books on English history, except as a footnote. On several occasions I found myself laughing out loud, or else being moved to tears. Being an Irish Protestant, Russell's view of the papacy tends to be quite pragmatic although some of the most beautiful passages in the book describe the martyrdom of St. Thomas Becket.
The book begins with a discussion of the mystique of monarchy, going back to the Egyptians through their long history which ended with Cleopatra. To quote:
So ancient was the Egyptian royal system that Cleopatra is still closer to Elizabeth II than she was to the first pharaoh, who had unified Egypt nearly three millennia before her. The kingdom of the pharaohs was the ancient Mediterranean's monarchy par excellence, in which the power of royalty was underpinned by the belief that kings and queens stood far closer to the gods than they did to the rest of humanity. (p.8)The unity and prosperity of the nation was seen to flow from a strong central monarchy in ancient Egypt. Russell show how as Britain evolved the monarchy became more and more important in bringing stability to the people, although bad kings (and queens) created discord and chaos. It all officially did not begin until the Norman Conquest. In the author's own words:
Duke William went down in history as King William the Conqueror, which is appropriate because the Norman invasion of England amounted to little more than a full and savage conquest of native English culture. The new king's Norman followers were rewarded with land that was taken off the English aristocracy. Native architecture, names, language, church services and art were obliterated and replaced by the culture and values of Normandy. Rebellions were brutally crushed by William's unstoppable, unmerciful armies. Some historians would say that the reasons for the economic differences between the south and north of England actually arose in the eleventh century, when William the Conqueror decided to punish the north for rebelling against him by burning half the north, including its fields and agricultural land. Arguably, the region's economy and population has never fully recovered.
Anyone who loves history will enjoy the book immensely. I certainly plan on reading it again and referring to it as a reference in the coming years.For the next two hundred years, the English monarchy was essentially an absolute one. Backed up by the full force of Norman militarism, William's successors were able to expand their empire and terrify their opponents. By the time William's great-grandson came to the throne as Henry II in 1154, the English crown ruled more of France than the French. Henry had an empire which stretched from England's border with Scotland to France's border with Spain. He had married the flamboyant Eleanor of Aquitaine (below), the greatest heiress of the century and all-round diva; through her he had gained control of the Aquitaine, the most economically prosperous and culturally advanced region in southern Europe. With such wealth and power, it was almost inevitable that England's crown would soon become the dominant power in the British Isles, too. And that expansion started when Henry II became involved in a squabble between the Irish kings of Connaught and Leinster, resulting in King Dermot of Leinster switching allegiance to England and making Henry II the new Lord of Ireland. To say that it was a controversial moment in British history is something of an understatement. (Read more.)
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