When I was young – pre-teen I think – I was introduced to historical fiction by my Mum in the form of the works of Jean Plaidy. I read stories about the Empress Matilda, Mary Queen of Scots, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Elizabeth I and Victoria and Mum still reckons one her proudest moments was when I came to her with my discovery that they all came in a particular order. That Matilda (and Steven) came before Eleanor and that Elizabeth I reigned before Victoria was something I worked out for myself from the stories. It is something which seems so obvious now after seven years of dedicated history lessons at school – not to mention nearly forty years of historical fiction reading and numerous tv series from David Starkey, Helen Castor, Neil Oliver and others – but at that age working out that there is a chronology and an order to events in history seemed an achievement. The subject has often in the past been taught in a piecemeal manner – Vikings followed by Tudors followed by the Victorians and then back to Romans – although recent curriculum changes mean that a chronological approach is now used. I don’t often say Gove was right but in this case he may have had a point…
Recently I have been following an online course on Richard III and that has given me another revelation on the complete interconnectedness of events in history. The Black Death was a contributing factor to the Peasant’s Revolt. Which meant, in turn, that the armies which followed Henry V to Agincourt were largely free men being paid for their service rather than vassals of the Lords they served under. And then, of course, Henry V’s early death eventually led into the Wars of the Roses and the rise of the Tudors….It almost seems, at times, as if Dirk Gently was right – it’s a wonder historians aren’t a lot richer (but they could be if Dirk was in charge of the billing!)
Which leads me on to the actual history books I have been reading. Both are by Juliet Barker, a historian born in Yorkshire and still living here, and both shed new light on historical events which we tend to think we know about. And yet, it turns out that many of these ‘facts’ are the kind of thing that could lead to klaxons and minus points if they came up on QI. Luckily, Barker provides lots of background and explanation for why what we thought we knew we were wrong about and fleshes out her history with plenty of personal details for many of the people involved. Her style is really readable but there are lots and lots of lovely footnotes if you really want to lose yourself in the period.
Let us take Agincourt as an example. We all know that the British won at Agincourt because our archers were so deadly they killed the French men-at-arms with their hails of arrows – and we are all wrong. apparently, although the archers were instrumental in ensuring that the French army was not as effective as the English and the French casualties were much, much higher than the English the majority of them occurred during vicious hand to hand combat. However, to compensate for the loss of that ‘fact’ we learn a huge amount about how and why Henry V fought the campaign. It certainly seems an added tragedy that Henry V died relatively young – he was, it seems, a fine king who combined being a soldier and a diplomat with a strong grasp of what was necessary in terms of politics and finance. He took the responsibilities of Kingship very seriously and seemed to make sure that this attitude was passed down the hierarchical line. He appears to have tried to ensure that he had the support of everyone – the nobility, the people and the church – before he went to war and this seems to be a lesson which many in the modern age are still to learn.
England, Arise, on the other hand, is Barker’s look at the so-called Peasant’s Revolt of 1381. Which was the work of men and women from all walks of life – merchants, gentlemen and even MPs – rather than a ‘working-class’ uprising, which shed very little blood (but destroyed a large amount of documents and property), and which was probably not necessarily led by Wat Tyler, Jack Straw and John Balle. We do end up with some really interesting speculation about Richard II – he was very young but seemed to be willing to compromise on many of the people’s demands and was only deterred by the older men around him. It is fascinating to think that if he had been just a little older and more in charge of his own rule, if the revolt had taken place just a few years later, the social structure of English society could have been radically altered.
Finally this took me back to my reading of Josephine Tey’s Daughter of Time. This was a book which many of the people on the online Richard III course I took recommended everyone to read – particularly the Ricardians who saw it as correcting the lies told by the Tudors about the king they defeated at Bosworth – so I thought I should give it a go. In many ways they were right to recommend it as it is an interestingly written crime novel with a typically maverick detective and a mystery which needs solving. In terms of the historical mystery – why is there such a contrast between what we know of Richard’s evil reputation and our instinctive reaction to his face? – the solution given is a little too easy and seems to involve some slightly dubious facts but I still enjoyed reading the book. Mostly because it made me think about history itself and how we read and write about it. It seems to me that we need to be constantly reminding ourselves that history is almost always dealing with assumptions and that facts can be open to interpretation.