Tag Archives: Medieval history

Summer of Blood by Dan Jones

(Review by Scott Daly)

A 3-word review on the front of this book reads like this: ‘Bold. Surprising. Unputdownable’. Within that trio the one I would most agree with is ‘Surprising’. You see, I was most motivated to buy and read this book by my lack of knowledge of this subject. Of course, I knew the famous names involved: Wat Tyler, John Ball, and the boy King Richard II, but as far as the actual events surrounding the Peasants Revolt of 1381, my expertise was decidedly limited.

I think one of the problems people have when revisiting the Peasants Revolt is the connotations that the term ‘Peasants Revolt’ incurs. It’s extremely easy to think of illiterate countryside yokels banding together in an ill-planned march on London equipped with burning pitchforks and agricultural instruments as weapons. However, upon reading Dan Jones’s Summer of Blood, I found that most of my pre-conceived notions of this historical incident were ultimately subverted. The ‘Peasants’ of 1381 from Kent and Essex were in Medieval terms fairly affluent. Although little is known of Wat Tyler now, he was clearly a talented general with a flair for focusing the anger of the mob. John Ball, his ‘partner in crime’ as it were, was an egalitarian preacher who was somewhat of a thorn in the side of the church establishment. Egalitarian?! Do the words ‘medieval’ and ‘egalitarian’ ever go together in the same sentence? It’s also extremely surprising to read about how the mob of 1381 went about targeting the perceived wrongdoers in the highest echelons of society. The real figure of hate was John of Gaunt, who was effectively the ruler of England during King Richard II’s minority. At all times during the revolt, the rebels were actually outwardly loyal to the young King. They were more concerned with removing men like Gaunt and the Archbishop of Canterbury Simon Sudbury from the positions of power they enjoyed during the Kings minority. Sudbury was beheaded in the Tower of London, and John of Gaunt’s great Savoy Palace was burned after the rebels entered London.

Where this book really succeeds is in the way it delivers the narrative of the events during the Summer of Blood. Unusually for a book in the popular history genre, Jones uses very short chapters, which serves to really drive the story along at a ferocious pace. This also really brought home to me just how quickly the crisis spiralled out of control for the Royal party, and just how close the rebels came to effecting a dramatic upheaval of English society. It’s also probably fair to say that the events of The Peasants Revolt do lend themselves rather well to this type of historical writing. The meeting between the King and the rebels at Smithfield is the stuff of legend, and its dramatic resolution almost unbelievable. However, whilst helping to quicken the pace of the narrative, the shortness of the chapters leaves the book as a whole feeling a little light. I personally felt it could have been at least 50 pages longer, which would have helped to embellish the causes and consequences of the revolt with more details and explanations.

In the end though, it’s appropriate to end this review in this way: The Peasants of 1381 were protesting against a poll tax levied by the rich who were in control of government and wanted the poor people of the country to bear the brunt of it. Are we basically living in the same type of society today as the peasants were 600 years ago?

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A Great and Terrible King: Edward I and the Forging of Britain by Marc Morris

Review by Scott Daly

For me, Edward I is one of the most misunderstood Kings in British History. The man known in his time as ‘Longshanks’, and who’s tomb in Westminster Abbey bears the inscription ‘Scottorum Malleus’ (Hammer of the Scots), has been given somewhat of a rough ride recently, largely thanks to a certain Hollywood film-maker. Marc Morris’s book A Great and Terrible King: Edward I and the Forging of Britain, seeks to cast Edward in a new light.

And on the whole, Morris succeeds brilliantly. From the onset its clear that a massive amount of research has gone into this book. Edwards early life and his role during Henry III’s power struggle with Simon de Montfort is exhaustively explained. In fact during the first two chapters of this book I found myself wondering whether this book was about Edward I or Simon de Montfort. But all this detailed exposition only serves to paint a tapestry of the medieval world in which Edward inherited his Kingdom, and how his early experiences under the reign of his father shaped his Kingship. Unlike Henry III, Edward I would not be dominated by his nobility.

And by the end of this book, the reader is left in no doubt that Edward was a true Medieval Colossus. By the time he ascended to the throne in 1272, he had already been on (an albeit unsuccessful) crusade, and right up until his last days he harboured ambitions of retaking Jerusalem. His wars with Wales and Scotland were bloody and brutal, and its easy to think of Edward as a Warmongerer, a kind of Medieval George W. Bush. But Morris manages to judge Edward purely by the standards of his time. What medieval King could have allowed such rebellious threats to exist and expect to reign securely?

My only criticism of this book is that while it is thoroughly detailed and researched, its a little light on historical anecdotes, the small stories from primary sources that really bring Medieval history to life. When they are to be found, they are brilliant. The gruesome end of Simon de Montfort for example, when he was killed by Edwards forces at Evesham his genitals were cut off, placed in his mouth and his severed head presented to his wife. Or upon handing over control of Scotland to his leuitenant after the first war of conquest, Edward remarked, ‘A man does good business, when he rids himself of a turd’. But I read Morris’s account of the English sack of Berwick in 1296 with frustration, for I didnt feel the true gruesomeness of the assualt was captured. Instead Morris argues that Edward ‘acted entirely in keeping with the traditions of Medieval Warfare’. The author seems to be fearful of being too revealing at this point, incase the audience should be alienated against Edward too much, and it’s a shame.

However, despite this minor gripe, I found this book to be a highly enjoyable, educational read, since there aren’t too many modern books out there about Edward I. I would suggest this is an essential read for any fan of Medieval History.

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Book of the Week – Azincourt by Bernard Cornwell

Azincourt - Bernard Cornwell

Bernard Cornwell is perhaps best known for his Sharpe series of Napoleonic, swashbuckling novels. And quite rightly too, in my opinion they are one of the best historical fiction series ever written. But Cornwell has far more strings to his bow, as this effort demonstrates. And the pun is intended.

Azincourt follows the exploits and adventures of Nicholas Hook, an English Archer taking part in the legendary Agincourt campaign in 1415. Azincourt takes the reader not only in the footsteps of Henry V and his Army during those fateful days, but also on a voyage of discovery in medieval England. As usual with Bernard Cornwell, a convincing and gripping storyline is supported admirably by evidence of deep and broad research. Fitting and appropriate use of contemporary language and imagery is the icing on this literary cake.

An easy trap to fall into would be to write yet another Sharpe novel and simply graft it into a different era, something that several authors have done in recent years. This will perhaps never have the readership of Sharpe, or Sean Bean playing Hook, but it is a worthy addition to any bookshelf all the same. Cornwell is clearly not a one trick pony.

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