18 04 2015


I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley
in exchange for an honest review.

1940 – Dunkirk, then the Battle of Britain. When the year opened, Chamberlain was still PM, by the time it closed Churchill had replaced him and appeasement was a dirty word.

This book is not of course aimed at the professional historian, but for the ordinary person who considers herself something of an expert on WW2 (as a result of her grandmother’s stories and, more recently, all the novels she has read set in that period!) it is an eye-opener.

I had never realised just how close Britain came to following France, “appeasing” Hitler, and allowing the invasion to take place uncontested. If Churchill had not taken the reins, that is exactly what would have happened. Throughout most of 1940, the appeasers (Chamberlain until his death in September, Halifax, Butler) kept talking to the Italians (and through them to Hitler) behind Churchill’s back. And meanwhile, on the other side of the ocean, Roosevelt was showing no interest in helping Britain, merely stipulating that if (and he meant “when”) Britain capitulated the British Navy should not be allowed to fall into the hands of the Germans. Churchill’s response to this was that no capitulation would ever occur under him, and that the appeasers who replaced him if things got too desperate would be seeking the best possible terms from the Germans so presumably the Navy would of course be handed over intact. In the end, it was Hitler who declared war on the US, not the other way about. (I never knew that!) If Hitler had limited himself to incorporating the whole of Europe, including the UK but excluding the USSR, into the Third Reich – which is what appeared to be his aim in 1940 when Britain, with the support of Canada and other countries of the British Empire, stood up to him and the Battle of Britain was fought, he might well have achieved this objective. But when the island nation of Britain with its powerful navy and its ring of radar stations proved almost impossible to either invade or bomb into submission, he turned his attention to the USSR. And the USA. Quite mad, of course. Worse than Napoleon, who lost half a million men in Russia before facing the inevitable (slow-but-sure!) response from across the Channel. At least the Germans don’t consider Hitler a national hero, as the French do Napoleon!

There are chapters, like the one recounting the sequence of events at Dunkirk, where the amount of detail seems unnecessary and I found myself skipping pages, but all in all, this was a very enjoyable and very memorable read.


THE NIGHTMARE DANCE by David Gilbertson

27 09 2014

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley
in exchange for an honest review. Thank you!

Nightmare DanceThis is not a work of fiction; nor is it strictly speaking history. It is an examination of the Holocaust, focusing in particular on Poland and the Warsaw Ghetto, Auschwitz and Treblinka.

The author starts by noting and condemning young people’s – and not only young people’s – ignorance of history in general, (“they don’t know what they they don’t know and therefore confidently believe they have a clear understanding of what went before”) and in particular of World War II and the Holocaust. He claims – and I believe him – that almost nobody knows – or cares! – what happened in Poland during WWII.

Let me quote: The torment of Poland and the Poles defies adequate description. There is a strong argument that popular historiography in the West, influenced as it was by Cold War prejudice, failed to properly inform generations of students born after 1945 about the true extent of Polish suffering. In the five and a half years between the German invasion in September 1939 and the liberation of Poland by Soviet forces in February 1945, 5,820,000 Poles and Polish Jews, almost all non-combatants, were murdered, worked to death, starved or consigned to the flames. The grisly total represented almost 25% of Poland’s 1939 population and far outstrips the sacrifice of any other nation on Earth during the war. […] The relationship between Poles and Jews during the German occupation, at community level, presents a picture of stark paradox. In Poland as a whole, less than one-tenth of the pre-war Jewish population survived – far less than in any other country in Europe – yet more ethnic Poles risked their lives to save Jews and were subsequently honoured for their sacrifice than in all the occupied territories together.

Why was this? It was because Hitler seriously believed that he was going to be able to incorporate Poland into the Third Reich. Indeed, that he already had. This was ethnic cleansing on the grand scale. The vast new territory was to be racially pure. The extermination camp at Treblinka, of which we hear almost nothing because there were almost no survivors to bear witness, processed (gassed and incinerated the bodies of) 10,000 people a day. 10,000 people a day, month after month, year after year. And that was just one camp! Auschwitz, Majdanek, Chelmno and others, were not far away.

Here is a map, to put you in the picture. (It is not from the book.)


Just look at that border …

David Gilbertson has put an enormous amount of work into this book. It is a book that everyone should read, but what with those who already “know it all” and those – the vast majority – who do not care, very few will. And so, inevitably, at some point in the not so distant future, history will repeat itself …

The Travels of Sir John Mandeville

21 06 2014

Mandeville cover 1This is one of the most influential travel books ever written. It was circulating in the mid-14th century, and by the year 1400 was “the most famous book in the world” and some version of it was available in every major European language. It was the only travel book in da Vinci’s extensive library, and Columbus had a copy of it with him on board the Santa María. Shakespeare, Milton and Keats, among many others, knew it and referred to it.

The author was an English knight who travelled from 1322-1356 and served (or claims to have served) with both the Sultan of Egypt and the Great Khan. Indeed, he claims to have “been there, done that” about everywhere and everything in the fourteenth-century world.

How much, though, is fact, and how much simply travellers’ tales and fantasy?

It has been suggested that “Mandeville’s longest journey was to the public library”, but this is unjust; a witty comment rather than realistic criticism. For a start, there were no public libraries. There were very few books at all, and most of those were theological works. Why is it that da Vinci – a great collector of books on every branch of human knowledge – possessed only this one travel book? To use sources was, of course, normal and expected – later travellers all borrowed freely from Mandeville – but there are many details in this work for which no known source can be cited. The fact seems to be that it started out as a pilgrim’s guide to the journey to the Holy Land: this guide constitutes the whole first half of the book, and his comments and ideas on the Holy Land are very unexpected and of great interest. He insists that the Christians are not worthy to possess the Holy Land, and also that many non-Christians are good people. “We know not whom God loves or whom He hates.” The thoughts not of a provincial hack pretending to have travelled but of one who has lived among the men and women he writes about.

And the rest of the book? Harder to judge. Judge for yourself when you read it. Either way, this is the authentic fourteenth-century world-view – and on that note, let me quote again from the Introduction: Mandeville’s insistence that had he found company and shipping he too could have girdled the entire globe (and it is, incidentally, a modern slander that the medievals believed the earth to be flat) played, with his discussion of the Pole star, some part in the dissemination of important geographical concepts and in preparing for the great voyages of the next century on which our world-view is partly based.

Here are two more covers I like:

Mandeville cover 2

Mandeville cover 3

If Mandeville himself simply wets your appetite, then you might enjoy Giles Milton’s The Riddle and the Knight: In Search of Sir John Mandeville, the World’s Greatest Traveller. Milton follows Mandeville’s trail in an attempt to discover whether he was really the world’s greatest traveller or only (though this too would be something) the world’s greatest liar

THE LAST KNIGHT by John F. Cantor

2 01 2013

Last Knight coverJohn of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, has been one of my favourite historical characters ever since I read (too many years ago!) Anya Seton’s 
Katherine, which tells the story of John and the mistress who in the end became his third wife and ancestor of the Tudors among others. It (Katherine) also paints an unforgettable picture of the second half of the fourteenth century from the Black Death to the deposition of Richard II, the time of Geoffrey Chaucer (who was married to Katherine’s sister), the wars in France (the Black Prince, who was John’s bother, and the Battles of Crecy and Poitiers) and the Peasants’ Revolt (during which John’s great house in London was burnt to the ground and Katherine narrowly escaped with her life); and I have noticed that most people who read it are, like me, hooked on that period for ever after.

It was a world [writes Norman F. Cantor] in which the Middle Ages were passing away and the Renaissance struggled to be born […] a world in transition, and Gaunt was its central figure.
The Last Knight can be thought of as the non-fiction version of Katherine, the background which was not easily available then. For example, John, who was he?
John of Gaunt was the second surviving son of King Edward III [but] he inherited the Lancaster title and fabulous properties not from his father but from his father-in-law, the first Duke of Lancaster, who died in 1663.

Dukes then, any Duke, were important people, as important as kings in their own lands, and Cantor explains all this in the best outline of the development of Dukes, Counts, Kings in France and England that I have ever read. It begins:The origins of the aristocracy of which John of Gaunt was a prime exemplar go back to the period between AD 800 and 1000 […] when the short-lived empire of Charlemagne, the Carolingian empire […] was disintegrating …

And John’s family, who were they? A masterly and often very funny outline of John’s ancestors which includes lines like “John of Gaunt was a direct descendant of a heathen Scandinavian chieftain named Rollo …” “Among Rollo’s successors, who were converted to Christianity and civilized by the Church, the most politically skillful was William the Bastard (later the Conqueror) ...” “King John was all business and showed himself to be an unusually skillful administrator, especially in financial matters. Unfortunately he was also paranoid and manic-depressive.” “Edward II was a bisexual, married to a fierce French princess. He spent his time losing Scotland, cultivating his male French lovers, and getting overthrown in a palace coup organized by the Queen and her aristocratic lover …” And so to Edward III, John of Gaunt’s father, who was, we are told, “a good-humored man ever trying to give his many sons and daughters a helping hand. He arranged John of Gaunt’s marriage with the Duchess of Lancaster.”
There is something about this book which is reminiscent of Barbara Tuchman’s
A Distant Mirror, a history of the same period but based on the life of  Enguerrand de Coucy VII, “the most experienced and skillful of all the knights of France” who lived from 1340 to 1397. He married the eldest daughter of Edward III of England, thus becoming John’s brother-in-law, and was Duke of Bedford for several years until he and the princess separated and he renounced his allegiance to the English Crown. The Last Knight is, however, nowhere near so ambitious, and, unless you have a lot of time on your hands, a far easier read. This may be partly because of Cantor’s style which is often so laconic we seem to be reading the preliminary notes not the finished work.
He is extremely good, though, on many aspects of John’s life, for instance Wyclif (whom John supported) and the Church, and on The Cloud of Unknowing and the Carmelites, whom John espoused when he stopped supporting Wyclif (and thereby delayed the Reformation, which could easily have happened then, for nearly 200 years).
I like too his comments on Scotland (“a nation of cattle rustlers and horse thieves“), on Cathedral Canons (“They lived a cloistered, segregated and selfish life, much like Ivy League professors today“) and medieval sex (“It is necessary to stress Gaunt’s free sexual behavior not only to round out our picture of the man, but to countervail recent views of the later Middle Ages as a dark time of sexual repression […] The moral regimen priests were urged to impose upon the laity was no more significant in Gaunt’s time than today“).
Entertaining and educational. Anyone interested in the Middle Ages (and that must include you) will enjoy reading it and then want to keep it handy as a reference book.



23 11 2011

This is the kind of biography which, if page after page of speculation is not to become indistinguishable from fiction (and I personally would almost always prefer to read a fictitious account of the life of a historical character), it must focus as much or more on the history of the place and period as on the subject of the biography, and this for the simple reason that very little is known about her.

” … like the majority of women in this period, her life went largely unrecorded.Chroniclers, including her grandson Gerald, tell us of her sons and their deeds, but they record nothing of Nest’s feelings or beliefs. Her story has to be pieced together from a patchwork of sources …

But Kari Maund does this successfully. She opens with a brief history of medieval Wales (“Nest’s Wales”) which is full of details it would be virtually impossible to find elsewhere. (Anyone thinking of writing a novel set in 11th-12th century Wales should start their background reading here!)

And what is more, she is refreshingly realistic about the place of women in Celtic society. So many modern writers, all of whom should know better and some of whom surely do, create a picture of a utopian world utterly destroyed by the male chauvinist Saxons and Normans. In fact, as Kari Maund observes in her Introduction (and maintains with examples throughout the book) “Despite popular modern myth, medieval Welsh women enjoyed little respect and scant freedom. Legally lifelong minors, they remained pawns in the hands of male kin, incapable of owning land and married off to suit changing political needs. Women in Anglo-Norman England enjoyed wider privileges, and Nest, the daughter of a king, probably found herself accorded an importance she had never experienced before.”

Legally lifelong minors“: I like that.

I liked the whole book. And I liked Nest, of whom I had never even heard before. As Kari makes clear, “the seductress of the English” was quite a lady. The daughter of a Welsh king; the mistress of the Norman English King Henry I (to whom she bore a son); wife of Gerald of Windsor (one of their grandsons was Geraldus Cambriensis, the great historian /chronicler); abducted by Owain ap Cadwgan, son of another Welsh king and leader of resistance against the Normans; later married again, and again, to other Norman lords, who all sought her hand. And it can’t have been just her hand that made her so irresistible. It must have been, as George Harrison didn’t quite put it, something in the way she walked.  


6 09 2011

Let’s start with the title. First, the “of France”: true she was born in France, was “the daughter of the King of France and the Queen of Navarre,” and as such “a great prize in the marriage market: no queen of England before her had boasted such a pedigree.” But after her marriage she was very much the Queen of England, and there no evidence that her loyalties remained to France. On the contrary. Her father, Philip the Fair (IV) was, like the later Henry VIII of England, a brutal megalomaniac who in any other walk of life would have ended up on the scaffold or in the madhouse. Her life from the moment she arrived in England was no longer his to dictate.

And as for the words “She -Wolf”, the phrase “She-Wolf of France” was in fact, Alson Weir tells us, coined by Shakespeare (why am I not surprised?) but he used the words of Margaret of Anjou, wife of Henry VI; it was not until the eighteenth century that it was first applied, by the poet Thomas Gray, to Isabella. And – very unfairly – it stuck.

Isabella, as Alison Weir makes clear, was not a simple femme fatale, “one of the fairest ladies in the world,” “the fairest of the fair,” but a good queen. If it had not been for her infidelity she would be seen as a great queen, a liberator, for Edward II and his friends the Despensers were, by the time she organised the coup d’état, running what was certainly the worst example of tyranny in the history of England. To see what life was like under Edward and the Despensers, you have only to read one of Michael Jecks’ books such as The Mad Monk of Gidleigh or A Friar’s Bloodfeud. In modern times, that infidelity would not be held against her, especially when we consider that her husband was far more interested in his “friends” (Piers Gaveston, and later Hugh le Despenser) that he was in her.

The other problem is how and why – and if – and on whose orders Edward II was murdered following his deposition. In this book, “the Fieschi letter” is reproduced in full and the reader, as she considers Weir’s arguments for and against its authenticity and credibility, must make up her own mind whether Edward II in fact escaped and lived on, abroad. Personally, I am convinced that he did, and that it was not in his son’s interest to acknowledge his father’s continued – and shameful – existence when he finally learnt of it. I suspect that he felt only contempt for his father, and admiration for his mother, the lioness who had brought him up and made him king. He had to get rid of Mortimer, his mother’s lover and de facto ruler of England, but he never turned against Isabella.

Another wonderful biography from Alison Weir. I am proposing to read, next, her The Princes in the Tower – Edward IV’s sons Edward and Richard, two more who are said to have been murdered but rumoured to have survived.