Book Review: A Tommy’s life in the Trenches: Private Fergus Mackain, William Mackain-Bremner, John Place.


Paperback: 128 pages

Publisher: Amberley Publishing (15 Oct. 2016)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1445658291

That moment when you’re under fire and you throw something to a pal in a neighbouring foxhole and it lands short. Nobody talks about that the awful decision between gnawing hunger and certain death that must then be made. Yet here in the tradition of the wipers times Private Fergus Mackain brings such moments of… “you know you’ve served in Flanders when” moments to a modern audience.

He could easily have been using Facebook or twitter, Hashtag, only Tommies will get this. The simple truths of Mackain’s comics are just one of the many surprisingly familiar themes that runs through this wonderful collection of wartime cartoons, drawn by a serving soldier.

Soldiers often cope with their lot through humour, and while it seems distasteful to make a joke out of the horror of war, just like sleeping and eating, the tommies of the Great War took their laughs where they could get them. Often it must be said, truth is to be found in what people can laugh at, rather than what makes them cry.

It’s not trivialising war, soldier humour is often dark, it’s not glorifying war, because it’s making fun of it. The soldiers aren’t the subject of ridicule here. And wether it is through tears, or laughter a vent for emotion is a much healthier expression in any age. Even in one where the men were so in control, the author’s only experience of witnessing open weeping was when a soldier let his newly cleaned rifle slip into a flooded trench.

No, ladies and gents, manly tears it seems were not as common on the western front as the movies would have us believe. Mackain was a trained commercial artist, and his artistic style reflects that training in this richly illustrated book. Evoking not just the trenches and the army, but popular illustration as well. Advertising or comic art like this was very common in the first portion of the 20th century, which is why, history buff and art lover alike should adore this collection of pictures and captions.

Finding out what tommies could laugh at gives a modern mind a very untrod path into the psychology of the Great War mind. No one wants to seem as if they are making merchandise by laughing at, or even with suffering, it would be a brave soul who would try to honestly bring this facet of the war to the fore. And I would hazard that the misery of the trenches will ensure that it never really happens.

Yet, there was laughter and comradeship in the Great War and those stuck in the same muddy, horrific boat needed these touches of humanity to get them through to another day. It’s a part of the WW1 experience that needs to be understood, and as always, the view of participant is the best way to present it

In this book we see a world gone by in many ways. I dare say it would make a superb Christmas gift for anyone interested in the western front, or the culture of the Great War. A pretty original stocking stuffer indeed. In short it’s just brilliant.


Book Review: Henry III son of Magna Carta By Matthew Lewis.


Hardcover: 304 pages

Publisher: Amberley Publishing (15 Oct. 2016)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1445653575

Appearance and handling:

Amberley has been producing some nice looking books this year. Henry III son of Magna Carta is a manageable length to read and a nice looking book to have. It’s light to hold and can take some abuse… (FYI no I don’t abuse books to see how much punishment they can take). The hardback has a classy frontispiece, a big gold crown gleaming against a moody backdrop and the title neatly fitted beneath. Inside there is one picture section with many author photographs of the usual medieval type, castles, abbeys carvings etc, but also a few reenactment snaps of the Lewes anniversary event. The pictures are full colour.


Let no one say that words are powerless when they are protected by men of violence. It is often bandied about that Magna Carta is the most important document in English, history, it being the closest thing to a written constitution that the country ever got. But actually it’s importance lies in the new dynamic it brought to politics in England during the 13th century.
It might also be said that the man who originally signed Magna Carta was one of the worst Kings ever to sit on he throne of England. John, however had the charter forced upon him and he repealed it as soon as he could, but the damage was done. The sons of Henry II, the so called Devil’s brood, left increasingly troublesome inheritances to their successors. Richard I left a militarily secure but bankrupt kingdom to his brother John, who’s lack of military talent left a destabilised and even more bankrupt nation to his son, Henry III, who was also left the legacy of Magna Carta.
This charter would remain a millstone around the neck of the new King for his entire life. It was the sign under which he was born, he might as well have been swaddled by it, and then had it sewn into the canopy of his bed, the way it haunted his rule.

Henry came to the throne as a boy. He needed protection, for the Barons were still in open revolt, championed by Prince Louis of France, whose armies controlled most of the south east. The loyal Barons, who were the principle benefactors of the charter, repealed by John were thus given a great chance to exert influence over the new King.
Henry’s aged Guardian was the formidable William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke, the forgotten knight of knight’s who has now been returned to his rightful place amongst the heroes of the English nation. This loyal and invincible man, a rock throughout the reigns of Henry, Richard and John had shaped England as much as any king, he having been one of the guiding forces of the Magna Carta. He played a important role in Henry’s early years. But it was a double edged sword. For Marshal looked to the best interests of England rather than the King alone. Not only did he defend his kingdom, and indeed win it back for Henry, but in order to quiet the rebel Barons and take away their motive to oppose the Royalists, he reissued Magna Carta in Henry’s name.

Matthew Lewis presents the life of Henry III as one obviously shaped by those who would control him and one that was never far away from the influence of the Magna Carta. The Barons thereafter would use the document as both shield and sword to keep the king in line. And which wise kings could manipulate vice versa. However as an adult Henry had inherited some of the traits of his father, and was unable to avoid some of the mistakes he had made. During his reign the Barons were able to squeeze more charters from the crown, the Provisions of Oxford and the Charter of the forest. (The forest thing is a big deal as any fan of Robin Hood will know). And from out of these years of to and fro, came a man who would define Henry’s reign still further. Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leister.

Originally a royal favourite de Montfort filled the space left by Marshal amongst the baronial elite. Though without the former’s generally admirable traits. When tensions over royal power spilled into open war, Montfort, leading a triumvirate, crushed the royal army at Evesham, and ruled in the manner of a republic, only to realise that the though the King could not rule without the Barons and the charter, the nation could not function without the writ of the King. The next year, Henry’s capable son, Edward I, utterly destroyed the rebel Barons at Lewes and Montfort was among the dead. This however was not before the monarch had learned the hard way that the Barons and Magna Carta were not to be trifled with and a new form of kingship had to be adopted.

The author points out that de Montfort was not quite the reforming champion of democracy that legend would have us think. He accidentally championed non royal prerogative in his bid to keep power over the King. The legacy of the charter’s effect on the divine right of Kings would maybe never again loom so large, but it runs right the way down to when the people, (who had at first been lead by influential nobles with motives not unlike their 13th century predecessors,) in the guise of Oliver Cromwell, used it as leverage and cited it as cause to try King Charles I for treason.

However those who think that by these tumultuous events Henry’s reign was unsettled will also find that most reigns were unsettled in the medieval age, and the middle portion of Henry’s reign saw a great settlement as opposed to say that of his father’s reign. Henry was a great builder, he was also a fairly decent foreign diplomat, being quite chummy with the Scots and the French, nevertheless his greatest legacy has left in stone and paper. Without Henry Magna Carta might well have just ended up another forgotten royal decree. It is in large due to his long and, relatively settled time on the throne that his son, Edward I, was able to restore it to a platform from which the kingdom would grow. By the time of his grandson, Edward III, a golden age would dawn over England. Indeed The reign of Henry III was a watershed, marking perhaps the end of the beginning of the tortured Plantagenet genesis.

I take this to be a “life” rather than a biography of Henry III. But this is not so say that his personality escapes us. His long reign offers the author plenty to speculate about in regards to motive. And indeed there is topical meat for parallel seekers to dine out on. For Henry was beset by the type of faction and backbiting that tended to haunt long reigns. We see a great distrust of foreigners as a flashpoint for dissent, wether it be Roman prelates or palace Cliques of foreigners attached to the queen vying to control the King. Henry was one of those unfortunate rulers who was seemingly doomed to come under the influence of other people. From the relatively benign auspices of William Marshal and the Barons, to essentially becoming a ward of the church, and then falling under the spell of his wife’s hangers on before finally being captured by de Montfort and being used as a sort of puppet before being rescued by his son, who then proceeded to run the show, Henry was not always master of his own destiny.

In that sense he is rather similar to another later King Henry VI, whose regency brought about the cataclysmic series of dynastic civil wars now known as the Wars of the Roses. All in all a fascinating man to investigate in whose fairly anonymous shadow live some of the most famous names of English history. Matthew Lewis offers a broad, and thoughtful look at a man whose reign, while perhaps not being dazzling as others, was certainly pivotal in the life of England.


Book Review: Verdun 1916 by William F. Buckingham.


Hardcover: 336 pages
Publisher: Amberley Publishing (15 Jan. 2016)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1445641089

If insanity really is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different results, then the combat decisions of allot of ww1 generals just became much clearer.
Yet with each throw of the dice they really felt that throwing slight variations of the exact same ingredients, in ever increasing numbers into exactly the same pot they would break the deadlock. The Verdun campaign was the German High Command’s recipe to break through the allied frontline on the western front by bleeding France dry, and ideally take Verdun and then Paris.
To do this they utilised an array of innovations, such as flame throwers, mines, ridiculously large calibre guns and storm troopers, but deployed them with a distinct lack of imagination.
Meanwhile the entire French strategy was unintentionally designed to allow the Germans to cause maximum casualties. France had never gotten over being defeated in the Franco Prussian War. And most of the time between 1871 and 1914 was spent making sure it never happened again. Modern Artillery was invested in, modern forts built along the eastern frontier and a new tactical doctrine adopted.
Bamboozled by supposedly stolid Prussians attacking audaciously in 1870, the French drilled into their officers and men a reliance on bold, offensive attacks. No matter how small the unit, once it found itself in contact with the enemy they were to attack it. Old Rosalie, the nickname for the French bayonet, and their famed red trousers would do for the Germans this time around.

Having planned to win a war in 1870, rather than one in 1914, the French were instantly taking monstrous casualties. And in 1916 the Germans unleashed a nightmare. Three Korps worth attacking a front held by just one, concentrating a record number of guns on sectors sometimes not in excess of one mile in length, the first engagements of the battle of Verdun saw the French on the verge of utter collapse. And indeed the French were willing to bleed themselves dry to stop it. And under the weight of hundred of thousands of French corpses, the attack faltered before Verdun. New French generals, like Petain were assigned to stabilise the situation and slowly but surely France dug in her heels and the battle became an almighty slogging match with a life of its own.
In the end though, for all her courage and ability to sustain punishment, France was probably saved by events in Eastern Europe. As the Brusilov offensive crumpled the Austrians in the most decisive and successful offensive of the First World War, turning German eyes east.

Books in English about foreign subjects aren’t all that common. There aren’t that many people with the requisite academic and linguistic skills to present a book about France and Germany. That’s why William Buckingham’s book is good, there’s hardly a mention of the British in this book. And it provides an engrossing, if harrowing overview of the costliest battle of the First World War. Highlighting the French effort to the final victory over Germany, while not ignoring the Germans either.
In 19th century the Battle of Verdun would not have been called classified as just one battle, and indeed as with all ww1 actions it isn’t. Rather it was a conglomeration of battles and accordingly, each collision was costing casualties of sometimes of over 10,000 men. This is what was so sickening about the Great War. That battles rivalling the cost of some of the largest, most brutal clashes of the previous century were going on, again and again with little more than three days sometimes in between, merging together into one ghastly horror story. And worst of all nobody was asking to stop.

This well thought out and straightforward book gives a very good idea of what a World War One battle was, and why it was so terrible. Starting with an insightful summary of French tactical doctrine between 1871 and 1914, the book moves on to inspect most every aspect of what brought this battle about. Then delves into the different phases of the cataclysm, and shows us the different strategies that the two sides put into play to try and gain victory. The battle was a battle of firsts in a war that broke allot of records. Not least the amount of suffering two sides could dish out and take.

Yet as the author shows this horrific bloodbath really changed attitudes to war in France. Not to the generals, but to the men, who called the frontline the abattoir and bleated as sheep to the slaughter as they marched. By 1917 full scale mutiny was in the air, and who could blame them, as general after General sacrificed them in their thousands for seemingly no purpose. Enough was enough.

Verdun is an excellent book for showing why to paraphrase Shakespeare, “first they should have shot all the generals.”


Book Review: The Half Shilling Curate by Sarah Reay.


Hardcover: 200 pages
Publisher: Helion & Company Ltd (15 Oct. 2016)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 191109646X

This is a well produced book, with photographic grade paper and an attractive frontispiece. One might call it small but mighty.

Perhaps more so than many veterans, the thousands of Army Chaplains that served in WW1 didn’t want to draw attention to the part they played in the war effort. That is why it’s so important for people to take an interest in their story. Sarah Reay is a direct descendant of the man in this book, and she has spent four years researching his story. Filling in the blanks and tying up the loose ends to present a personal account of War and Faith. And of a man who aspired to the full measure of devotion that many gave.

To begin with let’s fill in a little background. The army chaplaincy as a department began during the Napoleonic wars, and from that time to the present have provided Chaplains, commonly known as padres, to the forces whether at home or on active service.
By WW1 the department was a well established part of the army, and like all the other branches, mobilised at the declaration of war. Although given the status and rank of officers, Chaplains were not properly soldiers in that did not bear arms, and back then at least, didn’t need to have undertaken formal military training, yet they were a vital part of the war effort. Padres did however have to show themselves, strong of mind and body, able to march and live rough, while not giving in to the soldierly vices that their flock were prone too.

Being officers and at the same time men of God set Padres apart, much like surgeons, whose skill set gave them different roles not traditionally associated with soldiering proper. Essentially, the Padres were there firstly to hold Divine Service on Sunday’s, see to the general spiritual wellbeing of the men, and bury them when they died. Essentially they didn’t have to muck in or indeed necessarily venture closer to no man’s land than the reserve trenches. Therefore when Wesleyan Methodist Chaplain Herbert Butler Cowl kept shouldering multiple rifles and equipment on 68 Brigade’s march to the front, he was immediately set apart from what many men saw as a typically aloof padre.

Cowl, one of the first Wesleyans in the ACD, found it easy to get along with people, and was determined to make himself useful outside of his duties as a padre and gain the respect of the men. He had a ready ear to hear troubles, wide, honest features that lent well to sermons, a confident voice in the pulpit and the mess and an athletic frame, weathered through a healthy love of the outdoors, which was often seen in the most advanced trenches. He volunteered to do his bit, and thankfully for posterity kept in regular contact with his family during his time in Flanders, which has allowed the present author to compile, edit and share his story during this centenary half decade. These missives are usually light, Herbert was hard man to keep down, and one gets the impression he was trying to keep the misery of war from home fires. He wrote lyrically and had a gift for setting a scene.

One would be tempted to call him unlucky, except that so many officers and men shared similar fates, his time at the front could almost be called typical. For outside of his calling, Herbert’s experience was not unlike many other ordinary men thrown into war. Setting out with high hopes, soon he was unable to stop admitting that the life of a soldier was grim. Sharing the vicissitudes that soldiers have experienced in trench warfare since before the Crimean war, Herbert soon started asking for practical things, and there it is an amusing thought to think he might have been squelching through the trenches in a pair of fishing waders had not fate intervened.

As he sat in a house, to the rear of the line, salivating over a tin of bully beef, the Germans began dropping a bombardment onto the British reserve sector. This was a common gunners tactic to disrupt supplies, they would often vary their discharges to catch convoys en route, therefore it was usually quiet in the rear. The bombardment landed right on top of Cowl’s billet. Herbert’s own recollections of being hit tug at your nerves. As he ran for the street, German Shells pummelled the house and road. With walls collapsing and shrapnel flying something hit him without his realising it. Suddenly he was falling yet he was unsure why until he heard people calling out that he’d been hit and that he was probably a goner.

The all too vivid recollection that a thumb sized piece of metal had pierced his jaw just below his ear and lodged roughly behind his tongue, is chilling. Yet amongst the horror, word spread to the line that Padre Cowl had been hit. As he was stretchered into an ambulance, Herbert looked out from his bandages to see the worried faces of many ordinary soldiers who had come to wish him luck. A lump formed when I read how upset they were when they realised that their brave young Padre could not speak to reassure them as he had done so many times before, and was driven away.

Miraculously Herbert survived his ghastly wound, and was shipped back to England. However, touching back on that unlucky streak of fate, he was carried aboard the Hospital ship Anglia. On the voyage home she struck a mine and went down within the hour. The ship was by all accounts a place of terror. Herbert saw a member of Queen Alexandra’s Nurses’ semi decapitated before his eyes, then the ship listed and water started to flood the compartments. Through his superb powers of relation, an image is conveyed not of his own courage, but that of the other nurses. “Fighting men to the deck!” Was the cry, Herbert remembered, and their selflessness is borne out by nurse Alice Meldrum, QAIMNS Reserve (whose story must be read elsewhere,) recalled:

“My first act was to fix a lifebelt on myself, feeling that I was then in a better position to help others. All sisters and orderlies did likewise, and the patients who were able to do so, were ordered to put on the lifebelts which every patient had under his pillow; the walking cases were ordered on deck. We immediately set about removing splints, for the obvious reason that if a patient with his legs in splints got into the sea, his body would go under while the splints would rise to the surface.”

Herbert however seemed to have been part of a much larger, master plan. For as Anglia sank, although wounded himself for the second time, he swam to the rescue of many floundering wounded, survived himself and was awarded the Military Cross for his bravery.
His story didn’t stop with the cessation of hostilities, for he would experience the home front during the next war as well, but his services as a frontline Padre were never again called upon.

The story of the Half Shilling Curate is one that opens both door and window to the vital role played by Chaplains in keeping up morale during WW1. It is also a tribute to a good and courageous individual. It is utterly original, splendidly edited and well annotated, we see the man and the mission, the attitude of that generation to privation and injury, and the cost, which might have broken a soul that did not have Herbert Cowl’s faith.

It is a story of many interesting turns, all told with Herbert’s personal writings as a guide, and illustrated by many excellent period photographs. Yet perhaps I will remember it best for the simplicity of an early war scene, behind the lines. A doctor and Chaplain, sitting in the twilight of a French evening, smoking and exchanging ideas and thoughts, while the searchlights played on the horizon and the angry voice of war spoke in the distance, heralding what was to come.


Book Review: King Cnut by W.B. Bartlett



Hardcover: 336 pages

Publisher: Amberley Publishing (15 Oct. 2016)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1445645874

It is probably true when W.B. Bartlett asserts that British people are only conscious of having been invaded successfully twice. Once in AD 44, the second in 1066. However in the winter of 1016 after many years of war a foreigner was crowned King of England by right of conquest. His name was Cnut.
As it turns out the seeds of the Norman conquest of England were sown nearly 60 or more years beforehand. Kings taking thrones by force, the distancing of the English church from Rome, early ties between the Saxon kingdom to Normandy all had their genesis during the lifetime of one of England’s great forgotten kings. The legacy of the collective Scandinavian presence in Britain, of which he was part, is still with us to this day.
This was a time of strong men, who had the surnames to prove it. Although after the reign of Alfred, Saxon England flourished under kings like Æthlestan an Edgar, by the late 10th century she was once more being ravaged by foreign raiders. It fell to the famously unready hands of King Æthelred to defend the kingdom, but though he wasn’t the moron of legend, the best he managed to do was to institute what became known as Danegeld. Yet eventually his arch enemy Sweyn Forkbeard toppled him and sent him into Norman exile, and when Sweyn died, their sons, Edmund Ironside and Cnut engaged in a duel to the death for the English throne.

In an age defined by names and deeds, it is striking to observe what people are known for at a distance of almost 1,000 years. Alfred is popularly remembered as the chap who burnt his cakes, Æthelred was unready, (though few people know why,) Harold Godwinson is remembered for a possibly apocryphal arrow in the eye at Hastings and King Cnut is remembered for getting his feet wet after the sea ignored him. Whole lifetimes defined by single images, yet each of them lived larger than life. Cnut was England’s first Danish King, a Viking. A term which could just be translated to “Baymen”. A man of piety, cunning, cruelty and ruthlessness.

That Cnut came out on top was never a given, as Bartlett convincingly shows, Cnut was not a gifted strategist, though he was courageous and wise, his military record leaves much to be desired. He appears from these pages a much more statesmanlike figure, bent on ruling a northern Christian empire, and woe betide the man who stepped in his way. For Cnut’s path to the throne was littered with the assassinated bodies of those who had opposed him. There is indeed something almost Machiavellian about how many foes or obstacles met their end shortly after angering Cnut, and yet concrete evidence implicating the King is always scarce.

Not only is it a fascinating glimpse at this legendary king, but it provides a look at pre Norman conquest England. When Cnut was born in Denmark, England was attempting to create a stable unified kingdom, while resisting the encroachments of what they called “Danes”, which is shorthand for Scandinavians, better known as Vikings, but in terms of Cnut, it does actually refer to Denmark. This was no easy prospect for “Saxon England” as it is termed to differentiate the Germanic-Celtic hybrid from the previous Romano-Celtic model. In a way it could be argued that the Danish conquest was a natural progression.

England was fractured by geography, north from south, and by religion. Christianity was now approaching a settled state in the country, but the old ways died hard. Paganism was still common on a basic level and a homogenous blend of new faith and old carried on in an uneasy partnership common when one religion replaces another. The Saxons would retain their pagan flirtations right down to the Norman conquest. The same was true of Scandinavia, in Denmark, Norway and Sweden Christianity was newer still. Most of the Kings of these kingdoms were new converts, and were founding churches and cozying up to the Pope, which gave legitimacy to a ruler and greater influence over his people, while the King could give protection to the church. These kingdoms, whose economies had been reliant for centuries on raiding each other, England and France, and selling their swords to the east, would be slower still to adopt to the ways of peace, which in the 10th and 11th centuries wasn’t always that peaceful.

England became so destabilised by its own backbiting and Viking incursions that the Danes eventually decided to take the whole place, which was achieved by Forkbeard, and then again with the death of Ironside. Cnut was a hard man, and it took time for him to become accepted in England, and indeed his status as a foreign invader never really left him. Yet what did occur in his reign was a sort of settlement. Every Saxon succession had been met with some kind of strife, and though the trend would continue, it would no longer involve open warfare. Viking invasions became much less of a problem, not only did Cnut prove quite adept at defeating raiders, but he also attempted a conquest of Denmark and Norway, so as to unite the countries in a sort of Northern empire.

As such, apart from the usual political scheming and dodgy deeds that had always been a part of Saxon politics, England was able to enjoy a decade of prosperity quite opposed to the hard times of Æthelred’s reign. After his ascension, Cnut was quick to appoint friends to important positions, but unlike William of Normandy, he looked for loyal Saxons to help him rule, while at the same time appointing his countrymen. More often than not however he ended up having to do away with most of them, for Saxons and Danes had a common inclination to plotting. By the end of his reign his most powerful supporters were the Saxon Earls of Mercia and Wessex, the latter a venomous wheeler dealer named Godwin. A master of realpolitik and assassinations, he would go on to play a large part in English history.

Cnut bolstered his conquest by throwing himself behind the church, making alliances with Normandy, attempting to exert his rule over Scandinavia and forcing King Malcom of Scotland to become a vassal. What he failed to do was provide a stable line of succession. According to laws printed in his own lifetime, to have a wife in what the Saxons called “The Danish fashion” IE without the blessing of the church, and with the option of taking more, was illegal. Highly ironic for a Dane who had such a wife, but who for the rest of his reign had sons with an official wife, none other than the former spouse of Æthelred, the Norman Queen Emma, aunt of the Duke of Normandy and mother of Edward the Confessor from the union with the unready ruler. When Cnut died his senior Danish-Norman sons obligingly also passed away in quick succession, leaving the throne essentially vacant for Edward the Confessor.

By this time the fabric of England had changed. It was no longer just Anglo Saxon, it was Anglo-Saxon-Dane. The Future King Harold II, he of the arrow at Hastings, and his brother’s were sons of Earl Godwin, whose wife was a Dane. Scandinavian names remain high in charters of English royal documents well into the Confessors reign. The English scene had changed even more since the days of Alfred and even before Edward’s attachment to Normandy, through his mother Emma and his several long exiles there, brought about early Norman influence in the south.

I think the author somewhat underestimates the time it took for the Normans to conquer England. Yet he can be forgiven for assuming the game was up at Hastings, where the majority of English (And indeed Danish) royal blood was spilt and the old order perished. But it would be more accurate to say that loyal English, continued resistance to Norman rule well into the 1070s. And it is so instructive as to mindset of these people, that after losing their King, they looked across the North Sea for salvation. And indeed it is so ironic that the mighty conquerer of Hastings was forced to resort to the tactics of the reviled Æthelred and offer a Danegeld to save his new realm from disaster, only a few years after winning the throne of England.

That William was able to legitimise this owes a great deal to Cnut’s reign and the legacy of the conquest of 1016. When he came to the throne, Cnut’s legitimacy came from his father Sweyn, who had taken Æthelred’s kingdom with the sword. Thus essentially reducing the contest down to trial by combat, with the winner obviously being God’s chosen king. So long as the claimant was a prince and even then that wasn’t so much an obstacle so long as the claimant was powerful (Godwinson being a case in point), it didn’t matter whether he was first son, second son or even originally English. Indeed after the Confessor died, the original line of Saxon kings, that of the house of Cerdic died out, to be replaced by the short lived Godwinson dynasty.
Bartlett weaves into the narrative the stories of many famed men who shaped England and Scandinavia, Harald Bluetooth, Olaf Tygvason, Cnut’s enemy St Olaf, the slippery and downright treacherous Eadric Streona, Uthred of Babbenburg, Earl Byrhtnoth, Throkill the Tall accompanied by a gallery of clerics and a scattering of important women. Familiar figures from the later invasion of 1066 crop up here and there, including Harald III of Norway, better known as Hardrada. Though I’ve always been sceptical of the description of his death attributed to going berserk and eschewing armour, but it’s a common enough interpretation. Names of great legend dot the book

The story curves from the dark days of Maldon, filling in backstory as we go, how the initial period of Danish conquest, the Danelaw, of the North had been washed away by Saxon paragons such as Alfred, Edgar and Edward the Martyr. So in many ways the wars of Sweyn and his son Cnut were a reconquest more than anything else. Striking in through the long conflict with Æthelred and Ironside, and by the time we are half way through the book we start getting to grips properly with Cnut, largely through the records preserved by the many churches he was patron of. A giant sweep of history that crashes out of the dark ages into the limelight.

Taking all of this into account, how should we view Cnut? His reign was inflicted upon England, whose people never really warmed to him. When he was gone they missed the stability he had brought, yet it would not be until a later century that people would consider him a great King. His masterful reorganisation of the nobility ensured that both English and Dane alike respected him and kept the peace during his lifetime. Yet his was a shortsighted reign. This was through no fault of his, as both his chosen sons died in their twenties and he also expired prematurely, but his statutes were only worth something when he was there to rule. Nevertheless this does, as the author points out, rank Cnut as indeed a Great King, for his own presence was what made things work and his success in achieving what no other “Viking” could, the total conquest of England, signals him out as someone to remember. Not least because he sought not to replace but to integrate, which had always been a stable of Scandinavian colonisation.

Cnut stands aside from the other Vikings in history. He was an example of the power of a Christian King to the Scandinavian Rulers who followed him. He did not quite come to steal kill and destroy, he came to rule, and this he did. Hardly the foreign enemy of fable that many would generally ascribe to a Viking King.
There is a particularly adroit passage concerning Skald poets towards the end of the book. By which time the stoic Cnut has emerged as a pious, cunning, generous and cruel man in fairly equal measure. Whose worth as a King was during his own lifetime and then as a beacon to much later generations looking back.
The line runs that the skalds “…made the lives of those who were dead to live once more”. I think that is a fair epithet for this biography of England’s great Scandinavian King. A life long greyed and dead, brought to life again.