Book Review: The Late Lord by Jacqueline Reiter.

Author: Jacqueline Reiter
Imprint: Pen & Sword History
Pages: 269
ISBN: 9781473856950
Published: 11th January 2017
Format: Hardback

https://www.pen-and-sword.co.uk/The-Late-Lord-Hardback/p/12682

a confident, elegantly written biography, rooted in iron clad fact… a much needed spotlight of unbiased scholarship to a fascinating and tragic life.Continue reading

Book Review: Arthur and the Kings of Britain By Miles Russell

ISBN: 9781445662749
Format: Hardback.
Length 336 Pages including full colour image section..
Published: 15 March 2017, Amberly.
https://www.amberley-books.com/arthur-and-the-kings-of-britain.html

Arthur and the Kings of Britain is principally about breaking a code. In the 12th Century a scholar named Geoffrey of Monmouth penned a book called Historia Regnum Brittaniae, the History of the Kings of Britain heretofore referred to as HRB. A mammoth compilation of names and events purporting to chronicle the rulers of the land all the way back to their Trojan roots.

Today they the HRB is sneered at by many writers and scholars who argue that it is just an impressive work of medieval propaganda designed to please Geoffrey’s Norman overlords. But perhaps it is merely that these learned folk have not broken the code. Hidden within the foreshadowing, bias and propaganda there are elements of ancient histories dating back to the 1st Century BC.

Miles Russell sets out to find out once and for all if the HRB, and other similar histories are indeed the load of hokum they are cracked up to be. He does not defend the HRB as a work of history. Instead he argues that it is full of hints and allusions that can help flesh out this obscure time in British history. In so doing might be the first expert to attempt to present a formulaic method of using what many consider as unreliable primary sources.

The first two chapters read like a masterclass in historical detective work. Using a sort of reverse filtration system, Russell shows the reader that by viewing the HRB in the spotlight of preceding chronicles and histories the truth behind the legend begins to gleam. By using earlier books like infra red lenses or the keys to a cypher, we can see what accords, and the unreliable padding gets stripped back to reveal something approaching plausible.

This is the methodology of the book, starting with Caesar and Nennius to name two, the HRB undergoes a rigorous reevaluation, convincingly showing that there is more to the work than meets the eye. It’s not therefore light reading, it is just as much historiography as it is history, and some of the theories put forward are supported by paper thin evidence. Yet it is thought provoking in even it’s most daring assertions.

An investigation of the list of Kings is essentially the aim, using the method of comparing previous chronicles, retellings and histories to find similarities and then compositing that with archeological evidence, especially names inscribed on coins. This allowes the author to surmise that Geoffrey of Monmouth, while skewing and garbling almost everything he touched, probably didn’t just get his information out of thin air.

In that sense it is a revealing glimpse into the medieval mindset as it is fascinating to read about the historical possibilities of HRB’s King list. Geoffrey of Monmouth for instance might well have appropriated the 1066 story, and projected it backwards onto a less significant but similar event. Something calculated to appeal to his Norman masters, and make sense to a 12th century mind. More queer, (apart from the whole Trojan thing) is the confident assertion of medieval writers that Rome did not conquer Britain.

The Romans had a simplified view of nations. The Britons therefore seem quite clear cut. Indeed it’s enlightening to read the possible relationship between the still independent Britons and the Romans between the great invasion of AD 43, not least how the empire changed the fabric of “British” life. Yet when the Saxons come things get complicated and it’s not because the Romans are now considered the good guys, (unless your a Pict), because although the Britons lived in what is now England, lowland Scotland & Wales, it was the invading Saxons who took the name English, and branded their indigenous Romano-British arch enemies “foreigners” or Welsh.

Medieval muddling, back projecting and massaging of facts into neat narratives are things not calculated to inspire much confidence, and to use any of the sources this book investigates without the aid of others, to break the code, would be a great mistake. Russell’s achievement here is to have convincingly argued that no source should be ignored because it appears flawed. Indeed much about the the HRB retold here makes plausible and well reasoned sense.

Now in such a work, it’s very hard to present an invincible narrative. I suspect critics of Geoffrey will have been quick to condemn assertions, and scoff, perhaps heartily at some of the interpretations. I myself always raise an eyebrow when I read about the Njnth Legion being wiped out by Boudicca, such as is briefly mentioned here, but no matter which parts one might disagree with, debates about how to read ancient documents are never ending, and Arthur and the Kings of Britain offers a new argument.

Interesting theories are posed. Saxon kings might have been in fact appropriated British warlords. To demonstrate what the author is asking us to consider, take the case of Aelle. Russell suggests that this King might actually be a reflection of a long lost part of the story of Ambrosius, which was adopted by the Saxons & changed for political ends. In this way the Author searches the ancient writings for coincidence & similarity, he finds surprising similarity in many stories leading him to postulate wether indeed they are one and the same.

And so to Arthur, who headlines the book but as is usually the case forms only a part of it. It seems uncharitable to refer to such a title as a lure, but we should remember that academics use Arthur as shorthand for the final decades of the Romano British kingdom. What of this mystery man? Well by know, having read how the writers of the various histories composited so much into well hammered narratives, it should come as no surprise that Russell Arrives at the decision that Arthur was a man of many parts but little reality, in so far as being an actual man. Rather he decides the man known as Arthur was in fact many men, representing almost a codified history in miniature of some of Britain’s greatest heroes

In his conclusion Russell highlights three facts, derived from this close study of these hitherto derided histories. First that they contain elements of demonstrable fact, second that Arthur cannot have existed, and third, the HRB contains aspects that are historically verifiable, all summing up to say that these should be regarded as respectable source material. And while some may not agree with everything here, this is a undeniably true assertion. With so little out there about the early history of Britain, can we afford to just throw away accounts that don’t fit modern academic standards?

In the end, though we might scoff at new movies and books that fantasies and twist history into different shapes, one does have to at some point shrug and point out, people have been hiding away ancient history in legends for a very long time, and this book proves it.

Josh.

Book Review: Warriors and Kings by Martin Wall.

ISBN: 9781445658438

Format: Hardback.
Length: 304 pages.
First Published: Amberley, 15 Feb 2017 .

https://www.amberley-books.com/warriors-and-kings.html

Anyone who is planning on going to see the new King Arthur movie is going to need to stock up on some serious pseudo Historical sunblock. Or treat the burns with some realistic reading post exposure to the washed out and grey epic’s highly stylised version of the King Arthur Legend. So when you leave the cinema, groping for some kind of reference, I have a few suggestions. The first is this history of Celtic Britain. Continue reading

Book Review and Discount Code: Isabella of Castile by Giles Tremlett

Published: 09-02-2017

Format: Hardback.
Edition: 1st Extent: 624
ISBN: 9781408853955
Imprint: Bloomsbury Publishing
Illustrations: 2×8 page colour inserts
RRP: £25.
http://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/isabella-of-castile-9781408853955/

Enter CASTILE25 at the checkout on bloomsbury.com to receive 25% off Isabella of Castile by Giles Tremlett

For its blend of grandeur, cruelty, drama and sheer unrepentant passion nothing can match the history of the Spanish Empire. And it all started with a young strawberry blond Castilian girl named Isabella. This wonderfully produced book will engross you to the very finish. Continue reading

Book Review: A British Lion in Zululand by William Wright.

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ISBN: 9781445665481
Format: Hardback 416 pages.
Publisher: Amberley, 15 Jan 2017.
https://www.amberley-books.com/coming-soon/a-british-lion-in-zululand.html

For most people the Zulu war begins and ends with its most famous battles, iSandlwana and Rorkes Drift. For the serious Zulu reader it ends 7 months later, after the battle of Ulundi. And for the deep student of African history it ends with the capture of Cetshwayo in August and the division of the Zulu kingdom. These latter qualifications just happen to coincide with the arrival in South Africa of Sir Garnet Wolseley.

He was the government’s colonial troubleshooter, and quite literally the model of a modern Major General. A straightforward professional whose trademark was well planned and orchestrated advances into tough territory and the reduction of the enemy in open battle. A careful and somewhat pompous soldier, it perhaps should have been no surprise that it would fall to to him to clean up the mess caused by Lord Chelmsford’s disastrous first invasion of Zululand. It was not to be so simple however, for by the time Sir Garnet got to Natal the last battle had been fought and won, and glory would prove an evasive prize for Sir Garnet. As such the majority of us see Wolesley as the eager saviour of British honour, racing to catch up with the army, grumbling about everything that had been done wrong along the way.

William Wright’s, A British Lion in Zululand sets out to flesh out Wolesley’s part in the war, and as an added bonus extends the focus of the book to his entire service in South Africa, including the little known Bapedi War. Although the idea of calling the foxy whiskered gentleman, Sir Garnet a lion brought a smile to my face, and a fear that this would be an syrupy, admiring ode to Britain’s most proficient imperial General, this turned out to be an engaging, well argued and well written account of end of the Zulu War and its aftermath.

It is undoubtedly pro Sir Garnet. I mention this because his failure to relieve Khartoum (which again was a mess made by others to which he was called late) left an indelible stain on an otherwise gleaming record. Up until know his actions in South Africa have also been viewed with a critical eye, and that is saying something when you consider the man he was superseding. Wright does his best to defend and contextualise Sir Garnet’s actions, giving him the benefit of the doubt where possible. Chelmsford’s petulant race to keep ahead of Sir Garnet and win a decisive battle is condemned for its short sightedness, as well it might. Wolsey is shown as vindicated in his assertions that Chelmsford only wanted to steal the wind from his sails and blot out the stain of iSandlwana. In this he was entirely successful, however he would never command again.

Sir Garnet was happiest by the side of a river, much preferring this mode of transport to road travel for his supplies. As he tried to catch up with the main column he complained about everything, and would probably have preferred to pull back once more and invade a third time rather than try and wrestle some sense out of Chelmsford’s slap dash car wreck. As it was, Wolesley was left with the tough task of “settling Zululand”, and capturing or killing the Zulu King, Cetshwayo. In the first he failed utterly, but in the second was successful. The author mounts no defence for his curious decision to split the country into segments, although he does indicate the architect of the scheme was Shepstone, rather than Wolsley.

The book feels like a part of a biography, beginning with Wolesy’s appointment as Governor of Cyprus, which offers a very interesting glimpse of British affairs in the Mediterranean at the time. Throughout the author maintains a biographical focus on its main protagonist, always attempting to explain the actions of Sir Garnet. Diversions occur when it is necessary to explain what is happening in depth, and very vivid accounts of the decisive battles are provided, not to mention the fine descriptions of all operations overseen by Wolesley himself.

Amongst the most interesting things we find along the way is how the British tried to blame the Zulu War on John Dunn, who for his part Wolesly felt would be an excellent ally in the settling of Zululand. Yet many thought he had armed the Zulus with guns and this had lead to war. Rather than the conniving machinations of Sir Bartle Frere. It stresses that the British government did not want a Zulu war, yet! For while the invasion was roundly condemned, it was done so (outside of those actually in sympathy with the Zulus), from the standpoint tha a Zulu war was inevitable sometime in the future but not now. Wolesley thought so, and in terms of morality was only sorry that Chelmsford had been such a thick-head in underestimating the enemy.

So while the beginning may not offer much new to the seasoned Zulu campaigner, except some insight in the form of Wolesley’s correspondence, which serves as bedrock for this work, and better detail regarding what is usually an afterthought. What makes the book shine is the chapters about the settling of Zululand and the Bapedi War, a conflict which is practically unknown (even on the internet, I checked.) and yet is highly interesting in terms of a colonial campaign. Here the author is digging into fresh ground, and walking a trail less trod. This small but savage conflict, which exploited tribal rivalries between the Bapedi and the Swazi  and ironically removed a great check to Boer supremacy, is usually completely overshadowed by the Zulu War. Wether or not as some of the participants said, it made it’s more famous predecessor look silly is a matter of debate, but no one  reading the chapter on the “Fighting Kopje” will deny that it was an supremely tough campaign and a singularly dirty affair.

Filled with fine word picture studies, and told with a feeling and sympathy for the time and subject, the author has included excerpts from letters and journals with an unnerring eye for atmosphere. Will there ever be a better description of a bagpipe in action than when hailed as the very “breath of battle?”, and the singular nature of fighting in the Lulu mountains will astound readers when they read of magnetised rocks dancing along behind the wagon wheels of the invading force. A British Lion in Zululand is a excellent and welcome addition to our knowledge of, British military and South African history, and a very enjoyable read.

Josh