Gimson’s Kings and Queens: Brief lives of the monarchs since 1066, Andrew Gimson, Square Peg, 2015, 256pp, £10.99 (hardback)

Penguin Monarchs, various authors, Penguin, 2015, 128pp, £10.99, (hardback): William II: The red king, John Gillingham, Stephen: The reign of anarchy, Carl Watkins

Why read history at all? Andrew Gimson’s sprightly canter through 40 reigns (plus an interregnum) in 1,000+ years raises the question pressingly. History upholds national identity and cultural cohesiveness; there are facts you are supposed to have at hand as a true Briton, such as a working knowledge of the more colourful British monarchs. If only recent immigrants would bone up on such things, goes the argument, they would settle in and be accepted much more readily. Learn our traditions, and cast off your rituals and headscarves! History, told in a certain way, promotes national myths and illusions of superiority; I imagine Agincourt, Trafalgar and Crécy do not merit much attention in the French school curriculum.

So perhaps the question isn’t just why read history, but what sort of history should be read – and how can history be defined? Gimson’s book bears a jokey subtitle: ‘Being an account of every sovereign from William I to Elizabeth II, including several details one would like to know but may have forgotten, such as where the butt of Malmsey comes in, followed by a short account of why the monarchy has lasted for so long’. This recalls the celebrated definition set forth in Seller and Yeatman’s satire 1066 and All That: ‘History is not what you thought. It is what you can remember. … This is the only Memorable History of England, because all the History you can remember is in this book, which is the result of years of research in golf-clubs, gun-rooms, green rooms, etc.’ Gimson cites this celebrated spoof in his introduction, with the melancholy observation that ‘the running joke in that classic, namely that everything is misremembered, is not quite so funny now that most of us were never made to learn these things in the first place’.

A general hankering for the days of being ‘made to learn these things’ hangs over a certain sector of the publishing industry, with the regular appearance of books with titles such as ‘I Used to Know That’ or ‘Home- work for Grown Ups’, in which readers of a certain age can re-acquaint themselves with nuggets of traditional education. Gimson presents brevity as a virtue and a guiding principle: ‘there is … a kind of liberation in deciding not to try and say everything’. His book was presumably published to coincide with Elizabeth II passing the mark set by Queen Victoria as longest-reigning monarch. With this, and perhaps also the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta in mind, Penguin is also rolling out a series of short, scholarly books, one per reign. But a quick comparison shows a radically different approach to the task.

Take William II for example. Research in golf clubs and gun-rooms, etc, might well glean the story of the son of William the Conquerer who was killed by a stray arrow when out hunting. Gimson’s less than two pages gives us a red-faced, yellow-haired king who never married and ‘preferred attractive young male courtiers with fashionably pointed shoes who wore their hair long’. He is ‘brutal and belligerent’, ‘intolerably greedy’ and ‘on appallingly bad terms with just about everyone’. No wonder Gimson concludes that ‘he was murdered (or just possibly killed by accident)’. But in William II: The red king, John Gillingham comes to very different conclusions.

Gillingham too quotes 1066 and All That in his opening remarks: ‘This monarch was always very angry and red in the face and was therefore un- popular, so that his death was a Good Thing: it occurred in the following Memorable way. Rufus was hunting one day in the New Forest…’ Over- shadowed by his mighty father, our second Norman ruler barely comes into focus in most accounts, says Gillingham. ‘Only the mystery of Rufus’s death – was it a hunting accident, assassination or ritual killing? – brings him suddenly and brie y into a narrow shaft of light’. And that’s precisely where Gimson leaves him; it’s up to Gillingham to probe a little further into the darkness surrounding this king.

As the reference to Sellars and Yeatman shows, these short histories (‘William II’ comes in at just under 100 close-printed pages, plus notes) are not without light relief. There is even an amusing picture caption: ‘Whereas most kings of England used oaths such as “By God’s teeth” or “eyes”, Rufus preferred – God only knows why – “By the face of Lucca”. The Holy Face was a life-size crucifix in Lucca Cathedral’. William Rufus sounds more fun already.

The choice of sources is always key, of course, but especially crucial for reigns where there is little written evidence. There are very few remaining records about William Rufus’s reign, and as he clashed constantly with the church, his bad reputation is largely due to the fact that the official histories were written by vengeful monks. Gillingham makes the point that Rufus was harshly criticised for acts and attitudes that were not unique to him; for example, he didn’t fulfill his coronation promises, but then neither did his successor, Henry I.

As Gillingham makes clear, his reign may have been short but it was eventful, and William had to tackle many challenges. ‘Few kings of England have faced a more testing legacy’; not least the stormy relationship with his brothers, Robert Duke of Normandy and Henry. There was also unrest in Scotland and Wales, and the continuing threat posed by Scandinavia. ‘No one had been told that the Viking Age was over’. Gillingham paints a picture of a rough, hearty soldier king, known for informality and laughter, and counters that his unmarried state is no proof of homosexuality, since ‘kings’ sons, unless pushed into marriage at a young age by their fathers, commonly delayed it until facing a political crisis in which a wife might be useful’. There is no evidence to suggest that William was gay: ‘Too many historians… have simply inherited a lurid tradition and embellished it’.

As for the assassination theory, Gillingham asserts that there is not enough evidence, and makes the point that Henry I seems to have lived in greater fear of assassination than his brother, sleeping in a different place every night with a sword and shield close at hand. ‘One of Henry’s own daughters shot at him with a crossbow after he had mutilated her children’. With brothers like that, it’s remarkable that it was William II who went down in history as the bad guy.

Stephen merits even less space than Rufus in Gimson, though he gets a more favourable character assessment: ‘he was in some respects an admirable knight: brave, straightforward, charming and popular’. Carl Watkins finds a certain amount of military intelligence to commend in Stephen, and admirably summarises the descent into chaos prompted by the skirmishes with his rival claimant to the throne, Matilda. History lost its neat shape as the pair scrambled for supremacy: ‘Chance and mischance characterised these years’. Watkins also has room to record another extraordinary Matilda, Stephen’s enterprising and effective queen. The Empress Matilda (she had been married to the Holy Roman Emperor), by contrast, put forth a ‘front of iron’ to show she was capable of ruling alone, without a husband.

Another reason to read history, of course, is that it entertains as well as instructs. The Penguin Monarch authors have much to do in a small compass and need to remain serious, but they write elegantly and succinctly. Gimson, with his more idiosyncratic brief, indulges in sharp asides and witty observations. Of Edward II’s favourite, he says dryly, ‘[Piers] Gaveston has exercised a fascination over ill-mannered, licentious youth which endures to this day. At Oxford University, a society of dissolute or would-be dis- solute undergraduates is named after him’. Of the Crusades, he notes that ‘in those days, Christians might slay the infidel with as little remorse as Islamic State now shows’. Geoffrey Chaucer received from his king ‘exactly the encouragement an author needs, namely “a gallon of wine daily for the rest of his life”.’And I liked his assessment of the ill-fated James II’s standing army: ‘He replaced its officers with Roman Catholics, of whom he could not find enough in England, so he sent to Ireland for more’. What could possibly go wrong?

Despite the over owing of Diana-like emotion over the recent discovery and re-burial of Richard III, Gimson has no time for namby-pamby revisionism. He paints a portrait of an outmanoeuvred king, reduced to his last retainers, unpopular despite his passing of just laws: ‘Juries were to be free from pressure, bail would be granted to arrested men’. But still the people jeered: ‘The Cat, the Rat / And Lovell our Dog / Rulen all England / Under an Hog,’ ie William Catesby, Sir Richard Ratcliffe and Francis Lovell, the Hog being Richard with his symbol of the blue boar.

When it comes to the Civil War, Gimson quite rightly falls back on Sellar and Yeatman’s immortal summation of that crisis: the Cavaliers being Wrong but Wromantic, the Roundheads Right and Repulsive. His portrayal of Charles I is sombre and respectful, noting that his equestrian statue in Trafalgar Square, which points to the scene of his execution, is often ‘adorned with flowers’.

The monarchs gradually turn into recognisable characters as history marches on, records become fuller, and Gimson’s entries become longer. The medieval kings are too easily reducible to their bare ‘memorable facts’; by the time we reach someone like William IV, the bluff sailor king becomes someone we could almost recognise in the street. He signed a backlog of 48,000 state papers left by his indolent brother George IV and dealt intelligently with parliament. A tear came to my eye when I read of his remark to his doctor when dying: ‘I know I am going, but I should like to see another anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo. Try if you cannot to tinker me up to last out that day’. He died two days after the anniversary.

Another traditional reason to read history is in order to win at pub quizzes. Gimson is your man if, without too much pain and effort, you wish to find out who were the burghers of Calais, who died of a surfeit of lampreys, where the butt of Malmsey comes in, and why the Jacobites liked to toast ‘the little gentleman in black velvet’. I was interested to learn, inter alia, that England’s famous bowmen all developed twisted spines due to the powerful forces archery training unleashed on their bodies, and that due to the powerful forces he unleashed on his own body, Edward VII made it chic to leave the bottom button of one’s waistcoat undone.

Whatever your reason for wanting to devour history, Gimson’s Kings and Queens is unfailingly entertaining and frequently moving. In addition, the monarchs are wonderfully caricatured in all their sneers and jowls by political cartoonist Martin Rowson. To rely on it as a failsafe guide to the intricacies of British history would be like staring at a road map rather than going anywhere; but it will organise 1,000 years into a coherent journey. As a bonus, the contents page will irresistibly recall, to fans of CBBC’s Horrible Histories, the jaunty refrain: ‘William, William, Henry, Stephen, Henry, Richard, John…’

By Suzi Feay 

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