The Fall of the King by Johannes v Jensen

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During the time of the “giant” monarchs Henry VIII, Charles V and Francis I, Denmark was getting itself into all sorts of muddles. Christian II, the “king” of the book’s title, decided that it would be a good idea to execute large numbers of Swedish nobles, in what became known as the “Stockholm Bloodbath”. Sweden, unsurprisingly, decided that it was not putting up with Danish rule any more, and has been independent ever since. A few year’s later, the “Count’s Feud” broke out in Denmark, effectively a civil war between the Catholic Christian II and his cousin, the Protestant Christian III.

Danish history tends to be ignored outside Scandinavia. Well, apart from the a) Vikings and b) the Schleswig-Holstein question. This book isn’t really my sort of thing – it won the Nobel Prize for Literature but, as prize-winning books tend to, it includes a fair bit of weird/”modernist” stuff, and, also, the choice of language and vocabulary in Danish is apparently superb, but obviously that doesn’t come across in the English translation. However, it’s an absolute joy to find a book available in English about such a neglected area of European history. Denmark deserves more attention than it gets.

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From There to Here – BBC 1

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This is the postbox outside Marks and Spencer’s on Corporation Street. It survived the IRA bombing of Manchester on June 15th 1996, the day on which the beginning of the BBC’s From There to Here was set.

We all remember that day. Euro ’96. Three lions on the shirt. I was at home with my sister, but we might easily have been in town, on a Saturday morning. A lot of people were. We know how lucky we were that no-one was killed: three years earlier, two young boys were murdered by an IRA bomb down the road in Warrington. However, our city centre was very badly damaged – but it was rebuilt, and now it’s better than it was before, and we’re very proud of that.

It’s hard to believe that it was 18 years ago. Memories are still very fresh, and that makes it a sensitive and controversial topic for the BBC to tackle in a drama series. Opinions are divided as to whether or not they should have done so, so soon … but they have done – and the first episode was really very good in terms of entertainment. Oh, for the days when someone could joke that City were a Buddhist club because they believed in eternal suffering, LOL!

However, did they have to make one of the main characters some dodgy git who was mixed up with all sorts of low lives and was sick enough to fake a bomb attack on his own business in the hope of claiming compensation? Why does the BBC always have to do this? Let’s set a drama series in a city in the North of England and show that it’s full of criminals. WHY do they have to do this? It’s a shame, because it was very well-acted.

So there we are. I’ll watch the other two episodes, though. Oh, and, even after 18 years, I still had to cover my eyes when Gareth Southgate took that penalty! I’m looking forward to the World Cup, but this was a reminder of just how nerve-racking it’s going to be!!

A King’s Ransom by Sharon Penman

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No Blondel! Yes, all right, I accept that the Blondel story is just a legend, but it’s such a nice legend, LOL! However, the wonderful Sharon Penman prefers to be as historically accurate as possible, so Blondel doesn’t feature in this excellent book about Richard I’s return from the Third Crusade and the remainder of his reign!

The book continues for a while after Richard’s death, and also covers the death of his sister Joanna. She’s a major character in the book, as is Richard’s wife Berengaria of Navarre, who often gets sadly little attention from either historians or writers of historical fiction. So too is Richard’s mother, the glorious Eleanor of Aquitaine, one of my favourite historical personalities of all time.

The book is superbly written, as are all Sharon Penman’s books, and includes excellent author’s note explaining what’s known fact, what’s generally accepted if not known for definite and what is her own interpretation of people and events. I don’t particularly like Richard “the Lionheart” and never have done, but he’s a fascinating figure and this is a very, very good book.

Vikings – History (the History Channel)

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I was very pleasantly surprised by the first episode of this series (I somehow managed to miss it last year, but it’s now being repeated). I was expecting something along the lines of “Rome” or “The Tudors”, but no, this is good stuff! The main character is Ragnar Lothbrok, known to we British historians as Ragnar Hairy Breeks, and it also features Gabriel Byrne as Earl Haraldson (who appears not to have a first name). Seeing as no-one’s quite sure what the accurate history of the period and the characters actually is, it’s hard to comment on that, but the general idea is pretty good, and it’s nice to see a series showing the Vikings from their point of view rather than from that of the people whose homes they raided. Looking forward to the rest of the series very eagerly!

Lady of the English by Elizabeth Chadwick

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This book, as the title suggests :-), is about Matilda, who should arguably be included in lists of monarchs of England but never is. It’s also about Adeliza of Louvain, her stepmother, about whom very little’s been written – it was good to see her featured as a main character. It was a sympathetic portrayal of Matilda, who’s been given a raw deal by male historians who seem to have a problem with a woman standing up for her rights … although Elizabeth Chadwick did come up with the theory that part of the reason Matilda got a reputation for being stroppy was that she had severe PMT, which sounds like exactly the sort of thing that a male chauvinist would say!

I’m trying hard not to compare this to Sharon Penman’s wonderful When Christ and his Saints Slept, because they’re different books, by different authors, and each have their own merits. This one’s much shorter, and more personal and less political. It was a very good read, and I’m getting rather into Elizabeth Chadwick’s books. The medieval period in English history gets neglected, and it needs authors like her. I wish one of them’d turn their attention to the Georgian period now – that only seems to attract Mills and Boon type writers these days!

Cavalier Queen by Fiona Mountain

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According to this book, Henrietta Maria – the “Cavalier Queen” of the title – stayed at Blenheim Palace in 1625. Unless she had some sort of time machine, I’m not quite sure how Fiona Mountain thinks she achieved this, given that the construction of Blenheim Palace wasn’t completed until nearly a century later and didn’t start until … well, the clue’s in the name. Anyone who claims to be fascinated by the Stuart period but doesn’t know that the Battle of Blenheim didn’t take place until well after Henrietta Maria’s time really needs to do a bit more research.

That’s whinge number one! Whinge number two, and the more serious one, is that the author did not include any sort of foreword, afterword or even footnote explaining that what she was writing was not based on hard fact. Historical novelists can interpret things as they please, unfair thought that may be on the real people involved. There’s recently been a spate of books claiming that Perkin Warbeck really was Richard of York, for example. That’s OK if the author explains that what they’ve said is not hard fact. It’s not if they don’t. This book claimed that Henrietta Maria and Harry Jermyn were in lurve even before she married Charles I and that Jermyn was the real father of Minette. There’ve been rumours to that effect, but they aren’t fact and the author should have explained that.

Having said all that, it was a very entertaining read. Henrietta Maria, like Marie Antoinette and the Alexandra Feodorovna, gets unfairly blamed for her husband’s poor kingship and it’s good to see a positive portrayal of her. I found it odd that the author chose to stop with the execution of Charles I, given that the book centred on the relationship between Henrietta Maria and Jermyn and the old historical rumour is that they were secretly married after she was widowed, but that was her choice. It was quite well-written and kept the attention. I just find it very irritating when historical novelists give readers who may know very little about the period in question the impression that something is fact when it very definitely isn’t!
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The First Georgians – BBC 4

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The expression “Turnip Head” always makes me think of poor old Graham Taylor and that picture in the Sun after England lost to Sweden and failed to qualify for Euro ’92. George I never lost to Sweden (there was some talk at one point about Sweden backing the Jacobites, but the Swedes had enough problems with Peter the Great of Russia without getting too closely involved with British politics), but he got called a turnip head anyway. There was even a song about it, which BBC 4 obligingly played for us.

There’s something very annoying about Lucy Worsley’s jolly hockey sticks manner, but the point of this programme was a very good one – that George I deserves a lot more credit than he ever gets. I think the trouble is that, especially since the Victorian era when the Scottish Highlands came to be seen as super-romantic, the Jacobites have got this romantic lost cause image, a bit like the Confederates have in the Deep South, and the Hanoverians are seen as being extremely dull and boring by comparison. “The madness of George III”, which I’m still convinced was caused by porphyria, and the excessive eating of George IV don’t really help.

However, as this programme emphasised, the Georgians brought stability to Britain, and George I’s time also saw the rise of cabinet government. I do wish BBC 4 hadn’t seen fit to show the infamous Walpole bottom cartoon, though! In my fattest days, I was once in a changing room trying on a pair of trousers when I caught sight of myself in a mirror, and that evening I wrote miserably in my diary that my rear view looked just like the Walpole bottom cartoon: seeing it brings back bad memories! Or am I getting mixed up with the Broad Bottom Ministry cartoons from George II’s time? Anyway, getting back to the point, the rude cartoons were all part of the increased freedom of the press – which was all due to the fact that Parliament forgot to pass a bill restraining the said freedom of the press. Talk about the “cock up theory of history”!

So, George I was called a turnip head, and the press made fun of Walpole’s fat backside, but all this took place against a background of stability and, after the South Sea Bubble, growing prosperity for Britain and, as the programme pointed out, George never gets given much credit for anything and he deserves some. So do BBC 4, for their excellent Georgian series. History lessons tend to teach “royal history” until the Glorious Revolution and then swap over to the agricultural and industrial revolutions and ignore the first four Georges. They deserve a bit more attention, and it’s nice to see them getting it.