S.J.A. Turney's Books & More

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Posts Tagged ‘King

Richard the Lionheart and Robin Hood

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So I started reading this book:

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And I started reading it, sadly, just a few short months after I finished writing my novel set in 1204, including odd events mentioned in this text. But that being said, I did confirm that what I had written conforms with Bartlett’s accounts (mainly of post-Byzantine Cyprus). So that’s my background to the book. And unusually, I’m going to review two books at once, and you’ll understand why half way through.

Why read any bio of this famous/infamous king of England? And why read this one in particular? Well, not just for the names, although Conan the Duke, Count Vulgrin and Grimaldo Grimaldi certainly draw the eye and make it sound like a work of fantasy. Why? Because Richard is probably England’s most famous king, and I reckon that if you ask the average person in the street, they wouldn’t be able to tell you why. That’s why. And why this one? well because, I reckon, it’s a great all-round and accessible work.

And this is the thing. Biographies can sometimes focus so much on the individual that it becomes meaningless, lacking context. This book does not. In fact, it is a biography of a dynasty more than a man. And even broader: of an age as much as a family. With kings being such a force at the centre of national, religious and military policy, any biography of the king should by rights include something of a general history. This book does that.

It covers every major flashpoint of which I have been aware in the history of the Angevins: the murder of Thomas Beckett, the battle of Horns of Hattin, the Jews of York, Acre, Jaffa and Chalus among others. And in doing so, it ties it all to Richard and his Angevin family, a dynasty that it turns out is as riven and troubled as any imperial Roman one.

I will state here my only two gripes. One is that the book could really have done with a family tree to which to refer, and I had to find one online to help me at times. The other was the author’s use of the phrase ‘both orders had been decimated at Hattin’, which niggles me as a Roman historian, for decimation specifically relates to the execution of one man in ten, and is frequently misused in place of obliteration.

The book is set out in a reassuringly chronological manner, covering the subject in stages: Early life, the politics of family, coronation and consolidation, the rise of the crusade, and then its fall, capture and imprisonment, John’s betrayal and release, war with France and finally demise and its impact. The treatment of John is also very fair, I think, which is unusual in a world in which he is uniformly villainised without adequate explanation. Parts of the tale, which reads often like a general history, are boosted by anecdotal asides, which is nice.

Several things occurred to me and were noted down during my read:

  • I’d never considered how much impact the death of Barbarossa had on the crusade
  • The collapse of the bridge at Gisors under Phillip mirrors the collapse of the Milvian Bridge under the emperor Maxentius, about which I’ve written. An odd symmetry.
  • The only assessment possible of Richard (like Marcus Aurelius) is only possible against a background of constant war, and we have no idea what kind of a peacetime king he would have been.
  • I’d forgotten how cool the Blondel and captivity story was.

The book ends in a summing up and what effects Richard had on history. All in all, this was a cracking read and one of the better biographies I have read. I highly recommend it. And to give you a taste, here’s a lovely quote:

“Only one son stood by his deathbed and he, ironically, was illegitimate […] Henry reportedly said of him that he was his only true son; it was the others who were bastards.”

My favourite line in the book. And during the closing parts of the book, unsurprisingly there is a short nod to the legend of Robin Hood and Richard’s part in it. And that’s the interesting thing. I’ve also just finished a ‘biography’ of Robin Hood, which I received ahead of publication and was planning to review, and this just seems to be kismet, the two being so aligned. So I now also give you:

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Now in fairness, I fully expected to hate this and to poo-poo it. I’m too rooted in historical record to give great credence to legends. That being said, there is an element of truth to all legends, and so, like King Arthur, or Achilles, or Troy, or Springheeled Jack, I occasionally indulge to see what other people think. I did so here.

It is a brave, and interesting, premise to launch your book treating Robin as a historical figure and then looking into the historiography of it, trying to ascertain how valid it is. And that warmed me to it. For Matthews is not stating that Robin was definitely real, lived in Privet Drive with his aunt Flo and worked for the water board. He presents evidence and himself treats it with suspicion as well as fascination. So my initial scepticism was gradually worn away.

The first thing the book did, and its first quarter is devoted to this, is to examine the earliest surviving ballads. Here, I encountered a tale that was at one and the same time the old, familiar Robin Hood of legend, but also a new and surprising take. I find myself even now wondering why no author or filmmaker has ever tried to turn this original medieval tale into a movie or book. It would surely be a new angle, despite being also the earliest. Robin comes across a lot more brutal and wily here.

And the thing that really struck me is that despite the traditional treatments I’ve seen and read, the Robin of earliest legend may not have been born during the time of Richard the Lion heart and King John. In fact, in the quoted text, there is reference to King Edward, making it likely Edward I or II, at the end of the 13th century, not the 12th! I was astounded. For this alone, the book was worthwhile.

Another interesting assertion is that Robbinhood might be a now-lost medieval term for an outlaw. That would make tracking the legend down nigh-on impossible, of course, so Matthews continues to examine any historical Robins. What he presents, based on the works of medieval tale-tellers, is more than one plausible historical Robin Hood, or the basis for them. This fascinated me.

The book then moves into investigations into possible pre-Medieval origins for the Robin legend, connecting ancient mythology, Saxon legend and more with the tale. For me, the book got a little bogged down at this point. The depth of the mythological work was impressive and probably deserves a book in its own right, but at times it seemed to me somewhat peripheral or tangential to the purpose of the book. I may be being unfair here, and will leave that to other readers to decide for themselves.

We then go on to examine the potential historical background of the other characters in the tale, being Marian and the ‘Merry Men’. This, again, fascinated me, and made it worthwhile.

What did surprise me was that half the book turned out to be recounted ballads of Robin Hood, the last 120 pages given over to these appendices. I felt that this was somewhat unnecessary and lacked the focus on the subject that I saw in the early chapters, since without Matthews’ commentary on it, it became little more than source material.

The upshot? A brave attacking of a tricky subject. Despite a couple of negatives, one of which being the brevity of the actual work, it threw my preconceived notions aside and provided me with fascinating new nuggets of information that I treasure.

I enjoyed it. If you have an interest in the subject, you probably will, too.

So there you go. Two books in one post, the first out now the second in May. Fascinating reading, for sure.

Written by SJAT

April 23, 2019 at 9:00 am

Richard II: A True King’s Fall

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I do like to intersperse, in the rare leisure time I get, my fiction reading with a little non-fiction (quite apart from all the Roman non-fiction research I do.) This book was an interesting choice, because to sum up everything I knew about Richard II in one sentence: “Pubs called the White Hart are named after him.” Pretty feeble, eh? The white hart was Richard’s own insignia. Also I tend to get a little mixed up in the Plantagenet era. On the bright side, the Richards aren’t to difficult to separate. 1st was a bloodthirsty warrior who bankrupted the country fighting his crusades and yet for some reason is the country’s most beloved monarch, and 3rd is Shakespeare’s hunchbacked villain. No for me, of course. I’m a Yorkshireman, so I know him for the heroic king and Henry Tudor for the usurping French/Welsh tart. But that’s an argument for another time. Damn you, Stanley…

The book opens with a who’s who. More non-fiction should do this. A common issue with numerous eras is lots of very similar names and trying to keep them straight in your head. I get that a lot with Roman names. To have a handy reference point at the start is invaluable in a world where at first glance everyone appears to be called Henry or Edward.

Then we launch into the biography in chronological order beginning with his youth, obviously. And that, I would make clear, is what this is: a biography of the man Richard II, not an account of his reign. It delves into family, relationships, motivations and the minutiae of Richard’s personal life and connections. It does not provide a vast wealth of information about the time and events of his reign.

As such, I found it interesting, yet it left me with unanswered questions. Since I know so little about his reign I was constantly cross referencing with my friend Google to fill in the socio-political gaps. But hey, I’m used to that with my Roman research. And this being non-fiction, it’s not like you’re going to lose the pace and feel of it by branching out to find out more about Wat Tyler.

But what Warner omits in terms of the political history, we gain in terms of an in-depth look at the character and life of an oft-overlooked monarch. Oh, and it is graced with some lovely colour plates too. In short, if you’re wanting a study on the reign of the White Hart King, and you’re not au fait with the history already, this might not serve you so well. But if you want to understand the man, or you are already versed in the politics of the time, then it should be a treat.

Written by SJAT

February 17, 2018 at 9:27 am

King’s Company

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The mid 12th century was, until recently, very unfamiliar ground for me. I know the late days of Henry II and his sons Richard and John because, well let’s face it, they’re what we think of in Britain when we hear the word ‘medieval’. But of Stephen and Matilda and the early life of Henry? No. Until recently, that is, when I read the rather superb Demon’s Brood, which was a history of the Plantagenet dynasty and rather opened my eyes to how interesting their era was.

King’s Company, then, takes place in this world. A world where King Stephen and his cousin, the Empress Matilda, are at war, England a ravaged, torn and frightened place. The plight of the ordinary folk in this world is brought to the forefront with the protagonist William, who belongs to a family with a small estate in the south of the country and whose father died in the service of the King.

Dreaming his whole life of becoming a knight and doing glorious deeds, William remains tied by duty to the family holding and daily drudgery. Then one day things change when he is jumped by bandits on the road and is saved by a dashing young nobleman. The two become fast friends and the young man, Richard, spends much time at the family estate.

Only after many months of their bonds of friendship tightening does William realise that Richard is not quite what he thought and, with one ill-conceived act he finds himself launched into a world where his illusions of the glory of knighthood are torn away, his belief in the nobility and royalty shattered and his preconceptions all destroyed as he meets a young man who dreams of ruling an England not ravaged by war and torn apart by divided loyalties.

The characters in King’s Company are believable and likeable. Henry, in particular, stood out for me. As a protagonist, William is perfect: young, open-minded and strong willed, and pitted alongside a cast of older, more grizzled characters they drive the plot along well.

The basis of the plot becomes fairly obvious early on, when Richard pries information from the family that the reader can’t help but realise will lead to something, and there’s a faint predictability to that, but once that one predictable event passes, the story rolls on fresh, interesting and unforeseeable. Indeed, gradually as the novel unfolded I found myself wondering more and more where it was going to lead. Towards the end I feared it was bound for something of an anticlimax, since the novel does not reach the conclusion one might expect from early on, but Taylor throws us a final turn in the plot that brings us to a very satisfying conclusion.

The scene-setting is done well, and the prose is excellent. To give you some idea of the style, the book has gone onto my shelves next to Angus Donald’s Outlaw series. It is less brutal and dark than those books, though. In fact, while King’s Company is far from being a children’s book, the lack of extreme violence, graphic scenes and bad language make it a very acceptable and easy read for all ages.

King’s Company is an excellent medieval romp and comes highly recommended.

Written by SJAT

April 28, 2016 at 9:38 am

Robin of Donald

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I know I promised you a kids/travelogue post, and I promise there’s one coming, but each week I look at writing said post, but realise that there’s a new great book out there that I need to make sure everyone knows about. So, we’re back onto Historical Fiction again, but hold on to your seat, as this is some of the best you’ll ever read.

You see, we’re all tremendously familiar with Robin Hood. Most of us were weaned on Errol Flynn, Claude Rains and Basil Rathbone fencing up and down stairwells and plotting in golden thrones, swinging through the greenwood like Tarzan in camo. It’s still the yardstick by which swashbuckling is measured. You probably know of or remember Richard Greene. And Michael Praed and Jason Connery mooching around moodily to Clannad’s ‘Hooded Man’ soundtrack. Everyone tutted and sighed at the strange route that Kevin Costner took from Dover to Nottingham via Sycamore Gap at Hadrian’s Wall, but we still loved the movie, even as we complained. Morgan Freeman still rocks, of course. And some of us even saw the much more down-to-earth version with Patrick Bergin. And though ‘Men in Tights’ makes me twitch, I still love Cary Elwes. There was some Xena-esque American series, I believe, which largely passed me by. And Tony Robinson in Maid Marion and her Merry Men. And even Russell Crowe with his wandering accent and his ladyfriend fighting off the French nation with a school outing.

So… the point of all that? We’ve seen Robin Hood a million times, in a million guises. We know him inside and out. We even know all his friends and most of the events that are likely to occur in his tales. I have become jaded with Robin. I even largely stopped watching his tales as they are churned out by rote. They are now as realistic and fresh as a King Arthur story (and don’t even get me started on them). No one can surprise us with Robin Hood, right?

And then along comes Angus Donald and turns it all on its head. I approached his first novel, Outlaw, with trepidation. I had actually exchanged words with Angus about his new novel as I was producing Marius’ Mules at the same time, and I went to read Outlaw, partially because it’s good to know what other people are writing (what you’re up against), partially as a break from the constant Roman text I was reading at the time, but mainly, I have to admit, because Angus seemed like such a nice guy. I did not read it because it was a book I would naturally take from a shelf (see my words above about being jaded with the whole Robin Hood thing.) I read it, I am now aware, for all the wrong reasons.

But what is important is that I read it.

Because it actually did surprise me. Not only did I realise, only a quarter of the way into the book, that I was now reading it because I couldn’t put it down, but it had completely swept away my reluctance to touch the subject with even a barge-pole. I read Outlaw. In fact, I read it twice that year, as a break from my Roman reading. Outlaw is a stunning book that makes Robin a believable (and oft worrisome) character. A man who rules Sherwood with an iron fist. A man who should not have ‘merry men’, but rather ‘goons’, ‘thugs’ and ‘muscle’. His companions, had they been 700 years later would have names like ‘Knives’, ‘Squint-eye Pete’, and ‘Leftie’. In short: Robin is a 12th century gangster.

In fact, I enjoyed Outlaw so much that I have become something of a Donald-o-phile, clamouring for him next book while he’s still poised over the ink well, thinking of the title. And so, I actively promote his work wherever I can. I love the series, and I love Angus’s writing. Bit of a turn-around from being reluctant to read his first novel, eh? In fact, Angus has gone on to produce four novels in the series, with a fifth under the pen as I write this.

And the reason I’m telling you all this? Because Angus has not one but two books coming out! The paperback of King’s Man has become available in the UK today, and the hardback of Warlord is out on the 19th July (a mere fortnight.) This gives you time to buy and read the first three before Warlord comes on sale. Believe me, you’ll not need two weeks. They’re un-put-down-able. I seriously urge you to buy and read the series. If you’re unsure, buy and read Outlaw alone, just to decide. One book… what harm can it do! (American release dates as yet unknown I’m afraid, but they will be released in due course there, and the first two are available. You can always order them from the UK sites, of course. Hee hee hee.

Outlaw introduces us to Robin and his world, in a brutal and realistic, yet heroic and engaging tale seen through the eyes of the ageing Alan Dale, troubador and ‘merry man’. Holy Warrior takes the stories into dark, uncharted territory with Richard Coeur de Lion and his crusade. King’s Man (my fave so far) spins the most amazing yarn concerning Robin’s trial for heresy and King Richard’s imprisonment in Germany. I simply cannot wait to see what treasures Warlord holds…

So, just to help push you into it, here are my reviews for the first three books:

Outlaw         Holy Warrior      King’s Man

And the important links, of course, for your viewing pleasure:

Angus’s website     Angus’s page at Amazon.com     Angus’s page at Amazon UK     Angus on Twitter     Angus at the HWA site 

And that’s pretty much all I have to say today. Don’t miss out. Read the books. You’ll love them, I guarantee it. Hopefully, Angus will allow me the use of the images. If not, I will surrender myself to the castle at Nottingham and await summary justice by that little Norman tit, sir Ralph Murdac…

Ciao for now.