Coming Up For Air by George Orwell (1939)

I shoved my foot down on the accelerator. The very thought of going back to Lower Binfield had done me good already. You know the feeling I had. Coming up for air! Like the big sea-turtles when they come paddling up to the surface, stick their noses out and fill their lungs with a great gulp before they sink down again among the seaweed and the octopuses. We’re all stifling at the bottom of a dustbin, but I’d found the way to the top. Back to Lower Binfield!

This is a surprisingly nostalgic and moving book. It is the only one of Orwell’s novels told in the first person, and it soon becomes clear why. Most of the first half consists of his protagonist’s long and evocative memory of England before the Great War, a loving memory of an England of calm, order and confidence.

The plot

Part one

The narrator is George Bowling. He lives in an anonymous semi in an anonymous street, one of those streets which ‘fester all over the inner-outer suburbs’, in an anonymous London suburb. He is middle-aged and fat (he mentions that he is fat a lot, there are page-long meditations on the condition of fatness).

I haven’t got one of those bellies that sag half-way down to the knees. It’s merely that I’m a little bit broad in the beam, with a tendency to be barrel-shaped.

George is a 45 year-old insurance salesman who makes a respectable seven of so pounds a week, so he is significantly better off – and more comfortable, more at ease with life – than the protagonists of Orwell’s previous novels, A Clergyman’s Daughter and Keep The Aspidistra Flying. He is married to a scrawny nagging wife, Hilda, and has two whiny kids – Billy (7) and Lorna (11) – that he refers to as the bastards.

On the day of the novel George has no work to do and so takes his time washing, shaving, having breakfast, taking the train into London, stopping into pubs for a quick one, and strolling the streets. It is, in fact, the day he is going to his dentist to take possession of his new set of false teeth. So a few things happen but there isn’t that much interaction with other people. For the most part we are inside George’s head listening to him muse about a) the wretched lives of London’s middle-class men, trapped by wage slavery and nagging wives –

Because, after all, what is a road like Ellesmere Road? Just a prison with the cells all in a row. A line of semidetached torture-chambers where the poor little five-to-ten-pound-a-weekers quake and shiver, every one of them with the boss twisting his tail and his wife riding him like the nightmare and the kids sucking his blood like leeches. (p.14)

b) the condition of being fat, how it crept up on him but how he still eyes up women in the street c) the awful shallowness and vulgarity of modern life – all those ads for shiny consumer goods; milk bars; radio – yuk d) overshadowing all his thoughts is his obsession with the shadow of war: bomber planes fly overhead at several points, and his imagination is saturated with the reality of modern war, whole cities bombed flat, refugees in the street, machine guns firing from broken windows. Hitler and Stalin, Stalin and Hitler.

I looked at the great sea of roofs stretching on and on. Miles and miles of streets, fried-fish shops, tin chapels, picture houses, little printing-shops up back alleys, factories, blocks of flats, whelk stalls, dairies, power stations – on and on and on. Enormous! And the peacefulness of it! Like a great wilderness with no wild beasts. No guns firing, nobody chucking pineapples, nobody beating anybody else up with a rubber truncheon. If you come to think of it, in the whole of England at this moment there probably isn’t a single bedroom window from which anyone’s firing a machine-gun.
But how about five years from now? Or two years? Or one year? (p.24)

War is coming soon, he reflects with a kind of grim satisfaction as he looks out the train window at the endless suburban gardens, as he sips his pint as he walks along the Strand.

As I read I kept thinking of James Joyce’s Ulysses, the famous modernist masterpiece describing a day in the life of an average man wandering round a big city, thinking, musing, pondering. But there is none of Joyce’s experimentalism here. The opposite, there is a good deal of repetition. The paragraphs about being fat, becoming fat, how a fat man feels, how a fat man looks and so on, are a bit repetitive, and so are the meditations about the trashiness of modern life (key hate word is ‘streamlined’ – everything ‘streamlined’ is by definition bad) and the visions of war come back every few pages like acid reflux and repeat entire phrases again and again (I got a little bored of envisioning the machine guns ‘squirting’ from the windows.)

Part two

But everything changes as the book enters part two. Triggered by a news story in today’s paper, George’s mind is taken back to the church services of his boyhood in the little village of Lower Binfield. This (fictional) village of around 2,000 inhabitants somewhere in south Oxfordshire, a few miles from the Thames, is where George’s idyllic childhood took place.

It was a wonderful June morning. The buttercups were up to my knees. There was a breath of wind just stirring the tops of the elms, and the great green clouds of leaves were sort of soft and rich like silk. And it was nine in the morning and I was eight years old, and all round me it was early summer, with great tangled hedges where the wild roses were still in bloom, and bits of soft white cloud drifting overhead, and in the distance the low hills and the dim blue masses of the woods round Upper Binfield. (p.58)

His father was a seed merchant who kept a shop off the High Street. George’s older brother, Joe, is a tough, part of a gang which eventually grudgingly lets little Georgie join in (the other members being Sid Lovegrove and Harry Burnes, the errand boy). He remembers that long distant era as a land of perpetual sunshine, endless wheat fields and cool tree-lined pools for fishing in. (Orwell deliberately makes his protagonist older than him: Bowling was born about 1893 – he’s just old enough to remember the Boer War and the argument about it between his father and Uncle Ezekiel, as well as the mad jubilation surrounding the relief of Mafeking.)

This is a long sequence with many passages of great descriptive beauty. It is an unembarrassed wallow in nostalgia for the sweet decency of rural south England (Orwell knows all too well about life in England’s cities and life in the North of England). It is a powerful vision of idealised south of England village life, the same kind of feeling which permeates John Betjeman and goes on into Philip Larkin in the 1950s…

I’m back in Lower Binfield, and the year’s 1900. Beside the horse-trough in the market-place the carrier’s horse is having its nose-bag. At the sweet-shop on the corner Mother Wheeler is weighing out a ha’porth of brandy balls. Lady Rampling’s carriage is driving by, with the tiger sitting behind in his pipeclayed breeches with his arms folded. Uncle Ezekiel is cursing Joe Chamberlain. The recruiting-sergeant in his scarlet jacket, tight blue overalls, and pillbox hat, is strutting up and down twisting his moustache. (p.34)

There are wonderful long descriptions of the wild flowers and weeds which, because of his father’s trade in seeds, he knew were alright to eat. And central to the section, and to the novel, is the long passage about his boyhood obsession with fishing, which involves pages of detailed description of how to make a fishing rod, how to make the flies and the float and the hook from basic household items – and when he’s got a little more experience, a detailed list of the different types of bait you need to catch all the traditional English fish.

Grasshoppers are about the best bait there is, especially for chub. You stick them on the hook without any shot and just flick them to and fro on the surface – ‘dapping’, they call it. But you can never get more than two or three grasshoppers at a time. Greenbottle flies, which are also damned difficult to catch, are the best bait for dace, especially on clear days. You want to put them on the hook alive, so that they wriggle. A chub will even take a wasp, but it’s a ticklish job to put a live wasp on the hook.

It is an astonishingly sensuous, free and delightful memory of boyhood, immensely readable like almost all of Orwell, but unexpectedly happy and carefree.

The still summer evening, the faint splash of the weir, the rings on the water where the fish are rising, the midges eating you alive, the shoals of dace swarming round your hook and never biting. And the kind of passion with which you’d watch the black backs of the fish swarming round, hoping and praying (yes, literally praying) that one of them would change his mind and grab your bait before it got too dark. And then it was always ‘Let’s have five minutes more’, and then ‘Just five minutes more’, until in the end you had to walk your bike into the town because Towler, the copper, was prowling round and you could be ‘had up’ for riding without a light. And the times in the summer holidays when we went out to make a day of it with boiled eggs and bread and butter and a bottle of lemonade, and fished and bathed and then fished again and did occasionally catch something. At night you’d come home with filthy hands so hungry that you’d eaten what was left of your bread paste, with three or four smelly dace wrapped up in your handkerchief.

There is much, much more capturing the quality of boyhood when there is no future and the sunny present stretches on forever. The local girl who looked after him and his brother when they were young. The taste and feel of long-forgotten sweets, bought by the penny. The sights and sounds of market day. His mother and father sitting either side of the fire on a Sunday afternoon, falling asleep over their respective newspapers.

It is not an utterly rose-tinted view. At school he and the rest tease the mentally sub-normal boy. Along with his brother’s gang, George pulls birds’ nests out of trees and stamps on the chicks. As he explains, violence and killing, tormenting and bullying, are part of the sense of power, of immortality which author and character both seem to see as an important part of boyhood.

The section continues past this boyhood into the arrival of puberty and girls, and then on to his first real experience of reading, of entering amazing imaginative worlds from the heat of India to the jungles of the Amazon. His older brother, Joe, always a handful, is co-opted by his dad into helping with the seed shop but is impatient, loafing at the front door, ogling girls, catcalling. One day he disappears from the house, having stolen everything in the till, and is never seen again.

There is a fascinating description of his experiences during the Great War. After being wounded just enough to be sent home from the trenches, Bowling finds himself, through a series of bureaucratic errors, charged with looking after a defunct rations dump in remotest Cornwall. Here he sits out the war in peace and comfort, along with another ne-er-do-well soldier, Private Lidgebird, ‘a surly devil’. Part of the enjoyment of this long memoir is not only Orwell’s prose but the vividness with which he describes the many odd characters his protagonist encounters.

  • Old Hodges, the lodge-keeper who acted as a kind of caretaker to the abandoned grand house on the hill. ‘He had a face like something carved out of a bit of root, and only two teeth, which were dark brown and very long.’ (p.75)
  • Whiskers (his name was Wicksey) the headmaster of the grammar school, a dreadful-looking little man, with a face just like a wolf, and at the end of the big schoolroom he had a glass case with canes in it, which he’d sometimes take out and swish through the air in a terrifying manner.
  • Gravitt, the butcher… was a big, rough-faced old devil with a voice like a mastiff, and when he barked, as he generally did when speaking to boys, all the knives and steels on his blue apron would give a jingle.

Finally, we get to George’s early manhood. After the war he is pushed into a job with the local grocer, before wangling a job as a travelling salesman. Through an extraordinary coincidence he bumps into the senior officer who had allotted him the job at the rations dump, now the head of a modern conglomerate business, and through him is given a much better job in the insurance company.

At around the same time he first meets Hilda. They completely misunderstand each other because, as Orwell elaborately explains, they are from completely different classes. Hilda’s people are ex-army, ex-India but come down in the world, living in a small house stuffed with memorabilia of the Raj. George thinks they are class. Hilda’s people think George is man on the move, going up in the world, and thus push Hilda towards marrying him.

They get married and quite quickly George realises he hates her. As soon as they’re wed she drops every effort to look nice or be comforting. She becomes sharp and shrewish and reveals that she is obsessed with money, penny-pinching at every turn. George is lumbered with her and fathers two brats by her but spends his life scheming how to get away which, fortunately, his life as a travelling insurance salesman makes relatively easy.

Part three

The short part three brings us back to the present. It is the evening of the same day. George allows himself to be persuaded by Hilda to go along to a lecture at the church hall, which turns out to be given by a fierce anti-fascist. George is appalled by the venom and violence in the man’s attitude. Afterwards he joins in good humouredly with a squabble about how to fight fascism with a little group of Labour supporters. The evening ends with George dropping in on a local friend, a public school teacher, Porteous, who is a satirical caricature of the Oxbridge ivory tower intellectual.

But beneath these surface vents, George has been coming to a decision. He will wangle a week’s leave from his firm, tell Hilda he’s got business for a week in Birmingham, and… he will go back to Lower Binfield. He will revisit the scene of his childhood and all its intense happiness, before the war starts, before the war obliterates everything, he will recapture that first fine careless rapture. He will ‘come up for air’.

Part four

Of course it’s all gone. As his car breasts the hill and he looks down into the village of 2,000 he remembers so well, George discovers… it has mutated into a town of maybe 25,000 people. Houses, houses everywhere. In the distance some glass and chrome factories – that explains the population boom. He gets lost trying to find the centre but eventually reaches it, parks up in the old village inn and takes a room for a week.

At which point Orwell sets about destroying every single one of Bowling’s happy memories by showing the present-day reality of all that fond nostalgia. The family home and shop which he remembered with such vivid intensity is now a tacky tea-rooms. He goes down to the Thames, with a newly-purchased fishing rod, determined to recreate those balmy summer days in the green light below the weir – but the towpath is absolutely packed out with screaming kids, ice cream stalls, hundreds of other fishers while the water is stirred up by non-stop pleasure cruisers and the water is filthy with diesel oil and paper cups. The big old house on the hill in whose ground he and the gang used to fish has been turned into a mental home. And the secluded pond, full of legendarily huge fish, has been drained and become a rubbish dump on the edge of a vast new estate.

They’d filled my pool up with tin cans. God rot them and bust them! Say what you like – call it silly, childish, anything – but doesn’t it make you puke sometimes to see what they’re doing to England, with their bird- baths and their plaster gnomes, and their pixies and tin cans, where the beech woods used to be? (p.215)

You can’t go back. George finds himself getting drunk and wittering on to the barmaid, then trying to chat up a single woman who turns out to be posh and dismisses him with a withering glance. One further humiliation is when he bumps into his first real girlfriend, the girl (it is implied) to whom he lost his virginity, sweet honey-haired Elsie. Well, now she’s a shapeless grey-haired frump, and he follows her through the street where he first saw her, back to the frowsy little tobacconists shop she now lives in. Neither her nor husband recognise him. The past is dead.

One thing, I thought as I drove down the hill, I’m finished with this notion of getting back into the past. What’s the good of trying to revisit the scenes of your boyhood? They don’t exist. Coming up for air! But there isn’t any air. The dustbin that we’re in reaches up to the stratosphere. (p.216)

There is an odd scene almost at the end. On his last, disappointed morning, he’s strolling across the market square when there is an almighty explosion. Recognising a barrage when he hears one George drops to the ground, but there is no repeat. Earlier we had learned that there is a new bomber airfield somewhere near the town, and locals had told George that the newish stocking factory had recently been converted to manufacture bombs for the planes. It seems one of the pilots on a test run pushed the wrong lever and dropped a bomb on Lower Binfield! A grocer’s shop was flattened and the three inhabitants killed. See, George thinks, it’s coming, it’s coming and there’s nothing any of us can do to stop it.

In the final scene he motors home to find that Hilda, the suspicious little shrew, had figured out he was never in Birmingham by the simple expedient of writing to the hotel George claimed to be staying at and getting a reply saying the hotel closed two years previously. She knows George has been with another woman and starts to give him a piece of his mind George, faced with the daunting challenge of trying to explain the impulse to rediscover his childhood happiness which took him on a wild goose chase to his boyhood haunts, well, George realises it’ll be easier to admit he spent the week with another woman.


Visions of war

Barely a page goes by without George imagining the bombing or fighting in the street to come, or reflects on the streamlined, Americanised trashiness of modern life. The difference between George’s visions and those of Gordon, in Keep The Aspidistra Flying, is that George keeps these thoughts under control; he is not infuriated or exasperated by them. He sees the world about him, thinks about wars and modern life, and then has another pint which fills him with a glow of well-being. He thinks grim but he actually feels warm and rosy.

I can hear the air-raid sirens blowing and the loud-speakers bellowing that our glorious troops have taken a hundred thousand prisoners… I see it all. I see the posters and the food-queues, and the castor oil and the rubber truncheons and the machine-guns squirting out of bedroom windows. (p.29)

Next moment he’s an affable cheeky chappie, the type you’d meet in the saloon bar of a decent local pub, buying drinks for all and sundry and telling humorous stories. This alternation between Vaughan Williams pastoralism and the violence of the Gestapo, rubber coshes and machine guns is like the good cop/bad cop act. Just as you’re softening up to another vision of lying under a weeping willow beside the Thames’s purling water, a bomber flies overhead and George is off again about Stalin and Hitler.

The book is a work in its own right, and the pastoral passages are beautifully worth reading for their mental and sensual pleasure. But read in the context of Orwell’s political writings about the necessity and the inevitability of Socialism in England, I think there is a clear message. England’s dreamy past is over. We face an entirely unprecedented new threat in the form of totalitarianism. We must wake up and face the reality around us.

George has a particular variation on the widespread war fear of the time – he is more worried about what will come after the war – will it be the triumph of totalitarianism in England, with a secret police, torture chambers and loudspeakers blaring from every corner telling people what to think? Ten years later these fears would be worked up into the monstrous vision of Nineteen Eighty-Four.

The modern world

Both Georges hate it. Streamlined, slick, Americanised, tasteless food, chromium bars, clever trite ads, George hates it all. He stops into a ‘milk bar’, epitome of everything flashy, American and revolting.

There’s a kind of atmosphere about these places that gets me down. Everything slick and shiny and streamlined; mirrors, enamel, and chromium plate whichever direction you look in. Everything spent on the decorations and nothing on the food. No real food at all. Just lists of stuff with American names, sort of phantom stuff that you can’t taste and can hardly believe in the existence of. Everything comes out of a carton or a tin, or it’s hauled out of a refrigerator or squirted out of a tap or squeezed out of a tube. No comfort, no privacy. Tall stools to sit on, a kind of narrow ledge to eat off, mirrors all round you. A sort of propaganda floating round, mixed up with the noise of the radio, to the effect that food doesn’t matter, comfort doesn’t matter, nothing matters except slickness and shininess and streamlining. (p.25)

George makes the bad mistake of buying a hot dog. One bite and he feels like retching.

It gave me the feeling that I’d bitten into the modern world and discovered what it was really made of. That’s the way we’re going nowadays. Everything slick and streamlined, everything made out of something else. Celluloid, rubber, chromium-steel everywhere, arc-lamps blazing all night, glass roofs over your head, radios all playing the same tune, no vegetation left, everything cemented over, mock-turtles grazing under the neutral fruit-trees. But when you come down to brass tacks and get your teeth into something solid, a sausage for instance, that’s what you get. Rotten fish in a rubber skin. Bombs of filth bursting inside your mouth. (p.27)

This modern trashiness provides an obvious contrast with the solid food and hearty beer of his childhood. But – the message of the book goes – this is the world today and we must face it.

On being a boy

I had a wonderful feeling inside me, a feeling you can’t know about unless you’ve had it – but if you’re a man you’ll have had it some time. I knew that I wasn’t a kid any longer, I was a boy at last. And it’s a wonderful thing to be a boy, to go roaming where grown-ups can’t catch you, and to chase rats and kill birds and shy stones and cheek carters and shout dirty words. It’s a kind of strong, rank feeling, a feeling of knowing everything and fearing nothing, and it’s all bound up with breaking rules and killing things. The white dusty roads, the hot sweaty feeling of one’s clothes, the smell of fennel and wild peppermint, the dirty words, the sour stink of the rubbish dump, the taste of fizzy lemonade and the gas that made one belch, the stamping on the young birds, the feel of the fish straining on the line – it was all part of it. Thank God I’m a man, because no woman ever has that feeling.

Having been a boy myself, raised in a little village in Berkshire, left to roam through woods and become part of a gang of other 8, 9, 10 year-olds, fishing in Englemere Lake and breaking into the old gravel pit to build dams out of sand, I very heartily respond to these visions of a south-of-England boyhood.


The importance of types and stereotypes in Orwell’s fiction and political writing

One of those…

In reviews of his previous novels I’ve highlighted Orwell’s continual appeal to our supposed common knowledge of various types or stereotypes of English life. He continues this trait in this novel, in fact it sits much better with Bowling’s cheeky-chappy, button-holing personality than it did with the third-person narrator of the earlier novels. But it’s the same habit of mind.

  • Do you know the active, hearty kind of fat man, the athletic bouncing type that’s nicknamed Fatty or Tubby and is always the life and soul of the party? I’m that type. (p.8)
  • She’s one of those people who get their main kick in life out of foreseeing disasters. (p.11)
  • He was one of those people who turn away and then suddenly dart back at you, like a dragon-fly. (p.17)
  • He’s one of these chaps you read about in novels, that have pale sensitive faces and dark hair and a private income. (p.22)
  • Warner is one of these cheap American dentists, and he has his consulting-room, or ‘parlour’ as he likes to call it, halfway up a big block of offices, between a photographer and a rubber-goods wholesaler. (p.25)

Again and again George shows off his ability to place and situate people he sees as characteristic types.

The girl was a kid about eighteen, rather fat, with a sort of moony face, the kind that would never get the change right anyway… He was an ugly, stiff-built little devil, the sort of cock-sparrow type of man that sticks his chest out and puts his hands under his coattails – the type that’d be a sergeant-major only they aren’t tall enough… Two vulgar kind of blokes in shabby overcoats, obviously commercials of the lowest type, newspaper canvassers probably, were sitting opposite me…

What I’m suggesting is that part of what Orwell’s fans and devotees describe as his honesty and his penetrating insight is actually created by this rhetorical habit of seeing the whole world in terms of recognisable and knowable types. This technique makes the world seem rational and susceptible to understanding, as organised, arranged and presented by an author who is a supreme knower of human types and behaviour. You bow before his wisdom.

  • I had one of those sudden inspirations that you get occasionally…
  • She was one of those people who never say much, but remain on the edge of any conversation that’s going on, and give the impression that they’re listening…
  • They had a little dark house in one of those buried back-streets that exist in Ealing.
  • Then they nearly joined one of those women’s clubs which go for conducted tours round factories
  • I could hear their voices cooing away in one of those meaningless conversations that women have when they’re just passing the time of day.

He is a man of the world, he knows all theses types, you know the sort, and he flatters the reader by expecting you to be, too.

Types and sterotypes

  • He looked the perfect professional soldier, the K.C.M.G., D.S.O. with bar type…
  • I’m the type that can sell things on commission…
  • I’m not the type that starves. I’m about as likely to end up in the workhouse as to end up in the House of Lords. I’m the middling type, the type that gravitates by a kind of natural law towards the five-pound-a-week level.
  • He was the usual type, completely bald, almost invisible behind his moustache, and full of stories about cobras and cummerbunds and what the district collector said in ‘93.
  • I knew the type. Vegetarianism, simple life, poetry, nature-worship, roll in the dew before breakfast. I’d met a few of them years ago in Ealing.

Yes, I know the type.

Stereotypes and Socialism

Having paid all this attention to Orwell’s use of types, half way through the book I had an epiphany.

In many ways political beliefs are built on ‘types’ of people, types we represent and speak for, types we oppose, who are our enemies. This was certainly true of the rather simple-minded (to our eye) political beliefs of the 1930s. To the Socialists their enemies are upper-class toffs, bankers, the bourgeoisie, the rentier class. To the Tory the enemy is the Bolshevik, the anarchist, the trade unionist, the stroppy worker. To the feminists of the day (who Orwell routinely lampoons: see the pert librarian who disapproves of Gordon Comstock asking for a book on midwifery, convinced he only wants to look at ‘dirty’ pictures) all men are horrible perverts only interested in one thing.

My questions are:

  1. To what extent is stereotyping your enemy vital to political discourse, in general?
  2. And what part do these types and stereotypes play in the formulation and expression of Orwell’s political beliefs?

Although his work is riddled with defences of ‘democratic socialism’, as even his own publisher, Victor Gollancz, explained in the apologetic preface he inserted before the second part of The Road To Wigan Pier, Orwell nowhere actually defines what Socialism is – except for a few trite phrases about justice and decency. Instead, the second part of Wigan Pier -which was intended as a 100-page long account of his intellectual development towards a belief in Socialism – mostly consists of Orwell setting up a whole series of straw men through the use of types and stereotypes – and then all-too-easily demolishing them. As a political manifesto, it is an embarrassing, almost incoherent failure.

Instead of proposing detailed plans to, say, nationalise key industries, to re-organise the economy, to create a nationalised health and education service – Orwell wastes these hundred pages addressing so-called objections the man-in-the-street might have to Socialism, via stereotypical caricatures of the views of its opponents. Thus he says the average person might be put off socialism because of the association that’s grown up with it and the kind of shiny technological future depicted in so many of H.G. Wells’s novels and tracts and magazine articles. The man-in-the-street doesn’t fancy that kind of technological future and so he (mistakenly) rejects socialism.

My point is that this farrago relies on a) trusting Orwell to know that this is in fact a major objection of the man-in-the-street to socialism b) accepting his much reduced and caricatured summary of Wells’s position and then c) accepting Orwell’s argument that a socialist future need not be a repellent one of glass and chrome.

This entire argument is so eccentric, so beside the point, that there’s something comic about it, and there is always something a little comic about Orwell’s use of human types, whether in his fiction or political essays. Something a little too pat, a little cartoonish. ‘It’s always that way with X.’ ‘They’re the type who Y.’ ‘He’s one of those Z.’ ‘Of course, the real bourgeoisie does A…  the true socialist says Y… the fascist type yells C…’

Look here, he always seems to be saying, I’m a man of the world and these people always say, do, promise, lie or behave in the following ways. It’s one thing when you’re listening to a fat, middle-aged insurance salesman in the pub; quite another when you’re deciding the future of the country.

To some extent, George Bowling is of course a parody of George Orwell’s own instincts, feelings and beliefs. Just as he cranked up his hatred of the modern world and conflicted self-loathing to create the wretched protagonist of Keep The Aspidistra Flying, so in Coming Up For Air he exaggerates both his sentimental nostalgia for a perfect England and his fear for the future.

You know

Backing away from the political implications, there’s no doubt that this button-holing and shoulder-nudging you towards acquiescence in the narrator’s thoughts and experiences is a major part of the rhetorical strategy of Orwell’s fiction.

George is propping up the bar and while the barmaid fetches another round of drinks, launches off on another story about one of those… you know the type… the kind of chap who…

  • You know how these streets fester all over the inner-outer suburbs. Always the same. Long, long rows of little semi-detached houses…
  • You know the smell churches have, a peculiar, dank, dusty, decaying, sweetish sort of smell…
  • You know the kind of kitchen people had in those days…
  • You know the feeling you had when you came out of the line. A stiffened feeling in all your joints, and inside you a kind of emptiness, a feeling that you’d never again have any interest in anything…
  • You know the kind of holiday. Margate, Yarmouth, Eastbourne, Hastings, Bournemouth, Brighton…
  • You know the atmosphere of a draper’s shop. It’s something peculiarly feminine. There’s a hushed feeling, a subdued light, a cool smell of cloth, and a faint whirring from the wooden balls of change rolling to and fro…
  • You know the feeling of a June evening. The kind of blue twilight that goes on and on, and the air brushing against your face like silk…
  • You know how it is with these big business men, they seem to take up more room and walk more loudly than any ordinary person, and they give off a kind of wave of money that you can feel fifty yards away…
  • You know those tennis clubs in the genteel suburbs — little wooden pavilions and high wire- netting enclosures where young chaps in rather badly cut white flannels prance up and down, shouting ‘Fifteen forty!’ and ‘Vantage all!’ in voices which are a tolerable imitation of the Upper Crust…
  • Do you know these Anglo-Indian families? It’s almost impossible, when you get inside these people’s houses, to remember that out in the street it’s England and the twentieth century. As soon as you set foot inside the front door you’re in India in the eighties. You know the kind of atmosphere. The carved teak furniture, the brass trays, the dusty tiger-skulls on the wall, the Trichinopoly cigars, the red-hot pickles, the yellow photographs of chaps in sun-helmets, the Hindustani words that you’re expected to know the meaning of, the everlasting anecdotes about tiger-shoots and what Smith said to Jones in Poona in ‘87…
  • It was rather a gloomy little hall. You know the kind of place. Pitch-pine walls, corrugated iron roof, and enough draughts to make you want to keep your overcoat on…
  • You know the line of talk. These chaps can churn it out by the hour. Just like a gramophone. Turn the handle, press the button, and it starts. Democracy, Fascism, Democracy…
  • Just behind her two old blokes from the local Labour Party were sitting. One had grey hair cropped very short, the other had a bald head and a droopy moustache. Both wearing their overcoats. You know the type…
  • You know the kind of day that generally comes some time in March when winter suddenly seems to give up fighting. For days past we’d been having the kind of beastly weather that people call ‘bright’ weather, when the sky’s a cold hard blue and the wind scrapes you like a blunt razor-blade. Then suddenly the wind had dropped and the sun got a chance. You know the kind of day..
  • You know the look of a wood fire on a still day. The sticks that have gone all to white ash and still keep the shape of sticks, and under the ash the kind of vivid red that you can see into…
  • You know how people look at you when they’re in a car coming towards you…
  • You know the kind of houses that are just a little too high-class to stand in a row, and so they’re dotted about in a kind of colony, with private roads leading up to them…
  • You know those very cheap small houses which run up a hillside in one continuous row, with the roofs rising one above the other like a flight of steps, all exactly the same…
  • I asked her for tea, and she was ten minutes getting it. You know the kind of tea – China tea, so weak that you could think it’s water till you put the milk in…
  • As soon as I set eyes on her I had a most peculiar feeling that I’d seen her somewhere before. You know that feeling…
  • Do you know that type of middle-aged woman that has a face just like a bulldog? Great underhung jaw, mouth turned down at the corners, eyes sunken, with pouches underneath…
  • Do you know the kind of shuffling, round-shouldered movements of an old woman who’s lost something?
  • You know the way small shopkeepers look at their customers – utter lack of interest…
  • Do you know these faked-up Tudor houses with the curly roofs and the buttresses that don’t buttress anything, and the rock-gardens with concrete bird-baths and those red plaster elves you can buy at the florists’?
  • You know the kind of tough old devil with grey hair and a kippered face that’s always put in charge of Girl Guide detachments, Y.W.C.A. hostels, and whatnot. She had on a coat and skirt that somehow looked like a uniform and gave you a strong impression that she was wearing a Sam Browne belt, though actually she wasn’t. I knew her type

Orwell, and his narrators, always know her type. They know all types. They are experts in all types of human and on the entire human condition. It is upon this claim to universal knowledge of human nature, upon this barrage of ‘types’ and ‘you knows’ that we are meant to place our trust in them.

Comments

Orwell wrote Coming Up for Air as soon as he’d finished Homage to Catalonia, the terrifying account of his time in Spain during the early stage of the Spanish civil war. He wrote Coming Up during a six-month stay in North Africa, from September 1938 to March 1939, which was recommended by his doctors on account of his poor health.

What a period to be outside of England and outside of Europe, looking in, looking back. From the Munich Crisis (September 1938) via Kristallnacht (November 1938) to the German annexation of Czechoslovakia  in March 1939.

Pretty obviously these were the twin sources of the powerful nostalgia which is Coming Up For Air‘s ultimate mood:

  • He had seen Soviet-style political terror in Barcelona and it made him re-evaluate the enduring value of the docile freedoms of England.
  • And then he was out of England for six long months, writing a book in which a middle-aged man reminisces about his boyhood in rural England, surely given piquancy at every turn from the fact that it was written under such very alien skies.

Ultimately Coming Up For Air is a dubious achievement as a novel – with little plot, almost no interaction among the characters and too much of a feeling that it is preaching at you – you could say that it dramatises a predicament more than a believable personality. But Orwell’s writing is marvellous throughout: you can open it at any page and immediately be drawn in by the vividness of the imagined details and the clarity of his wonderfully forthright, lucid prose.


Credit

Coming Up For Air by George Orwell was published by Victor Gollancz in 1939. All references are to the 1978 Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

All Orwell’s major works are available online on a range of websites. Although it’s not completely comprehensive, I like the layout of the texts provided by the University of Adelaide Orwell website.

George Orwell’s books

1933 – Down and Out in Paris and London
1934 – Burmese Days
1935 – A Clergyman’s Daughter
1936 – Keep the Aspidistra Flying
1937 – The Road to Wigan Pier
1938 – Homage to Catalonia
1939 – Coming Up for Air
1941 – The Lion and the Unicorn
1945 – Animal Farm
1949 – Nineteen Eighty-Four

Queen Emma and the Vikings by Harriet O’Brien (2005)

Interestingly, this book seems to have two different sub-titles depending on which edition you buy. The edition I have is sub-titled ‘A history of Power, Love and Greed in Eleventh-Century England’, a bit generic. But the latest edition on Amazon is sub-titled ‘The Woman Who Shaped the Events of 1066’, which is stronger and more specific.

Emma of Normandy was the daughter of Duke Richard I of Normandy (993-996) and sister to his successor, Duke Richard II (963-1026). In 1002 she was married off to King Aethelred II of England, the ill-fated king who ruled from 978 to 1016 and by whom she had three children, including Edward, later to become King Edward the Confessor (who ruled 1042 to 1066).

After Aethelred died in 1016, and England was conquered by the Danish King Cnut, Emma found herself being recalled from the Norman court – where she had gone for safety – and, in 1017, quickly married off to the new Danish king. She bore Cnut two more children, a daughter and Harthacnut, who was to succeed Cnut as King of Norway and ruled briefly as king of England from 1040 to 1042.

Thus Emma occupies the unique position in history of having been married to two kings of England and being mother to two further kings of England – by different fathers.

Unlike other books I’ve recently read about this period – Cnut: England’s Viking King by M.K. Lawson or The Norman Conquest 1066 by Marc Morris – which have a lot of factual information to sift and a lot of events to get through, O’Brien’s book is much slower paced and goes out of its way to present a thorough sense of the world in which Emma lived. Almost every chapter opens with a vivid description of a key scene or moment, allowing you to really think through the emotional and cultural effects of the events which other historians sometimes race through rather hastily.

We learn how squalid and unhygienic Saxon England was, what the Saxon king and queen and nobles wore, how feasts were arranged, the role of jewellery and metal weapons, and so on. Some of her vivid scenes depict Emma’s departure from Normandy, her arrival in Canterbury, her wedding ceremony to Aethelred – as well as speculation about her feelings and emotions: What must it have been like to be sold off in marriage to a man probably twice her age (Aethelred), who already had at least one common-law wife by whom he had had no fewer than ten children, the oldest of whom were Emma’s age?

What a bear pit she was sold into – and how strong and clever she must have been to not only survive the murderous rivalries of the English court but then to live on into – and thrive in – the completely different ambience of the Danish king she was forced to marry. Both men had common law wives or mistresses – both, eerily, named Aelfgifu – against whom she had to compete, for affection (maybe) and power (certainly).

The story covers three nationalities – Norman, English and Danish – as well as a host of competing warlords and nobles so it’s no surprise that the book comes well-equipped with family trees of the three countries’ royal families, and a Dramatis personae featuring no fewer than 57 personages – all of whom you really have to know about in order to grasp the full complexity of the situation.

Some commenters on Amazon complain that we learn a lot about the doings of the various men and warlords of her time and less about Emma but a) I think O’Brien has done a heroic job in teasing out every possible incident, experience and emotion which Emma must have experienced and b) what any reading of this period conveys is that everyone’s lives, even the strongest kings, were immersed in the dense and complex matrix of royal and aristocratic marriages, power alliances and conflicts.

Cnut may have conquered England – but only as a result of the twin good fortunes of King Aethelred dying a natural death, and then his son Edmund Ironside unexpectedly dying soon after he and Cnut had made a pact to divide the country (O’Brien recounts the possible causes of that sudden death, injury, illness or assassination).

Cnut still had to travel back to Denmark to try and assert his authority there against his own brother, and went to war to conquer Norway in which he was miserably defeated. Meanwhile, back in the English court, Emma had to protect her newborn infants by Cnut from the jealousy of her own children by Aethelred, let alone the football team size brood of Aethelstan’s children by his earlier, Saxon, wife.

And seeing as every one of these children, male or female, was married off to the siblings of the rulers of Denmark, Norway, Scotland, France, Flanders, Normandy and Brittany, and themselves had numerous progeny, it is quickly mind-bendingly complicated to work out who thinks they’re entitled to inherit the crown of which nation or duchy, and who they’re likely to ally with, or be thrown into conflict against, while new allies or opponents are being born or unexpectedly popping off.

This web of conflicting forces comes into play when Cnut dies in 1035 and there is a period of uncertainty bordering on anarchy while the following contenders vie for the crown:

  • Cnut’s son by Aelfgifu – Harold Harefoot
  • Cnut’s son by Emma – Harthacnut
  • Aethelred’s sons by Emma – Alfred and Edward

To help understand it all, you need the family trees of the Duchy of Normandy, and of Saxon England and of Denmark to follow the dense weave of marriages and kin.

Chapter eleven opens with a particularly bravura recreation of the fate of poor Alfred, Aethelred’s son, who was persuaded to lead a force of Norman sympathisers to claim the throne. He landed with plenty of men and ships on the south coast, was courteously met and persuaded by Earl Godwine to go with him to Guildford, where in the middle of the night his men are disarmed and then brutally massacred – except for the ones kept to be sold into slavery. Alfred himself was tied up and taken on a three-day journey into the heart of Fen country where he was brutally blinded and left to die in the mud.

The narrative is as immediate and bloodthirsty as any contemporary thriller.

O’Brien guides us through this maze of conflicting sources and accounts, consistently seeing it from the point of view of her tough and Machiavellian heroine. Her emphasis on the day-to-day realities of early 11th century England, and on the emotional life of the key players, is a welcome relief from the sometimes crushing litany of battles, taxes and legal charters which tend to fill the accounts of other historians.

This is a very enjoyable and rewarding work not only of history but of historical imagination.

Emma of Normandy (c. 985 – 1052)

Emma of Normandy (c. 985 – 1052)

Timeline of Emma’s life

978 Aethelred II crowned King of England
985? Emma of Normandy born
1002 Emma marries Aethelred. In the same year he orders the infamous Massacre of Danes throughout England.
1005? Birth of Emma’s son Edward (to be the future Edward II the Confessor)
1006-13 A daughter Godgifu and son, Alfred, are born.
1013 Invasion of Swein Forkbeard prompts Aethelred and Emma to flee to her family in Normandy. Her two young sons, Alfred and Edward, are to be left in the Norman court for most of their boyhood and teens.
1014 Swein dies. Aethelred returns but quickly falls out with his son by his pre-Emma mistress, Edmund ‘Ironsides’.
1016 Swein’s son, Cnut invades with a Danish fleet. Aethelred dies of natural causes and, after he’s made a peace treaty with Cnut, Edmund dies in suspicious circumstances, leaving Cnut king of all England.
1017 Cnut marries Emma.
1020s Emma has a son Harthacnut and daughter, Gunnhild.
1027 Cnut goes on pilgrimage to Rome.
1028 Cnut is in Norway furthering his claims to the throne.
1030 Cnut appoints his son by his ‘consort’ Aelfgifu, Swein, earl of Norway to rule in  his absence.
1033 Rebellion in Norway against the unpopular rule of Swein and Aelfgifu.
1035 Cnut was planning a military campaign in Norway and also managing the marriage of his daughter by Emma, Godgifu, to the son of the Holy Roman Emperor Conrad, the future Henry III, when he dies without naming an heir and with at least three possible contenders to the throne – Harold Harefoot, Harthacnut and Edward.
1036 The nobility call a witan at Oxford where it is agreed Harold Harefoot will rule England north of the Thames, Harthacnut England south of the Thames – in his absence run by Earl Godwine in alliance with Emma. Alfred lands from Normandy to press his claim but is kidnapped, blinded and dies. Meanwhile Emma’s best hope, Harthacnut, refuses to come to England, facing his own problems in Norway, and so the path is open for Aelfgifu of Northampton’s son, Harold Harefoot, to be acclaimed king, and Emma to be placed in a very dicey position, as mother of two direct threats to the new king.
1037 Emma flees, but not to Normandy a) because she has been implicated in the murder of her own son, Alfred, who had spent most of his life in exile in the Norman court and whose murder scandalised her relatives b) and because her nephew, the Duke Robert, had died young in 1035, leaving as his only male heir his eight-year-old son by his mistress – William ‘the bastard’ or has he would come to be known, William the Conqueror, so that the court was a snakepit of conspiracies. She goes to Bruges.
1040 Harold Harefoot dies unexpectedly young, aged about 23. Harthacnut, who had finally got round to assembling a fleet to take him to England, is now able to land and claim the throne unopposed. Emma returns with him as the official Queen Mother.
1041 Harthcnut swiftly makes himself unpopular by imposing harsh taxation. He commits a notorious atrocity when two of his tax collectors are killed by a mob in Worcester, and he leads an army west which lays the entire county to waste. O’Brien suggests it is Emma’s idea to invite her surviving son by Aethelred – Edward – back from the Norman court to come and be co-ruler with Harthacnut.
1042 But the arrangement has barely got under way before Harthacnut dies of a drunken fit at a wedding party. Edward II is crowned king.
Around this time a book she had commissioned about her life and times is published, the Encomium Emmae Reginae, a primary source for her life story.
1052 Emma dies, very nearly 70.
1066 Emma’s great-nephew, William of Normandy, seizes the throne of England.


Related links

Reviews of other medieval books and exhibitions

Cnut: England’s Viking King by M.K. Lawson (1993)

In all, the scarcity of contemporary material is such that Cnut’s personality and many of his activities will remain forever unknown. (p.79)

This is a challenging book to read. Right from the first page of the introduction Lawson assumes you already know the outline of the historical events leading up to and during the reign of King Cnut of England and Denmark (1016-1035), and instead plunges into a very detailed discussion of the evidence from different sources, not only for the various events covered in the book but for the numerous issues and controversies about the period.

Thus the text overwhelmingly consists of very finely tuned assessments of conflicting sources for the period such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (which survives in 5 significantly varying versions), contemporary documents such as Anglo-Saxon poetry (The Battle of Brunanburgh describing Athelstan’s victory of 937, The Battle of Maldon describing a Viking victory in 991), sermons notably by the fierce archbishop of York Wulfstan, writs, charters and legal documents, two letters from Cnut himself, slightly later historians in England (Henry of Huntingdon, John of Worcester, William of Malmesbury) in Germany (Adam of Bremen, Thietmar of Merseberg) in Normandy (William of Jumièges, William of Poitiers) in Denmark (Saxo Grammaticus, Swegen Aggeson), Norse poetry embedded in the much later Icelandic sagas (written down in the mid-1200s) and so on and so on – all garnished with a forest of notes which themselves reference other scholarly writings and discussions about each of these issues and cruxes.

Most histories present you with a fairly straightforward and smooth-flowing narrative, maybe mentioning one or two places where the sources disagree. This book takes you behind the scenes of history, as it were, to show you the jungle of texts, the wreckage of what happened to be written down, what happened to survive the centuries, which the conscientious historian has to wrestle with — almost all of them biased and distorted by their non-historical purposes – hagiographies to praise saints, various versions of the A-S Chronicle slanted to praise the scribe’s monastery or benefactors, the Encomium Emmae written to praise Cnut’s wife Emma and her sons.

We have a reasonable number of charters from the period – documents officially assigning land from the king or rich patrons, generally to a religious foundation – except that, as Lawson points out, many of them are probably forgeries concocted by the said foundation to justify rights to land which were customary or lost in the mists of time. (With characteristic thoroughness, Lawson has an appendix naming every one of the royal charters issued during Cnut’s reign, along with date and location, and a second appendix explaining in detail the format in which writs and charters have survived.)

So the sources not only routinely disagree about the most basic facts – like the year in which a battle took place – they are almost all biased, deliberately omitting major events or exaggerate minor ones, names even major names like Sweyn/Swegen/Sven are routinely garbled, a high percentage of the documents may be faked, and most of the reporting was based on hearsay, often decades sometimes centuries, after the event.

The result of Lawson’s detailed investigations is probably the definitive account of Cnut’s reign, but very unlike a normal history book: instead of a smooth and comprehensible narrative the text is entirely made up of scholarly detective work, of the subtle balancing of sources against each other, weighing their probable veracity or inaccuracy on each point against three or four or five other accounts, which are themselves suspect for reasons Lawson explains exhaustively.

And the conclusion of all this effort is quite dispiriting: Cnut’s reign is one of the worst documented of any king of England:

The inadequacies of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and the surviving charters, even when supplemented by such other fragments as the skaldic poetry and the Letters of 1019-20 and 1027, make it impossible to construct a decent chronology of his reign. (p.79)

So this is not a popular history – although it sheds some unexpected lights on the period, I kept being surprised at the way he mentions what seem to be major events very casually, only in passing, as a side effect of his far more intense interest in the trustworthiness of this charter or that chronicle or the Icelandic poem on the matter, and so on. This isn’t a book for the general reader: I assume it is aimed at undergraduate level or above.

Queen Emma and King Cnut present a gold cross to the New Minster, Winchester (from the New Minster Liber Vitae)

Queen Emma and King Cnut present a gold cross to the New Minster, Winchester (from the New Minster Liber Vitae). Note the angel crowning Cnut. Note his hand on his sword. Heavenly and earthly power combined.

Events up to and including the reign of King Cnut the Great

The Saxon kings of Wessex – Alfred the Great (871-899), Edward the Elder (899-924) and Athelstan (924-927), Edgar (943-975) – spent their careers trying to hold repeated waves of invading Danes/Vikings at bay. Despite setbacks, Alfred just about held on then pushed the Danes back and secured the territory of Wessex i.e. the west England, during the 880s. His successors through the first third of the 10th century pushed the Danes out of England, until Athelstan could pronounce himself – and be seen by his contemporaries as – the first King of All England by the 920s.

The reign of Athelstan’s nephew, King Edgar the Peaceful (959-975) is seen as the ‘high noon’ of Anglo-Saxon monarchy. But Edgar died aged only 31, leaving the nation to his son, Aethelred, who was only 11 or 12. Aethelred became known to history as Aethelred the Unready because he was totally unsuited to being a king, combining arbitrary cruelty against the helpless with craven cowardice before the powerful.

During his long chaotic reign (978-1013) the nobles of England were hopelessly divided and a new generation of Vikings made their appearance and ravaged the coastlines of England without pity. Unable to muster a strong army, Aethelred fell back time and again to paying the Vikings off with ever-increasing ransoms – the so-called Danegeld – bleeding the country dry to extract all the goods, silver and coin he could muster in order to fill the Danish ships which sailed home every autumn full of English goods, slaves and treasure.

Among the leaders of the new wave of attackers, which escalated through the 990s, may or may not have been Sweyn Forkbeard, King of Denmark (this is the kind of academic question Lawson goes into in great detail – Lawson refers to Sweyn as Swegen thoughout), but Sweyn/Swegen certainly led an plundering raid in 1003, along with his teenage son, Cnut, and almost ever year for a decade. These temporary raids for plunder escalated until, in 1013, Sweyn embarked on a planned invasion, ravaging across the East of England before seizing London. Aethelred was forced to flee England, taking refuge with his brother-in-law, Duke Richard I of Normandy (Aethelred was married to Duke Richard’s sister, Emma) and Sweyn declared himself King. A surprisingly large number of English nobles were happy to acquiesce in his enthronement.

But then Sweyn died unexpectedly after just a year in power, in 1014. The Danish magnates acclaimed his son, Cnut, their king and ruler, but the English nobles asked Aethelred to return from exile in Normandy, although under strict conditions (which for some historians marks the first recorded pact between an English king and his subjects). Aethelred landed and marched an unusually unified English force against the Danes, catching Cnut unprepared, who decided it was wisest to sail back to Denmark – not least to assert his authority there as Sweyn’s successor to the Danish throne. Aethelred was restored.

But in 1015 Cnut returned with a well-organised force to find Aethelred, as usual, in disarray, with his own eldest son, Edmund Ironside, having rebelled against him.

When Cnut began ravaging across the country in late 1015, Edmund rejoined his father to oppose the Danes, but Aethelred died in April 1016. Cnut then decisively defeated Edmund at the gory Battle of Assundun on 18 October 1016, in which large numbers of English nobles were slaughtered.

Cnut and Edmund made a peace treaty, the latter retaining kingship of Wessex, while Cnut took the rest of England (a carbon copy of the situation under King Alfred 130 years previously) but when Edmund himself died soon afterwards, either of wounds or illness later that year, Cnut declared himself King of All England. Since he was also King of Denmark and part of Norway, historians refer to this as the Anglo-Scandinavian or North Sea Empire.

Cnut ruled England from 1016 until his death in 1035. He married Aethelred’s widow, Emma, a shrewd move to consolidate an alliance with Emma’s brother, Duke Richard II of Normandy, and also to deprive her sons by Aethelred of support for an invasion attempt from Normandy.

When he died, Cnut was succeeded by his son by an English woman, his first wife or mistress Aelfgifu – Harold I or Harold Harefoot – who ruled for five years until his death in 1040. At which point Cnut’s young son by Emma of Normandy, Harthacnut, having needed several years to establish himself as Cnut’s successor in Denmark, arrived in England and peacefully claimed his throne.

However, Harthacnut turned out to be a cruel and tyrannical king, even by the standards of the times, imposing ruinous punishments – for example ordering entire towns to be burned to the ground if they refused to pay taxes – and it was a relief to everyone when he died after only two years’ reign, and was succeeded by Edward, soon to be known as ‘the Confessor’.

It was during Edward’s reign that the earl of Essex, Godwin, and his son Harold Godwinson, asserted their power, along with his brothers becoming the most powerful family in England. Edward failed to have any children, and appears, while in exile in the Norman court, to have given some kind of promise to William Duke of Normandy that he would inherit the English throne. This was the tangled web which led – at his death in 1066 – to the open conflict between Harold Godwinson and Duke William for the throne of England, which climaxed in the Battle of Hastings – and the long, complex history of the Anglo-Saxon kings of England came to an abrupt end.

The combat of Edmund Ironside (left) and Cnut the Dane (right) as depicted by the medieval author Matthew Paris

The combat of Edmund Ironside (left) and Cnut the Dane (right) as depicted by the medieval author Matthew Paris

Issues

So much for the bare outline of events. In fact the reader of this book has to piece together a lot of this themselves because Lawson’s main interest, as I’ve explained, is much more a textual analysis of surviving sources, than in writing a spuriously smooth narrative. The entire 200-page book is divided into just five chapters and one of them is devoted solely to ‘The Sources’, but in fact the other four are just as scholarly, tentative, hedged around with reservations and qualifications.

But from the welter of notes and debates over the precise sequence of transcription of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, C version, and so on, emerge some rather more comprehensible ideas.

  • Aethelred has a bad reputation for dithering, for not facing up to Danish attacks and for shamefully bleeding the country dry to pay off the invaders: but Lawson points out that the cost of raising levies and arming them might well have been more i.e. Danegeld was the cheapest option. Also, that it’s only in retrospect that we know that they kept coming back for more – at the time, it may have been hoped that a few payments and promises would make them go away for good.
  • I knew that Cnut’s kingship of England created an Anglo-Scandinavian or North Sea Empire. Lawson brings out the implication of this, though which is that, in an age of perpetual warfare of all against all, that meant he had not so much to rule a far-flung empire as continually worry about all the threats on the borders of that empire: i.e. he had to be aware of potential threats from the Scots, the Irish Vikings, the Welsh, the Normans, the Franks, the (German) Holy Roman Emperor, from Norway, Sweden, and from the Slavic peoples east of the Elbe including the Poles. Explains why both his grandfather Gorm the Old and father Sweyn took Slavic consorts, to protect their eastern flank.
  • In 1017 Cnut, settling into his domain, divided England into four parts, keeping Wessex for himself, giving East Anglis to the independent warlord Thirkell the Tall, Mercia to Eadric, and Northumbria to the Norwegian earl Eric of Lade, to reward these strong allies in his invading army and to impose a military government. The comparison with William the Bastard parcelling out England to his followers 50 years later is striking. Unlike William, though, Cnut seems to have embarked on the elimination of powerful native nobles, having Eadred (who had, incidentally, overthrown the father of Aelfgifu, Cnut’s English wife) beheaded, along – in some accounts – with a number of other leading nobles. Combined with the loss of life at Assundun this amounts to a little holocaust of leading figures. Poor England!
  • The Viking Age in England started with the attack on the remote monastery of Lindisfarne in 793 and only ended with the crushing defeat of the invasion force of Harald Hardrada, defeated by the mighty Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Stamford bridge outside York in 1066. 273 long years of seemingly endless raids, ravaging, plundering and enslavement, which climaxed in the 20 year rule of a Danish king. Odd that this is so often overlooked in the long sweep of English history.

Ravaging and destruction

The scale of the ravaging can’t be imagined. The abbey of Tavistock was burned down in 997, Cerne destroyed, St Mary’s church Exeter was burnt down on 1003, the nunnery at Minster-in-Thanet was burnt down. Christ Church Canterbry was burnt down and the archbishop clubbed to death in 1012. Apart from the massacre of Saxon nobles at the Battle of Assundun, Cnut then executed a number of leading nobles along with their followers. The Danes spent 3 months in 1010 burning East Anglia, killing all the men and cattle they could get their hands on. the young Cnut, forced out of England at Aethelstan’s return in 1014, cut off the hands, noses and ears of the hostages the Saxon nobles had given to him. Cnut’s son, Harthacnut, incensed by the murder of two of his tax inspectors in Worcester, ordered his army to destroy as much of the buildings and kill every man they could find in Worcestershire in 1042. When you consider that Aethelstan repeatedly taxed the nation to within an inch of its life, to extract the repeated payments of Danegeld, combined with the ceaseless harrying, raids, plundering and murdering along any part of the coast, this was a prolonged period when the country was on its knees.

No wonder contemporary writers were so bitter, angry and think the world is coming to an end. Brihtferth of Ramsey in his Life of St Oswald, describes the Danes as accursed, and accomplices of Beelzebub. Archbishop Wulfstan’s famous Sermo Lupi (Sermon of the Wolf) paints a searing portrait of a society in complete moral and physical collapse, and the imminent conquest of the country with the reign of the Anti-Christ.

Hic domus incenditur (Here a house is burned, from the Bayeux Tapestry describing the Norman Conquest 1066

Hic domus incenditur (Here a house is burned) from the Bayeux Tapestry describing the Norman Conquest 1066, showing men under orders burning a wooden house from which are fleeing a woman and her son. Could be Vietnam. Could be Syria.

England endures

The astonishing thing, though all this mayhem, is the point Lawson makes and so do Marc Morris and David Carpenter, which is that England didn’t fall into chaos, real chaos. Trade continued; taxes were collected; men were drafted into armies; church rents continued to be administered, charters issued and so on.

In fact all the charters, writs and tax returns which Lawson so scrupulously sifts through indicate the continuation of a large amount of central administration and legal writ. Deeper than the destruction is the underlying fact that England was a very wealthy country with an efficient and thorough administrative system before the Danes invaded – a system created by the Wessex kings Alfred, Athelstan, Edgar. This proved solid and resilient enough to survive thirty years of ravaging by the Danes (986-1016), the complete conquest by Cnut, the brief but intensely destructive activity of his son Harthacnut (1040-42), and then the systematic ravaging of the south-east by William the Bastard after his victory at Hastings (1066), followed by the horrific Harrying of the North to put down rebels in 1070, which left Yorkshire in ruins for a generation. But still it endured.

Conclusions

From Lawson’s conclusion, and from the book as a whole, three things emerged for me:

  1. Cnut was, by the standards of his day, the most successful of all pre-Conquest rulers in Britain‘ (p.196). Not only did he rule all of England with some kind of overlordship over the king of Scotland but he was lord of Denmark and Norway, too; and he married his daughter to the Holy Roman Emperor, creating a blood alliance only Aethelstan among his predecessors had managed. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles mention the outlawing and beheading of a small number of really important nobles, but otherwise his rule doesn’t seem to have been marked by the kind of civil wars which blighted his predecessor and would mar the reign of so many of the Plantagenet kings a century later. Above all, he succeeded in what contemporaries considered the number one obligation of a king – he protected the realm from foreign invasion and raids. All this without the imposition of castles everywhere and the wholescale replacement of the English nobility with his own followers, which is of course what William the Bastard did. So whose conquest was more effective in its day, William’s or Cnut’s? Discuss.
  2. Contingency In fact, what Cnut and none of his contemporaries could have anticipated was that he himself would die relatively young (we don’t actually know his birth year, and Lawson – in his usual thorough way explicates several conflicting theories – but 990 is a popular calculation, so he was, perhaps, 45 when he died in 1035) and that all three of his sons – Sweyn (d.1035) and Harold Harefoot (d.1040) by Aelfgifu – and Harthacnut (d.1042) by Emma of Normandy – would be dead within seven years. Had Cnut lived to 60 like the Conqueror, and had his children reigned similar lengths as the Conqueror’s children (William Rufus 13 years, Henry 1 35 years!) i.e. a total of 48 years i.e. until 1083, then in all probability neither Edward the Confessor, nor Harold Godwinson, nor William the Conqueror would ever have ruled – the Norman Conquest would never have happened! But all three of his male children died in quick succession and the kingship of England reverted to the line of Wessex, to the Confessor, whose failure to have any children, let alone a male heir, turned out to be fatal.
  3. The Viking Age Lawson, like other historians says that the Viking Age came to a definitive end with the crushing defeat of Harald Hardrada, King of Norway, by the army of Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066. But a section of his conclusion slightly contradicts this. For in 1069 a Danish fleet sailed up the Humber to assist Saxon rebels against the Conqueror; in 1070 this force was joined by Swegen Estrithsson of Denmark, Cnut’s nephew, who was met by people apparently hoping he would conquer the entire country, as his uncle had. In fact William bought Swegen off (just like Aethelred) but another fleet, under Swegen’s son, another Cnut, arrived to support a further rebellion in 1075. They decided against an armed confrontation with William, withdrew and sailed home. But even as late as 1085 William was, apparently, making careful preparations to deal with another invasion Cnut was threatening but in the event never mounted. In other words, it sounds to me as if the Battle of Stamford Bridge didn’t really end the Viking threat, which continued, by Lawson’s own account, to be serious and taken seriously for another 20 years. So surely more as if it slowly petered out rather than abruptly and definitively ended.

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A Great and Terrible King: Edward I and the Forging of Britain by Marc Morris (2008)

This is a really good book about a key figure in medieval history: it feels deep and rich, comprehensively researched, and consistently thought-provoking. It provides a long, thorough and convincing portrait of this ‘great’ medieval king, with lots of insights into the culture and society of his time, not only of England, but of Wales and Scotland too. Above all, ploughing through this detailed account of the challenges Edward faced gives you a profound understanding of the sheer difficulty of being a medieval king.

You can read a good account of Edward I’s reign on Wikipedia. From Morris’s book a number of themes and ideas emerge over and above the basic facts:

The name ‘Edward’

Edward was an odd and unfashionable name for a Plantagenet king. It is a Saxon name from the same stable as Egbert and Aelfred – starkly different from the French names Norman aristocracy and royalty were used to – Guillaume, Henri, Jean, Richard and so on. This was because Edward’s father, Henry III, a feeble king, grew increasingly obsessed by religion and in particular with the last king of Saxon England, the saintly Edward the Confessor. Henry went so far as to have the Confessor’s bones dug up and reinterred in Westminster Abbey, which Henry also had rebuilt to the Confessor’s greater glory. And this is why he named his first-born son Edward.

Young manhood and education

Born in 1239, Edward grew up amid the chaos of the reign of useless father, Henry III. A major contributing factor to the chaos was the corrupt and violent behaviour of Henry’s in-laws, the French de Lusignan family (relatives of Henry’s scheming wife, Eleanor of Provence).

Discontent erupted in 1258 when a group of Henry’s senior nobles staged what was in effect a coup, forcing the king to expel the de Lusignans and to agree a comprehensive reform programme known as the Provisions of Oxford. From this high point the barons’ coup then slowly crumbled from within as they squabbled among themselves, but Henry was unable to regain full control of his kingdom and the ongoing instability led to another eruption in 1263, named The Second Barons War.

The rebel barons were led by the religious fanatic and land-grabbing baron Simon de Montfort. There’s quite a back story here, because earlier in his reign the impressionable Henry had allowed the charismatic and overbearing Montfort to marry his sister (against a lot of courtly opposition), so the rebel leader was in fact Henry’s own brother-in-law.

The rebels won the bloody Battle of Lewes in 1264, taking Henry and prince Edward (aged 25) prisoner. Edward was moved to a ‘safe’ castle in the west of England and generously given free reign which proved to be a mistake because one day he escaped on horseback to rejoin his royalist colleagues. The regrouped royalists brought the rebels to battle at Evesham in the West Midlands, killing the leading rebels including de Montfort.

Henry III was restored to a shaky sort of power, but now limited by the charters and rules he’d been obliged to comply with – the rough outlines of a ‘constitution’. For example, it was agreed that there would now be regular meetings of his nobles, the knights of the shires and burgesses from the major towns and cities. The new word ‘parliament’ began to be applied to these triannual meetings.

Henry III at first fiercely punished the rebels, confiscating their lands, imposing massive fines – but slowly discovered that this only drove the scattered rebels into further confrontation. Soon there were so many of them they acquired a name, ‘the Disinherited’, and hid out in remote parts of the realm such as the Isle of Ely, where they were difficult to defeat.

Edward learned a lot from all this.

a) In the initial stages of the rebellion he had (unbelievably) sided with de Montfort; only later, when push came to shove, did he rejoin his father’s party. Because of this he acquired a reputation for deceit and flipping sides which, as king, he was determined to rise above, by making clear and consistent decisions.
b) He realised it is a bad tactic to fiercely crush the defeated (cf the Allies’ behaviour to Wilhelmine Germany after the Great War) – you only sow the seeds for further conflict. Much better is the grand magnanimity and forgiveness practiced by his great-grandfather, Henry II, who repeatedly forgave his rebellious sons and other nobles (or America’s astonishingly forgiving attitude to defeated Japan in 1945).
c) Regular parliaments are an excellent way of letting disgruntled citizens state their problems. Right from the start of Edward’s reign he instituted regular meetings of the ‘parliament’ and he made a point of following up problems of corruption and out-of-date laws.

Crusade

If his father was besotted with the historic figure of Edward the Confessor, Edward developed a cult for the legendary King Arthur. Morris has some amusing pages explaining the rise of the legend of Arthur and the key part played in it by the fraud Geoffrey of Monmouth whose History of the Kings of Britain (written about 1136) is a farrago of fantasy and tall stories, but which devotes 60 or so pages to this King Arthur, providing a ‘factual’ basis which later writers spun out into extravagant stories.

So the first thing Edward did after marrying Eleanor of Castile was take his new bride to Glastonbury to see the (alleged and certainly faked) burial caskets containing Arthur and Guinevere. Edward was always to understand the importance of managing public events connected with the monarchy with high drama and theatrical trappings so as to imbue them with the maximum meaning and power.

He made a grand ceremony of ‘taking the cross’ to go a-crusading in 1268, in his father’s waning years. Morris shows in detail how he then set about mulcting the kingdom for the money he would need to lead his pack of knights and hangers-on to the Holy Land. Part one of the route was to head to the South of France to rendezvous with the senior partner in the crusade, King Louis IX of France. But on arrival at the Mediterranean he was dismayed to discover that Louis had been persuaded by his brother, Charles of Anjou, King of Sicily, not to sail to the Holy Land, but to Tunis in North Africa, to put down pirates who were causing Charles trouble. By the time Edward arrived in Tunis, Louis had made a peace treaty with the local emir so there was no fighting to be done.

The two fleets then sailed to Sicily but here a massive storm wrecked the French fleet, anchored on one side of Sicily, and the French king decided to go home. Edward continued with the English fleet – safely anchored on the other side of Sicily – to the Holy Land. His time here wasn’t quite a fiasco but it wasn’t a stunning success: Jerusalem had fallen fifty years earlier and the Crusader ‘kingdom’ more or less amounted to the town of Acre and a slender stretch of coastline. This was menaced by the Mamluk Muslims under their canny leader Baybars. A pointless foray to attack some Arab villages led to ferocious counter-measures.

The Crusaders’ best hope was to make an alliance with the new threat from the north, the Mongols, who had swept out of central Asia in the late 1100s and now held territory right across Asia, including to the north of Palestine in modern Iran. For various reasons the alliance didn’t come off. Edward realised the futility of his presence when Hugh II, king of Jerusalem, was forced to sign a peace treaty with Baybars, and all offensive operations were cancelled.

The most dramatic thing that happened to Edward in the Holy Land was an assassination attempt by a lone killer sent from Baybars, who made his way into the royal chamber and then attacked Edward with a knife. He managed to wound the king in the arm before Edward overpowered and killed him. The wound took some time to heal, but eventually Edward was well enough to pack up and set off back to England.

It was en route, in Sicily, that he learned that his father had died, in November 1272. Surprisingly, he didn’t rush home, but took his time, visiting his lands in Gascony, south-west France, and then making a point of visiting the French king and renewing his father’s fealty to him i.e. confirming the arrangement that Edward ‘owned’ Gascony on behalf of the French king.

It is a forlorn theme of the rest of Edward’s life, which Morris brings out, that he repeatedly made massive efforts to raise the money to go on a further crusade – but every time his preparations were stymied by the outbreak of conflict nearer to home and the money and troops raised to free the Holy Land were repeatedly decoyed into the never-ending conflicts in Wales or Scotland or France.

France

Edward’s father, the weakling Henry III, had been compelled in 1259 to travel to Paris and kneel before King Louis IX. Under the Treaty of Paris, Henry gave up any claim to his family’s lands in the north of France – this represented the final irrevocable loss of Normandy, Brittany, Anjour, Maine – all the territories his father (John) and uncle (Richard) and grandfather (Henry II) had laboured so long and hard to preserve. In return, though, Henry – and Edward after him – were confirmed as the legitimate rulers of Gascony, the rich wine-growing region in south-west France – so long as they did homage and recognised Louis as their feudal lord for these possessions.

Although it was an unstable arrangement, Edward had good personal relations with the French kings of his day, travelled to Paris more than once to confirm the arrangement and so – eerily – we were at peace with France for the first half of his reign.

This changed abruptly in Edward’s final, troubled decade, with the advent of a new French king, Philip IV. The French encouraged their merchant ships in the Channel to clash with English ships, with casualties on both sides. When Philip requested Edward to attend in person in Paris to discuss these and other minor skirmishes, Edward was too busy in Scotland to attend and so the French king declared Gascony forfeit.

Outraged, for the next ten years Edward tried to organise a major reconquest of Gascony but kept getting derailed by his troubles in Wales and Scotland. Some expeditionary forces were sent to the province, but generally were defeated or made small gains which were overturned by the much larger French forces. In the end it was the pope who came to Edward’s aid, demanding a peace between the two Christian kings and the restoration of the province by the French under pain of excommunication. We regained Gascony thanks to the pope.

Wales

The leading figure in late 12th century Wales was Llywelyn ap Gruffudd. He was based in the core Welsh territory in the north, Gwynedd, which included the Isle of Anglesea. During the turmoil of Henry III’s reign, Llywelyn – via the 1267 Treaty of Montgomery – had expanded his territory to include the Four Cantrefs of Perfeddwlad and was recognised in his title of Prince of Wales.

Morris explains how different Welsh laws and customs were to English ones. The Welsh regarded themselves as heirs to the Britons who once inhabited all of Britain but had been disinherited twice over – once by the invading Anglo-Saxons from the 500s  and then by the Normans after 1066. Successive English kings had allotted the lands along the border with Wales to their strongest nobles. The border was known as the March and the nobles collectively as the Marchers. March lands had their own laws and customs and the Marcher lords liked to think that they were bounden to neither Welsh nor English laws. Low-level conflict between the Marcher lords and the Welsh was almost permanent.

English estates were passed on through primogeniture i.e. the eldest son inherits the entire estate. This has the merit of keeping grand estates united, making clear who the heir is, and has the spin-off effect of motivating younger sons to go and do something worthwhile like fight for the king or go on crusade. The Welsh had a completely different system of partitioning the estate of a dead man among all his male heirs. This led to the continual fragmentation of Welsh territory into small, relatively powerless estates, and to continual conflict between male members of families, and their allies.

So it was that Llywelyn’s fiercest enemies weren’t the English Marcher lords, but his own family, specifically his younger brother Dafydd. In 1274 Dafydd and Gruffydd ap Gwenwynwyn of Powys organised an assassination attempt against Llywelyn. It failed and they defected to the English, promising to fight for Edward in return for part of Llywelyn’s land. Morris enumerates the numerous minor incursions and skirmishes between English and Welsh in these years – but the snapping point came when Llywelyn announced his intention to marry Eleanor, daughter of Simon de Montfort, the great enemy of his father. The alliance of his Welsh enemies with the powerful de Montfort family on the Continent was too dangerous to be allowed. In November 1276 Edward declared war on Llywelyn and invaded with a massive force of 15,500 – of whom 9,000 were Welshmen. There wasn’t any single major battle, just skirmishes, the Welsh making hit-and-run guerrilla attacks on the larger force then running back to the hills.

(In fact it’s a characteristic of medieval warfare that there were very few battles; campaigns consisted of armies making great marches destroying, burning and pillaging everything in their path. It’s startling to read that, when King Edward finally brought William Wallace to battle at Falkirk on 22 July 1298, it was the first battle Edward had been involved in for 33 years, since the Battle of Evesham in 1265!)

Edward reinforced his advance by setting masons to build castles at key defensive points on his march into Llywelyn’s heartland. While his military campaign squeezed the Welsh into more remote fastnesses, the castles were built to protect Edward’s rear and to provide a permanent means of controlling the region. Llywelyn was forced to surrender. By the Treaty of Aberconwy in November 1277, Llywelyn was deprived of all his conquests of the previous twenty years, and left only with the core heartland of Gwynedd, and the rather empty title of ‘Prince of Wales’.

Edward pressed on with his castle-building. Most of the castles which the Welsh Tourist Board invites you to come and marvel at are in fact symbols of their nation’s subjection by the English.

But the insensitive imposition of English law and practices turned many minor Welsh nobility who had been neutral in the Llywelyn war against the settlement, and in 1282 war broke out again, led again by the difficult Dafydd. This time Edward was angry at the breach of the peace treaty, and invaded in full strength determined to take no prisoners. Llywelyn was killed at the Battle of Orewin Bridge in December 1282. In June 1283 Dafydd was also captured, taken to Shrewsbury, and hanged, drawn and quartered. The heads of the rebellious brothers were sent to London to be exhibited on spikes.

But peace in the Middle Ages never lasts long. There were further rebellions in 1287–88 and, in 1294, a serious uprising under the leadership of Madog ap Llywelyn, a distant relative of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd. Edward successfully suppressed both, but at some cost, and causing disruption to his other plans (the Holy Land, Gascony).

Edward was determined to stamp complete control on Wales. By the 1284 Statute of Rhuddlan, the Principality of Wales was incorporated into England and was given an administrative system like the English, with counties policed by sheriffs – ‘coins, laws, towns and charters’ as Morris sums it up. Edward embarked on the full-scale English settlement of Wales, creating new towns like Flint, Aberystwyth and Rhuddlan. The inhabitants of these towns were to be solely English, with the Welsh banned from living in them. Morris doesn’t hesitate to call this a form of apartheid.

(A fascinating aspect of these new towns or bastides is that, contrary to popular belief that the Middle Ages built everything in quaint windy lanes, they were laid out on a rigid grid pattern as this aerial view of Winchelsea, one of Edward’s English new towns, makes clear.)

Castles

The main medieval strategy for securing a conquered territory was to build castles. We are lucky in having the name of Edward’s master mason, an Italian he recruited in his slow journey back from the Ninth Crusade – Master James of Saint George.

Master James built the castles of Beaumaris, Caernarfon, Conwy and Harlech, which were intended as both fortresses and royal palaces for the King. These strongholds made a strong statement about Edward’s intentions to rule North Wales permanently. They drew on imagery from both the Byzantine Empire (in the shape and coloration of the buildings) and the legend of King Arthur, to assert the legitimacy of Edward’s rule.

In 1284 King Edward ensured that his son Edward (later Edward II) was born at Caernarfon Castle – another deliberate statement about the new political order in Wales. In 1301 at Lincoln, the young Edward became the first English prince to be invested with the title of ‘Prince of Wales’ – a tradition which continues to this day – and was granted land across North Wales with a view to permanently controlling the region.

Scotland

Morris has an interesting few pages about 13th century English racism i.e. the firm conviction that the Welsh, Irish and Scots were semi-human barbarians. This was based on their poverty relative to lush fertile England, to their chaotic social structures (the hosts of petty ‘kings’ always fighting each other), to their different attitudes to sex and marriage, and to their traditions of Christianity, alien in many ways to the orthodox Catholicism of the English and especially of the Europeanised Norman kings.

But within this general observation there are fascinating insights.

For example, the Welsh were ethnically very unified, descendants of the Britons, the original inhabitants of the island, who had been pushed west by the Romans, more so by the Angles and Saxons, and then again by the Norman invaders. Yet, partly because of their tradition of partitioning estates at the death of their owner among all adult males, the country was in a permanent state of infighting among a host of petty lords.

This contrasted strongly with 13th century Scotland, which was a surprisingly multi-ethnic society: in the south-west were the original ‘Brittonic elements’, but the south-east was mostly populated by English, remnants of the extensive Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria; in the west the inhabitants were of Gaelic stock, having immigrated from Ireland during the Dark Ages; and all around the coast, especially in the islands, lived people of Norwegian (Viking) stock (p.241). Then, after the Conquest, numbers of Norman knights settled in Scottish lands and, in the mid-12th century, there was a large influx of Flemish settlers.

Yet despite this multi-ethnicity, ironically the Scots had a more unified political culture than the Welsh, mainly because they had adopted the European idea of primogeniture, which ensured the maintenance of a strong central power. There were still civil wars and rebellions, but behind them all was always the established idea of one king of Scotland, in a way that there wasn’t an accepted idea of one central king of Wales.

It’s interesting to learn that around the end of the 11th century Scotland underwent a significant ‘anglicisation’. It is usually dated to the rule of Scots King David I. David had been brought up at the court of Henry I, around 1100, where he imbibed the courtly and urbane manners of European culture. As Morris points out, before this Scots kings had generally had Gaelic names, like Malcolm (Máel Coluim); afterwards they tended to have classical, Biblical or Norman names – Alexander, William, David. In fact, so sweeping were the changes that medieval scholars refer to them collectively as the ‘Davidian Revolution’:

The Davidian Revolution is a term given by many scholars to the changes which took place in the Kingdom of Scotland during the reign of David I (1124–1153). These included his foundation of burghs, implementation of the ideals of Gregorian Reform, foundation of monasteries, Normanization of the Scottish government, and the introduction of feudalism through immigrant Norman and Anglo-Norman knights. (Wikipedia)

All this meant that the kings of England tended to have much more respect for the King of the unified Scots than for the prince of the squabbling Welsh. They were more their idea of what kings should be. Edward I had been on good terms with the Scots king of his day, Alexander III (reigned 1249 to 1286), who paid him homage for the English lands he held of him (much as Edward paid the King of France homage for his territory of Gascony).

But when Alexander’s two sons and daughter all died young, and then Alexander himself died in 1286, and then his grand-daughter, seven-year-old Matilda, died while sailing back from Norway (where she’d been born) in 1290, there were no blood relatives left – the line of Alexander became defunct. This led to a massive succession crisis known in Scotland as ‘The Great Cause’.

There was a wide range of candidates to succeed and so an independent arbiter was needed. The nobles in charge of the process, the so-called ‘Guardians’ of Scotland, decided to ask King Edward to adjudicate the various claims. But Edward promptly horrified the Scots nobles by claiming complete sovereignty over Scotland. This set off a long train of highly legalistic disputes, claims and counter-claims. Morris details the complex negotiations whereby both sides tried to reconcile their conflicting views.

In fact a distinguishing feature of this book is the detail Morris goes into to show how legalistic so many of these disputes were in origin and enactment. I.e Edward was generally at pains to establish his right to a territory or cause; in the case of the Scots legalistic attempts to establish the next king dragged on for years before there was any hint of violence and many of the details are illuminating and amusing, for example the refusal of the Scots nobles to pay homage to Edward on English soil, leading to a lot of toing and froing over the bridge over the Tweed which formed the border between the two kingdoms.

On a high level, the legal approaches broke down and led to open warfare, which dragged on for the rest of Edward’s reign. The English beat the Scots, the Scots beat the English – either one of the two main contenders for the throne – Robert the Bruce or John Balliol – alternately allied with Edward then turned against him. Stirling castle was lost, then won again, then lost again.

In a way these wars are like love stories – ‘boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy finds girl again’ is the famous summary of all Hollywood love stories – similarly, ‘King of England conquers Scotland (or Wales or Ireland), King of England loses Scotland (or Wales or Ireland), King of England conquers Scotland (or Wales or Ireland) again’ is the high level summary. the interest is in the detail, and a lot of the detail in fact comes down to money.

Taxes

In his preface Morris says this is the first full-length biography of Edward for a century. I would guess that some of the biggest changes since the last one would be a more politically correct, culturally aware sense of the impact of English rule on the other nations of Britain (described above). But I also imagine this book goes into much greater detail about the economics of kingship.

These kings lived in a state of permanent financial crisis. The uprising against Henry III was prompted partly because of the corrupt influence of foreigners at court, but also because of Henry’s arbitrary and fierce levying of taxes on his subjects. The single biggest theme in Morris’s book isn’t war or King Arthur or Scotland – it is Edward’s permanent struggle to find enough money to pay for everything.

Crusades, building castles, fighting the Welsh, fighting the Scots, defending Gascony – they all cost money, drained the royal coffers, and Morris goes into exacting detail about Edward’s finances. Broadly speaking, in the first half of his reign Edward went out of his way to appear constitutional, to confirm the annual calling of parliaments, to confirm Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forests, to review grievances and issues all around his kingdom, to tour his lands and listen to local sheriffs and knights. Morris details the clever arrangement Edward devised with his Italian bankers, the Riccardi family from Lucca, whereby Edward swore over to them a fixed annual percentage of his wool tax in return for loans.

But in the 1290s this system broke down under the pressure of multiple threats, in Wales, Scotland, Gascony and then the brief intense threat of invasion from France (French ships raided and burned some of the Cinque Ports on the South Coast). Edward was forced by the huge expenditure required by these simultaneous wars to break many of the good practices of his early reign, by imposing a bewildering range of clever and onerous taxes, on towns and merchants, on the entire wool trade, on nobles and barons, and a punishing set of taxes on the (very wealthy) English church. Among many other things, the book is a thorough introduction to the world of medieval taxes, to maltotes and prises, to scutage and tallages and fifteenths and thirtieths.

The last quarter of the book describes how Edward threw away much of the goodwill generated by 20 years of good kingship, and comprehensively alienated every element in society, prompting armed insurrection by a number of leading nobles (most frequently the earls of Norfolk and Hereford, Roger Bigod and Humphrey de Bohun). In the legalistic way of the age (and of Morris’s account) this led to numerous parliaments and confrontations – but by 1300 England teetered on the brink of a civil war, with church and nobility allied against the king, which hadn’t been seen since the bad days of King Henry in the 1250s.

Luckily, this very moment saw the eruption onto the scene of the Scottish nationalist William Wallace, who raised forces in the west of Scotland and went onto win a series of devastating victories against the (badly supplied) English garrisons. As news of these reached England, the crisis (temporarily) united king and aristocracy into a determination to defeat Wallace.

But even though the nobility closed ranks, Morris’s account is fascinating in showing just how hard it still was for Edward to persuade his nobility to fight at all – many of them refused the call to rally to the king’s standard or marched north only to hesitate and pull out at the last moment. Time and again Morris shows how the initially impressive levies of infantry quickly melted away once they’d crossed the border, basically because the king ran out of money and couldn’t afford to pay them. Edward’s letters to his Exchequer survive and record a king driven to mounting rage and frustration at not being sent enough money to pay  his troops, which melt away just at vital moments of the campaign.

I came to this book knowing that Edward was known as ‘the Hammer of the Scots’ but come away with a much more informed sense of the difficulty of funding medieval kingship and the really immense challenge of raising enough money to fund even a single military campaign.

In a telling symbol, Morris points out how Master James the castle builder had thousands of pounds in the 1280s to build edifices like Caernarfon out of solid stone, but by the late 1290s the money had slowed to a trickle and he was being paid only £20 a week to build the final castles of the reign, Linlithgow and Selkirk – and in wood!

The last seven years of his reign (to his death in 1307) involved more fighting against the Welsh and Scots and French but none of these was brought to a final resolution and he handed over the conflicts, the dire state of royal finances, and a nobility and church very disgruntled at being repeatedly fleeced and mulcted, over to his son, Edward II.

Wife and children

When he was 14 Edward was married off by his father to 13-year-old Eleanor, the half-sister of King Alfonso X of Castile. The idea behind this alliance was to make the southern borders of Gascony safe from attack. In this respect it worked but also, unusually for a medieval royal couple, Edward and Eleanor fell deeply in love. For their entire adult lives they were inseparable.

When Eleanor of Castile died, aged just 49, in 1290, Edward’s grief was immense and sincere. He built the largest funerary monument ever created in England – separate tombs, at Lincoln and Westminster. And a series of twelve large stone and marble crosses to mark each of the resting points of her corpse as it was carried from Lincoln to London – the last one being in central London at the station now known as Charing Cross (corrupted from the French chère reine or ‘dear queen’).

Eleanor of Castile had borne Edward 15 or 16 children (the precise number is uncertain). Only four of these were boys and so able to inherit the throne, but two died very young, John aged 4 and Henry aged 6. The succession then passed to the third son – Alfonso. Alfonso. There could have been an English king named Alfonso! But in the event, prince Alfonso also died relatively young – aged just 9 – and the throne was to pass to Edward and Eleanor’s 12th child and 4th son, also named Edward.


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King John by Marc Morris (2015)

I loved Marc Morris’s History of the Norman Conquest because it gave such a thorough explanation of the background, build-up, events and consequences of the most famous moment in English history, so I was looking forward to reading this book and it is certainly good – but not as good as the Conquest one, and I spent some time, as I read it, trying to figure out why.

1. The long historical build-up to John’s reign

I think the main reason is that the central feature of King John’s reign (1199 to 1216) is the complete collapse of the huge and elaborate ’empire’ created by his predecessors – Henry I (his grandfather), the great Henry II (his father) and King Richard, his swashbuckling brother.

The pressures John faced trying to hang on to the south (Aquitaine), the middle (Anjou) and the north (Normandy) of France, along with the large and fractious realm of England, as well as managing relations with Scotland, Wales and Ireland – all these only make sense if you have a good grasp of how this patchwork ’empire’ had been slowly and effortfully acquired by his father and brother in the first place.

So anyone describing John’s reign would have to give a fair amount of space to this ‘back story’. Thus Morris has to start his story with the advent of Henry I (1100) and explain how his son and heir, William Aetheling, was lost in a disastrous shipwreck (1120) which – since Henry had no other sons – led him to the desperate expedient of trying to impose his daughter, Matilda, as his heir on his reluctant nobles. When Henry I died in 1135 Matilda’s claim was immediately contested by her cousin, Stephen of Blois, who managed to secure the throne of England and ruled as King Stephen (1135 – 1154) but under constant assault from the forces loyal to Queen Matilda in the west and north of England leading to 20 years of exhausting civil war.

Eventually, in the event-packed last few years of his reign, Stephen’s own son and heir, Eustace, died young (in 1153) and Stephen was forced to accept the son of Matilda and her husband, Geoffrey Count of Anjou, Touraine and Maine, Henry, as his heir. Geoffrey enjoyed the sportive nickname of Plantagenet, and so this name was also given to his son, Henry.

The very next year Stephen himself died (1154) and young Henry Plantagenet assumed control over a complex web of territories – England from Stephen, Normandy via his grandfather the Conqueror, Anjou, Touraine and Maine from his father and, via his shrewd marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine in 1152, possession of Aquitaine, a huge slab of south-west France, maybe a third the land area of the present-day France.

Because Henry’s central inheritance (from his father, Geoffrey) was of the Duchy of Anjou, the ’empire’ is often referred to as the Angevin Empire, Angevin being the adjectival form of Anjou (as Poitevin is the adjectival version of the neighbouring region of Poitou).

Just holding on to control of these far-flung territories needed every drop of this remarkable man’s confidence, aggression, cunning and ruthlessness. But it is only by understanding how the ’empire’ came about, almost by accident, that we can understand the context of problems which he and his sons – first Richard (1189-99) and then John (1199 to 1216) – would inherit:

  • How to maintain the disparate French possessions in the face of continual uprisings by local counts and lords?
  • How to fight off the continual attacks and threats of successive French kings – Louis VII and Philip II?
  • How to keep the aggressive Scottish kings bottled up in Scotland?
  • How to secure more land in Wales?
  • How and when to interfere in the troublesome island of Ireland?
  • How to manage relations with the pope, especially when you seem to be at loggerheads with one or other of your archbishops? (England has two archbishops – of Canterbury and of York)
  • How to pay for it all by raising the maximum amount of taxes but not alienating the fractious competing nobles of England?
  • And, above all, how to manage all this while coping with all the adult members of your family politicking and conspiring against you?

This context, this historical backdrop, the events of the 60 or 70 years prior to John’s accession (in 1199) are key to understanding John’s predicament.

2. Use of flashbacks

Rather than deal with this long historical run-up in a straightforward chronological account, Morris takes the risky decision to start his narrative in the middle of John’s reign, starting with a detailed account (along with pictures and two maps) of the French King Philip II’s siege of the Plantagenet castle of Château Gaillard, on the River Seine, 20 miles south-east of Rouen in 1204.

Having painted this scene, in chapter two Morris jumps all the way back to the birth of the family empire in the early 1100s (as outlined above). Chapter three returns us to the Château Gaillard siege (which turned out to be one of the longest and most gruelling in medieval history). Chapter four jumps back again, to 1189, when Henry II died and his son Richard succeeded.

This chapter takes us through the first half of Richard’s ten-year reign – his adventures on the Third Crusade (1189-92), his capture on his return through Europe, his imprisonment by the Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI and his final release after his regents in England had raised an enormous ransom for him in 1194 – then abruptly stops.

The next chapter picks up the thread of John’s reign in 1205 after the end of the Château Gaillard siege and the humiliating failure of his English nobles to join an armed flotilla designed to attack King Philip of France, then follows events of the ‘campaigning season’ of the following year, 1206.

We are just getting our head round this context when the next chapter whisks us away from all that, to pick up the second half of King Richard’s reign from 1194 and carry it on through to the first years of John’s reign, 1202.

And so on. For well over half its length the book flicks back and forward between a ‘present’ narrative and historical flashbacks. I think I can see why: he didn’t want to start his book with 60 or 70 pages of solid exposition before he gets to John’s coronation. But, for me, it doesn’t work.

Comparison with Dan Jones

It just so happens that I read Morris’s book  in parallel with Dan Jones’s jaunty, boys-own-adventure account of the entire Plantagenet dynasty. This tells the story outlined above but in a traditional chronological order and a direct comparison between the two suggests that, although Morris’s book is more scholarly and nuanced, Jones’s narrative is not only easier to read but gives you a much better cumulative sense of the issues at stake for all these rulers:

  • how the Angevin empire was originally created
  • the tremendously complex shifting alliances it required to keep it together
  • the history of the other major players involved, like Eleanor of Aquitaine, like Henry II’s rebellious children, like the pesky kings of France
  • as well as the litany of difficulties Henry, Richard and John all encountered while trying to tax the bolshy nobles of England
  • and the challenges of keeping the bloody church and interfering pope onside

To put yourself in the place of these (horrible) rulers you have to understand the constant pressure they were under from all sides (and the constant pressure they themselves exerted in the never-ending conflict which was medieval high politics). And the only hope you have of understanding why William of Scotland or Llewylyn of Wales or Louis of France attacked when and how they did, is to have a sense of the cumulative relationships between them and Henry or Richard or John, and the accumulated grudges or alliances or betrayals which feed into their behaviour.

It is hard enough to follow when presented clearly and simply so, for me, Morris’s approach made it hopelessly confusing. I quite quickly decided to read the chapters of his book out of the textual order he’s placed them in (reading chapters 2, 4, 6, 8, then 1, 3, 5, 7).

Detail

Dan Jones is shrewd to start his 600-page account of the Plantagenets with the sinking of the White Ship in 1120, which really seems to be the mainspring of the whole Plantagenet story. But his chronological approach also allows him to give events a properly detailed treatment as they occur – logically enough, there is a set of chapters devoted to Henry II and Richard I, before we get to the birth and youth of John.

Morris, by contrast, often skips over these earlier events in order to get to the ostensible subject of his book the quicker. He has to tell us something about the events of earlier reigns because John grew up under them and spent most of, for example Richard’s reign (1189-1199) politicking and conspiring against his brother – but he tends to skimp on details of Richard’s activities.

Thus he tells us simply that, en route to the Holy Land in 1191, Richard conquered Cyprus, in one sentence (p.72). Jones goes into much more detail, giving us a full description of Richard’s two-pronged assault on Cyprus (pp.118-119) and giving a typical snapshot that, once he’d conquered, Richard forced all Cypriot men to shave their beards off!

Similarly, Morris skips very briskly over Richard’s time in Palestine to focus on John’s scheming back in England. But we need to understand the detail of Richard’s activities in Palestine in order to understand how and why he managed to alienate so many of his Christian allies with such parlous consequences: we need to know that he scorned Philip of France so much that Philip eventually packed up and returned to Paris. And when the vital city of Acre was finally taken from the Muslims after a prolonged siege in which many Christian knights died of fighting or sickness (1191), Richard managed to infuriate Leopold Duke of Austria. Leopold had been involved in the siege for a year before Richard arrived and had demanded an equal place at the front of the victorious Crusader army as it rode into the fallen city along with Richard – but Richard rejected this request and added insult to injury by having Leopold’s flag torn down from the ramparts of Acre.

These details are vital because both Philip and Leopold returned to Europe before Richard and spread the blackest possible rumours about Richard’s treachery, lack of chivalry and so on, to anyone who would listen. When Richard finally decided to abandon the Crusade and return to England (prompted by news of the ruinous feud which had grown up between his chancellor William Longchamps and his enemies supported by John) Richard discovered that he was now a wanted man across most of Western Europe. So that when his ships were blown ashore in north Italy and he tried to make his way in disguise through Austrian lands, Richard was soon recognised, arrested and taken to the court of the very same Leopold who he had so fatefully insulted in Palestine – who promptly threw him into prison.

For sure Richard’s imprisonment, and the vast ransom demanded for his release, are all dealt with by Morris because they all impinge on the state of England and on John’s scheming (John was in his late 20s during the ransom crisis) – but the story makes much more sense, acquires a fuller depth of meaning, if you’ve been given a really good account of Richard’s activities in Palestine, and this Jones does better than Morris.

King John

King John

Notable aspects of John’s reign

It is in the second half of Morris’s book (chapters 9 to 14) – once he drops the flashback structure – that it becomes measurably more detailed and immersive than the Jones account. Having had a run-up of 150 pages or so you begin to have a feel for certain key players in the story – the ill-fated William de Brouze who John hounded into exile, imprisoning and starving to death his wife and son – or the remarkable William Marshall, 1st Earl of Pembroke, whose career spanned five monarchs, and who managed to survive accusations and punishments from the erratic John and went on to become guardian and regent for John’s young son, Henry III, when he succeeded in 1216.

And you get a feel for the relentless turnover of events: every year sees all the players on the board – the Scots, the Welsh, the numerous Irish and Anglo-Irish, the King of France, the nobles of Normandy, Brittany, Anjou, Main, Poitou, Angouleme, Gascony and so on, all girding their loins and setting off to fight each other, in a bewildering blizzard of alliances which shift and change at the drop of a hat. This second half of Morris’s book becomes really gripping, providing much more detail than Jones’s limited space can, and judiciously weighing evidence, balancing the accounts of the different contemporary chroniclers, as he gives a week by week account of John’s difficult confusing reign.

Some highlights

His reign lasted 17 years (1199 to 1216).

John Lackland While a boy under King Henry II John acquired the nickname ‘Lackland’ because his older brothers were all given substantial provinces to rule except for John, who was too young. Towards the end of his reign, the nickname was ironically revived to describe the way he had lost most of the Angevin Empire.

The loss of Brittany Arthur, Duke of Brittany From the very start of John’s reign there was an alternative ruler, Arthur, son of John’s elder son Geoffrey (who himself had died in 1186). Arthur was born in 1187 and so was 12 when King Richard died in 1199.

Arthur inherited from his father the title of Duke of Brittany, and his Breton nobles proved remarkably loyal to him, while Arthur himself sought help and advice from French King Philip II. The situation was worsened by the fact that back in 1190 Richard had officially declared the infant Arthur his legal heir (during his peace negotiations with Tancred of Sicily, p.67). On his death-bed Richard changed his mind and proclaimed John his heir, fearing Arthur was too young for the job – but the Bretons, and everyone opposed to John, took Arthur as a figurehead for their cause.

The to and fro of successive alliances and peace treaties whereby Arthur allied with Philip, then John, then Philip again, came to an end when, in one of the rare military successes of his rule, John captured Arthur, who was leading a force besieging his grand-mother, Eleanor, at the Château de Mirebeau in Anjou.

John sent his nephew to a series of castle prisons. The contemporary chronicler Ralph of Coggeshall reports the story that John sent two knights with orders to mutilate the duke but that his gaoler, Hubert de Burgh, refused to let them – a legend which quickly spread and later provided the central plotline of Shakespeare’s play, King John, as well as heaps of wonderfully sentimental Victorian illustrations, like this one.

Prince Arthur and Hubert de Burgh by William Frederick Yeames (1882)

Prince Arthur and Hubert de Burgh by William Frederick Yeames (1882)

Young Arthur was moved to Rouen prison in 1203 and never heard of again. Quickly the rumour got about that John had had Arthur murdered, though whether getting others to do it or, in one version, murdering his nephew himself in a drunken rage, has never been confirmed. The rumour was enough for many people, nobles and commoners alike, throughout his realm, and John became known as the nephew-killer. In response the nobles of Brittany rebelled against John and he never regained their trust.

The loss of Normandy Meanwhile in 1204, to the East, King Philip II of France began a major offensive against Normandy, bypassing the stronghold of Rouen and picking off smaller towns – Falaise, Cherbourg. Rouen begged John (in England) for reinforcements and John tried to mount an armed expedition to help them, but was stymied by the reluctance of his own nobles, who showed up late or not at all. When it became clear that no help was coming from England, Rouen surrendered to King Philip and the remaining strongholds of Normandy followed suit. The 139-year union of England and Normandy, created by William the Bastard in 1066, came to an end in 1204.

The loss of Aquitaine In April 1204 Eleanor of Aquitaine died, old and full of years (a little over 80). With her died the loyalty of most of the dukes and counts of the massive region to the Plantagenet regime in the form of the unattractive John. They rose up, seized whatever strongholds remained loyal to John and, within months, the largest part of the Angevin Empire was lost.

Tough taxes With the loss of most of the Empire, John’s sphere of activity was vastly reduced and now confined to the British Isles. Here he became famous for instituting ferocious new taxes. At that time many simple activities of the nobility traditionally required permission and a nominal fee to be paid to the king, for example for the smooth succession of an heir or the arrangement of a new marriage. John pushed these customary dues much deeper into every aspect of noble life and hugely increased the fees, by up to 1,000%. Anyone who questioned his right to do so was arrested or forced into exile and their lands confiscated. There was a ‘forest tax’ for anyone found breaching the rules of the Forest. John hiked these and extended the definition of ‘forest’ to include agricultural land and even towns. There was a tax known as ‘scutage’, which knights could pay if they didn’t want to answer the king’s call to join an army: John hugely increased this and applied it for new purposes. He applied another tax known as the Thirteenth, and in 2008 another tax, known as the tallage (p.182). He relentlessly mulcted everyone and everything throughout his reign.

The failed 1205 invasion In 1205 John used this money to organise a massive invasion of Normandy, recruiting thousands of knights and soldiers and building (or hijacking) enough ships to create a war fleet of 1,500 vessels. But – at the last minute his leading nobles and knights backed out – afraid of chaos in the realm if John were killed (he had no heir), afraid they would find no support in the French realms which had so solidly gone over to King Philip, afraid of losing their lives and remaining goods.

And so John was left to gnash his teeth and weep tears of frustration. In fact John did mount several expeditions to France later in his reign, in one of them landing in Bordeau and marching inland to seize castles in his traditional heartland of Anjou. But always he had to retreat before the superior forces of King Philip II, or the Bretons or Normans or the Gascon nobles, sometimes reinforced by armies from over the border in Spain.

Two wives King John had two wives, both named Isabella. In 1189 Henry married John off to Isabella, Countess of Gloucester, when he was 23 and she was 16. In fact they were half-second cousins as great-grandchildren of Henry I, and thus within the prohibited degrees of consanguinity, and on this basis John had their marriage annulled by the Church in 1199, just before he acceded to the throne. He then married Isabella of Angoulême in 1200, when she was just 12 years old. The marriage gave him possession of lands in the centre of Aquitaine but also, unfortunately, led to the enduring enmity of Hugh IX le Brun, Count of Lusignan, to whom she had been betrothed and who John was widely seen as stealing her from. The enmity of the de Lusignan family and their allies was a contributory factor to the loss of Aquitaine in 1204 when Eleanor died.

The Papal Interdict Archbishop Hubert of Canterbury died in 1205 and the monks secretly elected one of their own as his successor. King John and the English bishops refused to accept their choice and appointed John’s favorite, John de Gray, in his place. Pope Innocent III (1198-1216) refused to accept either candidate and instead arranged the election of his friend Stephen Langton, in 1207. Furious, John expelled the monks of Canterbury who fled to France. The pope responded by placing England under Interdict in 1208. The interdict suspended Christian services and the administration of sacraments (except baptism, confession, and last rites). Even the dead were denied Christian burial. Ordinary people would have experienced an eerie phenomenon – for the first time in their lives church bells – which rang at numerous times of day for various services – fell silent and remained silent. John in fact turned the situation to his advantage, imposing lucrative fines and threatening imprisonment to bully the clergy. Innocent III retaliated by excommunicating John and eventually declared John ‘deposed’ in 1212, absolving his subjects of their allegiance to him.

In fact John, at a low point in his fortunes in 1213, made the shrewd move of completely and totally humbling himself to the papal legate, declaring England as the pope’s belonging and himself only a humble vassal. Innocent II was delighted and from that point onwards (for the last three years of his life) treated John with notable indulgence and favouritism. The interdict was lifted and after five long years, the church bells of England were allowed to ring again.

The Jews There were probably only a few thousand Jews in all of Britain, but they were in a vulnerable position. They were allowed to carry on the business of lending money – forbidden to Christians – but only on the king’s sufferance. The crusading fervour at the very end of Henry’s rule led to violent anti-Jewish pogroms on the day of Richard’s coronation and for weeks afterwards, leading to the horrible climax of the entire Jewish community of York being hounded into York castle and preferring mass suicide to facing the baying mob outside. In 1210 John imposed a massive tax or ‘tallage’ in 1210, extracting some £44,000 from the community. At first he wanted only a percentage of their loans but this escalated to become a percentage of all their possessions. Roger of Wendover tells the gruesome story of a Jew of Bristol who was imprisoned and had one tooth knocked out every day until he gave in and handed over all his wealth to the king. Leading Jews were hanged as an example. And then, in John’s last full year of 1215, there were further attacks on the Jews, extracting money under torture. It took the Jewish community a generation to recover population and belongings after this onslaught.

Scotland When he came to power John turned down King William the Lion of Scotland’s demand to have the province of Northumbria returned to him. The two remained on reasonable terms until in 1209 John heard rumours that William planned to ally with King Philip of France. John invaded Scotland and forced William to sign the Treaty of Norham, which gave John control of William’s daughters and required a payment of £10,000.

Ireland John was made ‘Lord of Ireland’ by his father as long back as 1177, when he was just 11. When just 19 he was sent there by his father but, along with his youthful courtiers, created a very bad impression, making fun of the local nobles’ long beards. During his reign there was conflict not only between the caste of Anglo-Irish rulers who had settled in Ireland since the Conquest, and the native lords, but also among the natives themselves. John played all sides off against the other, and in 1210 led a major expedition to Ireland to crush a rebellion by the Anglo-Irish lords and impose English laws and customs.

Wales was divided into roughly three parts, the border or ‘marcher’ regions with England, ruled over by a handful of powerful Anglo-Norman lords, south Wales/Pembrokeshire owned by the king directly, and wilder North Wales. The leading figure was Llywelyn the Great, to whom John married off one of his illegitimate daughters, Joan, in 1204. In 1210 and 11 Llywelyn launched raids into England. John retaliated by supporting a range of Llywelyn’s enemies in the south and in 2011 launched a massive raid into North Wales. However Llywelyn’s forces retreated and John’s army was reduced to near starvation in the barren lands around Snowdonia. But the next year he came back on a better planned attack, ravaging Llywelyn’s heartlands, burning villages, towns and cities, until Llywelyn sent his wife, John’s daughter, as emissary to beg for peace. Peace was signed at, of course, a steep price, then John sent his mercenary warlords into South Wales to secure the territory and build defensive castles.

By 1212 John had lost almost the entire continental empire, but solidly secured the grip of the English crown over the neighbouring British countries. But all mention of peace is deceptive, even inappropriate in the context of the Middle Ages. The very next year John had to go to the aid of William of Scotland who faced pressing danger from a usurper and had barely finished doing this before Llywelyn led a concerted attack to reclaim his lost territory in north Wales, along with uprisings by lords in central Wales.

Basically, every year there was conflict – and in more than one theatre of war – with players shifting alliances from year to year based on short-term strategy. This is what makes medieval history so difficult to follow in any detail.

The Battle of Bouvines I’d never heard of this battle, but both Jones and Morris says it has a similar talismanic importance in the history of France as the Battle of Hastings has for England. It was the climax of the series of incursions John made into French territory in the previous few years. John had amassed a force of English nobles and foreign mercenaries (all paid for by his brutal taxation) and was campaigning in central France, while his allies – a force of German, English and Flemish soldiers – was being led by Otto IV, Holy Roman Emperor, in the north. John’s plan was for his forces to draw King Philip II south while his German allies took Paris, leading to the decisive crushing of King Philip, for him to regain all his lost French land and the Emperor Otto to seize the Low Country.

In fact John had already suffered a defeat when he was forced to abandon the siege of La Roche-au-Moine due to the reluctance of his Poitevin allies to engage in a pitched battle against King Philip’s son, Louis. In the retreat his infantry were badly mauled and he only just made it back to La Rochelle, losing all the gains of the campaign to the French.

So everything now depended on the northern army of the Emperor. This caught up with Philip’s main army on 27 July 1214, and rapidly attacked. The battle turned into confused mayhem but slowly the cavalry charges of the French began to tell. By the end of the day the Emperor had fled, his army was defeated, and a collection of rebel nobles had fallen into Philip’s hands.

From the French point of view, their strongest enemies had created their strongest possible alliance and thrown everything against the French – and failed. A chapel was built, Masses were sung everywhere, the students of Paris danced in the streets for a week, according to one chronicler. The Battle of Bouvines confirmed the French crown’s sovereignty over the Angevin lands of Brittany and Normandy, and lost them forever to the English crown. It was the climax of John’s decade of brutal taxation and war plans: and it was a complete failure.

A few hours of bloody mayhem at Bouvines had confirmed that [John]’s loss of Normandy, Brittany and Anjou would be permanent. (p.235)

Magna Carta

The barons’ rebellion The failure of this campaign tipped many of England’s nobles over into open rebellion. Morris says there were about 160 barons in England and now most of them openly denounced and defied John. For several years there had been calls to return to the good old days of Henry II or even before, embodied in calls to restore the charter Henry II issued on his accession. Numerous hands – probably involving the archbishop – were involved in creating a draft document which started with traditional calls for good rule but then went on to address specific issues of John’s reign. The climax of the Barons’ Rebellion came when one of their forces – a self-proclaimed ‘army of God’ – seized London ahead of John’s representatives in May 2015. Now they had access to all his treasure and the taxation rolls of the Exchequer.

John camped with his forces at Windsor and representatives of both sides met half way, in the meadows at Runnymede. Here the document we call Magna Carta took shape and was swiftly stamped and agreed by John.

The key thing about Magna Carta is that it was a peace treaty between the two armed sides; and that it failed. Within weeks open conflict broke out again and John took his foreign mercenaries on a rampage through East Anglia, killing and raping all the supporters of the rebel barons, destroying crops in the fields, burning everything. It was on this last final orgy of destruction that he decided to take a short cut across the Wash into Lincolnshire but was caught by the tide and lost his entire baggage train, including all his jewellery and treasure, the crown of England and his priceless collection of Holy Relics. And he got dysentery. It was a blessing for everyone when he died on 19 October 1216.

There is no doubting John was a wicked, evil man, a coward who screwed his country and tortured countless victims in order to extract a vast fortune from his subjects which he then squandered on mismanaged military campaigns. He lost almost the entire Angevin Empire which he’d inherited, and he left his country in a state of bitter civil war.

Morris’s book includes at the end a full translation of the Magna Carta into English but that is all. Obviously his preceding historical account gives a blow-by-blow description of the events leading up to it, and to the issues raised by John’s misrule, which the charter seeks to address and limit. And briefly describes how the charter – a failure in its own day – was reissued under later kings, widely distributed, and became a set of standards to which medieval kings could be held to account. But somehow just stopping with the translation and nothing more felt a bit… abrupt.

Plantagenet trivia

  • King Henry I carried out a brutal recoinage of the realm’s money in 1125 in which he ordered the mutilation of all his moneyers – the people who had official permission to mint coins, namely the removal of their right hands and genitals
  • Right at the end of his life Henry II took the Cross with a view to going on Crusade and recapturing Jerusalem. In 1188 he instituted ‘the Saladin Tithe‘, a levy of 10% on all revenues and movable properties across England. In the end it raised some 100,000 marks, though Henry died before he could go on Crusade. The administrative machinery created to claim the tithe was used four years later to raise the enormous ransom required to free Richard I from his imprisonment by the Holy Roman Emperor.
  • King Richard founded Portsmouth Royal Naval dockyard.
  • Richard in his usual impetuous way, finding himself in negotiation with Tancred ruler of Sicily, promised to betrothe Arthur (then aged 4) to one of Tancred’s daughters (aged 2), though the wedding never took place.
  • In his passion to go on crusade, Richard weakened the Crown by selling off or mortgaging a huge number of Crown lands and goods. He is said to have quipped, ‘I would have sold London if I could find a buyer.’
  • King John founded Liverpool in 1207.
  • the word Exchequer derives from the large chequered cloth laid out a table on which debts were counted out using a device like an abacus (p.167).

Glossary

  • amercement – a financial penalty in English law, common during the Middle Ages, imposed either by the court or by peers
  • castellan – the governor or captain of a castellany and its castle
  • distrain – seize (someone’s property) in order to obtain payment of rent or other money owed
  • interdict –  in the Roman Catholic church a punishment by which the faithful, while remaining in communion with the church, are forbidden certain sacraments and prohibited from participation in certain sacred acts
  • forest eyre – the main court of the Forest Law in the medieval period was the Forest Eyre, which was held at irregular intervals by itinerant justices
  • Forest Law – laws separate from English Common Law designed to protect game animals and their forest habitats from destruction. Forest Law offenses were divided into two categories: trespass against the vert (the vegetation of the forest) and the venison (the game).
  • justiciar – a regent and deputy presiding over the court of a Norman or early Plantagenet king of England
  • moneyer – any private individual who is officially permitted to mint money
  • scutage – also called shield money (from the Latin scutum meaning ‘shield’) in feudal law payment made by a knight to commute the military service that he owed his lord
  • tallage – a form of arbitrary taxation levied by kings on the towns and lands of the Crown

Related links

Reviews of other medieval books

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