British Baroque: Power and Illusion @ Tate Britain

British Baroque: Power and Illusion covers art and architecture (and gardens and sculpture and oddities and gimmicks) from the Restoration of Charles II in 1660 to the death of Queen Anne in 1714. The big word in the title is Baroque but it’s a problematic term and by the end of the exhibition I was left wondering, in my non-scholarly way, whether any of the art on display here actually qualifies for the description ‘Baroque’.

The Sea Triumph of Charles II by Antonio Verrio (c.1674) The Royal Collection / HM Queen Elizabeth II

1. Dates

Traditionally, in art h istory, the term Baroque denotes Power – Religious and Royal Power. Baroque art and architecture are big, heavy and imposing.

The Baroque is one of the major Periods of Western Art, preceded by the Renaissance and Mannerism and followed by the Rococo. The dates usually given are:

  • Early Renaissance 1400-1495
  • High Renaissance 1495-1520
  • Mannerism 1520-1600
  • the Baroque 1600-1740
  • Rococo 1730s-1760s
  • Neo-Classicism 1760-1830

The convention is to date the Baroque from the early 1600s, at least in Italy and on the Continent. It is a striking decision by the curators to delay it as late as 1660 for this exhibition, though you can see why – England was always slow to adopt developments in continental art and architecture.

Some outliers and pioneers may have been introducing ‘baroque’ styles into the English court in the 1620s and 1630s (the designer and architect Inigo Jones is often mentioned), but then all artistic and architectural endeavour was suspended during the great cataclysm of the British civil wars, which lasted:

  • from the rebellion in Scotland in 1637
  • through the civil wars in England (1642-48)
  • the execution of King Charles I in 1649
  • continued wars in Scotland and Ireland into the early 1650s
  • the rule of Oliver Cromwell from 1653 till his death in 1658
  • the collapse of the Parliamentarian regime in 1658-59
  • to the triumphant restoration of Charles II in 1660

Quite obviously the commissioning of royal art and architecture was put on hold for the whole of this war-torn and then republican period.

So starting the exhibition in 1660 with the restoration of Charles II provides a neat, clean starting point to a period which was distinctive in music (Purcell), literature (Dryden, Restoration Comedy) and philosophy (John Locke), as well as architecture (Christopher Wren) and art (Peter Lely) – the subjects specifically covered in this exhibition.

Plus – England was always late. Stuck up here on the remote periphery of Europe, England was late to experience all the trends which originated in the Mediterranean heartland. Thus Renaissance art and literature was flourishing in Italy in the 1400s but we date ‘our’ Renaissance period from the 1530s or later. Literature students tend to equate it with the reign of Queen Elizabeth which started in 1558, getting on for 150 years after the Renaissance started in Italy, by which time the Italians had been all the way through the Renaissance, High Renaissance and Mannerism. During the 18th century the motor for artistic innovation moved to France and stayed there until, arguably, the First World War, maybe beyond.

Anyway, for centuries the Europeans were waaaay ahead of us Brits. Mind you, we had something they didn’t have, which was an empire to set up and run.

2. The term ‘Baroque’

Its origin is obscure. It seems to derive from the Portuguese barocco meaning, ‘irregular pearl or stone’, i.e. a technical term in jewellery for a kind of pearl which was not perfectly round: for a pearl which was ugly and misshapen.

It seems that early uses of the term ‘baroque’ were all negative and used to criticise unnecessary complication and ugliness which were creeping into art. The word was never used by the artists or architects actually working during the ‘Baroque’ period; it wasn’t a self-conscious movement like Cubism.

Baroque is a term which was imposed a long time later, by late-eighteenth century or nineteenth century historians who, looking back, needed terms to assign to all the ‘period’s they wanted to divide art history into.

The Annunciation by Benedetto Gennari (1686) The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, the State Art Museum of Florida

3. The origins of the Baroque in the Counter-Reformation

Articles about the Baroque all point to its origins in the Councils of Trent, the organisational centre of the Counter-Reformation.

In 1517 the monk Martin Luther had nailed his theses about theology to the door of his local church (in fact a traditional way to announce a theological debate). Luther called for a revolution in all aspects of European Catholicism, sweeping away scores of central dogmas and traditions and ceremonies which he regarded as later additions, corrupt folklore and legends and superstitions and inventions which had been grafted onto what was originally the pure and spartan teachings of Jesus as recorded in the four gospels.

Many German princes and north European kings took Luther’s teachings as an opportunity to throw off the shackles of Catholic rule from Italy, and within a generation a host of independent ‘Protestant’ churches and states had been established across northern Europe, not least in England where Henry VIII rejected rule of his church from Italy by an Italian pope and declared himself head of a newly-styled Church of England.

One aspect of the Protestant revolt had been aesthetic. In rejecting the cults of saints and relics – the excessive worship of Mary Mother of God and a host of other Catholic traditions – the really revolutionary Protestants (who came to be nicknamed the Puritans, in England) cleaned out their churches, smashing statues, defacing medieval paintings, burning wooden rood screens and so on in an orgy of iconoclasm.

Result: by the 1550s or so European Christianity existed in two forms, a stripped-down, militantly white-walled protestant form held in bit white undecorated halls – and a defiantly gold candelabra-ed, smells and bells Catholicism performed in churches crammed with statues of saints and the crucified Christ and a blue-robed Mary.

In light of the Protestant attacks, the Catholic authorities called a series of congresses at Trent (Trento in northern Italy) to thrash out just what they did agree on, in order to redefine every element of Catholic theology and practice, to create a new, stronger, more centralised ideology. Reacting against what had become known as the Protestant Reformation, this fightback became known as the Counter-Reformation.

Among a host of new theological and administrative rules emerged a belief that Catholic churches, Catholic aesthetics, should defy the know-nothing, philistine, iconoclastic, whitewash-everything Protestants and build their churches on an even more elaborate scale.

Catholic architecture should be enormous, characterised by domes soaring into heaven and festooned with flocks of angels and risen Christs flying over the heads of the congregation. Every nook should be full of florid statues of saints in the agony of their martyrdoms, and the authorities encouraged a style where every fold of their robes and cloaks became more and more elaborate, intricate and charged with emotion.

Italian Catholicism deliberately set out to be as flamboyant, as big, as majestic and as over-awing as could be achieved in buildings, statuary and painting. This is the key impulse behind the new heavy, elaborate, contorted and highly emotional style which later ages were to term the Baroque.

Examples of the Baroque: from top left: The interior of the church of Santa Maria, Rome; The Calling of Saint Matthew by Caravaggio; The Trevi Fountain in Rome, designed by Italian architect Nicola Salvi and completed by Giuseppe Pannini in 1732.

4. Royal Power

Not surprisingly, kings liked this style. ‘Big, imposing, overpowering, yep that’s me’ was the thought of rulers all over Europe, who proceeded to commission artists and architects to copy this new, super-solid, massive and imposing architectural and artistic style in their realms, from Poland to the Palace of Westminster.

It’s important to remember that, although he rarely features in histories of the civil war and Republic, Charles II was very much alive during all the events and where was he living? In the French court of Louis XIV (in fact the extended reign of Louis XIV, the so-called Sun King more than matches the entire period covered in this exhibition, he reigned from 1645 to 1715.)

Thus Charles didn’t just return in triumph to the palace of Westminster and resume all the rights and accoutrements of a king of England; he returned:

  • with his head full of European theories about the Divine Right of Kings
  • with the example of Louis XIV firmly in his mind about how to be such a king
  • and with his imagination packed with the architectural and artistic achievements of the French courtly builders and painters

It was under Louis XIV in the 1680s that the Palace of Versailles was redesigned and rebuilt to become the largest and grandest royal palace in Europe. Charles had watched his French peer think and plan on the grandest scale.

The British Baroque

So that’s a brief background to the ascent of the supposed Baroque style in Britain. But was it really Baroque? Here’s one of the thousands of definitions you can find on the internet:

The Baroque style is characterized by exaggerated motion and clear detail used to produce drama, exuberance, and grandeur in sculpture, painting, architecture, literature, dance, and music. Baroque iconography was direct, obvious, and dramatic, intending to appeal above all to the senses and the emotions.

If the Baroque is anything it is dramatic, operatic and exuberant, grand gestures in enormous buildings, huge and heavy marble statues, imposing porticos. Histrionic is a good word.

But after a few sort-of grand paintings in the first room (such as The Sea Triumph of Charles II by Antonio Verrio at the top of this review), the exhibition leads into a room of court beauties, a handful of Charles II’s many mistresses – and ‘grand’, ‘dramatic’ and ‘exuberant’ are not really the words which describe these paintings at all.

Barbara Palmer (née Villiers), Duchess of Cleveland with her son, probably Charles Fitzroy, as the Virgin and Child by Peter Lely (c.1664). National Portrait Gallery, London

There’s a nice pillar in this painting and, to those in the know about painterly symbolism, the Duchess of Villiers is wearing the bright red and blue traditionally associated in Renaissance painting with the Virgin Mary, but… It’s not really ‘grand’, ‘melodramatic’ or ‘histrionic’, is it? In fact Barbara’s snub nose, poky little mouth and bulbous eyes are more homely than grand and intimidating.

The seed of doubt whether the term ‘baroque’ really applies to the British art and architecture of the period is sown early and crops up throughout the rest of the exhibition.

The Sea Triumph of Charles II by Antonio Verrio at the top of this review is certainly an elaborate allegorical composition and contains a neat pyramid of tumbling sea nymphs and sea goddesses and so on, but the figure the whole composition leads you to… Charles II’s black moustachioed face of an old debauchee… to me it completely lacks awe or grandeur or dignity.

To me Charles looks a bit of a twerp, as if his face has been photoshopped onto a foreign fantasia.

There’s a moment in the room devoted to architecture where we learn about the murals the painter Sir James Thornhill was commissioned to create to decorate the dome of Sir Christopher Wren’s magnificent new St Paul’s Cathedral. They are a series of large murals depicting scenes from the life of St Paul, so far so good. But then we learn that he rendered them in black and white in order to be restrained and dignified and to suit the Protestant atmosphere of what was, in effect, the world’s first Protestant cathedral.

Restrained? That’s like saying we’re going to an all-night Brazilian samba party and we’re going to drink lemonade and dance the waltz.

It is completely against the spirit of the Baroque. The baroque is drama and opera and huge flights of angels soaring up into vast church domes. But that isn’t the English spirit at all. The English spirit then as now is faaar more sensible and restrained and undemonstrative.

A glaring indicator of this was the simple lack of religious imagery throughout the show. Of the exhibition’s ten rooms, only one is devoted to religious imagery and that one is virtually empty. The only interesting thing in it is a wonderful carved wooden cover for a font by Grinling Gibbons which is all Italianate grapes and leaves, with a few winged putti holding up the swags, but there’s nothing particularly Christian about it. Certainly none of the agony and ecstasy and religious melodrama of the Italian Baroque. There are no bleeding saints rolling their eyes to heaven.

Font cover from All Hallows by the Tower church, London, by Grinling Gibbons, carefully avoiding all religious imagery whatsoever

Instead, what comes over is the way British and foreign painters domesticated the brash, grand, outdoors Italian Baroque for a culture which is far more indoors, domestic and family-orientated.

The Children of John Taylor of Bifrons Park by John Closterman (1696) National Portrait Gallery, London

There’s as much, in fact I think there’s more in the exhibition about the late 17th century fashion for trompe l-oeil optical illusions in paint as there is for Christian imagery. We just didn’t go in for the melodrama, the agony in the garden, the upturned eyes of adoring angels and the flurried cloaks of muscular saints.

A quick review

Here’s a quick overview of the ten rooms and my highlights:

Room 1 – Restoration

Artists who returned with King Charles and became associated with his reign included Peter Lely, the King’s Principal Painter; Samuel Cooper, his official miniaturist; and the mural painter, Antonio Verrio.

Miniaturist? Yes there are a number of miniature portraits of Charles and leading courtiers. Couldn’t help thinking that the entire concept of a miniature is the exact opposite of the Baroque spirit which is to be as big and imposing as possible.

Room 2 – The Restoration Court

Contains classy but surprisingly restrained full-length portraits of half a dozen of Charles’s mistresses and assorted courtiers, including John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, the rudest poet in English, one of whose poems begins:

Much wine had passed, with grave discourse
Of who fucks who, and who does worse
(Such as you usually do hear
From those that diet at the Bear),
When I, who still take care to see
Drunkenness relieved by lechery,
Went out into St. James’s Park
To cool my head and fire my heart.
But though St. James has th’ honor on ‘t,
‘Tis consecrate to prick and cunt…

What is really striking about these portraits is nothing to do with Power and Magnificence, and everything to do with the extremely stylised depictions of their faces. They all look the same. All the women have the same rounded faces, long noses, white skin relieved by heavily rouged cheeks and, above all, the same rather bulbous eyes, the overlids and underlids of the eyes deliberately shadowed to create a sense of an unhealthy prominence of the eyeball.

Two Ladies of the Lake Family by Sir Peter Lely (c.1660) Tate

Room 3 – The religious interior

As I’ve mentioned, a thin collection. Some surviving paintings and wall paintings from the Catholic chapels in London, at St James’s Palace and Somerset House, where the Catholic consorts Catherine of Braganza (Charles’s wife) and Mary of Modena (James II’s wife) enjoyed freedom of worship, providing a focal point for the Catholic community.

But this was a very small, constrained part of English life or architecture.

Room 4 – Illusion and Deception

Much more fun, much more interesting, and much more English, is this room full of fashionable trompe l-oeil optical illusions. Highlights include a series of paintings by Edward Collier of items apparently pinned to a real wooden board or held in place by tape, which appear astonishingly lifelike and three-dimensional.

There’s an elaborate peepshow by Samuel van Hoogstraten: you look through a little pinhole to the side and see what looks like a realistic interior of a house with rooms giving off in front of you and to the side. There’s Chatsworth’s famous violin painted as if hanging on the back of a door, and the hyper-real flower paintings of Simon Verelst which looked so real that they fooled the diarist Samuel Pepys.

A Vase of Flowers by Simon Verelst (1669)

Room 5 – Wren and Baroque architecture

Here, in the magnificent churches designed by Christopher Wren and his student Nicholas Hawksmoor, with the Queens House and other buildings built at Greenwich and plans to rebuild Whitehall Palace after it burned down, and the country houses designed by the later John Vanbrugh, you approach something like the continental Baroque in scale and ambition.

But as the story of Sir James Thornhill’s murals indicates, it is a European style which has been restrained, watered down and made sensible.

Room 6 – Country mansions and courtly gardens

How Hampton Court was remodelled to be more like Versailles and so was William III’s grand Het Loo Palace in Apeldoorn in the Netherlands. Diagrams and paintings of Chatsworth and Bleinheim, the grandest of grand English country houses.

Paintings of huge, geometric, symmetric formal gardens.

Room 7 – Painted interiors

This was maybe my favourite room. It contains a photo of the vast and sumptuous mural on the ceiling of the dining room at Old Greenwich Palace, and is lined by preparatory paintings of other vast mythological murals by the likes of Antonio Verrio and Louis Chéron and Sir James Thornhill.

Apparently, it was the arrival of seasoned muralist Verrio in England in 1672 which sparked a new fashion for grandiose murals, and it’s in these (essentially private) murals – vast compositions awash with Greek mythical or allegorical figures  that you get closest to thinking the English had a Baroque period or style.

Lower Hall ceiling of the Painted Hall at the Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich by Sir James Thornhill

But what I really liked was the preparatory sketches for these works. The exhibition includes huge sketchbooks in which Thornhill sketched out his initial designs and compositions for various murals. For me, these rough sketches often had more energy, vim and dynamism that the finished works.

In particular, the human shapes and faces, although left as rough outlines, somehow, have more character and vibrancy than the smooth finished oil paintings, in many of which Thornhill has had to defer to the peculiar contemporary style of restoration faces, with their rounded features and bulging eyes.

Thornhill’s sketches are fun, mad profusions of tumbling cartoon characters. This one shows a grand mythological scene which was clearly designed to cover the wall of a staircase (hence the 45 degree angle at the bottom left): at the bottom-right Venus is being born from the waves; watched from the left by Neptune King of the oceans holding his triton; and above her a frothing scramble of other gods and goddesses.

A Ceiling and Wall Decoration (circa 1715-25) by Sir James Thornhill

Room 8 – Beauty

A striking and inventive piece of curating in which the Tate has taken seven of eight massive, full-length portrait paintings of English society beauties and made an attempt to recreate the atmosphere of the kind of grand drawing room they would have adorned. They’re selections from two series of paintings:

  • The Hampton Court Beauties, a set of eight full-length portraits, commissioned by Mary II in 1690–1
  • The Petworth Beauties, commissioned by the 6th Duke and Duchess of Somerset for their country mansion Petworth House

In a way, though, the real star of the room is the huge heavy wood furniture, adorned with gold clasps and legs modelled from what appear to pregnant black woman (!?) and which bear a set of massive Chinese vases. There are candelabra on the walls and one can only wish the curators had had the courage of their convictions and turned the gallery’s electric lights off and installed replica candles so we really could have seen what paintings like this would have looked like in the flickering candlelight of the 1690s.

Room 9 – Triumph and glory

Critics could easily complain that the exhibition doesn’t really describe or explain the complicated and momentous political events of the years 1660 to 1700, which saw not just the restoration of Charles II, but:

  • Charles’s death in 1685 and the succession of his brother, as King James II.
  • The rebellion of Charles’s eldest illegitimate son, the Duke of Monmouth, who raised an army in the West Country, before being crushed by James’s army.
  • The so-called ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688 when James announced that he was going to raise his son by his second wife, Mary of Modena, a Catholic i.e. ensuring that the next in line to the English throne would definitely be a Catholic. At this point a cabal of leading aristocrats decided to overthrown James and invited William Prince of Orange (a state in the Low Country) to come and be King of Britain, using the fig leaf that William was the son of James’s dead sister, and also that his wife Mary was the eldest daughter of James II, the king she helped to overthrow.
  • Having secured the throne in England, William went on to defeat the Irish at the Battle of the Boyne in 1689, a defeat/victory which is commemorated to this day in Northern Ireland.
  • And the creation of the Bill of Rights and other constitutional devices which ensured the supremacy of Parliament and other legal rights which made Britain one of the most advanced and liberated nations on earth.

But then this is an art exhibition and not a history lesson.

The advent of William as King not only overthrew the House of Stuart but created two broad political parties among the political elite – those who remained true to the old Stuart line and came to be known as Tories, and those who moved to ingratiate themselves with the polemically Protestant new rule of this progressive king and came to be known as Whigs.

And it also drew Britain deep into European politics. We gained not only a new king but a new web of complex international alliances and enmities which this king brought with him, not least total opposition to the king of France’s ambitions for European hegemony.

And thus this room has paintings of William and various of his generals, in warlike pose, astride horses, in martial postures. The thing is… most of them are a bit rubbish. Here is a painting of Charles I on a horse by the genius Sir Anthony van Dyke back in the 1630s.

Charles I with M. de St Antoine by Sir Anthony van Dyck (1633)

Now here is a painting of King William III, portrayed as the victor of one of his innumerable endless wars, by Sir Godfrey Kneller.

William III on horseback with allegorical figures by Sir Godfrey Kneller (1701)

The van Dyck has genuine grace and dignity and regality. The Kneller has many good effects, but it’s just nowhere nearly as good as the van Dyck. And there’s something about those high wigs for men which is just… ludicrous. And whereas Charles is accompanied by a real retainer the chocolate box angels and putti flying above William are laughable.

(To be precise, the allegorical figures in the Kneller painting are: Neptune in shadow on the far left; Ceres and Flora [goddesses of fertility and crops] the two women on the right; Astrae [Justice] and Mercury [messenger of the gods] flying overhead.)

Room 10 – The Age of Politics

The constitutional and legal reforms which accompanied the Glorious Revolution which ushered in a new age. Formerly a king appointed a lead minister whose job it was to draw up policy and steer legislation through a mostly passive parliament until, that is, the increasing dissension which led up to the civil war.

Now it was agreed in law that parliamentary elections would be held every three years, and this ushered in a new era where groups and cabals of aristocrats came together to press for their own interests. It was the birth of parliamentary parties. And also the birth of an early form of journalism as magazines arose to cater to the taste for reading about the ever-more complex political intriguing and jockeying which was going on in and around Parliament, such as the original Spectator magazine, founded by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele in 1711.

Thus it is that the final room contains portraits of leading lights of the is new world of intrigue, clubs and parties. There is a massive and unflattering portrait of Queen Anne (reigned 1702 to 1714) along with portraits of the members of the various clubs which had their origins at this time, including Kneller’s portraits of members of the Whig Kit-Cat Club, and this fine body of podgy, bewigged men – the leading figures in the Whig Junto as depicted by John James Baker.

The Whig Junto by John James Baker (1710) Tate

Conclusion

If you watch the Antiques Roadshow or flick through popular history, nobody refers to an English ‘baroque’ period – the eras and styles they refer to are the Restoration, or Queen Anne, or Georgian periods and styles (the Georgian began at Queen Anne’s death in 1714).

And the exhibition skimps on the enormous importance of the political events of the time, and skates very thinly over the momentous philosophical and scientific revolutions of the period – Newton discovering the laws of the universe and the nature of light, the Royal Society founded in 1660 and sponsoring all kinds of breakthrough in engineering, hydraulics, dynamics, the circulation of the blood and so on.

But then it’s an exhibition of art and architecture not a history lesson. And one of the most interesting lessons I took from it was how very unBaroque a lot of the art of this period was. In sharp contrast with the European Baroque, it was dedicatedly Protestant, unreligiose, unshowy, undramatic and often very tame and domestic in feel.

In fact walking slowly back through all ten rooms I came to the conclusion that in the entire exhibition there was only one real Baroque pieces, an enormous, fearfully heavy marble bust of Charles II made by the French-born, Genoa-based sculptor Honoré Pelle in 1684.

This, it struck me, was grand – large, imposing, showed its subject in a moment of movement, dramatised by the extraordinary realism of the cloak of fabric flying around his shoulders. This, for me, was by far the most convincing and successful Baroque work of art in the exhibition.

Charles II by Honoré Pelle (1684) Victoria and Albert Museum

Promotional video

Curators

  • Tabitha Barber, Curator, British Art 1550-1750, Tate Britain
  • David Taylor, Curator of Pictures and Sculpture, National Trust
  • Tim Batchelor, Assistant Curator, British Art 1550-1750, Tate Britain

Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

Rewards and Fairies by Rudyard Kipling (1910)

Take of English earth as much
As either hand may rightly clutch.
In the taking of it breathe
Prayer for all who lie beneath —
Not the great nor well-bespoke,
But the mere uncounted folk
Of whose life and death is none
Report or lamentation.
Lay that earth upon thy heart,
And thy sickness shall depart!

(A Charm)

Introduction

The book This is the sequel to the classic children’s book, Puck of Pook’s Hill (1906). Both consist of short stories in which Shakespeare’s Puck, last of ‘the People of the Hills’, introduces two nice young children, Dan and Una, to figures from English history, personages who tend to gossip and witter on before eventually getting round to telling a, by and large rather hard-to-follow, ‘story’. There are ten such tales in Rewards – which Kipling worked on from 1906 to 1910 – as well as 24 poems which are, frankly, much more accessible and, as a result, much more enjoyable.

The era The Edwardian era (1901-1910) saw a flourishing of children’s literature – Beatrix Potter published the first of her tales, about Peter Rabbit, in 1902; Peter Pan first appeared in a 1904 play; The Wind In the Willows 1908; E. Nesbit’s The Phoenix and the Carpet in 1904, The Railway Children in 1906. After the heady Imperialist rhetoric surrounding the Boer War, the post-war years saw a retreat into fantasy, children’s and rural writing, all trends epitomised in the Puck books.

The title is taken from a poem by Richard Corbet (1582-1635), which laments the passage of the fairy people out of England, scared by the religious strife under Queen Elizabeth I and especially James I (1603 – 1625), namely the rise of the disruptive Puritans.

Witness those rings and roundelays
Of theirs, which yet remain,
Were footed in Queen Mary’s days
On many a grassy plain;
But since of late, Elizabeth,
And later, James came in,
They never danced on any heath
As when the time hath been.

(Kipling had described this flight of the fairies out of England in the penultimate story in Puck of Pook’s Hill, ‘Dymchurch Flit’ – where it was wonderfully illustrated by Arthur Rackham.)

The stories

1. Cold Iron – Dan and Una are older than in the previous book – symbolised by the fact that they are now boots!, boots which have iron nails in them. Puck explains that the fairy folk can’t abide ‘cold iron’ and tells the story of how he stole a human child and gave it to the fairy people – Sir Huon and his wife Lady Esclairmonde – to raise. As he grew, Puck took the growing lad roistering until they got into so much trouble that Sir Huon and his wife forbade him the boy’s company, soon after which the boy picks up a slave’s collar made and left in his path deliberately to snare him by old Thor, the blacksmith. By touching it the boy becomes doomed to becoming a servant to the humans. Eerie and strange. I enjoy Kipling’s evocations of the pagan/Saxon/Norse gods.

2. Gloriana – Dan and Una go up to their secret base in the woods and bump into Gloriana, Queen Elizabeth I, who tells them a story about being hosted at a nearby country house where a fight breaks out between two brothers who she forces to make peace and then offers a mission to Virginia, in America, to forestall what she thinks might be an attack by forces of King Philip of Spain. The boys and their fleet are never heard of again: did she do right? The characterisation of Elizabth is beguiling and strange, an uncertain but decisive woman trapped by her duties.

She took off her cloak slowly, and stood forth in dove-coloured satin, worked over with pearls that trembled like running water in the running shadows of the trees. Still talking — more to herself than to the children — she swam into a majestical dance of the stateliest balancings, the naughtiest wheelings and turnings aside, the most dignified sinkings, the gravest risings, all joined together by the elaboratest interlacing steps and circles. They leaned forward breathlessly to watch the splendid acting.

3. The Wrong Thing – Dan is carving a model boat in the workshop of the village handyman, Mr Springett, when both are surprised by the arrival of Hal o’ the Draft, the draughtsman and artist we met in the story of the same name in the first volume. As in most Kipling stories the two old blokes fall to yarning and shaking their heads about the modern world – in this instance lamenting the rise of ‘unions’ with their damn-fool insistence that a man be a specialist and not a Jack-of-all-trades.

Only after a lot of this yarning do we get to Hal’s story, in which he is apprenticed to a demanding Italian master of Works in Oxford, Torrigiano. He is commissioned by an employee of the king’s to design a relief for the bow of a new ship, all Neptunes and dolphins – a warship which his foreign girlfriend, Catherine of Castile, wants the king to give her as a pleasure boat.

But Hal is not very happy with his design and Torrigiano mocks it to pieces. So when he’s called along to a local tavern to meet a more senior king’s official to discuss it, Hal says it would cost a good £30 to create and gild, and criticises his own design, adding that in any case it won’t stand up to hard wear at sea. The official is persuaded to scrap it, laughs in relief that Hal has saved him some thirty pound in expense, picks up a nearby rusty sword and, to Hal’s amazement, knights him. For it is the king, Henry VII, himself! Who then exits, leaving Hal stunned.

And moprtified that the king knighted him – not for the excellent chapel and carvings and statues he’s building for him – but for saving him £30 and (also) helping him get one over on a woman he obviously doesn’t like. For the wrong thing!

Meanwhile, Hal had an enemy among the other architects and designers, a vengeful man named Benedetto whose work Hal had criticised once or twice and who had taken it very personally. This Benedetto has crept up behind Hal in the king’s chamber, and now seizes him and puts his knife to his throat, insisting that Hal tell his story before he kills him. So Hal tells him the story of the bad Neptune design for the ship and how he talked the official out of using it and how the official turned out to be the king – and Benedetto bursts out laughing and is so overcome with mirth that he puts his knife away, puts his arm round Hal’s shoulders, and the two become best friends ever since.

Back in ‘the present’, in the frame story, Hal and Mr Springett laugh long and hard at this, and then old Mr Springett tells his own story of how he built an elaborate blue-brick stables for a local lord of the manor. When the rich man’s hoity-toity wife – fresh down from ‘Lunnon’ – asked Springett if he could create a ha-ha (i.e. a ditch) across the main lawn Springett said, ‘Aw no, me lady, there be so any springs around here you’d end up flooding the park.’ Which wasn’t true but he didn’t want to go to the bother of digging it. So the wife dropped the idea and, later, the Lord of the Manor came round and paid Springett a tenner in gratitude – he didn’t want a ha-ha and is delighted that Springett put the kibosh on it. But no mention of the beautiful tiled stables which Springett has laboured so long over.

Thus both Hal and old Springett were rewarded for ‘the wrong thing’, not the thing they thought was important – chapel, stables – but what their masters thought was important – saving £30 and abandoning the ha-ha idea. Both, as it happens, also involved helping the lords get one over on their womenfolk…

‘Stories’ like this seem to come from a sense of human nature and shared values that is so alien to our 21st century sensibilities that they are difficult to relate to.

4. Marklake Witches – Una is learning how to milk cows with Mrs Vincey, the farmer’s wife at Little Lindens, when out of nowhere appears an imperious young lady in historical outfit who calls herself Miss Philadelphia and starts prattling on at length about everything and nothing like so many Kipling characters. Eventually her prattle about her mother and her father and her nurse, Old Cissie, settles down into the time Cissie stole three silver spoons and gave them to Jerry Gamm, the Witchmaster on the Green, and Miss Philly went to get them back. Jerry Gamm returned them readily enough, but gave her a stick of maple wood and told her to prop her window open with it and say prayers five times a day to get rid of her spitting cough, which the ‘proper’ doctor, Dr Break, can’t seem to do anything about.

There’s also a French prisoner of war, René staying locally, who is himself training to be a doctor and after curing the Lord of the manor, is given more freedom than most of the prisoners. Miss Philly climbs into an oak tree overlooking Jerry’s garden and is surprised to find Jerry and René chatting away like old friends and trying out a kind of trumpet which René has whittled, putting it against each others’ chests and listening. (It is in fact an early version of the stethoscope.) In the middle of this scene, fat Dr Break and a deputation of drunk villagers arrive, claiming Jerry has been bewitching them, putting the trumpet against their chests and leaving a ‘bewitched’ red mark.

René leaps to his feet and exchanges hard words with Dr Break, who replies in kind, which prompts the hot-blooded Frenchman to challenge him to a duel. The villagers run off in a fright, and just as René is wrestling Dr Break to the ground up ride Philly’s father and Arthur Wellesly, head of the garrison at nearby Hastings (and, we the readers know, the future Duke of Wellington). Startled by their appearance Philly falls out of the tree at the adults’ feet and they all burst into laughter.

The Duke is invited by Philly’s father to dinner that evening at the Hall, along with René and Dr Break, and here Miss Philly sings them a sad song about a man who falls in love with a fading flower although he knows that it will die and leave him pining. To her surprise all four men present are reduced to sobs and tears. What she doesn’t realise, but the alert reader has come to understand from her persistent coughing and from some remarks of René and Jerry which she overheard but didn’t understand – is that all the adults know she is dying of incurable tuberculosis. Hence these four strong men breaking down as she sings such a soulful song about death.

This simple technique – the fallible narrator not realising what the adults are talking about – is a rare touch of ‘literary effect’ among Kipling’s stories.

5. The Knife and the Naked Chalk – Una and Dan go on holiday to a cottage on the South Downs. They get to know an old shepherd, called Mr Dudeney, and his dogs Old Jim and Young Jim. There is a bit of banter with him singing the praises of the Sussex Downland, with the children preferring the woods and streams of the Weald. In his excellent biography of Kipling, Charles Carrington often refers to the pre-Raphaelite brilliance of his framing, i.e. the initial descriptions which set the scene in which his various characters then yarn away. And so it is here, with a lovely description of the Sussex Downs on a hot summer’s day.

The air trembled a little as though it could not make up its mind whether to slide into the Pit or move across the open. But it seemed easiest to go downhill, and the children felt one soft puff after another slip and sidle down the slope in fragrant breaths that baffed on their eyelids. The little whisper of the sea by the cliffs joined with the whisper of the wind over the grass, the hum of insects in the thyme, the ruffle and rustle of the flock below, and a thickish mutter deep in the very chalk beneath them. Mr Dudeney stopped explaining, and went on with his knitting. They were roused by voices. The shadow had crept halfway down the steep side of Norton Pit, and on the edge of it, his back to them, Puck sat beside a half-naked man who seemed busy at some work. The wind had dropped, and in that funnel of ground every least noise and movement reached them like whispers up a water-Pipe.

The half-naked man is carving flints. He is a Stone Age man. He sings his titles to Puck:

‘I am of the People of the Worked Flint. I am the one son of the Priestess who sells the Winds to the Men of the Sea. I am the Buyer of the Knife — the Keeper of the People.’

Then he tells Puck how he lost his eye; how as a man of the sheep people who used sharpened flints as cutting tools, he saw one of the wood people use a ‘knife’ to kill one of the ever-threatening Beasts (the wolves who were widespread and dangerous back in those days). So he went on a pilgrimage into the Forest and there met the Knife People and their Holy Woman, who said the Gods demanded that he must lose an eye to gain a knife. And so he let her put out his eye and was given a ‘knife’, and his people given many knives, and the Beasts knew it and kept away.

And so his people came to think he was a God, the god Tyr, and asked him judgements and a young man asked permission to marry his woman, and so he gave his people everything and freed them from the Beasts, but lost his eye and his woman and his peace of mind.

6. Brother Square-Toes – Puck appears with a local, nicknamed ‘Pharaoh’, who lived during the 1790s. He was a smuggler and Kipling lays on a lot of information and slang about Sussex smuggling families, techniques and so on. One night he’s out on a smuggling run, when his ship is run over by a French ship bound for the States, which he manages to scramble aboard before  his own vessel sinks.

And so he’s taken all the way to Philadelphia where he finds crowds protesting in the streets and follows a Red Indian – Red Jacket – into a house where he falls in with a white trader named Toby (Apothecary Tobias Hirte). All three go up into the hills to meet another Indian, Cornplanter, and Pharaoh spends enough time with them that he becomes adopted as a fellow Red Indian. More facts and info about Native Americans.

The main scene in this convoluted ‘story’ comes when the Indians and Pharaoh go back to Philadelphia to hear George Washington give his decision about the Big Issue of the Day: should or shouldn’t America join the French in war against the British? Washington, or ‘Big Hand’, as he’s known to the Indians, says No.

Washington is depicted as a special friend of the Indians, and shares with the Indians the knowledge that being a leader is tough, when you’re surrounded by ambassadors (the French ambassador in this instance) and other special interests (businessmen, jingo politicians) all trying to jockey you into their point of view.

And it’s in this context – Washington being a firm, clear-sighted leader – that Kipling ends the story with by far his most famous poem, If.

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise;

If you can dream — and not make dreams your master;
If you can think — and not make thoughts your aim,
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools;

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings — nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And — which is more — you’ll be a Man, my son!

7. ‘A Priest in spite of himself’ – Follows on from the previous story. Pharaoh Lee, back in Philadelphia, meets a battered French émigré begging in the street. Pharaoh rescues him from an angry mob and takes him back to Toby’s place where, over a few drinks, the battered man unwinds and gives indications of being more educated, grand and noble than he seems. Pharaoh sees him on subsequent occasions – comes across him gambling with loaded dice – and learns that he is Count Talleyrand, former Ambassador from the French King to Britain, who managed the feat of becoming Ambassador to the new, revolutionary French regime to Britain, until the disgusted Brits chucked him out.

Talleyrand hears that Pharaoh heard what George Washington told the Red Indians in the previous story and is desperate to find out what Washington told the French ambassador, Genêt, about the possibility of the Americans coming in on the French side in the war. This information would be gold dust; if he could take it back to the revolutionary regime it would restore his position. But Pharaoh refuses to disclose what he has heard despite the offer of a massive 500 dollars. As so often, what counts for Kipling is fidelity, loyalty, honour.

After returning from a sojourn with his Indian friends up country, Pharaoh learns that Talleyrand left him the 500 dollars anyway. He invests in horses, then buys a cargo of tobacco and a sailing ship to take it to Britain – starved of baccy by a French blockade. But Pharaoh’s ship is seized by a French ship. It is confiscated in a french harbour and the cargo of baccy shipped to Paris for the authorities to dispose of. Pharaoh, with all his worldly goods invested in the cargo of baccy, follows it to Paris where – by an extraordinary coincidence – he once again encounters Talleyrand, now restored to favour and riding in a carriage with none other than Napoleon Bonaparte!

This allows Kipling to give us a pen portrait of the little Corsican general, as he is invited into their palace, observes the relationship between the little emperor and the canny diplomat, and the story ends with the surprising twist that Talleyrand makes Napoleon give Pharaoh back his ship and double the price of his confiscated cargo.

In case it wasn’t obvious before, by this stage it is clear that there is little or no magic and no fairies whatsoever in this ‘fairy’ book. Instead it is a fairly thorough rummage through Great Figures from History.

8. The Conversion of St Wilfrid The children are in the village church while local craftsmen fix the bells, particularly ‘Old Mr Kidbrooke’ (it’s noticeable how many of the locals are ‘old’ so-and-so, giving a kind of insistent sense of their antiquity and venerableness). An old lady is practicing the organ giving a thread which underpins the ‘frame’. A shadowy figure at the altar stands and reveals himself to be Wilfrid, Saint of Sussex, and Archbishop of York (633-709), chaperoned – as all these historical personages are – by Puck. There is a great deal of detail – as usual – about different hymn tunes, how they sound to the children, about old memorials in the church and so on – before we get anywhere near a ‘story’.

This is: Wilfred, his chaplain Eddi, and a well-educated pagan named Meon, go out in Meon’s boat a-fishing. A storm comes up and wrecks them on a rock off the coast. After surviving a day and a night on the rock, Meon’s tame seal, Padda, finds them, brings them fish to eat, then swims to the mainland and attracts some of Meon’s people out to the rock to rescue them. While they were out on the rock shivering, Meon asked Wilfred whether he should abandon his pagan gods and call on the Christian god for help. Wilfred said, ‘No, cleave to the faith of your ancestors’. And, after they’re rescued, Meon is so impressed by this example of Wilfred’s integrity under duress, that he – Meon – chooses, of his own free will, to convert to Christianity.

I tell you now that a faith which takes care that every man shall keep faith, even though he may save his soul by breaking faith, is the faith for a man to believe in. So I believe in the Christian God, and in Wilfrid His Bishop, and in the Church that Wilfrid rules.

And then – Wilfred is gone in a flash! – like all the personages Puck presents, and the children – having, as usual, been administered the leaves which make them forget the ‘magic’ incident – forget the whole ting, and end the ‘story’ enjoying the thrilling sound of the organ playing a grand tune in the dark and atmospheric church.

Convoluted and overstuffed with detail as most of the stories are, Kipling excels at the gentle introduction and then gentle postlude to each tale. He himself referred to them as the ‘frames’ for the yarns, and they’re often the most accessible and therefore enjoyable bits.

9. A Doctor of Medicine The children are playing hide-and-seek with bicycle lamps after dark when Puck arrives with the Jacobean herbalist and astrologer Nicholas Culpeper (1616 – 1654). Culpeper is portrayed as a comic figure, proud of his ‘exquisite knowledge’ but in reality full of outrageously tendentious twaddle about ailments being caused by elements loyal to Mars and combated by plants loyal to Venus, and so on. As usual the description in the ‘framing’, the setting of the story, is much the best thing.

Their shadows jumped and slid on the fruit-tree walls. They filed out of the garden by the snoring pig-pound and the crooning hen-house, to the shed where Middenboro the old lawn-mower pony lives. His friendly eyes showed green in the light as they set their lamps down on the chickens’ drinking-trough outside, and pushed past to the hay-mow. Mr Culpeper stooped at the door.

We learn that Culpeper was a strong Puritan, very much against the King during the Civil War. There is a lot of confusing detail about who has loaned the King what, which Culpeper discovers, or overhears, when he’s shot and taken prisoner at the King’s stronghold of Oxford. Once healed, Culpeper is released and goes with a friend to his village nearby which they discover to be in the grip of the plague. Here, through a series of preposterous and deluded calculations based on ancient lore about Mars and Venus, Culpeper suggests a policy of killing all the rats (creatures of the Moon) which is, in fact, the key to quelling the plague. Thus through completely bogus medieval superstitious reasoning, he stumbles on the true remedy, the villager kill the rats and cleanse and block up all their hidey-holes, and the plague abates.

10. Simple Simon The children go to watch half-a-dozen men and a team of horses extracting a forty-foot oak log from a muddy hollow. Suddenly Puck is among them and introducing a stranger, Simon Cheyneys, shipbuilder of Rye Port. Through a blizzard of circumstantial detail, local dialect and references back to a story in Puck of Pook’s Hill, a story of sorts emerges.

It transpires that Simon knew young Francis Drake when he was learning sailing in Kent and round the coast to Sussex; that they were both in a boat which came under half-hearted attack from a Spanish ship which they met in the channel, that ‘Frankie’ carried the wounded Simon ashore and to his aunt’s house to be treated for a wound received.

Then their paths diverge and Drake circumnavigates the world and goes on to become a famous man. Then the story jumps twenty years to the year of the Armada (1588) when Simon and his aunt hear that Drake is commanding the English fleet opposing the Spanish. He realises that, by the time the English ships get to the Sussex coast, chances are they’ll be low on ammunition. So Simon and his Aunt load up his ship –

We was ballasted on cannon-shot of all three sizes; and iron rods and straps for his carpenters; and a nice passel of clean three-inch oak planking and hide breech-ropes for his cannon, and gubs of good oakum, and bolts o’ canvas, and all the sound rope in the yard.

… and sail out into the English fleet. Simon and his Aunt ignore – and I think this is the point of the story – they ignore requests and then threats from all the other ships and senior admirals they sail past to give them these supplies, and hold out until they find Drake’s ship and hand over all the goods in person to him. Drake swings down into Simon’s schooner and kisses him in front of all his men.

“Here’s a friend that sticketh closer than a brother!” he says.

These provisions, it is implied, will give the impetus Drake needs to drive the Spanish fleet into harbour in the Low Country and then send in fireships to devastate it. Loyalty is not only a moral virtue in itself – it saves the day. It is Simon’s loyalty to a comrade which saves England and freedom.

11. The Tree of Justice This is quite an intense and moving story, told in Kipling’s usual convoluted manner. The children are introduced again to Sir Richard Dalyngridge who tells a story involving Hugh the Saxon – both familiar from a set of three stories in Puck of Pook’s Hill.

It is the reign of King Henry I (1100 to 1135) and he is in the woods hunting, with local Saxon villagers acting as beaters. One among the beaters is a lot older and, apparently, deranged and calls out threats against the king. The story focuses on the way the King’s jester, Rahere, establishes his ascendancy over the king and then explains to a cowed assembly of nobles that the white-haired, one-eyed old man is none other than Harold Godwinson, the former King Harold, supposed killed at the Battle of Hastings, but who survived and has been wandering his lost kingdom for nigh on forty years, berating himself for all his failures.

In the final pages Rahere is able to show to the old man that the current king and his nobles do not mock him nor blame him.

‘“Hearken,” said Rahere, his arm round Harold’s neck. “The King — his bishops — the knights — all the world’s crazy chessboard neither mock nor judge thee. Take that comfort with thee, Harold of England!”

And Harold is able to die a happy man, supported by the loyal Hugh the Saxon, one of the first historical personages we met back in the first story of Puck, who now rounds the whole series off as an exemplar of the virtue which all these stories promote with growing emphasis – loyalty unto death.


Where are the fairies?

The cover of the Penguin Children’s Classic edition of Puck of Pook’s Hill features a detail from a late Victorian painting of fairies. After all, Rewards and Fairies has the word ‘fairies’ in the title. And yet there are no fairies at all in either book. What there is is lots of people – people from historical times, it’s true, but very flesh-and-blood people whose stories contain barely a shred of magic, focusing instead on all-too-human incidents and concerns.

In fact, the average reader might tend to associate fairies with lightness and deftness, whereas the stories come over as incredibly heavy in at least four respects:

  1. Jargon They are packed to overflowing with Kipling’s delight in the slang, historic speech, technical terms and specialist knowledge of whichever period the character is from.
  2. Gossip The first half of all of them is generally chat and banter and gossip and yarning with Puck about this and that incident from the past – before they get anywhere near an actual ‘story’.
  3. Convoluted The stories themselves are often so convoluted as to be hard to follow – the story of Pharaoh’s smuggling activities, wreck aboard a French warship, arrival in America, adoption by a Red Indian tribe and climactic scene with George Washington, is enough material for a novel and feels very compressed.
  4. Moralising Last and most important – all the stories point a moral. The Puck books are extremely moralising – they preach the virtues of comradeship and loyalty, whether to one’s fellow centurions, to the friends one makes in dangerous times, or to the old gods. Over and again Kipling rams home the message that it is vital, it is the only thing in life, to stay loyal and to stay true.

Related links

A big thank you to the University of Adelaide for making most of Kipling’s works available online in such a stylish design, and to the comprehensive notes on The Kipling Society’s website.

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The Wars of the Roses by John Gillingham (1981)

This book is 38 years old but is still, apparently, influential for the approach it takes to the subject. It amounts to an attack on prevailing historical opinion about the wars, and his critique of that attitude remains influential to this day.

Gillingham’s arguments are summed up in the brief but powerful opening chapter.

The prevailing view

The Middle Ages are conventionally dated as coming to an end around 1500. Therefore, the fact that England was subject to civil wars between various claimants to the crown from 1455 to 1485 was taken as indicating the general bloodiness of the whole 15th century, and an indication that the entire Plantagenet line of kings was worn out.

On this the traditional view, the wars of the roses represent the ‘decline’ of the Middle Ages into chaos and bloodshed, reaching a nadir with the short brutal rule of King Richard III (1483-1485), whose injustice and harshness prompted yet another rebellion, this time led by a Welsh nobleman, Henry Tudor, which culminated in the decisive Battle of Bosworth, where Richard was killed and his army defeated.

The victorious Henry – crowned Henry VII – established the Tudor line of monarchs which proceeded through Henry VIII, Mary Tudor, Edward VI, to the glorious reign of good Queen Elizabeth I, marking the transition from an exhausted medieval dynasty to the ‘early modern’ period. Hooray.

Gillingham’s counter-arguments

The myth of periods Historians know they shouldn’t divide history into periods, but they do. They shouldn’t because time is a seamless continuum and dividing it up into chunks is highly misleading.

Defining ‘periods’ in this way has two drawbacks.

  1. Having defined a block of time as the ‘so-and-so period’, the temptation is to give this random era a beginning, middle and end.
  2. And ‘ends’, in the organic world, tend to be the result of age and decline.

Thus the recurring vice of historians is inventing periods and then spending careers accounting for their ‘rise’ and their ‘fall’.

The myth of the middle ages But these are totally misleading metaphors. In reality there were no ‘middle ages’. The phrase was invented in the ‘Renaissance’ to characterise the period between the peak of the ancient Roman world and the revival of learning which Renaissance authors were very conscious of in their own time.

But in our time, for a generation or more, historians have been subverting the ‘myth of the middle ages’ in all kinds of ways.

One way is by explaining that Rome didn’t ‘decline and fall’ as fast or as thoroughly as the myth demands. This is the thrust of Chris Wickham’s magisterial study, The Inheritance of Rome which shows how the legislative, linguistic, religious and administrative legacy of Rome continued for centuries after the removal of the last Roman emperor (476), strongly enduring into the era of Charlemagne (crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 800).

The myth of violence Gillingham asserts that England wasn’t a specially violent or bloodthirsty place in the later 15th century. The reverse. All the evidence is that England was unusually peaceful among comparably sized European states. Gillingham gives a lot of evidence for this.

  • He gives a long explanation of military technology, showing how the widespread development of powerful cannon was accompanied by the equal development of fortifications which could resist them, specifically the creation of bulwarks sticking out from the curtain walls of town or castle walls, to be used as platforms to bombard attacking forces. Almost all European towns and cities built them because the continent existed in a state of almost continuous warfare; there are hardly any in England because they weren’t needed.
  • Foreign observers commented on the peacefulness of England and pointed out one simple reason: the Channel. All nations in continental Europe were liable to be attacked at any moment by any other nation. Nobody could attack England. Seaborne raids there were, for example on the Cinque Ports on the south coast – but these merely prove Gillingham’s point because these were the only places which built ‘modern’ defensive walls. The entire rest of England didn’t need them.

On the contrary, Gillingham adduces evidence that the wages of labourers were at their highest point during the period. And – something he doesn’t himself mention but which I know independently – the period from 1450 saw the flourishing of the late medieval style of parish church design known as ‘Perpendicular’ – new, larger-than-ever churches built across the country and representing the wealth that comes from economic and social stability. It was the heyday of medieval church building.

So far from being the bloodbath which later tradition made it out to be, Gillingham pithily sums up the period of disorder which later generations called the wars of the roses as merely ‘a few disturbances of the aristocratic establishment’ (p.11).

The Tudor myth

So why is there this myth in the first place?

Because when Henry Tudor defeated Richard III he commissioned writers to prove that he was a hero, restoring order and peace to a nation brought to its knees by incompetent rulers, weltering in blood and chaos, all leading to the acme of evil – the wicked king who Henry overthrew, black Richard III, the evil hunchback.

His son (Henry VIII) perpetuated this version of history and so did his sons and daughters (Edward VI and Elizabeth I). Chroniclers, teachers, historians – everything they wrote and published using the power of the new printing presses (which began to spread precisely during Henry VII’s reign) was first vetted and approved by government censors. And the Tudor government used the power of the press to promulgate the Official Tudor Version of history describing a state brought to the brink of chaos by the incompetent Lancastrians, and only saved from chaos by the heroic Tudor dynasty.

100 years later, Shakespeare – whose history plays are sometimes credited with being the biggest single influence on the English people’s view of their own history – sealed and cemented the myth in the series of eight ‘history’ plays he wrote about Richard II, Henry IV, Henry V, and the sad decline of Henry VI (the incompetent, possibly mentally defective king under whom the wars broke out) and the short wicked reign of Richard III.

Later historians accepted the official Tudor myth at face value and the story of chaos climaxing in the wickedest king in our island history was repeated over and again.

Only in the 1980s and since, has a revisionist version of the period taken hold: one that doesn’t represent it as a period of decline and fall into inevitable violence, but of surprising peace and stability upset only by dynastic quarrels right at the top of society which had surprisingly little impact except on the poor individuals press-ganged into fighting or in whose vicinity battles – generally quite small-scale battles – took place.

Full of meat and ideas

Lots of history books are full of dates, events and pernickety interpretations of them, but Gillingham’s book is riveting for the way it defines the big issues and tackles them head on. It is packed with logical arguments and insights.

It is, for example, fascinating to read that the biggest problem for any armed force in the field was provisions. Even living off the land was only a viable option for a limited period. In a war of foreign conquest part of the process of cowing the opposition was ravaging and destroying the land. But in a civil war, especially when you were claiming the throne and looking for people’s loyalty, the opposite was true – you wanted to present yourself as the enforcer of peace, law and stability. You wanted to rein in your followers and limit damage as much as possible.

These reasons explain why the Hundred Years War – fought mainly in France and which ended on the eve of the Wars of the Roses, in 1453 – and the other continental wars of this period, often settled down into long and destructive sieges, with land around the besieged cities being systematically ravaged and laid waste.

Whereas the Wars of the Roses are characterised by the opposite, an unusual number of pitched battles, battles which didn’t last long and were usually decisive. Neither side wanted to destroy the very kingdom they were fighting to inherit.

This isn’t the place to summarise the actual wars (there were three distinct periods of violent conflict with periods of peace and manouvering between them). You can read summaries of the events on Wikipedia or any number of other websites. Suffice to say that in his opening chapters Gillingham’s book gives a host of fascinating, logical and persuasive arguments for rethinking our understanding of the entire period.


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