I hadn’t planned to write this, but was sufficiently aggravated by hearing some media clowns asking whether the English flag was racist I knocked it up quickly (speaking of which, best wishes to the Duchess of Cambridge, who is currently in labour).
Here are a quartet of biographies that cover from the 9th century to the 14th. They’re well worth checking out individually, and each offers great insight into both the individuals upon whom they’re focused as well as the state of England (which varies rather a lot).
Depending how you count it, England has had kings for one a half millennia. Over a thousand years ago Alfred became the first, and only, man to be called the Great. Justin Pollard’s excellent biography paints a vivid picture of a king not easily pigeon-holed as either a warrior or a scholar, but who mixed the qualities and strengths of both. Not only that, Pollard manages to convey the strange, almost alien, realm over which Alfred reigns, including abandoned Roman cities and new innovations, such as Alfred’s burh system of defensive settlements. This is the only Anglo-Saxon era history I’ve read, but despite that I never felt lost, so it’s a great book for a first timer.
The Greatest Knight is about William Marshal, possibly the most important figure in English history that almost nobody has ever heard of. From childhood as a hostage, abandoned by his father to face probable death (which he only avoided by being so sweet and innocent the king couldn’t bring himself to kill the boy), through to tournaments and war in France, the Holy Land, England and Wales, William served numerous kings, from Henry II to John. Skilful in war, falsely accused of adultery with Young King Henry’s wife, taunted by the vindictive John, William Marshal had a hand in Magna Carta and, quite literally, saved England. A fascinating biography of the 12th and 13th century knight.
Edward I, a man so soft and fuzzy he’s been cited by George RR Martin as the inspiration for Tywin Lannister, grew up in the 13th century during the reign of his loving but weak father, Henry III. A fearsome warrior, he imposed his will on England, strengthening the kingdom and conquering Wales (the castles he built remaining to this day). From the Holy Land to Scotland he fought, his reign marking a high point of royal power between the weakness of his father, and divisiveness of his son (with whom he had rather strained relations). In his latter days, his vigour was compromised and so too his judgement (his punitive approach to Wales was fair enough as it was they who dicked him about, whereas with Scotland the dickishness came from his own side [though Robert Bruce murdering a rival in a church was hardly gentlemanly conduct either]).
One of England’s greatest ever kings scarcely made it out of childhood. Kept as a virtual prisoner by the usurper of royal authority (but not title) Roger Mortimer, the teenage Edward was rescued by his friends in a daring infiltration by a castle’s secret passage. He rapidly grew into his new role as true king, executing Mortimer and embarking upon a series of wars to strengthen the kingdom. By keeping the Hundred Years’ War in France he protected the English from its worst effects, the huge victories at Crecy and Poitiers occurring in his reign (Poitiers under the command of the Black Prince, his eldest son). Edward also consulted Parliament more frequently than any predecessor, gaining popular support for his decisions and financial backing for his actions. During his reign England suffered the Black Death, and his own son pre-deceased him (due to a different illness). In all, he reigned for half of the 14th century.
There you are, a quartet of fantastic historical biographies for those interested in learning more about English history. Happy St George’s Day.