Saturday 8 June 2024

Guest Review: Unruly: A History of England’s Kings and Queens By David Mitchell

Think you know your kings and queens? Think again.

In UNRULY, David Mitchell explores how England's monarchs, while acting as feared rulers firmly guiding their subjects' destinies, were in reality a bunch of lucky sods who were mostly as silly and weird in real life as they appear today in their portraits.

Taking us right back to King Arthur (spoiler: he didn't exist), David tells the founding story of post-Roman England right up to the reign of Elizabeth I (spoiler: she dies). It's a tale of narcissists, inadequate self-control, excessive beheadings, middle-management insurrection, uncivil wars, and at least one total Cnut, as the population evolved from having their crops nicked by the thug with the largest armed gang to bowing and paying taxes to a divinely anointed king.

How this happened, who it happened to and why it matters in modern Britain are all questions David answers with brilliance, wit and the full erudition of a man who once studied history - and won't let it off the hook for the mess it's made.

Review: David Mitchell is a comedian, actor and writer who also studied history at Cambridge University. This book is his version of the history, and his interpretation of the personality, of the monarchs that ruled the land equating roughly to present day England from the period following the withdrawal of the Romans in the 5th century up to the end of the Tudor dynasty at the beginning of the 17th century.

Most of England from AD 43 had been part of the Roman Empire, and was known as the province of Britannia. Following the withdrawal of the Romans, tribes from north-western Europe, such as Angles, Saxons and Jutes, began to settle the land and rule specific regions. The leaders of these regions were usually the ones with the biggest armies who were prepared to use them in order to claim allegiance from their neighbours. These leaders came to be referred to as kings and England was divided into various kingdoms which came to dominate at different times, with the kingdom of Wessex eventually becoming dominant. Eventually, in the 10th century, one of their kings Athelstan styled himself Rex Anglorum, or King of the English. This was notwithstanding the fact that another series of invaders, the Vikings, had taken over large parts of the north of England, and indeed in subsequent years Anglo-Saxons and Vikings vied for the kingdom of England. Eventually, the last Anglo-Saxon king was replaced as a result of an invasion by Normans. From that point on, monarchs of England were given regnal numbers.

David Mitchell has provided a comprehensive and humorous account of the kings and queens of the various dynasties that ruled England during the twelve centuries described in the book. Although nominally following the line of the eldest male, he describes how quite often the succession was a result of an individual with even a slight claim seizing power by the time-honoured method of imprisoning or killing (sometimes both) rival claimants. Family trees of the various dynasties are provided, showing just how interrelated the royal families were. The introduction of various statutory institutions, such as Magna Carta and parliament, in an attempt to curb the power of the monarch are also described. The book contains illustrations of several of the monarchs, and there is a section at the end with suggestions for further reading.

David Mitchell, in the acknowledgements section, states that he wanted to write a book about kings and queens that was both funny and fascinating. In this, I feel that he has succeeded. I learnt a lot, particularly about the period before the Norman conquest because, for me, the teaching of history, as well as regnal numbering, began at this point. I also found the book extremely funny, with many laugh out loud moments. I liked the way the author used comparisons between historical figures and events with contemporary situations. I should add a warning that, for a book on history, there is a lot of strong language. As an entertaining, if sometimes irreverent, and highly informative read, I would thoroughly recommend this book.

To order your copy, just click here!

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