I was researching a book about Richard the Lionheart’s journey across southern Europe in disguise in 1192, immediately before his arrest, and the legendary incident involving Blondel the troubadour (though strictly speaking he was a trouvere), and a lute. I was doing research in the Vienna Museum, the city where Richard had been heading. I was taken aback talking to one of the key experts on the medieval city who said, “Are you writing a children’s book?” he asked me. I have occasionally been asked whether I was a children’s television presenter (I think it was the tie). But I realised then that there are some stories in history – normally those with little detail which have dramatic and memorable pictures in the Nursery History of England and other Edwardian classics, which have in the minds of academic historians been reserved for children.
This is a pity because they are actually the stories I really want to know about. That was how I came to write Blondel’s Song and it was how I came to buy Charles Spencer’s wonderful and evocative book White Ship: Conquest, Anarchy and the Wrecking of Henry I’s Dream. So this is my choice for book of the year. The loss of the White Ship with the heir to the throne on board and only one survivor – exactly 900 years ago this year – had huge repercussions for the history of England and I love the book. Spencer just tells the story straight and he does so brilliantly. I thoroughly recommend it.
You can’t fault Tom Holland for his ambition. It’s no mean feat to encompass the sweep of two millennia in five hundred-odd pages. In Dominion, he makes the case for the revolutionary power imbued within the startling paradox at the root of Christianity. That the shameful death of the “King of the Heavens” on a cross of execution was in fact a victory over the Romans and every temporal power that came after. Moreover, even after Christianity accrued its own worldly power – such that its worldview now undergirds almost every aspect of Western civilization – the paradox at its heart never went away. That the weak may triumph over the strong was an idea that could topple even Christianity from its lofty pedestal. Holland’s thesis makes for a compelling read, as well as a rollicking ride through Western history, argued with his customary erudition and flair for a good story.
Abbot Suger of St. Denis, by Lindy Grant. I read this book for research a while ago but came back to it recently because I am in the process of fabricating an elaborate libel of its subject, Abbot Suger (1081-1151). I was delighted to rediscover Grant’s readable, comprehensive and scholarly biography. My ongoing libel takes the form of a novel. Suger is a first rate villain: an archetypical political mover who wormed his way into power and became indispensable to the governmental machine. He grabbed control of key institutions by means of blatant lying, brutal bullying and devious deception. In that last category he excelled, actually going to the trouble of faking a document and getting somebody to write it in a (convincing) imitation of the old-fashioned language of two hundred years earlier. The deceit was only found out in the last century, meanwhile the Abbot got himself another monastery out of it. Suger plainly comes bedecked with modern resonances which will appear quietly in the narrative. But here I encounter ethical issues of the kind that beset The Crown at the moment. My story requires me to ascribe a few extra – and indeed nastier – crimes to him. The Crown is accused of inserting falsehoods and contradicting the spirit of history. Fortunately I have the authority of Lindy Grant to reassure me that I am on the right lines – in essence Suger was the kind of bloke I claim he was. I can tell myself the spirit of history is safe in my hands. And besides the Abbot is dead.
I have particularly noted two books this year for different reasons – leaving aside the obvious and wonderful The Mirror and the Light. Firstly David Abulafia’s The Boundless Sea: A Human History of the Oceans. This is great global history, one that charts our interaction with the sea from earliest times to the age of the container ship. It is both a work of vast scholarship and an accessible read, which fills in a huge gap in our understanding of human history, avoids being Eurocentric and reminds us how the 70% of the planet that is water binds us together.
I also enjoyed A Schoolmaster’s War by Harry Rée. Parachuted into Eastern France in 1943 to help organise resistance and acts of sabotage against the Nazis, the incredibly modest Rée described what followed as a long paid holiday. It wasn’t. This extremely moving book is a collection of different accounts – Harry never wrote a full version. It seems he couldn’t bear to. The murder or deportation to concentration camps of French resistance fighters who worked with him was probably too painful to relate – but their contribution – including the destruction of the Peugeot factory manufacturing parts for V1 bombers was considerable. Shot four times in an ambush he crawled across the Swiss frontier and survived. And went back to being a schoolmaster.
My Books of the Year are by a first-time author and a historian out of his comfort zone. Harrys Smee’s Gunpowder & Glory: The Explosive Life of Frank Brock OBE is the larger-than-life tale of the scion of a famous fireworks company who invented the explosive bullet that brought down Zeppelins and was killed on the daring Zeebrugge Raid in 1918. Smee, the grandson of Brock, uses access to the family archive to tell for the first time the extraordinary life and death of this daredevil combatant, secret agent and brilliant inventor.
Charles (Earl) Spencer has written a number of excellent books on the Stuart dynasty, including Blenheim, Killers of the King, and To Catch a King. His latest, The White Ship: Conquest, Anarchy and the Wrecking of Henry I’s Dream rewinds more than 500 years to that pivotal moment in the early 12th century when Prince William of Aethling, the sole heir to the throne (and grandson of William the Conqueror), died in a shipwreck, sparking a brutal period of Civil War known as ‘The Anarchy’. Spencer’s fast-paced narrative adds context and drama to this long-forgotten dynastic tragedy.
Edward the Confessor: Last of the Royal Blood, by Tom Licence. Time has its revolutions. Dynasties rise and fall. How did the line of Cerdic lose the crown in 1066 after 571 years? Licence seeks to find the answer. He succeeds marvelously, re-discovering the story of Edward the Confessor, buried at Westminster Abbey wrapped in Byzantine silk, in the very hour a usurper was crowned. If the past is another country, the 11th century is a remote and strange one. Amongst the faceless names it can be difficult to separate your Egbert from your Tostig. There are only only a few ‘well worn’ narrative sources and Licence admits ‘There is no denying their thought processes are concealed from the historian’. What do most of us remember of Edward the Confessor? An image of a man with a beard, sitting on a throne; a saint who left the throne to multiple contenders, paving the way to the Norman conquest.
Licence imagines the aftermath of Edward’s death: ‘skeletons wrapped in silk, the lipless, gibbering dead; dragon’s teeth, sown in evil ground and sprouting armies’. To discover how it came to this, Licence re-interrogates the sources to breathe ‘new life into a valley of dry bones’. In doing so he brings a new succession story to popular attention with a poetic intelligence. Richard III and the Princes in the Tower, Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, have fresh competition in the women, the darkness and the mysteries of Edward’s life and legacy.
My other top choices are Charles Spencer’s thrilling rollercoaster, White Ship: Conquest, Anarchy and the Wrecking of Henry I’s Dream, and Linda Porter’s brilliantly colourful and insightful Mistresses: Sex and Scandal at the Court of Charles II.
Charles Spencer’s The White Ship: Conquest, Anarchy and the Wrecking of Henry I’s Dream is a must-read for anyone interested in medieval history. He raises the standing of Henry I as a king – and tells a page-turning story of power, family and tragedy. His depiction of medieval England and France – full of putrid corpses, dynastic feuds, majesty and brutality – grips from the first page to the last.
Saul David’s Crucible of Hell, covering the Battle of Okinawa and its aftermath, is rich with both narrative colour and argument. David blends the accounts of individual combatants with grand strategy to deliver a book which captures the horror – and humanity – of conflict. He asks and answers the question about why America dropped the bomb.
In the 1980s the Israeli government authorised a highly dangerous covert mission to smuggle thousands of Ethiopian Jews by night from Sudan. The Israel Secret Service had never released details before. Berg was granted exclusive access to the Mossad commander, ‘Dani’ and gathered eyewitness accounts from other operatives (sometimes differing and with rivalries) as well as insider information on the complex chain of events and trans-continental background preparations to this mission. The operatives worked as waiters and staff in the day; and became secret agents at night. Berg forged a trust and intimate friendship with some of those rescued. The narrative is gripping: from the hazardous journeys, by air and sea, to the smuggling of this ‘lost tribe’ into the diving resort, right under the noses of the unsuspecting tourists . The tension throughout the text is palpable. This is the first book that Berg has written and his account is truly special. For these reasons it is my ‘Book of the Year’.
If you’re surfing a big wave, the only way is to go further up – or else come crashing down. (Please, no surfers tell me I have it wrong.) And serious non-fiction, history included, is riding the crest of a wave right now: one of the rare beneficiaries of the Covid crisis. Which means it’s time to push the boundaries a bit – and this year has given us all good reason – ‘Fake news’! – to explore the boundaries between fact and fiction.
Lisa Hilton’s Sex and the City of Ladies takes as its starting point The Book of the City of Ladies by Christine de Pisan, a seminal feminist text written 1405, which sees Cleopatra (asses’ milk), Lucrezia Borgia (poison) and Catherine the Great (stallions) visit Hilton in a waking dream to ask why they are not included in Christine’s roll call of famous women? Too sexy? It’s a question Hilton is well-placed to answer as the author of both Elizabeth: Renaissance Prince and the sex-meets-art series Maestra. A dazzling skit on an impotant post-feminist theme.
Tracy Borman’s The Fallen Angel is the third in her trilogy of novels set in the choked, claustrophobic world of the Jacobean court, where her heroine, herbalist Frances Gorges, is in perpetual danger of falling foul of James I’s witchcraft laws. As a serious historian and Joint Chief Curator of Historic Royal Palaces, Borman might easily have been mired in the records. Instead she uses them to invent an utterly compelling alternative reality.
One of the many pleasures of researching Black Spartacus has been discovering how much ground-breaking research is currently being undertaken on the history of modern Atlantic slavery, and particularly the history of resistance to slavery. Most striking among these works is Vincent Brown’s Tacky’s Revolt, an archivally-based study of an uprising by enslaved West Africans in Jamaica in the early 1760s, which paved the way for many later revolutions across the region. Echoing Olaudah Equiano’s characterisation of slavery as a “state of war”, Brown frames this conflict as a form of global warfare, with ramifications and inter-connections across Africa, Europe, and America. The book highlights the military and political sophistication of the revolutionaries, who were aspiring to create a new state, as well as the valour of the combatants, including its African-born leaders Tacky and Apongo, and women fighters such as Akua, ‘the ‘Queen of Kingston’, who led a rebel group while adorned with a crown on her head.
In a year defined politically by the Black Lives Matter movement, I was captivated by Peniel Joseph’s The Sword and the Shield, a remarkable study of the lives of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. While acknowledging the specific aspects their revolutionary visions (King’s focus on democratic citizenship, and Malcolm X’s on black dignity), Joseph transcends the conventional dichotomy between the pragmatic and benign preacher from the South on the one hand, and the fiercely intransigent Harlem firebrand on the other. He shows instead how their paths became increasingly convergent, and especially how King eventually absorbed key elements of Malcolm X’s global vision, notably his condemnation of the Vietnam war and the underlying appreciation that American racism was inherently connected to US Cold War imperialism. Beyond its brilliant portrayal of the two leaders, the book provides timely insights into the ongoing history of African-American struggles for freedom and justice. As Joseph concludes, both men “continue to offer the world powerful legacies of radical social and political transformation”.
From the mid-eighteenth century onwards, it was the received wisdom that much of the Englishmen’s fun in India had been spoilt when it became commonplace for their memsahibs to join them in post. The cotton-and-lace-clad ladies of the East India Company (and, later, the British Raj) were, it seems, a prudish lot who did not approve of the lax morality with the locals which they found in the British cantonments. Fortunately, quite a few of them also had backbones every bit as robust as their whale-bone corsets. The nec plus ultra of these ladies was Florentia, wife of Major General Sir Robert Sale, who is the subject of Mike Scott’s latest book, The Lady of Kabul. Known during her lifetime as ‘the Grenadier in petticoats’, Florentia Sale put a capital ‘f’ into the word formidable, as both her husband’s officers and his enemies knew to their cost.
Moving Florentia from the walk-on part she is usually accorded in historical and fictional accounts of the First Afghan War to centre stage, Mike Scott takes his readers on a journey with this extraordinary memsahib around the Orient as she supports her husband and raises her eight children against a background of almost constant warfare.
Florentia reached her apotheosis in the aftermath of the disastrous 1842 Retreat from Kabul and the Massacre in the Khurd Kabul Pass: wounded during the massacre, captured by Akbar Khan and held as a hostage, she nonetheless managed to turn the tables on her captors to the point where she took control of the citadel in which she was being held and then levied taxes on passing Afghans. It is a tale that not even the most outlandish novelist could invent. If you want to know how and why the British lasted so long in India, you only have to read this book.
Ask a Frenchman what is the principal characteristics of the British and he is likely to say ‘perfidy’, whilst surveys indicate that the Germans associate us primarily with politeness. None of our continental cousins, however, think of us as deceitful. Yet it was a facility for deceit at the macro level that helped the British to win the Second World Far, as evidenced by the elaborate deception plans that were deployed with huge success in the Mediterranean theatre by the cross-dressing Colonel Dudley Clarke, and the triumphant execution of Operation Fortitude, which fooled the Germans into thinking that the 1944 D-Day landings in Normandy were a blind.
Our expertise at deception was also deployed to great effect at the micro level, as Helen Fry reveals in her excellent new book, The Walls Have Ears, which discloses for the first time the quite extraordinary lengths to which MI1 (later MI6) went in order to gather intelligence from senior Axis prisoners of war. The subtlety of the interrogations and their aftermaths, combined with a sophisticated recording infra-structure and the devious use of psychology is jaw-droppingly un-British – but it was extremely effective. Subjected to deliberately inept interviewing techniques, aristocratic hands of friendship and lavish hospitality provided in the stately homes in which they were incarcerated, Hitler’s brass hats were comprehensively tricked into disclosing details of the Axis powers’ battle plans, secret weapons and war crimes.
I confess a certain weakness for Napoleonic tales such as the Scarlet Pimpernel, Richard Sharpe, and O’Brian’s Aubrey and Maturin novels. The quality bar was high and long-standing, therefore, when a copy of Napoleon’s Run by Jonathan Spencer reached me. A hard to please and time-poor reader, I am ruthless. If not drawn in very fast, I simply set a book aside.
It was with an increasing sense of pleasure, therefore, that I enjoyed the opening pages. Many novels today are marketed as historical fiction, but read a chapter and one finds a bare stage in a theatre with unstable, sand-built foundations. These books could be set in current times; into the charity shop bag they go. This story, I soon realised, was a world away from such dross.
Finely textured, deftly woven, it evokes – with confidence and a rare beauty – late eighteenth century England and France. The scene-setting is perfect, and laced with rich, juicy details, and praise be, without the ‘info dumps’ all too common nowadays. The dialogue is period-convincing, and spoken by meaty, believable characters. Hazzard is a tortured hero par excellence, a mixture of conscience, courage and martial skill, a man who can fall victim to arrogance and even cruelty.
I loved this outstanding novel, which is even more remarkable because of its début status. Better than Sharpe, gripping and intense, Napoleon’s Run deserves to be a runaway success. I look forward with great anticipation to the sequel.