Thursday, 26 May 2011

Great Tales of English History by Robert Lacey

The subtitle of this book is Cheddar Man to the Peasants Revolt, so it covers very early English history. It's a good book for dipping into, each story is only three or four pages long. Some of the most famous characters are here such as King Canute, Boadicea, Richard the Lionheart. Lacey sets the facts straight on some of the stories, for example King Alfred probably didn't burn the cakes, and Lady Godiva was unlikely to have ridden naked through the streets of Coventry.

Some names I recognised but didn't know anything about. One of these was Piers the Ploughman, who I thought was a real person. But he is a character in a 14th century poem by a clergyman named William Langland. It was an epic, satirical poem, fiercely critical of the king and very much on the side of the poor. Lacey says that the poem gives us 'a rare chance to hear the early voice of an ordinary Englishman'.

A story that was new to me was that of 'Elmer the Flying Monk'. A monk at Malmesbury Abbey in the early seventeenth century, Elmer studied the story of Daedalus and Icarus and decided that he too could fly.  He constructed himself wings, probably made of parchment, and launched himself from the abbey tower. He glided about 200 feet before crashing and breaking both his legs.

I found this book very useful for putting the events in early English history into order. Though I knew some of the stories I didn't really know where they fitted in chronologically. Lacey has a nice, accessible style and I enjoyed dipping into this book.

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