Mongrel nation held back Roman waves

The Monarchy of England Volume 1
January 7, 2005

This book prompts two questions. How should history be presented in the television age? And, more important, does that presentation educate or merely entertain? David Starkey's first volume of a projected three, to be published in association with a television series is not coy about its answer to the first question. Be absolutely clear about your purpose: here is "a new, ground-breaking history of England, as told through the lives of its kings and queens". Do not equivocate: "This is popular history of the most exciting, readable and challenging kind." Make sure there is plenty of drama: Alfred was determined "to build a new Rome in England's green and pleasant land" (an odd statement, given that Starkey's central thesis is that England did not emulate Rome); "the battle (of Edington) was to be both savage and bloody" (aren't they all?).

Next, make sure there is contemporary resonance. Starkey's belief is that England is uniquely different from continental Europe, that its ideology leads in a direct line to the American Constitution and Bill of Rights, copies of which are housed with Magna Carta - admittedly relegated to a side chapel - in the National Archives in Washington. Perhaps because the author is alive and the monarchs about whom he writes long dead, today's priorities are reinforced by embossing his name in larger type than his subject. Other tips include: eschew bibliography; find a former pupil, David Wilson, to be your mentor; keep control by asking your partner, James Brown, to design the book; and make sure that the list of producers and other members of the television team is the longest part of the acknowledgements.

Should we mock? Despite all, on the whole not. If the book is professionally done, and except for a few lapses it is, the devices will always matter less than the content. The basic proposition is that Rome's Empire shaped the emergence of the modern European West. Roman imperial politics were crude: a military despotism in which the rest of the population faced an unsophisticated choice between acceptance and revolt.

Later, the heirs of Rome were attracted by the same concentration of power and by the Roman language, Roman law and Roman Church. In England, by contrast, the Saxon invaders brought with them their traditions of elective kingship that, if not the prototypical democracy beloved of the Victorians, evolved into a system of government harmonising strong local institutions with a centralising, but accountable, monarchy.

The idea is not new, though Starkey says nothing about its provenance. David Hume's 18th-century bestseller, The History of England , emphasised the limits on arbitrary power of the chieftains of the German tribes, who probably arrived first as mercenaries protecting the native British, abandoned by Rome, against Picts and Scots. Hume, however, was somewhat defeated by "the extreme obscurity of the subject", finding that "the skirmishes of kites or crows" as much merited a particular narrative as the confused transactions and battles of the Saxons. Despite the advances provided by modern archaeology, Starkey's own judgements remain at the mercy of many uncertainties.

This much is clear. The first Saxon leaders came as chiefs, not kings. Their heirs became petty monarchs, rivals of each other, at times one of them temporarily becoming bretwalda , or overlord, of much of what was to become England. The process by which successive Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, Northumbria in the North, Mercia in the Midlands and Wessex in the South West, each enjoyed periods of dominance before the emergence of England showed how fragile kingship remained. Aethelbald of Mercia was dominant in the South for decades in the 8th century, but his own men murdered him at the height of his powers.

Would the fledgling state survive a new threat - from Viking invasion? As Starkey might have said, it was a close run thing. Beginning in the late 8th century, these pagan seafarers obliterated the kingdoms of Northumbria and East Anglia, also conquering most of Mercia in the 870s. The underlying strengths of Wessex, especially its well-organised system of local government, were tremendously important for the future. For the moment, however, the first Alfred, truly "the Great", reorganised the army, created a navy, built burhs - fortified settlements - for protecting whole communities, tending to suggest that the lottery of leadership would determine England's fate. On the one hand, Alfred's great grandson, Edgar, REX ANGLO(RUM), was crowned in a ceremony whose essential elements were repeated all but a thousand years later in 1953. On the other, the fact that the institutions were not strong enough to function without leadership was amply demonstrated by the seizure of power in 978 by Aethelred II, not just the "badly advised" in the correct translation of "Unraed", but the distinctly "unready" when it came to warding off Vikings.

Cnut, the most successful Viking ever, united the Danes and the English, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle "under King Edgar's laws". It was not quite true, but it was significant that the witan, the council of leading secular and religious leaders, was then able to preside over disputed successions. Yet Starkey loses the plot in the post-Cnut confusion. The changes of fortune sometimes turn his prose into a stuttering series of contrasts, "But (this)", then "But (that)".

It was ironic that the most complete victory of all over the Vikings, at Stamford Bridge in 1066, was followed by the most decisive conquest of all, that of William of Normandy. Was this to be the end of the Saxon heritage? If Starkey's book may be criticised for being at times breathlessly overwrought and dangerously oversimplified, it is worth reading for its understanding that trees with strong roots can deal with almost any challenge. By the 12th century, Cnut's inability to turn back the waves - the power of kings is nothing when measured against the power of God - revealed English propagandists turning a cruel Nordic figure into "a Christian and a gentleman". The story of the monarchy is the story of how Anglo-Saxon foundations of cultural and institutional "Englishness" proved capable of absorbing, and transforming, Vikings, Normans, Scots, Dutch, Hanoverians. Anyone concerned with building a solid future might learn from that.

Jamie Camplin is publishing director of Thames and Hudson. He is researching a history of the monarchy.

The Monarchy of England Volume 1

Author - David Starkey
Publisher - Chatto and Windus
Pages - 182
Price - £20.00
ISBN - 0 7011 7678 4

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