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Great Tales from English History (Book 2): Joan of Arc, the Princes in the Tower, Bloody Mary, Oliver Cromwell, Sir Isaac Newton, and More

Great Tales from English History (Book 2): Joan of Arc, the Princes in the Tower, Bloody Mary, Oliver Cromwell, Sir Isaac Newton, and More

by Robert Lacey

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The greatest historians are vivid storytellers, Robert Lacey reminds us, and in Great Tales from English History, he proves his place among them, illuminating in unforgettable detail the characters and events that shaped a nation. In this volume, Lacey limns the most important period in England's past, highlighting the spread of the English language, the rejection of


The greatest historians are vivid storytellers, Robert Lacey reminds us, and in Great Tales from English History, he proves his place among them, illuminating in unforgettable detail the characters and events that shaped a nation. In this volume, Lacey limns the most important period in England's past, highlighting the spread of the English language, the rejection of both a religion and a traditional view of kingly authority, and an unstoppable movement toward intellectual and political freedom from 1387 to 1689. Opening with Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and culminating in William and Mary's "Glorious Revolution," Lacey revisits some of the truly classic stories of English history: the Battle of Agincourt, where Henry V's skilled archers defeated a French army three times as large; the tragic tale of the two young princes locked in the Tower of London (and almost certainly murdered) by their usurping uncle, Richard III; Henry VIII's schismatic divorce, not just from his wife but from the authority of the Catholic Church; "Bloody Mary" and the burning of religious dissidents; Sir Francis Drake's dramatic, if questionable, part in the defeat of the Spanish Armada; and the terrible and transformative Great Fire of London, to name but a few. Here Anglophiles will find their favorite English kings and queens, villains and victims, authors and architects - from Richard II to Anne Boleyn, the Virgin Queen to Oliver Cromwell, Samuel Pepys to Christopher Wren, and many more. Continuing the "eminently readable, highly enjoyable" (St. Louis Post-Dispatch) history he began in volume I of Great Tales from English History, Robert Lacey has drawn on the most up-to-date research to present a taut and riveting narrative, breathing life into the most pivotal characters and exciting landmarks in England's history.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Acclaimed historian Lacey's second volume on English history opens in 1348, the year of the Black Plague, which wiped out half of England's five million people, and proceeds through the astonishing scientific discoveries of Sir Isaac Newton in 1687. Along the way, we meet characters as diverse as Chaucer, Richard II, Henry IV, William Caxton, Guy Fawkes, Richard Whittington, Lady Jane Grey and Titus Oates. In lively vignettes, Lacey (The Year 1000; Majesty) also regales us with such events as the Puritan civil war, the London fire of 1666 and Sir Walter Raleigh's voyages to the New World. Political and religious dissent dominate these tales. Lacey captures the humor inherent in the evolution of England's history; thus, he includes the story of the first modern water closet, invented by Queen Elizabeth's godson, Sir John Harrington. In addition, Lacey briefly chronicles the British attraction to the rare and the exotic in the tale of John Tradescant's opening to the public in the 1630s of his collection of artifacts and curiosities England's first museum. Lacey's animated prose, energetic storytelling and spirited approach to British history bring the past to life. 51 b&w illus., 2 maps. (June 2) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
More history-as-channel-surfing from Lacey (Great Tales from English History, Volume I, 2004). Compressed here are nearly 300 years of English history in a slim, highly readable rocket-trip from The Canterbury Tales to Principia Mathematica. Each of Lacey's chapters generally deals with a single issue or event, sometimes of great historical consequence (the beheading of Charles I), sometimes of substantial cultural significance (publication of the King James Bible), sometimes of interest to those who like to nibble the edges of time's cracker (did Dick Whittington have a cat?). In the chapters about the English kings who also fascinated Shakespeare (Richards II and III, Henrys IV, V, VI), Lacey is careful to point out the historical inaccuracies in the Bard's work-though neglecting to do so with Henry VIII. Readers on this side of the Atlantic will find little cheer in this Brit's view of American history: "The modern United States of America has been built upon the systematic destruction and dispossession of its native population." And, Lacey notes, we didn't seem to care about celebrating Thanksgiving at all until Lincoln read William Bradford, more than 200 years after the first Turkey Day. Despite his mild anti-Yank populism, Lacey both educates and entertains. Richard III, not a glowering hunchback, was slim and athletic; gunpowder concealed in a little bag mercifully blew off the head of Bishop Latimer during his burning as a heretic; 2,000 gold nails held together Henry VIII's toilet; the King James Bible uses a spare 8,000-word vocabulary. These and other goodies are strewn along the path. The diction here isn't always fresh (the Catholicism of Mary Queen of Scots was "anotherblack mark against her"), Lacey sometimes prefers the odd moment to the significant one, and he occasionally fails to mention fundamental things (not telling us, for example, that Guy Fawkes took the name "Guido" and signed his name that way). A low-carb alternative for those hooked on high-fat history. (51 b&w illustrations)

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Read an Excerpt

Great Tales From English History (Vol. 2)

By Robert Lacey

Little, Brown

Copyright © 2004 Robert Lacey
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-316-10924-X

Chapter One


Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote

The droghte of March hath perced to the roote ...

GEOFFREY CHAUCER'S CANTERBURY TALES opens on a green spring morning beside the River Thames, towards the end of the fourteenth century. Birds are singing, the sap is rising, and a group of travellers gathers in the Tabard Inn-one of the rambling wooden hostelries with stables and dormitory-like bedrooms round a courtyard, that clustered around the southern end of London Bridge. At first hearing, Chaucer's 'English' sounds foreign, but in its phrasing we can detect the rhythms and wording of our own speech, especially if we read it aloud, as people usually did six hundred years ago: 'Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages ...'

The pilgrimage was the package holiday of the Middle Ages, and Chaucer imagines a group of holidaymakers in search of country air, leisurely exercise and spiritual refreshment at England's premier tourist attraction, the tomb of St Thomas Becket at Canterbury: a brawny miller tootling on his bagpipes; a grey-eyed prioress daintily feeding titbits to her lapdogs; a poor knight whose chain mail has left smudgings of rust on his tunic. To read Geoffrey Chaucer is to be transported back in time, to feel the skin and clothes-and sometimes, even, to smell the leek- or onion-laden breath-of people as they went about their daily business in what we call the Middle Ages. For them, of course, it was 'now', one of the oldest words in the English language.

The host of the Tabard, the innkeeper Harry Bailey, suggests a story-telling competition to enliven the journey-free supper to the winner-and so we meet the poor knight, the dainty prioress and the miller, along with a merchant, a sea captain, a cook, and twenty other deeply believable characters plucked from the three or four million or so inhabitants of King Richard II's England. Chaucer includes himself as one of the pilgrims, offering to entertain the company with a rhyming tale of his own. But scarcely has he started when he is cut short by Harry the host:

'By God,' quod he, 'for pleynly, at a word,

Thy drasty ryming is nat worth a toord!'

It is lines like these that have won Chaucer his fondly rude niche in the English folk memory. People's eyes light up at the mention of THE CANTERBURY TALES, as they recall embarrassed schoolteachers struggling to explain words like 'turd' and to bypass tales of backsides being stuck out of windows. 'Please, sir, what is this "something" that is "rough and hairy"?'

In one passage Chaucer describes a friar (or religious brother, from the French word FRèRE) who, while visiting hell in the course of a dream, is pleased to detect no trace of other friars, and complacently concludes that all friars must go to heaven.

'Oh NO, we've got millions of them here!' an angel corrects him, pointing to the Devil's massively broad tail:

'Hold up thy tayl, thou Satanas!' quod he,

'Shewe forth thyn ers, and lat the frere se ...'

Whereupon twenty thousand friars swarm out of the Devil's ERS and fly around hell like angry bees, before creeping back inside their warm and cosy home for eternity.

In gathering for a pilgrimage, Chaucer's travellers were taking part in a Church-inspired ritual. But the poet's message was that the Church-the massive nationalised industry that ran the schools and hospitals of medieval England as well as its worship-was in serious trouble. While his imaginary company of pilgrims included a pious Oxford cleric and a parish priest who was a genuinely good shepherd to his flock, it also included men who were only too happy to make a corrupt living out of God's service on earth: a worldly monk who liked to feast on roast swan; a pimpled 'Summoner' who took bribes from sinners NOT to summon them to the church courts; and a 'Pardoner' who sold bogus relics like the veil of the Virgin Mary (actually an old pillowcase) and a rubble of pig's bones that he labelled as belonging to various saints. Buy one of these, was the message of this medieval insurance salesman, and you would go straight to heaven.

Chaucer humorously but unsparingly describes a country where almost everything is for sale. Four decades earlier England's population had been halved by the onslaught of the 'Black Death'-the bubonic plague that would return several more times before the end of the century-and the consequence of this appalling tragedy had been a sharp-elbowed economic scramble among the survivors. Wages had risen, plague-cleared land was going cheap. For a dozen years before he wrote THE CANTERBURY TALES Chaucer had lived over the Aldgate, or 'Old Gate', the most easterly of the six gates in London's fortified wall, and from his windows in the arch he had been able to look down on the changing scene. In 1381 the angry men of Essex had come and gone through the Aldgate, waving their billhooks-the 'mad multitude' known to history as the ill-fated Peasants' Revolt. During the plague years the city's iron-wheeled refuse carts had rumbled beneath the poet's floorboards with their bouncing heaps of corpses, heading for the limepits.

Chaucer paints the keen detail of this reviving community in a newly revived language-the spoken English that the Norman Conquest had threatened to suppress. Written between 1387 and 1400, the year of Chaucer's death, THE CANTERBURY TALES is one of the earliest pieces of English that is intelligible to a modern ear. For three hundred years English had endured among the ordinary people, and particularly among the gentry. Even in French-speaking noble households Anglo-Saxon wives and local nursemaids had chattered to children in the native language. English had survived because it was literally the mother tongue, and it was in these post-plague years that it reasserted itself. In 1356 the Mayor of London decreed that English should be the language of council meetings, and in 1363 the Lord Chancellor made a point of opening Parliament in English-not, as had previously been the case, in the language of the enemy across the Channel.

Geoffrey Chaucer's cheery and companionable writing sets out the ideas that are the themes of this volume. In the pages that follow we shall trace the unstoppable spread of the English language-carried from England in the course of the next few centuries to the far side of the world. We shall see men and women reject the commerce of the old religion, while making fortunes from the new. And as they change their views about God, they will also change their views profoundly about the authority of kings and earthly power. They will sharpen their words and start freeing their minds-and in embarking upon that, they will also begin the uncertain process of freeing themselves.


Excerpted from Great Tales From English History (Vol. 2) by Robert Lacey Copyright © 2004 by Robert Lacey. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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