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Book Review: “Great Tales From English History” by Robert Lacey

Great Tales From English History by Robert Lacey

 

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Delightful! A cornucopia of interesting and surprising tales from English history in its early viking days to the beginning of the reign of Elizabeth II. What is so fantastic about this book is that is not merely a collection of facts and retelling of events. Each chapter discloses a particular period in British history and reads like a small short story. The author should also be credited for his storytelling style: he writes each piece with whimsy, humor, and simplicity. I can’t say that I was ever lost or confused while reading this book. And I must emphasize that these tales are SHORT: every chapter is only a couple of pages and never feels either too brief or too heavy, and in the end the pages and stories just fly by. I was only ever bogged down by a handful of stories and ended up skimming through- Robert Lacey does tend to get hung up on politics and wars- but because the book more or less follows British history in chronological order, you do need to at least skim each of the chapters before moving onto the next, otherwise the next tale might not make a whole lot of sense.

As Lacey describes in his opening pages, so much of history is just a retelling and reshaping of true events. The tough part is to get as close to the first hand sources as you possibly can in order to get the most truth. Many events and tales in English history- King Arthur and Robin Hood, for example- started off as myths that eventually got accepted as historical fact, and Lacey sets out to debunk a few of these myths by going back to original sources. And his list of sources in the back of the book is awe inspiring! Many of the documents are actually available to the public and online, so you can read more about each tale to your heart’s content.

Lacey also concludes that history is imperfect and ever changing: “There may be such a thing as pure, true history- what actually, really, definitely happened in the past- but it is unknowable. We can only hope to get somewhere close. The history that we have to make do with is the story that historians choose to tell us, pieced together and filtered through every handler’s value system” and he is certainly right on about this when you look at recent events and discoveries. In fact, in the case of Richard III, Lacey will have to adhere to his own statement and republish with updated information. In the book, he claims that the physical appearance of King Richard III as a hunchback was largely made up to portray him as a villain to the public. He even cites modern researchers who found that Richard’s “hump” was added to his portraits years after his death and that his body was thrown in the river and never buried under the Greyfriars Church. However, since the discovery of Richard III’s remains in the last couple years, we now know for a fact that he did have a curved spine and he was indeed buried where early historians had originally claimed.

History buffs, especially those interested in British history, will find this book a great companion to what they already knew- or didn’t know- about how England came to be. I also loved Lacey’s descriptions of how the English language has developed and changed over time due to the social, political, and economic strife the country has experienced for the last 1000 years or so. It’s not necessarily a book of facts, but you will learn the origins of common vocabulary we use everyday, which I find fascinating. I’m sure it was tough for Lacey to choose which tales to include in this book since he was covering such an enormous time period and this might be the reason why such well-known and beloved British heros and heroines only get passing mention- or no mention at all- in the book: sadly, Shakespeare, Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, Mungo Park, and Charles Dickens didn’t make the cut to garner much attention in this volume. But that small nitpicky complaint aside, this is a fantastic book and I highly recommend for any lover of history.

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