Review of Great Tales from English History, Vol 2: Joan of Arc, the Princes in the Tower, Bloody Mary, Oliver Cromwell, Sir Isaac Newton & More by Robert Lacey
Great Tales from English History, Vol 2: Joan of Arc, the Princes in the Tower, Bloody Mary, Oliver Cromwell, Sir Isaac Newton & More
by Robert Lacey
This is the third in a somewhat unintentional trio of books set (or partially set) in seventeenth-century England. It’s “somewhat” because once I got them all from the library, I decided to read them consecutively and see how such a thematic grouping affected my perception of them. Alas, all three have been somewhat disappointing. I find Elizabethan England fascinating, and I enjoyed the opportunity to learn more about the reigns of James I, Charles I, the Commonwealth, the Restoration, etc. However, I was expecting a little more depth from this book.
I had actually intended to read Volume 1 first, but the titles as they were entered into the library’s database were identical, so this was the one that I put on hold. Oh well! I don’t hold that against it; this is also a fine period in English history, which in general I find so fascinating. The British Isles have been invaded so many times, and as Robert Lacey notes in his introduction, these events have gone a long way to defining Britain as a nation and shaping its people. Even after the Norman conquest caused things to settle down, England was far from a stable place: it seems like almost every monarch faced some sort of challenge or another. In fantasy, we often get this idea that most monarchs are firmly ensconced, with decades or centuries of ancestors on the throne (and sometimes, thanks to magical means, this is the case). Not so for England! And the various claimants might be related to each other in confusing and, frankly, disturbing ways.
Lacey covers England from 1387 to 1687, beginning with Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and concluding with Sir Isaac Newton. He spends most of his time on the Tudor and Elizabethan era, however, describing in some detail the break from Rome and the subsequent confusion over what sort of Protestant country England is, or if it is even Protestant at all. In many ways, I found Great Tales very helpful: I had a vague idea about certain aspects of this time period, such as the oppression of Catholics, but Lacey fleshed that out with specifics. Similarly, I learned about items that don’t always come up in, say, historical fiction: Lacey discusses the creation of the King James Bible, although that also features in Hell and Earth. This is definitely an enlightening book.
So why do I say I expected more depth? Well, the stories are each quite short: most seem to be about five or six pages long. Lacey has broken up 300 years of English history into a series of very short vignettes—I could see each becoming perhaps a fifteen-minute episode to air on History Television. This is a perfectly legitimate decision on Lacey’s part, and it might well work for some people. However, I found that it prevented me from immersing myself in the narrative behind the story. I couldn’t get attached to the characters, if you will. As much as this book provided me with interesting facts, they are all presented in the form of mere anecdotes. I would be much better served reading several longer, more comprehensive stories about specific parts of English history.
This disappointment is entirely a result of a difference between what I expected and what the book turned out to be, and it’s not because the book is poorly written. If you want a survey of England from the late fourteenth century up until Isaac Newton’s ascendancy to scientific stardom, then Great Tales from English History (Volume 2) will deliver. If you are looking for something that goes beyond the surface and presents specific tales at a more sedate pace, then I would recommend finding a book that focuses on that tale and getting it from your local library (or a nearby bookstore).