History. It’s known to repeat itself, it’s written by winners, it’s unattainable no matter how intensely it’s studied. Just narrow that down to British history, the kings and queens, the Saint Georges and the dragons, the reformations and incarcerations at the Tower, the gunpowder, treason, plots and Margaret Thatchers — there’s enough there to keep most minds retrospectively occupied for a lifetime.
But history is a hard thing to keep straight. All those easily muddled decades and royal houses and names of battles, those droning accounts of deeds past that often read: that one guy did this, which threatened some other dude’s honour who did that, and then, after some scheming by a faction or two, the first guy was inevitably lead to the scaffold on some Majesty’s orders. Addled brains and mental fog can turn most people off any subject.
So for those too hip to have use for the lessons of the past, or for those who find history drier than charred toast served on cardboard, I recommend a good read of 1066 And All That: A Memorable History of England. Like the events it reports, the book is an oldie but a goodie. Written in 1931 by W.C. Sellar and R.J. Yeatman, and campily illustrated by John Reynolds, the text comprises “all the parts you can remember including one hundred and three good things, five bad kings, and two genuine dates.” It’s not what’s taught in classrooms, but it is quite resemblant of the flashbacks had of schooldays’ lectures once the joys of adulting have taken precedence in the lives of most individuals.
A compulsory preface (this means you) begins the brisk one hundred-some page volume, and unlike in many other, more serious tomes, this introduction shouldn’t be so tempting to flick quickly past. For the authors are very quick to state that they wrote only for the benefit of you.
“Histories have previously been written with the object of exalting their authors. The object of this History is to console the reader….history is not what you thought. It is what you can remember. All other history defeats itself. This is the only Memorable History of England, because all the history that you can remember is in this book, which is the result of years of research in golf-clubs, gun-rooms green-rooms….For instance, 2 of the 4 Dates originally included were eliminated at the last moment, a research done at the Eton and Harrow match having revealed that they are not memorable.”
No reason to fear the vague boringness of a bygone abyss, then. You’ve got this; these are the good bits.
Chapter One begins in the Olden Days, when Julius Cesar (very memorable) landed on the isles of Britannia in 55 BCE and the Romans were top nation due to their classical education. Tales of blue men, Woadicea, goths, vizigoths, Alfred the Cake (the first Good King), the king of no one’s really sure what, King Wenceslas, the fearsome sword Exgalahad and the end of all English kings upon the death of Edward the Confessor lead up to the other memorable, genuine date from which the book takes its title — 1066.
That’s when William the Conqueror booted out a king named Harold at the Battle of Hastings, laid upon the beach and swallowed two mouthfuls of sand as his first conquering action in the South. Later ravaging the North, William proved that the Norman Conquest to be a Good Thing, since England could then stop being conquered and start working at becoming top nation.
What else do you recall? Perhaps the hairy king with a lion’s heart, Richard I, who made ferocious attacks on Saladins and Paladins and was thus a very romantic king? Or that one time those armed-to-the-teeth barons forced King John to sign the Magna Charter upon the desert island of Ganymede in the Thames? Of course there’s Robin Hood and his Merrie Men, all very romantic, and Richard II, who tried first being a Good King and then a Bad King, without enjoying either very much, who was told he was unbalanced and got off the throne in despair, which was quickly mounted by his cousin Lancaster (spelt Bolingbroke) who said he was Henry IV, Part I. Poor Richard was then absconded away to die of a surfeit of Pontefract Castle.
Remember Top Poet William Shakespeare and King Henry VIII, the red-bearded second Tudor who invented the game “Bluff King Hal” by inviting his ministers to lay their blindfolded heads on a block of wood and guess who he would marry next? How about when his daughter Brown Bess took on the Spaniards or when cavalier Charles I lost his head, flowing curls and gay attire all at once?
One can’t forget the reigns of the Dutch Orange Williamanmary, a string of German Georges who hated their children, Good…but not amused Queen Victoria and the heroics of Wellington. Wellington, who defeated Napoleon at Waterloo with the command “Up Jenkins and Smashems” and saw that the Bonaparte was sent away properly this time for not making France top nation to spend his days brooding on the deck of a ship in white breeches with his arms cocked just so.
An upfront knowledge of all the facts, sort of, might make readers feel like smug wisenheimers. Especially if readers are able to process all of the authors’ sly, unending jokes. But between its outlandish lines, I can see 1066 And All That‘s secret mission to promote the truth of things. In its absurdity, the book leaves you entertained enough to willingly seek out the factual way things shook out. What were those two memorable Cromwells guilty of really? What made Broody Mary actually so bloody?
Favourable tidings don’t generally come from intentionally warped fonts of information, but if blatant errors published for both silliness’ and veracity’s sake can nudge people to pursue the wisdom found in our predecessors’ exploits, follies, triumphs and complexes, I’m all for it. In weird times in which uncertain futures are faced, perhaps it’s better if we manage to have some fun while not letting the past sneak up on us.
W.C. Sellar, R.J. Yeatman, and John Reynolds (illustrations), 1066 And All That: A Memorable History of England, New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1993