Monday, August 04, 2014

Birth of Britain (1956)

The Birth of Britain (History of the English Speaking People #1). Winston Churchill. 1956. 496 pages. [Source: Bought]

The Birth of Britain is the first of four volumes in Winston Churchill's History of the English Speaking People series. It begins around the time of Julius Caesar and ends on Bosworth Field with the death of Richard III.

 "I write about the things in our past that appear significant to me, and I do so as one not without some experience of historical and violent events in our own time."

He later writes,

Every nation or group of nations has its own tale to tell. Knowledge of the trials and struggles is necessary to all who would comprehend the problems, perils, challenges, and opportunities which confront us to-day."
  
And,

"Five years is a lot. Twenty years is the horizon to most people. Fifty years is antiquity. To understand how the impact of destiny fell upon any generation of men one must first imagine their position and then apply the time-scale of our own lives. Thus nearly all changes were far less perceptible to those who lived through them from day to day than appears when the salient features of an epoch are extracted by the chronicler."

I enjoyed it. I really did. I love history. I do. And British history, well, it's my favorite and best. It's a subject that more often than not I find fascinating. Not to say that I'm never puzzled as I try to absorb new information. But for a history lover, absorbing new information is part of the fun, part of the appeal. So, yes, this one could prove challenging and complex at times. But it could also prove quite entertaining. I did feel it was more balanced than say Charles Dickens' history! If you remember, I did not think Dickens treated women fairly...at all.

Table of Contents

Book I: The Island Race
  1. Britannia
  2. Subjugation
  3. The Roman Province
  4. The Lost Island
  5. England
  6. The Vikings
  7. Alfred the Great
  8. The Saxon Dusk
Book II: The Making of the Nation
  1. The Norman Invasion
  2. William the Conqueror
  3. Growth and Turmoil
  4. Henry Plantagenet
  5. The English Common Law
  6. Coeur de Lion
  7. Magna Carta
  8. On the Anvil
  9. The Mother of Parliaments
  10. King Edward I
  11. Bannockburn
  12. Scotland and Ireland
  13. The Long-Bow
  14. The Black Death
Book III: The End of the Feudal Age
  1. King Richard and the Social Revolt
  2. The Usurpation of Henry Bolingbroke
  3. The Empire of Henry V
  4. Joan of Arc
  5. York and Lancaster
  6. The Wars of the Roses
  7. The Adventures of Edward IV
  8. Richard III
I share the table of contents because that is what I would be curious about. I share quotes as well because to me how a writer says something is sometimes just as significant as what is being said.

Quotes:
One morning Duke Robert of Normandy, the fourth descendant of Rollo, was riding towards his capital town, Falaise, when he saw Arlette, daughter of a tanner, washing linen in a stream. His love was instantly fired. He carried her to his castle, and, although already married to a lady of quality, lived with her for the rest of his days. To this romantic but irregular union there was born in 1027 a son, William, afterwards famous.
When death drew near his sons William and Henry came to him. William, whose one virtue had been filial fidelity, was named to succeed the Conqueror in England. The graceless Robert would rule in Normandy at last. For the youngest, Henry, there was nothing but five thousand pounds of silver, and the prophecy that he would one day reign over a united Anglo-Norman nation. This proved no empty blessing.
Few mortals have led so full a life as Henry II or have drunk so deeply of the cups of triumph and sorrow. In later life he fell out with Eleanor. When she was over fifty and he but forty-two he is said to have fallen in love with “Fair Rosamond”, a damosel of high degree and transcendent beauty, and generations have enjoyed the romantic tragedy of Queen Eleanor penetrating the protecting maze at Woodstock by the clue of a silken thread and offering her hapless supplanter the hard choice between the dagger and the poisoned cup. Tiresome investigators have undermined this excellent tale, but it certainly should find its place in any history worthy of the name.
It has often been said that Joan of Arc first raised the standard of nationalism in the Western world. But over a century before she appeared an outlaw knight, William Wallace, arising from the recesses of South-West Scotland which had been his refuge, embodied, commanded, and led to victory the Scottish nation. Edward, warring in France with piebald fortune, was forced to listen to tales of ceaseless inroads and forays against his royal peace in Scotland, hitherto deemed so sure. Wallace had behind him the spirit of a race as stern and as resolute as any bred among men. He added military gifts of a high order. Out of an unorganised mass of valiant fighting men he forged, in spite of cruel poverty and primitive administration, a stubborn, indomitable army, ready to fight at any odds and mock defeat. The structure of this army is curious. Every four men had a fifth man as leader; every nine men a tenth; every nineteen men a twentieth, and so on to every thousand; and it was agreed that the penalty for disobedience to the leader of any unit was death. Thus from the ground does freedom raise itself unconquerable.
When Henry V revived the English claims to France he opened the greatest tragedy in our medieval history. Agincourt was a glittering victory, but the wasteful and useless campaigns that followed more than outweighed its military and moral value, and the miserable, destroying century that ensued casts its black shadow upon Henry’s heroic triumph.
Out of her own mouth can she be judged in each generation. She embodied the natural goodness and valour of the human race in unexampled perfection. Unconquerable courage, infinite compassion, the virtue of the simple, the wisdom of the just, shone forth in her. She glorifies as she freed the soil from which she sprang. All soldiers should read her story and ponder on the words and deeds of the true warrior, who in one single year, though untaught in technical arts, reveals in every situation the key of victory.
It was upon this community that the agonies of the Wars of the Roses were now to fall. We must not underrate either the great issues which led to the struggle or the conscious, intense, prolonged efforts made to avert it. The need of all men and their active desire was for a strong and capable Government. Some thought this could only be obtained by aiding the lawful, established régime. Others had been for a long time secretly contending that a usurpation had been imposed upon them which had now become incompetent.
Historians have shrunk from the Wars of the Roses, and most of those who have catalogued their events have left us only a melancholy and disjointed picture. We are however in the presence of the most ferocious and implacable quarrel of which there is factual record. The individual actors were bred by generations of privilege and war, into which the feudal theme had brought its peculiar sense of honour, and to which the Papacy contributed such spiritual sanction as emerged from its rivalries and intrigues. It was a conflict in which personal hatreds reached their maximum, and from which mass effects were happily excluded. There must have been many similar convulsions in the human story. None however has been preserved with characters at once so worldly and so expensively chiselled. 
History has scolded this prince of twenty-two for not possessing immediately the statecraft and addiction to business for which his office called. Edward united contrasting characters. He loved peace; he shone in war. But he loved peace for its indulgences rather than its dignity.
© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

2 comments:

Brona Joy 9:13 PM  

I've always wanted to read one of Churchill's histories. The quotes you've provided have just whet my appetite for more :-)

Joy Weese Moll (@joyweesemoll) 11:59 PM  

I've always thought Churchill's multiple and massive volumes looked daunting. But the quotes prove he's readable, so perhaps I should give him a chance!

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