England

What I'm reading: Thirty Years of Woe

Peter H Wilson's Europe's TragedyAs ever my reading list is long with both History and Science Fiction but I think it is worthwhile mentioning a few of the history books here as they are most enjoyable.

The first and best of the lot is Europe’s Tragedy by Peter H. Wilson. There are excellent reviews around so I’ll point you to them rather than write my own right now. I’d point out one small irritant which is that Wilson has a tendency to shift what seems to me abruptly between theatres of conflict. I’m getting used to it, but combined with the huge line up of notable actors in the period, it can make reading harder going that I’d like.

The Telepgraph
Worse than the Black Death, worse than the First World War, worse than the Second World War, worse than the Holocaust – that is how the Thirty Years War lives on in the collective German memory. This is just one of many arresting pieces of information to be gleaned from this colossal history of one of the longest and most destructive conflicts in European history.

The Times
The lead-lined window that sparked it all is still there, of course: you can even open it, and peer down to the dry moat into which the three Catholic imperial counsellors were cast on May 23, 1618 by a group of enraged Bohemian Protestant gentry. The room itself is on the fourth floor of the great Hradschin Palace, which looks over the river to the city of Prague. All is peaceful now, but it wasn’t then; it was the epicentre of a storm that was to engulf much of Europe for the following three decades.

Californian Literary Review
Wilson, whose grasp of 17th century politics and diplomacy is most impressive, makes two significant contributions toward understanding the origin of the Thirty Years War. First, the Holy Roman Empire, which unified the German and Slavic states of Central Europe under Habsburg rule, was a much more effective political force than is generally realized. Differing in organization from a modern nation state, the Empire was an elective monarchy which kept order and cohesion among the component dukedoms, electorates and free city-states.

BBC History magazine
Perhaps most importantly Wilson is an enemy of historical inevitability. The first 300 pages of this book, far from being a countdown to inexorable catastrophe, are largely about why the war should not have occurred. Against the familiar line that a chaotic and enfeebled Holy Roman empire of German principalities, cities and micro-territories was already long past its sell-by date in 1618, Wilson offers a feisty defence of imperial institutions and of their remarkable success during the later 16th century in solving problems of territorial inheritance, religious rights and political rivalries.

One final observation before I leave it for today, the cover for the British and Irish edition is top left and it really is a nice cover but the US edition is really something, far superior and much more attention grabbing so I’ve included it below right.

See what I mean?
Eoin

The Battle of Stamford Bridge

Eoin Purcell

A re-enactment of The Battle of Stamford Bridge

A re-enactment of The Battle of Stamford Bridge

Complex stories
One of the battles that has most fascinated me over the years has been King Harold Godwinson of England’s victory over the forces Norwegian force of King Harald Hardrada and Earl Tostig Godwinson (that’s right, Harold’s brother) at Stamford Bridge (that link will take you to Wikipedia, but this one for the UK Battlefield Resource Centre is excellent as well). The battle did not go well for the Norwegians. Google Books has a great account of the battle here in The history of England from the earliest times to the Norman conquest by Thomas Hodgkin.

What has always amazed me about that battle and the characters involved is that in Harold Godwinson we have on the one hand the known villain of subsequent (and of the contemporary) propaganda especially the amazingly effective Bayeux Tapestry (a quite incredible piece of public propaganda which is well worth visiting). Harold has come down by the victor of the Battle of Hastings word as an oath breaker.

Because of that twist of faith, we don’t remember Harold’s own victory at Stamford or the fact that he was seen by many Saxons as England’s bulwark against Norman influence. What’s more because of Hastings, we don’t hear the story of the brother’s Godwinson or indeed of Harald Hardrada who as the link above makes clear had a fascinating life himself.

All told, Stamford Bridge and the ignored heroism or at the very least success if you will of Harold reinforces for me the sense that very often history recalls not the reality of a persons life but only the most resonate aspect of it, that events which have relevance are often overshadowed by subsequent less important but better recorded happenings.

Enjoy the weekend!
Eoin

Google & General George Monck

Eoin Purcell

Links & the rest
I decided I would search out George Monck information on the web and the results are pretty great. Google has an interesting timeline feature. You can view it here, but I’ve a screen grab below:

Google's Timeline Feature

Google's Timeline Feature



It also drags up the Wikipedia link, the About.com link, the rather excellent British Civil War site and the General George Monck site (which has a lot more than just a biography on hand).

It is all well worth digging into,
Eoin

Defying Empire: Trading with the Enemy on Colonial New York

Eoin Purcell

Great books deserve better reviewers than I
So I was recently sent a review copy of Thomas M. Truxes’, Defying Empire: Trading with the Enemy in Colonial New York which was published by Yale University Press in 2008. Needless to say I completely failed in my mission to read the book and write a review in any kind of decent timeframe.

But I did read it and it is wonderful. The book covers a fascinating period in Colonial history when the British Empire was fighting a war with the French Empire and American merchants were intent to benefit from the trading opportunities despite the heavy presence of British soldiers and the fact that in name at least they were engaged in treason.

A book that creates and sustains a brilliant portrait of 18th Century New York and brings to life the intriguing political and mercantile world of that city under British rule. Well worth reading, 7 out of 10.
For some more detailed review on the book, try here, here, here or here.
I also decided to try something I have been toying with for a while, a video review. It is my my first such effort and is decidedly patchy, but here, in honour of along delayed review it is.

I hope someone enjoyed that!
Eoin

A day for battles: Warsaw & Blenheim

Eoin Purcell

Warsaw
I’ve written before about the completely fascinating Polish-Soviet War of 1920 and Adam Zamoyski’s excellent book on the topic: Warsaw 1920: Lenin’s Failed Conquest of Europe. The key battle in that war The Battle of Warsaw began on this day 89 years ago. The initial stages of the battle were not that promising for the Poles as an extract makes clear:

On 13 August Sollohub attacked the outer perimeter in force, and the Polish 11th Division abandoned its positions and fled. Sollohub’s 27th Omsk Division pursued it and was joined unexpectedly by the 21st Rifle Division of Lazarevich’s army, which had strayed into the wrong sector. Together they overran the little town of Radzymin, twenty kilometres from Warsaw, but happily for the Poles the two units became so entangled that they were unable to pursue their advantage.*

Blenheim
John Churchill, the Duke of Marlborough , was one the most exceptional military leaders of British history. His most celebrated victory is Blenheim when he prevented the armies of France from advancing towards Vienna in a crushing defeat made possible by his rapid and secretive march from the Low Countries to the Danube. You can a description of the battle in The Fifteen Decisive Battles of The World by Edward Shepherd Creasy. There is a version here in Google Books, sadly you cannot download a copy because although the text itself is well out of copyright and firmly in the public domain, the only copy that seems to be available on GBS is a Forgotten Books version (thus there is IP in the setting and it is not a public domain version)

Below is a great video on Marlborough as a Great Commander.

Quite the day for climactic battles is it not?
Eoin

*Page 84, Warsaw 1920: Lenin’s failed Conquest of Europe, Adam Zamoyski

The FT has a really nice piece on Hidden City Rivers

Eoin Purcell

Lovely corner in the Fleet Sewer. (Image with thanks to Flickr User: Mr. J Doe)

Lovely corner in the Fleet Sewer. (Image with thanks to Flickr User: Mr. J Doe)

What a week
I had intended to write more on hidden city rivers but then events interrupted and I got waylaid.

In any case, the FT has a wonderful article on another hidden river, The Fleet in London:

The Fleet became a noxious ditch and, in 1679, the build up of filth burst under the pressure of the water behind it and washed away several butchers around Smithfield meat market, cattle and all. The poet John Gay, perhaps employing his profession’s licence, thought the river delightful and observed: “Fleet Ditch with muddy current flows.” Gay also recommended the oysters for sale on the quayside. Such shellfish would struggle to pass health and safety muster now. Much better to stop at The Eagle, the bar that started Britain’s gastropub revolution, and which tempts me in with those ancient London scents: meat, beer and fish.

It really is a wonderfully evocative piece and well worth reading. If you are looking for something more, you could read the Wikipedia article linked above or you could check out Mr. J Doe’s Flickr stream (his image adorns this post) and read some the fascinating captions he has on the sequence of photographs of London’s Sewers.

Further Action on George Monck

Eoin Purcell

George Monck & The Restoration of Charles II in 1660
Okay, so call this crazy but I have made a decision about my thesis on Monck. I am putting it up on Scribd. I’ve embedded the file above and here is the link to the document. Yesterday I dug out the thesis and re-read it. It has promise but as I note below in a new introduction which I have included in the text, needs a lot of fresh work to be really worthwhile. But equally I think it offers something even as it is. For more on my thoughts, read the note.

2009 Introductory Note
This thesis was written during my Masters year in UCD, Dublin. I enjoyed the process and at the time I was happy with what I had written. However, some six years later I can recognise that there are serious deficiencies in this thesis and that is something I plan at some stage to rectify in another work. Please feel free to send messages or feedback to me at eoin.purcell AT gmail.com.

Original Documents & Eyewitness accounts

In retrospect there are many things I would change, not the least of which would be the sources I used. Four major areas (with many other areas needing minor attention) could be improved. Firstly, more original documentary evidence would have greatly improved the book. Aside from letters and papers of the officers and officials around Monck in Scotland which I now know exist in archives that I did not consult for the original, I believe that there are numerous other sources that might be exploited to huge advantage. They would, I believe, include eyewitness accounts available from:

    1) The soldiers in Monck’s units
    2) Monck’s officers
    3) Londoners during Monck’s time in the city
    4) Observers from outside the capital
    5) Soldiers and officers still loyal to the last few Grandee’s like Lambert

Character
Secondly, I believe that more work on Monck’s character and his pragmatism and motivations would have been sensible. There is surely more material available to work on that. He is a truly incredible individual. His motivations are a mystery in many ways though I think my analysis of his actions reveals that he was simply taking the easiest course of action to secure his own position, I firmly believe now that had he been presented with the opportunity, he would have crowned himself king or had himself declared Lord Protector. I’d like to spend time proving that.

The Actions of Others
Thirdly, the role of the other actors needs a great examination, I see that now clearly as a major failing in the original work. The Grandee’s in London and the parliamentarians of the Rump are as powerful figures and their motivations and actions were such critical factors in the course of events. Had any of them for instance mounted a sufficient case against Monck while he was in London, or managed to hold together a force in the field, events would have been different. The brief mention of the role of Lord Fairfax is insufficient to explain the reverence he was held in by many of the foot soldiers more work on the importance of his siding with Monck should have been done.

Conclusions
Lastly, the work deserved a better and less lazy conclusion than that which I impulsively gave it in 2003. Events in Iran that year inspired an unfortunate idealism in me that scarred the powerful conclusions of the evidence about Monck. I was more concerned the hammer home the deficiencies of the Grandee’s rule and compare those with the failures of government I saw in Iran than to properly assess Monck’s character and to bring together the argument I had mustered in the preceding pages. That was a mistake and one I think should be rectified in any new work.

The 1st Duke of Albermarle (as Monck became as a reward for his efforts in restoring the monarchy) is one of the most singularly unstudied yet important men in British history. Considering the volumes of material on other actors in the Civil War and Interregnum this is a strange fact. Perhaps, when I have the time I will rectify the problems with this thesis and the lack of a decent examination of the man and publish a book on him.

Eoin Purcell
Glasthule, Dublin, July 2009