The Greatest Knight: the remarkable life of William Marshal, the power behind five English thrones – Thomas Asbridge

I knew a little about William Marshal – he’s cropped up in quite a few books about the early Plantagenets – but I didn’t know anything about where he came from and how he became the go-to man when Kings were having problems hanging onto their thrones.

This book does an excellent job filling in those gaps and, as far as possible with someone who lived such a long time ago, bring the person to life.

I loved the story of the discovery of the manuscript in the 19th century that turned out to be a 13th century biography/hagiography of William, possibly commissioned by his son. This means that far more can be learned about William than about most of his contemporaries. The author of this book is quite clear about taking some of his source materials, including this manuscript, with a pinch of salt. I also like the fact that the author is clear about the fact that to us, in 21st century, William may seem mercenary and cruel but that in his own time he was seen as the model of chivalry. It is useful to keep being reminded that the past is very much a different country where we may not understand the norms and behaviours expected.

William comes out of the book as very much a man of his time and also an honourable man. In his later life, during the various challenges to Richard I, John and Henry III crowns, he chose to support the Plantagenet dynasty, sometimes to his own detriment.

My very few frustrations with the book are ones that are common to reading biographies: what happened next to people who are part of the subject’s life story but not central to it. In this case I want to know what happened to Queen Marguerite, wife of Henry the Young King, Queen Berengaria and Queen Isabella of Angouleme once their kingly spouses died. The problem of reading biographies, one leads to another 5, which lead to…

Overall, I found this a really enjoyable, readable book that gave me a good understanding of William Marshal and a better understanding of his era.

Thanks Tom and Sophie for a great Christmas present.

Manstein: Hitler’s Greatest General – Mungo Melvin

I can’t remember buying this book and it’s been sitting on my “to read” pile gathering dust for ages so I decided now was the time to get round to reading it.

I’m pretty sure I bought it wanting to learn more about the Nazi campaigns in the East. I should probably have checked out the author before buying it.

Some historians/biographers are great at telling stories and bringing their subject to life. Others are not and this book fell into the latter category for me.

I bought a biography rather than a book of the battles because I’m interested in people. What I got was factual information about von Manstein and a lot a battle detail I didn’t really want. It made it a very chewy book!

I did find out a lot from persisting and finishing the book: I didn’t know Hindenburg was Manstein’s uncle. I didn’t know how fraught the relationship was between Hitler and von Manstein. I didn’t know what happened to the Generals and Field Marshalls Hitler sacked. Most of all I learned more about the constraints Hitler’s distrust of the officer corps imposed on the Wehrmacht.

However, given that this is an account of some serious battles of WW2 the book is completely lacking any recognition of the suffering of front line soldiers on the Eastern Front and fails to acknowledge the scale of death and serious injury of these men.

If I’d known this book was written by a retired General I probably wouldn’t have bought it, rightly assuming it would be a detailed book of facts and events rather than about bringing a person to life. I’m pleased in a way I did buy it and did read it in its entirety. It has increased my knowledge. But it became a chore rather than a pleasure to read.

The Templars: the rise and fall of God’s holy warriors – Dan Jones

A really readable book on the often confusing history of the Poor Fellow Soldiers of Christ and the Temple of Jerusalem, otherwise known to most of us as the Knights Templar.

My “knowledge” of the Knights Templar mainly comes from literature and films; some of it romanticised, sometimes they are cast as villains, often rescuers and most of it baring little resemblance to any known history. There is something compelling about an organisation that had such a huge impact on so many aspects of life and yet which disappeared almost completely in a short space of time.

This book sets out to give as full a history as possible and to try to avoid extremes of bias. I learned a lot from it.

The book mainly concentrates on the Middle East where the order was founded and where it was most relied upon.

The Templars were founded to guard vulnerable pilgrims as they landed in the Outremer ports and travelled to and between holy sites. At the beginning they were indeed a poor order – depending on charity for their subsistence and for the equipment needed to fulfil their appointed task. It is fascinating to learn more about how they grew from these humble beginnings into the mighty powerhouse of world bankers and standing army.

In the main the Templars seem to have been well trained and brave although badly led. I do not understand the mentality of soldiers who essentially commit suicide by following orders that are plainly stupid and likely to lead to their deaths!

It was interesting to learn about the Outremer states and their relationships with their neighbours, both Latin and Islamic. I guess from this distance it is easy to see that these states were always going to fail as there was just not enough common purpose between the European states that were propping them up nor enough of a common threat for them to consistently work together.

I would have liked to know more about the order in Europe and it’s relationships with its host nations. I think knowing more would give me a clearer understand of the suspicion and distrust that surrounded them and enabled King Philip IV of France to close the order down with little resistance from his subjects.

Overall though I have learned a lot from this book and enjoyed myself doing it.

The Commissar Vanishes: the falsification of photographs and art in Stalin’s Russia – David King

I read about this book within another book and decided I need to have a copy. I’m so pleased I did as it’s a fascinating book.

David King has spent a considerable amount of time tracking down different versions of photographs published in the Stalin era and comparing them; who has been removed now they are an “unperson”, who has been moved and who has been added in (the latter mainly Stalin!)

King also analyses the changes to identify how they have been changed. Some have been airbrushed, some merely cropped and others crudely reconstructed or blacked out. He also points out where the airbrusher has missed covering up a shoulder or cap, leaving it floating in mid-air, which I found quite funny.

It is astonishing looking at the starting point for some of the pictures and then seeing what they eventually became.

David King is good at giving the names of the people in the photos and giving some context for when the photo was originally taken. I would have liked a bit more context for what happened to the people who were removed. I understand that many of them fell during the Great Terror but it would have been useful to be reminded of what these people did when they had power and why Stalin saw them as a threat.

I don’t think this book added to my knowledge of Stalinist Russia but, living in an age when people doctor photographs all the time, it was interesting to see these pictures and reflect on the varied reasons people don’t want things to be seen as they are.

The Hut Six Story – Gordon Welchman

More second world war and more spying: this time the British cracking the Enigma codes at Bletchley Park.

The book was first published in 1982 and was updated after Welchman died to include some papers he also wrote.

Before the war Gordon Welchman was a mathematics lecturer at Sidney Sussex College Cambridge. At the outbreak of war he was drafted into the team at Bletchley to help find ways of cracking the Enigma codes.

It’s important to know that Welchman was a mathematician if you’re thinking of reading this book! There were several occasions when he says he is explaining something in layman’s terms and yet it went completely over my head. This was a difficult book to read and to understand the technical aspects of Enigma machines and the Bombes that helped to decode their messages.

The most interesting parts of the book, for me, were when the author was explaining how Bletchley operated and some of the insights/guessing games that paid off and helped the teams crack the codes.

There were some digressions into people’s characters but this is mainly a book about processes and machines.

Once again it is a book that seems to write women out of history except as wives and secretaries!

I’m pleased I finished the book but if I’d known it was going to be so technical and written by a mathematician I probably wouldn’t have bought it!

Children of England: The heirs of Henry VIII – Alison Weir

This is one of Alison Weir’s earlier books telling the stories of Edward VI, Lady Jane Grey, Mary I and Elizabeth I from the time of Henry’s death to the accession of Elizabeth to the throne.

I enjoyed finding out more about the lives of these monarchs; their education, their religion and their outlook on life. It was also good to set their lives in the context of their time and to understand the political and economic challenges they faced as well as the way they tried to impose their religious views on their subjects.

I feel I understand more about Edward and Jane as human beings rather than the cyphers they can sometimes appear in more general histories. I knew both were fervent Protestants but hadn’t realised just how important their religion was to them. I also didn’t realise what a horrible upbringing Jane had as the daughter of 2 very ambitious parents

It was also interesting to find out more about the kinder side of Mary’s nature; we are too used to her being presented as Bloody Mary who would burn anyone who didn’t reconvert to Catholicism. It was also interesting to find out more about her marriage to Philip of Spain. Whilst I might deplore her intolerance in matters of faith I ended up feeling sorry for her; she had a pretty crappy life.

The person I learned least about was Elizabeth. Her sections of the book didn’t contain much that I hadn’t already read elsewhere.

I enjoyed the book; like all Alison Weir’s books I found it easy to read and it captured my interest. Unlike her books about the various medieval queens though this one feels a bit superficial and I wasn’t left with a real feeling of knowing more about the period.

I would categorise it a way of starting to get to know the later Tudor period rather than a book that adds significantly to what you already know.

That said, I would always recommend reading books by Alison Weir.

My Lord John – Georgette Heyer

Most people, if they know Georgette Heyer at all, know the author for either her detective novels or the Regency romances she wrote. I first came across her through both of these genres when I wasn’t quite old enough for adult books but had definitely outgrown children’s books.

I read my way through any books I could get my hands on as they came into the second-hand bookshop in the local market and eventually landed this one.

The Lord John of the title is John of Lancaster, third son of Henry of Bolingbroke, later King Henry IV. It starts when he is around 6 and finishes just as his oldest brother Henry is starting to take up some of the reins of government due to his father’s ill-health. The book ends abruptly as Heyer had to put it to one side to complete more popular books to pay her tax bill! She intended this book to be the first of a trilogy about the House of Lancaster during through the Wars of the Roses.

As I remembered it, from 40 years ago, this book had a different feel to it and, to an extent, it awakened my interest in the Wars of the Roses; I live in Yorkshire in what would have been a Lancastrian supporting area.

Rereading the book as a “proper grown-up” with more knowledge of the history of the period this book wasn’t as interesting as I remembered it being. It was a chore getting through to the end feels as though it needs a good edit to lop out some of the boring bits.

It did remind though that I always wanted to know more about John of Lancaster and what he did with his life. If anyone can recommend a book I’d be grateful.


Gulag: a history of the Soviet camps – Anne Applebaum

Someone at work was laughing at me reading this book one lunchtime! “Another of your happy books” he said. I don’t actually see these types of books as unhappy but as satisfying and fuelling my thirst for knowledge about the way other people and regimes treat their fellow human beings.

I’ve had this book on my shelf for a long time, waiting to read it. So long in fact that I’d forgotten I had it and bought another copy! I really must have a sort out.

Anyway, to the book.

I chose to read this because I found Applebaum’s previous book interesting and a very digestible read. When I looked back I found the book I thought she’d written was actually written by someone else. Which explains, perhaps, why I found this book a bit…chewy

The book covers the Soviet gulags from the 1920s, through the Great Terror of the 1930s and up to the camps for dissidents from the 1960s to the end of the Soviet Union in the 1980s. It looks at the origins of the camps, life and work in them and finally the fall of the camp industrial complex.

The research behind the book comes from a variety of sources including official OGPU/ NKVD/ KGB archives and memories and memoirs from those who were there. The memoirs and memories come from workers and guards as well as from prisoners, which gives an interesting perspective on some of the descriptions.

The different perspectives was the main thing I enjoyed about the book. It wasn’t just a misery memoir it was also an attempt, as far as possible with the resources available, to understand the whys and wherefores of the camps. It gave me a broader understanding of the gulag outside of the history of the Great Terror, Solzhenitsyn and the biographies of Anna Larina and Nadezhda Mandelstam.

The downside of having the different perspectives was that it is a very factual book. there are some stories and anecdotes but not that many. Which is why I’d categorise it as a chewy book. I like a bit of personal perspective to leven the facts.

I’m glad I read it. It has definitely widened my knowledge. If I was starting to read it again I might read a memoir or two at the same time to give it some balance.

Memoirs I’d recommend are:

Hope against Hope – Nadezhda Mandelstam

Click here to find out more about Nadezhda Mandelstam

This I cannot forget – Anna Larina

Click here to find out more about Anna Larina

One day in the life of Ivan Denisovich – Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Click here to find out more about Solzhenitsyn

Queens of the Conquest – Alison Weir

From one Conquest to another! This one has elicited much less of a rant than Robert Conquest did, you may be pleased to know.

This book is about the 5 Queens of the Norman England, all of whom have extraordinary stories but, in the words of Alison Weir, not enough is discoverable about them to fill a book each.

The book starts with Matilda of Flanders, wife of William the Conqueror. I know a little about her and it is one of my claims to fame that I won a quiz for my team because I was the only person in the room who knew what William’s Queen was called! This Matilda gets quite a long section of the book to herself.

The next Queen is Matilda of Scotland who was married to Henry I. There are a lot of Matildas in this book and it’s quite difficult keeping up with who is who! It’s even more confusing that Matilda of Scotland was also known as Edith in her early life. This was one of those books where it is useful to be able to keep referring back to the family tree at the beginning.

I found Matilda of Scotland’s life to be one of the most interesting sections of the book. I didn’t know anything about her before and she had an interesting and varied life.

The only non-Matilda in the book is Adeliza of Louvain, Henry I’s second wife who only gets a short section to herself. As a Queen she isn’t particularly interesting although, through her second marriage after Henry’s death, she plays a significant part in the civil war that broke out between Stephen, Henry I’s nephew, and Matilda, Henry’s daughter, over who should wear the crown of England.

King Stephen was married to Matilda of Boulogne, the third Matilda of this book. She shares part 4 of the book with Queen Matilda, her husband’s rival claimant. For the purposes of the book Queen Matilda is referred to as Empress Maud. Her first marriage was to Heinrich V, Roman Emperor, and throughout mainland Europe Matilda seems to have been known as Maud.

This, for me, was one of the most enlightening parts of the book. I have only a confused understanding of the civil wat between Stephen and Maud. I didn’t really understand what the dispute was about and the rights and wrongs of the two parties. Having read this section of the book I’m clearer about why they were fighting, clear that neither was an ideal monarch and still a bit confused over who was who and why they chose the side they did.

The final part of the book is about Empress Maud after Stephen died and her son by Geoffrey Plantagenet became King Henry II.

The book is written in Alison Weir’s usual readable style and she evokes a sense of who these women were and a sense of empathy with the difficult situations most of them found themselves in at one time or another.

I feel as though I leaned a lot from reading the book although I wish the European aristocracy of the 12th and 13th centuries had been a bit more imaginative about naming their girl children!

A useful addition to the literature on medieval women.


The Dragons of Expectation – Robert Conquest

What a strange, mish-mash of a jumbled up book this is! I liked it, hated it, looked forward to reading it and wanted to throw it at the wall, sometimes all at the same time.

It was like looking at one of those paintings that are disturbing but you can’t not go back for another look!

And I also enjoyed watching Michael, my partner, go through the torture of reading it too!

The book doesn’t have a single theme, which is one of the things that makes it so frustrating to read. Some parts of it were interesting, intellectually stimulating and absorbing. Other bits were a diatribe about something, a piece of academic snobbery or politically very annoying.

The themes covered in the book are the decline of academic rigour, political ideologies and why they are outdated, USSR and Stalinism, how academia has destroyed our appreciation of Art and how the EU should be replaced by an Anglosphere. A random book! And written in 2005 so the bits about the EU have a bit of historic interest too.

I found the first few chapters about academic rigour really difficult to read but intellectually stimulating, which is what kept me going. It isn’t very often that I need to refer to a dictionary to find out the meaning of a word but I did with this book.

The bits about political ideology I found interesting. The fact that we, as a society, tend to cling onto ideas even when they have outlived their usefulness or proved themselves to be a hindrance. I don’t think it is useful to hark back to a past where “politics was about doing the right thing” but my view is that too much of modern politics is negative, about doing down the opposition and personal slurs. I want to know about what collaboration is happening cross-parties as well as their differences.

It almost goes without saying that I really enjoyed the sections about USSR and Stalinism. I’m interested in the Russian dictatorships and added to my knowledge.

The section on art really made me think. Conquest talked about how, by laying down rules of appreciation, we create an obfuscated view of it and so destroy any true appreciation. His example is of the person who commissioned a painting by one of what we call the “Old Masters”. The person who commissioned the painting did so because they liked the style of the painter and they liked the subject matter. They didn’t look at it hanging in their house and think “the brush stroke used to paint the leaf on that tree is…” they looked at it and though “that’s beautiful” or “I wish I could be at that place”. He also talks about books and poetry in the same way. It made me realise that I’m guilty of a level of book snobbery; I have books that I talk about and the larger number of, mainly, detective novels that I don’t. I would like to think that I mainly talk about the more serious books I read because it helps me to process what I have learned from them but, if I’m honest, there is also part of me who wants to be seen as intelligent and I don’t think detective novels necessarily add to that image!

The final part of the book, the creation of an Anglosphere, I can’t write about. It annoyed me far too much and I think Conquest was deluded and deluding himself!

Overall, I wouldn’t recommend this book unless you like being annoyed, like a challenge and have nothing better to read. But in some, small way I quite enjoyed it.

Click here to find out more about Robert Conquest