Philip J. Potter
ARRSE Rating
4 Mushroom Heads
REVIEW by Metellus Cimber II

I enjoyed this book. It is a series of readable potted biographies of nine medieval monarchs who were key figures of their age: the Emperor Charlemagne; King Alfred of Wessex; King Cnut (aka Canute or Knut); William I, the Conqueror; the Emperor Frederick I, Barbarossa; King Richard I, the Lionheart; the Emperor Frederick II, Stupor Mundi; King Louis IX of France (aka St Louis) and King Robert I of Scotland (aka Robert the Bruce).

This is a work of 'pop history' written for the general reader and with no pretension to presenting original research. The author, Philip Potter, is an American retired banker, economist and hobby historian. There is nothing wrong with pop history, provided that it does not perpetuate unfounded myths; Antonia Fraser has made a successful career of writing up-market pop history. And the general reader, having enjoyed reading pop history, may well be encouraged to go on to read more deeply and widely. At the end of each chapter the author helpfully supplies a short bibliography so that we may study the subject further if we wish.

I enjoyed the book for another reason; it is so politically-incorrect. While reading it, I was occasionally reminded of the books – greatly deplored by PC persons - that used to be presented to Victorian and later schoolboys, with titles like Men who won the Empire and Famous Military Heroes. Since the 1960s feminists, economic historians and other professional bores have told us that 'History does NOT consist of the biographies of great men', although in reality it quite often does. (Imagine British history without Churchill or Wellington, for example.) Yet here we have the biographies of nine men who plainly helped to shape history. The stern sculpted features of three of them; Robert the Bruce, Richard the Lionheart and Charlemagne, adorn the dust-cover. Nevertheless women, in the persons of influential empresses, queens, regents, duchesses, heiresses and royal mistresses, appear in the narrative quite frequently, while the author, given his background, is plainly aware of economic and commercial factors. There are some, mainly black-and-white, illustrations and some useful maps.

I have awarded the book 4/5 mushroom-heads only because of some annoying, albeit minor, defects that ARRSE-ers, on past performance, will spot and be irritated by. These include:

Numerous spelling mistakes, including 'alter' for 'altar' and (my favourite) 'Hartlepod' for 'Hartlepool'. Why were these not weeded-out at proof-reading stage?;

Odd and inconsistent usages, such as 'Mayence' for 'Mainz'. Mayence is the old French version of Mainz but it is not widely used today. The French in the past frenchified many place-names, especially in Germany and especially if the places had once been occupied by France. Others include 'Treves' for 'Trier' and 'Cologne' for 'Koln';

The inclusion of one or two unverified legends, notably about Robert the Bruce. I want to believe the story that the King was attacked, in defiance of all the Laws of Chivalry, by Sir Henry de Bohun on the eve of Bannockburn, and that he killed Bohun with his battleaxe. However there is a disappointing lack of contemporary evidence for this and no Bohun is recorded has having been with the English army in Scotland in 1314. The story might have concerned another dastardly knight, or perhaps it is one of the numerous unverified Bruce legends, such as the tale of the spider in the cave on Rathlin Island and the loyal wild goats of Inversnaid*.

Muddling his numerals. The author has his own ideas about how monarchs and even nobles should be designated. For instance, he describes Edward the Confessor as 'Edward III of England'. There were indeed three Anglo-Saxon kings of England called Edward, but by a long-accepted, if completely daft, tradition the monarchs who reigned before the Norman conquest are not given numerals. If they had been, Edward I (Plantagenet) would have been Edward IV, and so on. It is however far too late to remedy this, so we go along with it. Potter also awards numerals to nobles, which is less usual. Robert the Bruce's ancestors were monotonously christened Robert, so they are referred to as 'Robert I to VII', but since three of their descendants became King, as Robert I to III, this can be confusing. What's wrong with writing, for example, 'the Third Earl of Annandale'? That leaves no room for doubt.

Muddling his nomenclature. Robert the Bruce's ancestor who sailed with William the Conqueror was not 'Adam the Bruce'. He was a Breton, not a Norman, and was the seigneur (feudal lord) of St-Brice-en-Cogles. In time 'de St-Brice' became plain 'Bruce', but that was for the future. Likewise, there was never an 'Earl of Bruce'. The Bruce title was Earl of Annandale, one of Adam's descendants having married the heiress of the last Celtic Lord of Annandale. Before becoming King, Robert the Bruce had used the courtesy title of Earl of Carrick, which was one of his father's (yet another Robert) lesser titles.

Forewarned is forearmed; try not to be too irritated by the above. Moreover I recognise that not everyone is as obsessed with historical accuracy as I am. On balance I still enjoyed this book and I can recommend it as summer reading. Readers will learn a good deal from it, especially about the non-British monarchs. For example, while I had always known that Frederick II had been a medieval 'Jack the Lad'; not mindful of his marriage vows, I had not fully appreciated on how heroic a scale he had sinned. And a theme that recurs across all these biographies is the endless and insatiable attempts of the Papacy to interfere in the affairs of kings and extend papal political, as well as spiritual, control over distant kingdoms. The Popes, far more than Charlemagne and his successors as Holy Roman Emperor, were the true heirs of the Western Roman Emperors, including their greed, vanity and megalomania. In Gibbon's view, which Potter seems to share, the Papacy was “the ghost of the old Roman Empire seated crowned upon the grave thereof”.

*This ancient herd of goats, which grazes near Loch Lomond, is currently under threat despite King Robert I's having reportedly granted it perpetual protection.

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