Tag Archives: William the Conqueror

Edward Rutherfurd’s London: a novel

be00b51a11d5543c09f732bc009e87f6The most important thing to note about this book is that it is really long. It was over 1200 pages on my iPad version.  It’s a long book.

And wouldn’t it have to be? To begin to encapsulate the several millenia of history centered in and around the 1 square mile that is ‘the City’.

Neither a historical nonfiction, nor a straight novel, this book is something of a hybrid.  Rutherfurd has used this same format to tackle the histories of New York, Paris, Russia, Salisbury/Stonehenge, and Ireland.  This particular book came out in 1997, so I’m coming to the party a little late on this one.  What can I say? I was still in high school in 1997.

Starting with the earliest Celtic civilizations in the area now known as London, Rutherfurd takes the reader through the important epochs of the city, all the way up through the late 20th century. Each chapter follows the lives of a few families, traceable by their distinctive qualities–red hair or webbed fingers–as they adapt to the changing shape of London society. All of the families are fictional, but real people are intermingled with their stories.  Kings and conquerors, as you’d expect, but also Chaucer, Dick Whittington, Shakespeare, Marlowe, etc.

This book is described as a novel, but I think it’s really more of a hybrid between nonfiction and fiction.  Though it is structured as a novel, there are many instances where the narrator breaks ‘the fourth wall’ and describes things in a way that you don’t find in a novel.  Narrators in novels don’t say ‘like most families of the era, the Bulls wore xxx and lived in yyy.’  Or ‘John would have been quite shocked to learn his family brewery was managed by a woman, 3 generations back’. At first, I found these moments very jarring.  I couldn’t get too settled in with the characters, because I was always being pulled back to look at these overarching truths about the historical period I’ve been dropped in.

And though the families are occasionally discernible by their webbed fingers or long noses, I found it very difficult to keep track of who was related to whom.  Even if they shared the same name, there were a lot of marriages between the families he was mentioning, so I found it quite confusing to discern who was who.

That being said, I think it’s a good way to learn about the everyday lives of historical populations.  A nonfiction book about the history of London would probably tell me about Londinium, about Boudica’s siege, William’s Conquest, the Great fire, etc.  All important.  It wouldn’t tell me about the clothing or habits of everyday citizens from different classes.  It wouldn’t tell me where they lived or how they might have felt about the Puritan Roundheads or the Royalist Cavaliers.  It helps humanize an era when you see how people truly lived, not just the major battles and royals.

But things are sort of uneven in this book.  No historian is equally well-versed in every era, and even if (s)he was, (s)he would still have favorites.  I’m not sure if it’s lack of expertise or lack of interest, but Rutherfurd didn’t give much attention (in the form of pages) to the era before the Romans, or the late 1200s, or the era of the Great Fire (only 26 pages!), or the mid 19th century.  That last one disappointed me, because I’m most interested in the 19th century.  Other eras got very long chapters.  The chapter dealing with the English Civil War was almost 100 pages.  So you don’t get a fully rounded view of the entire city’s history, but you get snippets in every so often.  Some notable events are omitted completely–no mention of Boudica, though she razed the city to the ground.  Henry VIII gets his share, but there’s almost nothing of the previous Henry’s–quite important in their own right.

I learned a lot of fun tidbits from this book.  The word sheriff comes from the word shire (county) + reeve (tax collectors). The Domesday Book, revolutionary and historical as it was, would often be inaccurate because those monks taking down the count of Englishmen did not generally speak English.  William the Conqueror, upon his death, was too ‘corpulent’ to be squeezed into his coffin.  Richard the Lionhearted was a pretty terrible king.  Blackfriars got its name because the Dominican monks living there wore black robes. Charing Cross’s name is a really interesting story.  King Edward’s wife had died in the north. He wanted her body brought to Westminster to be laid in the Abbey. It took 12 days and nights to make the journey, and at every night’s stop, the king had a cross erected.  Charing Cross was the very last stop, from the old English word for that street.

I really enjoyed learning these tidbits, but I don’t know that I’ll remember most of them in another week.  It added to my enjoyment of the book, but the constant ebb and flow between fiction and expository narration was off-putting. I would probably recommend the book only if you are very interested in London history.

The whole book is centered around the River.  And there’s good reason.  The Thames is why London exists. This particular spot on the Thames has been picked for a civilization many times, by different groups of people, because it is an ideal location. The first place from the channel that you could cross the river easily at high or low tide.

Before the Romans, the Celts used the river as part of their worship.  The Romans recognized the spot (now known as London Bridge), as the perfect area to cross the Thames.  It became a shipping hub and, accordingly, people moved there. There was just the one bridge for many years, sometimes destroyed and rebuilt. It was just the perfect place in all of SE England, to build a town. Henry II commissioned a new stone bridge during his reign. It held homes and shops, and a chapel dedicated to Thomas Beckett. It probably looked like the Ponte Vecchio in Italy (though with a more medieval British feel)


There used to be heads on pikes, and around 200 buildings on the bridge by the Tudor era. Famous heads on pikes included William Wallace and Sir Thomas More. On the north side, there was the respectable City area, with Westminster still being built further upriver. On the South side was Southwark, where men went to visit prostitutes, watch bear-baiting and dog fighting and boxing, and to see Shakespeare’s plays performed.  Southwark wasn’t held to the same laws as the City, so all sorts of rabble-rousing went on there. Later, there were many bridges across the Thames, and the real London Bridge made its way to Arizona for a strange tourist attraction.  All of the English civilization is centered in London, and all of London exists because of the River and the spot easiest to cross.  I like the idea that this city was absolutely always meant to be there, and independent societies repeatedly came to the conclusion that this spot was the only spot for them.  Even as it grows ever larger, in all directions, London’s heart is on two hills–one at Westminster, one in the City–with the river alongside them all the way.



The Tower of London: Menageries, Murders, and Ghosts

I’ve read two books lately that both took place in and around the Tower of London.  One was Wolf Hall, set in the mid-16th century.  The other, which I just finished, was The tower, the Zoo, and the TortoiseThe Tower, The Zoo, and the Tortoise by Julia Stuart.

I have already reviewed Wolf Hall, and want to share my thoughts on TZT, as I will call this book with the overly-lengthy title.  But since they shared a common locale, I thought I might talk a little bit first about the Tower of London in general.

The official name of the Tower of London is Her Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress, and is located on Tower Hill, a spot directly on the North banks of the Thames, next to Tower Bridge (logically enough).  The names represent the entire complex, from the outer walls inward, Tower-of-London

though most people associate the name with the largest and most memorable of its buildings, the White Tower. The White Tower is technically a ‘keep’ and is one of the largest in the ‘Christian World’ :

White+TowerI imagine most people do not read this blog for their history knowledge, but indulge me while I share a bit of the incredible history of this fortress.

When William the Conqueror won the battle at Hastings (1066 AD) and gained control over England, he wanted a tower to keep away the cursed English people, and to keep them from trying to win back their country.  Actually, William made a lot of castles after he took over, but this is probably the most famous among them. He began to build the ToL at the SE corner of the walls remaining from the Roman establishment in Londinium. Estimates say the White Tower was finished around 1100 AD.

The tower was extended beyond the keep during the 12th century and was a point of contention when Prince John (of Robin Hood fame) tried to seize control of the country while Richard the Lionhearted was off fighting the crusades. Expansion continued during the 13th and 14th centuries, when disputes over succession to the crown or between the royalty and the aristocracy threatened the outbreak of civil war.  Whomever held control of the crown wanted an impregnable fortress to hide behind. The tradition of whitewashing the White Tower (thus giving it its name) began in 1240. Periodically, the tower would be taken by the armies of barons or landed gentry, or given to clergymen. It was always an important strategic possession.

Obviously there was a fair amount of unpleasantness at the Tower. It was a military stronghold and a palatial lodging, but it was/became a prison.  Edward I imprisoned at least 600 Jewish people in the tower, before exporting them out of the country entirely. Charming guy. Later, the tower was reserved for more important inmates — i.e. those accused of heresy or treason, not those accused of stealing bread. Often, the royalty themselves were imprisoned there.  Examples include Richard II, Henry VI, and the two Princes–possibly its most famous residents because no one knows quite what happened to them.

PrincesThe assumption is that Richard III murdered the two young boys so that he could become king. Legend has it that the white rose bushes outside the keep have bloomed red roses since that day.

In the 16th century, the tower stopped being used regularly as a royal residence and its focus shifted entirely to that of military stronghold and prison. The Yeoman Warders were formed in the early 1500s, and still wear the same uniform that existed during that time.  This means an itchy wool fabric that cannot be remotely comfortable.  But look how stylish:


The Yeoman Warders are traditionally called Beefeaters.  This may be because a portion of meat was included with their meal rations.  They still live in the Tower, with their families.  To become a Beefeater, you must have been in the military with a good record for at least 22 years.  It’s a lot to ask of someone who is essentially a tour guide.  Must create a very unique microcosm of society within the tower. But its a far cry from what their original tasks included–chiefly torturing prisoners to extract confessions of heresy, treason, etc.  They employed the Scavenger’s Daughter, the Rack, and the Manacles frequently.

The bloody history of the tower reached its peak in the 16th and 17th century. Beheading was popular at the tower because of its important clientele–for the measly peasants, hanging or burning were popular methods of acting out a death sentence. Those executed on the Tower Green were the most important and high profile of the doomed. These include: William Hastings, Anne Boleyn, Margaret Pole (hit 11 times with the axe before her head came off!), Jane Boleyn, Lady Jane Gray, and Robert Devereux. Most of these were directly related to threats/crimes against the current monarch. In addition to these Tower Green executions, there were numerous public executions (for the less important but equally guilty) on Tower Hill. These included William Wallace (of Braveheart fame), Thomas Cromwell (as featured in Wolf Hall), Guy Fawkes (tried to blow up Parliament) and Sir Walter Raleigh (imprisoned for over 10 years in the Tower before being executed). Ghosts of the two princes, Anne Boleyn, and Sir Walter Raleigh are the most commonly sighted in the Tower.

There were some less horrible things to find at the Tower.  Isaac Newton ran the Royal Mint when it was located there.  There was a royal menagerie in the middle ages where the king kept animals gifted to him by other royalty, including a Polar Bear said to have fished for his dinner in the Thames. It was first opened to very wealthy aristocrats for visiting, but became a bona fide tourist attraction by the end of the 19th century.  Its last use as a prison was during WWII when a few Nazi PoWs were stationed inside. It’s a really cool place to visit if you know some of the history, or if you’re particularly keen to see the Crown Jewels.

If you’re a history buff or planning a visit, here is a link to the official website for more info.  I always wanted to go to the Ceremony of the Keys, when they lock up the tower at night.  The ceremony is about 450 years older than my country, so that’s pretty epic, but you have to plan/request tickets in advance and I never got my act together.

Okay, enough about the tower in general.  What about this book?  I learned a lot about the tower reading it.  The Beefeaters live inside to this day! At first, I thought that seemed really awesome.  But when you have Nazi graffiti in your study, or the ghost of Sir Walter Raleigh blowing up spectral science experiments and stealing your potatoes, and all you do all day is talk to impertinent tourists, it doesn’t seem so glamorous anymore.

Unfortunately, this book was just too light for me.  Not that I need explosions or suicide in the books I read. I expected it to be light, and was looking forward to it after the epic task of Wolf Hall. Still, there has to be some emotional intensity to it.  The characters were cute and likeable, but it was as if I was seeing all of them from a distance, or through a thick fog.  Even when dealing with the heavy material, Julia Stuart seems afraid to commit to raw emotion.  I felt at an arm’s length from the entire book, and that severely lessened my enjoyment.  It didn’t go deep enough into the human psyche for me to feel much of anything. There were a few parts that made me mildly chuckle, but other than that it didn’t make a dent on me.  Disappointing.

The story revolves around a beefeater named Balthazar Jones, who is asked to run the newly re-installed menagerie at the ToL. He is pretty under-qualified for the job (given to him only because he happens to own the world’s oldest tortoise) and the animal rights activist in me was a bit bothered by the idea of completely untrained people being in charge of these animals’ safety.  But it is just a book, so I swallowed my objections.  There isn’t much in the way of a traditional plot, except to have a few people in disarray and later have it all work into a happy ending.

There are a myriad of characters, most of which work in the ToL (Chief Yeoman Warder, Ravenmaster, etc.) and some that work in the lost property office for the Underground. Both of these locations are quirky and give a wonderful sense of color to the story, but again I’m troubled by the lack of depth.

Similar to The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, this book revolves around a couple who have lost a child, and the way that child is lost is eventually revealed mid-way through the book.  Unlike Harold Fry, this book doesn’t inspire a lot of emotion around this terrible event.  I think Stuart wanted to keep the book light, so despite being vested in strong emotional events, it didn’t transmit much empathy to me–and I’m an incredibly empathetic person.  That’s part of why I’m such a passionate reader. I feel everything the characters feel.  Example–At least twice, I have taken a few moments to feel incredible sadness for Andromeda Black/Tonks from Harry Potter.  If you think about it, she loses her husband and daughter and her son-in-law to Voldemort.  All in the same year.  Then she must raise her grandson on her own.  None of this is ever overtly mentioned, but she must have a desperately difficult life in the days after the final battle.

Okay that was a digression, obviously, but the point is made. I am not lacking in empathy, but I didn’t feel much for these characters.  Which not only meant that I didn’t experience the sorrows in media res, but I also missed out on the feeling of relief that comes with a happy ending. I’m sorry to say that even though I was looking for a light, frothy read, this book just lacked substance. Or it kept substance in the background, focusing instead on cutesy turns of phrase and quirky characters.  Yet another reminder that in order to write quality fiction, you have to be incredibly brave. If you’re not scared to reveal what you’ve written down, then you haven’t dug deep enough.

Book Review: The Evil Empire

This book almost gave me an aneurism. I mean…I don’t know that I’ve ever been so angry at the written word.  Of course, I’ve never read an Ann Coulter book, but I imagine it would have the same effect.  So why would an anglophile (like me) read this in the first place?

Well, I got it for free–reason one.  But more importantly, I wanted to challenge myself to see a grittier, more realistic book about the UK and it’s imperial history, which is filled with just as much shameful activity as our own. I freely criticize the American government and our unsavory history, so I should be equally hard on the U.K.  The book seemed like a good way to see things in a different light, and listen to the devil’s advocate.  And maybe if the book was coherent or logical, it might have shifted my worldview instead of just making me incredibly angry.

Here’s the problem with this book.  I’m not sure what it’s trying to be.  Like a boggart who turns into half a slug, it seems to be pandering to two genres and failing at both.  If it’s trying to be funny, it fails.  I’m sure Rush Limbaugh thinks he’s funny, and people who think exactly like him perhaps agree.  That’s the sort of “humor” this book is filled with.  I wasn’t even tempted to laugh even once.  Not even a smirk.

If it’s trying to be an honest book, it fails even harder. The worst thing you can do with a humor book is not be funny (check), but if you claim your book is in any way factual, you can apparently fill it with complete and utter lies and errors from cover to cover.  You can spread absolute bullshit throughout, and you can also make me not want to live on this planet anymore. Well done Steven A Grasse.

I wrote notes on almost every page. Partially I was making notes for this review, so that I could point out all of the inaccuracies.  But I also needed to vent some of my anger.  Here’s a shot of one particularly offensive and ridiculous page.




Notice that I was particularly irritated by Grasse referring to corsets worn during the time of Shakespeare (1564-1616) as Victorian. For future reference, everyone, Victorian means it took place roughly during the time of the reign of Queen Victoria.  Which was some 250 years after Shakespeare died.  Presumably he meant Elizabethan, which is more correct.  Grasse also goes on to explain that Americans would prefer a Tarantino film to the overrated works of the Bard ‘any day of the week’.  At this point my head and desk made abrupt contact.

I found a blog dedicated to all of the inaccuracies of this book.  The writer seems to have given up halfway through, and I can’t say I blame him or her.  This book, once you comprehend just how racist and hate-filled it is, even as a joke, is hard to slog through. It’s a chore. It’s depressing. It makes me hate America and Americans.  And I am one.  It makes me ashamed of us.  Can I say again how much I hate this book?

Back to the inaccuracies, because you need to comprehend just how bad it is.  I made notes on almost every page with all of my thoughts on what was wrong about what he was saying–not theoretically or ideologically wrong, but factually wrong.  The errors fell into a  few categories:

Logical fallacies:

In a chapter explaining how England created global warming, Grasse explains that England ‘designed’ the Industrial Revolution around engines that ran on coal, which ruined our atmosphere.  He says they could have ‘just waited a few years until solar power hit the scene’.  Were they supposed to jump in their coal-powered time machines so they would know that solar power was on the way?  Also, whose to say we would have developed solar technology without the advancements that coal tech brought?  I’m not a big fan of coal either, but it’s ridiculous to talk about it as if they could have known what would happen or would have stopped doing things like building railroads that brought fresh food to inland areas and allowed for quick transport throughout the country.  We certainly haven’t stopped using coal or oil.

Apparently, England ‘Sliced North America Across the Middle’ and are standing in the way of an alliance between Canada and the US by making us dislike each other.  I must have missed when this happened.  Also, I apparently missed when Mexico ceased to exist, because Grasse doesn’t mention it as part of North America.  Also, apparently, after we formed NAFTA, the Brits ‘formed their own special club–the European Union’.  Wrong!  NAFTA was signed in 1994.  The EU started as the European Economic Community (EEC) after WWII ended (first six countries signed in 1957).  Another problem is that the UK was not allowed in the first two times they applied (de Gaulle was a serious douche, in my opinion) and didn’t join until 1973.  But even that was twenty years before NAFTA.

Out-and-out nonsense:

Apparently, ‘They Relish Collecting Taxes’ based on the evidence that William the Conqueror created the Domesday book to tax his citizens.  Does Grasse know that William was French (Norman, technically)?

Grasse argues that the UK propagated the English measurement system which is, apparently, evil and is ruining the world.  No explanation is provided for why we are one of the few countries that still use it.  The UK does not use it anymore.  Also, he blames the destruction of the Mars Climate Orbiter in 1998 on the UK because some parts were made with metric specs that should have used English measurements.

Grasse spends a page attacking the Rhodes Scholarship.  For the record, Cecil Rhodes did some very evil stuff in the name of Queen and Empire.  The fact that a few US citizens are paid to go to Oxford does not make up for that fact, but it might do something to mitigate it.  It certainly isn’t a reason to attack England.  Also, Grasse seems to be unaware or to ignore the fact that there are a few awards that try to make up for the misdeeds of their namesakes.  Alfred Nobel, anyone? Part of his inspiration for creating his award was being described as ‘the merchant of death’ after he invented a kind of explosive and sold it to military organizations.  Same thing.  Where is Grasse’s book on the evils of Sweden?

Ridiculous factual errors:

Grasse has an entire chapter about how the Brits worship a ‘Giant Clock God’ as a symbol of state authority.  He calls Big Ben the Great Clock and claims the British worship it as a symbol of the state authority over their lives.  One problem.  Big Ben is the bell, not the clock.  Another problem, you make no sense, Grasse!

Grasse writes that the large stones in Stonehenge represent Scotland, England, and Wales while the small stones represent the rest of the world.  These countries did not exist when Stonehenge was created, so I really have no idea where he got this crap.

Grasse writes about WWII that ‘We all know the stories of how the British joined the rest of the Allies to fight fascism abroad in the second World War.’  Grasse is implying that we (the US) were actually fighting the war already.  This is utter bullshit.  France and Britain declared war on Germany two days after the invasion of Poland in 1939. We didn’t enter the war until we were attacked at Pearl Harbor in 1941.  Now, no one had declared war on Japan yet at that point, but we all declared it together as Allies.  Britain and France had already suffered a ridiculous amount of casualties and damages in the fight against Germany, while we were trying to ignore what was going on. This really offends me that Grasse implies that Britain was reluctant to fight.  He also claims Britain didn’t contribute as many soldiers to D-Day as we did, that they ‘didn’t do their share’.  Nevermind that it was a U.S.-led effort and nevermind the fact that their forces were depleted by being in the combat much longer and being a much smaller country. By the way, our troops (my grandfather among them) comprised about 70,000 men and the UK had about 60,000 that day.  Given the differences in population between the two countries I would say they did more than their share.

An apparently very different understanding of the word ‘evil’:

There are so many tiny things that apparently Grasse just doesn’t like that he seems to think are reasons that England is evil.  Evil is a serious word. You cannot apply it to your dislike of Cricket or Elton John, Oasis or the inability to dance.

On top of all of these errors and this misinformation, there is a pro-Christian, pro-heterosexual vein of thinking that makes me rather ill. This is the real problem with the book.  Even if none of what he is talking about is true, he is spilling hate-filled nonsense disguised as humor, and underneath it all is some really obvious intolerance and degradation of women, non-Christians, and homosexuals.

For example, one of the reasons England is evil is because ‘They Are Secretly Pagan’. Evidence?: Long after the Middle East was basking in the glow of sane monotheism, Druid priests led early Britons in pagan ceremonies.  Another reason is because of ‘Harry Potter, Boy Occultist’.

There is a chapter entitled ‘British Men are a Little Limp in the Wrist, if you Get my Meaning’.  Seriously.  It starts with this ridiculous paragraph:

I have nothing against homosexuals, nor have I found homosexuality to be any more prevalent in the UK than it is anywhere else.  I do, however, believe that upper class British males exhibit a peculiar chumminess and an aversion to hard work that could be characterized as, shall we say fey.

I see.  Nothing against homosexuals, except they have an aversion to hard work.  He goes on to blame the Stonewall riots in New York (in the 20th century) on Victorian laws against homosexual behavior.  Huh?  Sodomy was against the law (a felony, in fact) in the US until 1962, by the way.

I know that most of what is in this book is not intended to be taken seriously.  But Grasse spent all of this time writing it down, and you don’t spend this much time writing and editing a book filled with stuff you don’t believe.  I concede that he saved considerable time by not researching any of it or caring if his facts were even remotely correct.  But still.  He believes this deep down.

In the Introduction, Grasse more or less says that his inspiration for writing the book came from taking business trips to the UK and having people criticize the US to him.  Not only did they have the nerve to criticize the Iraq War, but they didn’t want to talk about the movie he came to promote.  How rude! So in a patriotic and egomaniacal temper tantrum, he wrote this book.  Well, now I’ve read it, so you certainly don’t have to.

I’ll leave you with one critic’s take on the book: It’s “as if every bar bore in Philadelphia, where the author hails from, got together one night and wrote down every half-assed insult they could remember about Britain, somewhat handicapped by the fact that none did high school history past sixth grade.