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Joan of Arc, the Princes in the Tower, Bloody Mary, Oliver Cromwell, Sir Isaac Newton, and More


Pub Date: June 2nd, 2005
ISBN: 0-316-10924-X
Publisher: Little, Brown

More history-as-channel-surfing from Lacey (Great Tales from English History, Volume I, 2004).

Compressed here are nearly 300 years of English history in a slim, highly readable rocket-trip from The Canterbury Tales to Principia Mathematica. Each of Lacey’s chapters generally deals with a single issue or event, sometimes of great historical consequence (the beheading of Charles I), sometimes of substantial cultural significance (publication of the King James Bible), sometimes of interest to those who like to nibble the edges of time’s cracker (did Dick Whittington have a cat?). In the chapters about the English kings who also fascinated Shakespeare (Richards II and III, Henrys IV, V, VI), Lacey is careful to point out the historical inaccuracies in the Bard’s work—though neglecting to do so with Henry VIII. Readers on this side of the Atlantic will find little cheer in this Brit’s view of American history: “The modern United States of America has been built upon the systematic destruction and dispossession of its native population.” And, Lacey notes, we didn’t seem to care about celebrating Thanksgiving at all until Lincoln read William Bradford, more than 200 years after the first Turkey Day. Despite his mild anti-Yank populism, Lacey both educates and entertains. Richard III, not a glowering hunchback, was slim and athletic; gunpowder concealed in a little bag mercifully blew off the head of Bishop Latimer during his burning as a heretic; 2,000 gold nails held together Henry VIII’s toilet; the King James Bible uses a spare 8,000-word vocabulary. These and other goodies are strewn along the path. The diction here isn’t always fresh (the Catholicism of Mary Queen of Scots was “another black mark against her”), Lacey sometimes prefers the odd moment to the significant one, and he occasionally fails to mention fundamental things (not telling us, for example, that Guy Fawkes took the name “Guido” and signed his name that way).

A low-carb alternative for those hooked on high-fat history. (51 b&w illustrations)