Robert the Bruce — master of guerrilla warfare

The story of Robert the Bruce runs from the death of Alexander III of Scotland in 1286 to Robert’s own death in 1329, aged 54. His extraordinary achievement was to fend off both rivals at home and formidable English enemies to firmly establish his country’s independence. In 1292, John Balliol had been proclaimed King of Scots, with the full support of Edward I, to whom he formally paid homage. Four years later he was forced to resign his kingdom to Edward, and his own claim to it was doomed, though it survived for a few more years. Bruce, with his rare tactical skills, saw off the Balliols, father and son,

Eleanor of Aquitaine is still as elusive as quicksilver

Eleanor of Aquitaine is the most famous woman of the Middle Ages: queen of France and England, crusader, mother of kings — ‘lionhearted’ Richard and ‘bad’ John — and ancestress to the royal dynasties of Europe. Yet more nonsense has been written about her than almost any other woman. Much of what we think we know is falsehood or half-truth, and many respected historians fall foul of her myth, endlessly repeating misinformation as fact. For someone so renowned, the written record is astonishingly thin. Even her birth date (1122 or 1124) is uncertain, as is her place of birth. We know nothing of her looks, personality, education or early familial

The man and the legend

It is not often that a book’s blurb gives any idea of what’s inside, but Helen Castor’s endorsement — ‘a masterclass in the practice of history’ — is as good a description of this brilliant new biography of Charlemagne as we are likely to get. The broader contours of the life will be familiar to many readers, but what we have here — pace Janet Nelson — is less the ‘old-fashioned’ biography that she claims but a wonderfully generous sharing of knowledge that combines the conversational tones of the ideal classroom with the intensity of the trained anatomist, poised, knife in hand, to reveal the musculature beneath the skin. Of

‘God wills it’

The crusades are part of everyone’s mental image of the Middle Ages. They extended, in one form or another, from the 11th to the 16th century. Those which reached the Holy Land were fought by men on horseback wearing metal armour and carrying lances and swords, as in the pictures. The onset of gunpowder had not yet spoiled the fun. They were truly international, in their own way emblematic of the myth of a single Christian European polity. They embodied everything that people associate with medieval warfare: reckless courage, murder, loot, adventure and romance. Christopher Tyerman has been writing about the crusades for nearly 40 years. His work includes the

Knight fever

Emperor Maximilian I liked to say he invented the joust of the exploding shields. When a knight charged and his lance struck the opposing shield — bam! — the shield shattered and the shrapnel went up like fireworks. It’s almost impossible to turn the pages of Freydal. Medieval Games. The Book of Tournaments of Emperor Maximilian I and not imagine Batman-style captions. Clank! Thwack! Kapow! The knights and princes of the painted miniatures are all-awl, all-action iron men. Their horses are hooded to stop them bolting and every harness is stitched with bells. All the horse would have heard was the jangling, not the thunder of hooves or the roar

Medieval girl power

Women who can — however tenuously — be described as ‘rebel girls’ are big in publishing now. Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls sold 3.5 million copies in hardback, reflecting a huge cultural push to discover and venerate women in history who kicked over the traces. To publishers, real-life rebel princesses have cool hard-cash value. In this context we come to this book, a scholarly work effortfully seeking out the ‘you-go-girl’ moments of the notoriously woke 13th century. Kelcey Wilson-Lee, who has a doctorate in medieval history from Royal Holloway and works in the development office at Cambridge University overseeing regional philanthropy, has an underlying agenda. But she also has the

The true face of Islam

In Britain today, Islam in its original essence is not to be found in mosques or Muslim schools, but on the first floor of the British Museum. There, the Albukhary Islamic gallery, newly opened to the public, dazzles visitors and defies every certainty promoted by today’s hardline Muslim activists. This spectacular exhibition of objects from across continents and centuries shows us a history of continuity of civilisations, coexistence of communities. It offers a compelling corrective to current popular notions of Islam as an idea and a civilisation. Too often, we assume that Islam’s arrival on the world stage involved some violent break with the past that brought forth a new

Great balls of fire

Lionheart! Saladin! Massacre! There is no shortage of larger-than-life characters and drama in the epic, two-year siege of Acre, the great set-piece of the Third Crusade. But, as John Hosler relates in this accomplished study, there was so much more besides. Acre proved the strategic point for armies from across Europe, Syria, Egypt, Mesopotamia and the Maghreb; and the siege provided a kaleidoscope of competing ambitions, objectives and self-serving manoeuvrings amid the most arduous conditions, in which Bedouins ‘exchanged the severed heads of their victims with Saladin in return for robes and gifts’. The coastal city of Acre, in present-day Israel, was the first objective of the crusaders, as it

The priest’s tale

Samantha Harvey is much rated by critics and those readers who have discovered her books, but deserving of a far wider audience than she has hitherto gained — so much so that just before Gaby Wood’s appointment as literary director of the Booker Prize Foundation, the critic wrote a lengthy exploration of Harvey’s prodigious qualities, describing her as ‘this generation’s Virginia Woolf’. The reasons for her relative neglect are not complex: her work is deeply serious, her novels rarely mining the same seam; she has featured on numerous long- and shortlists but failed to scoop any major awards; and we don’t see her on the telly or at the head

An insight into the medieval Muslim mind

  At a press conference in October 1981, Ronald Reagan quoted Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406) in support of what is known as supply-side economics. Although the 14th- century politician and thinker wrote extensively about economics and was almost unique among medieval Arab writers in so doing, it is quite ‘marvellous’ writes Robert Irwin, the author of a new intellectual biography of this famous North African, that he ‘should have anticipated American Republican party fiscal policy’. Irwin wears his immense erudition lightly and gives an often very funny account of how orientalists, historians and modern Arab nationalists have interpreted Ibn Khaldun’s most famous work, the Muqaddima (also known as the Prolegomena) more

May’s day

You may think you don’t know May Morris, daughter of William, but you’ll probably have come across her wallpaper. Her honeysuckle design was and remains a Morris & Co. bestseller, and it not only features in homes to this day, it’s been nicked by designer Jonathan Anderson for a Morris-inspired range for the very expensive fashion house Loewe. It’s all a bit dispiriting for a woman whose aesthetic sensibility, like her father’s, was bound up in her socialism. But it was embroidery that was May Morris’s art and craft and now a new exhibition at the Morris Gallery in Walthamstow lets us see it in its own right. The gist

The pilgrims’ ways

Liza Picard, an chronicler of London society across the centuries, now weaves an infinity of small details into an arresting tapestry of life in 14th-century England. Her technique — pursued with the verve and spirit for which she is already justly admired — is to celebrate Chaucer’s pilgrim portraits by resituating them within an enlarged field of medieval practices and assumptions. Geoffrey Chaucer’s own trick, in enlivening the portraits with which he launches his Canterbury Tales, is the epitomising detail, the apparently random observation — in current poker language, the ‘tell’ — that gives the pilgrim’s game away. He zooms in on the Knight’s rust-stained tunic, the Prioress’s pampered lapdogs,

Crusading passions

In W.B. Yeats’s ‘Meditations in Time of Civil War’, a testing allusion emerges amid a scene of nightmare: Monstrous familiar images swim to the mind’s eye ‘Vengeance upon the murderers,’ the cry goes up ‘Vengeance for Jacques Molay.’ More about de Molay, last master of the Knights Templar, can be found in Dan Jones’s new blockbuster on the crusading order, along with quite a few monstrous familiar images. Jones states from the outset his noble intention: to write ‘a book that will entertain as well as inform’. In this he has hitherto had great success; his two spectacular chronicles, The Plantagenets and The Hollow Crown, traced that dynasty from the

Obituary: Eric Christiansen

Over the past year, we have lost two names cherished by Spectator readers. Rodney Milnes, our opera critic for 20 years before he moved to the Times, as well as editing the monthly magazine Opera, died last December, and Eric Christiansen, the Oxford medieval historian, who was a regular book reviewer here for many years, followed on the last day of October. They both died at 79, both of cancer. Their upbringing and education were similar — Rugby and Christ Church for Milnes, Charterhouse and New College for Christiansen.From the last peacetime ‘call-up’ generation, both served unenthusiastically and unheroically in the army. They were both old and dear friends of

Letters | 13 October 2016

Cathedral going Sir: While I enjoyed much of Simon Jenkins’s analysis of why England’s cathedrals are thriving (‘Why cathedrals are soaring’, 8 October) his article misses the point. As a self-confessed non-worshipper, his understanding of these buildings and their significance lacks a crucial dimension. The raison d’être of our churches and cathedrals is faith and worship. By focusing exclusively on historical and aesthetic elements and ignoring their continuing important spiritual role, Jenkins risks behaving like a restaurant critic who never bothers to taste the food on offer. I would suggest that most people who go to cathedral services do so not to avoid ‘demands’ to pray, but because the intercessions,

All things bright and beautiful | 6 October 2016

For much of the Middle Ages, especially from 1250–1350, ‘English work’ was enormously prized around Europe from Spain to Iceland. Popes took pains to acquire it; bishops coveted it; the quality was such that the remnants have ended up in the treasuries of Europe. London, especially the area around St Paul’s, was famous for its production. And what was English work? Embroidery, that’s what. Beautiful, costly, high-quality embroidered pieces, much of it using gold or silver thread, sometimes embellished with pearls and precious stones. Matthew Paris tells a story about Pope Innocent IV spotting some English bishops wearing lovely vestments and badgering them to find some of it for him,

Come in, but keep your voices down

The illustrated manuscripts of the European Middle Ages are among the most beautiful works to survive from a maligned and misrepresented age. The darkest of the Dark Ages produced the Book of Kells and the Lindisfarne Gospels. Out of the most vicious period of France’s medieval history emerged the exquisite books of hours painted by the Limbourg brothers for the repellent Duke of Berry. Yet, unlike the panel paintings, the sculpture, the buildings or the jewellery of the period, illustrated manuscripts are almost entirely inaccessible to the public. Light, oxygen and humidity, the three great enemies of pictorial artefacts, are especially unkind to manuscripts. Vellum is made of animal skin,

Everything is illuminated

One could honour God with prayer, of course, and build cathedrals, amass treasuries, turn choirs into stained-glass jewel boxes, carve portals with saints and sinners. But for the medieval monks bent over vellum in chilly scriptoria colour, too, was devotion: offertories of lapis lazuli, azurite, cinnabar, silver and gold, gold and more gold. Silver tarnished on the page, but gold remained exquisite, inviolable, and monks and scholars found a dragonish greed for it. War, weather, revolution, Henry VIII, Oliver Cromwell, acquisitive magpies, trophy-hunters and time have stripped gold and pigment from sculptures and ivories. Frescoes have been whitewashed, mosaics scuffed, stained-glass smashed, reliquaries melted and their gems dispersed, but illuminated

The rise and fall of Sicily

A few weeks ago, I looked out on the Cathedral of Monreale from the platform on which once stood the throne of William II, King of Sicily. From there nearly two acres of richly coloured mosaics were visible, glittering with gold. In the apse behind was the majestic figure of Christ Pantocrator — that is, almighty. The walls of the aisles and nave were lined with scenes from the Bible. In another panel, just above, Christ himself crowned King William. It was a prospect of the greatest opulence and sophistication stretching in every direction from this regal vantage point. The mosaics are in the manner of Byzantium, and probably executed

Battle ready

For most of history, religion and war have been the most powerful social instincts of mankind and its chief collective activities. In the crusades, they combined to create a movement of great emotional power, which convulsed Europe in the 12th century and retained its appeal to the military classes until the end of the Middle Ages. One might expect people who embarked on a great war with such intense spiritual exultation to be unconcerned with practical planning. And there were some who believed that these mundane matters should be left to the Holy Spirit to sort out. But they tended to come to a sticky end. For most crusaders, holy