Robert Stewart

Eager for the fight

Horatio Nelson is England’s most loved military hero. Marlborough is remote from our view, and the aristocratic Wellington was perhaps too stiff and unbending a Tory for popular taste. Nelson, by contrast, had an engaging personality and a colourful private life. The disabling wounds that he suffered and the affecting circumstances of his death in

Patriot or traitor?

The mighty convulsion that was the French Revolution has stirred the blood of historians from Thomas Carlyle to Simon Schama and consideration of it still inflames opinions. At its centre stood Maximilien Robespierre — 5’ 3”, stern, unaffacted in manner or dress, Spartan in his domestic habits — deified by his followers as the ‘Incorruptible’

Poetic licentiousness

Reprobates were, in the Calvinist lexicon, those unfortunates not included among God’s elect and therefore sentenced to eternal damnation. Reprobates were, in the Calvinist lexicon, those unfortunates not included among God’s elect and therefore sentenced to eternal damnation. For stern English puritans it was pleasing to think that Royalist ‘cavaliers’ were among them. Alas, there

Ride on in majesty

Governments in early modern England, having no standing army nor a civil service to speak of, required the consent of the governed. Authority had to be ‘culturally constructed’. That is the starting-point for Kevin Sharpe’s monumental investigation into royal branding in the age of the Tudors and Stuarts. In the first volume of a projected

What’s in a date?

Felipe Fernández-Armesto has a grand idea. Felipe Fernández-Armesto has a grand idea. After the formation of separate continents about 150 million years ago, the world’s ‘cultures’ became progressively more ‘sundered’ and its ecosystems more divergent. Then, ‘with extraordinary suddenness’, in 1492 this long-standing pattern ‘went into reverse’: divergence ceased and ‘a new convergent era of

Karl Marx got it right

Whether the refusal to allow the Confederate states the right to self-determination, flying as it did in the face of the Declaration of Independence, was the first overt act of American imperialism is a question that goes largely undiscussed. John Keegan does not raise it. For him, unlike World War I, which was ‘cruel and

Rebels with a cause

The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 was a singular event in English history, not merely a food riot, but an organised outbreak of pure class warfare which, leaving aside John Ball’s rabble-rousing, Biblical egalitarianism, was untrammelled by constitutional quarrels or religious disputes. It was fomented by vicious class legislation — the Statute of Labourers of 1351

A country of ruins

Contributers to multi-volume national histories are usually straitjacketed, expected to keep to well-trodden paths. But Robert Gildea’s subtitle is ‘the French’, not France, and in the third volume of the New Penguin History of France to be published he wanders freely. Foreign policy, for example, gets short shrift. Instead, a chapter is devoted to the

Might is always right

Since the first political trial in modern history — that of Charles I in 1649 — not a single one has ended in the aquittal of the accused. That tells us everything. In no other category of trial would a perfect record for the prosecution be conceivable. In this important, timely, and cogently argued book

Last but not least | 30 April 2008

‘Love is but a frailty of the mind when ’tis not to ambition joined.’ So Thomas Seymour, destined to be Catherine Parr’s fourth and last husband, expressed a notion taken as read in Tudor families of sufficient standing to seek social and financial ladders to climb. Catherine understood the ways of the world. When at

Power to the people | 27 February 2008

In July, 1642, as the English House of Commons debated whether to raise an army against the king, a dismayed MP, Bulstrode Whitelocke, wondered how parliament had ‘insensibly slipped into this beginning of a civil war by one unexpected accident after another [so that] we scarce know how, but from paper combats, by declarations, remonstrances,

Peanuts and popcorn and crackerjack

Baseball Haiku: The Best Haiku Ever Written About The Game edited by Cor van den Heuvel and Nanae Tamura Every American schoolboy and schoolgirl knows the mock epic, ‘Casey at the Bat’ (which William Schuman made into an opera), and Franklin Adams’s ‘saddest of possible words,/Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance’ (of the Chicago Cubs’ double-play past masters). The historian,

Shakespeare got it wrong

The Fears of Henry IV: The Life of England’s Self-Made Kingby Ian Mortimer Henry IV, in Ian Mortimer’s graceless (and sense-defying) words, is ‘the least biograph-ied English king to have been crowned since the Conquest’. No longer. Here is a full and richly detailed life. Not a deal more would need to be said were

The unkindest cut

From the day in 1513 that Balboa stared at the Pacific from a peak in Darien men dreamed of cutting a path from the Atlantic to the Pacific through the ‘Golden Isthmus’ of Panama. Not until the 19th century did the dream become a realistic engineering possibility. We have become blasé about scientific breakthroughs and

When tobacco worked wonders

The British empire in North America was not founded in a fit of absence of mind, though it might be said, in its beginnings at least, to have represented the triumph of hope over experience. From the outset, King James I and his chief minister, Robert Cecil, the Earl of Salisbury, were sceptical. A royal

All too minor to matter

Monarchy, monarchy, monarchy. Are we so addicted to it that we want to read the life of a boy who came to the throne at the age of nine and died six years later? Chris Skidmore seems to think so. His purpose, he says, is to rescue the ‘lost’ Edward VI from the obscurity to

Heads that wore the crown

David Starkey’s latest book has a Gibbonesque moment. Charles I was undone by ‘his unbending adherence to principle’; ‘in contrast the only rigid thing about Charles II was his male member’. Monarchy also, alas, exhibits some of the pitfalls encountered in turning the script of a television series into a book. Breeziness cohabits with an

A shortage of wine and olives

War and religion are the enduring themes of history and they, or at least war and the Church (for theology gets short shrift), are the chief matters in John Julius Norwich’s latest book. It attempts the difficult job of making a coherent entity of the history of Mediterranean lands from antiquity to the close of

The minimum of turbulence

Glorious, bloodless, last, perhaps all of those things, but the revolution of 1688 was hardly a revolution at all. It was the neat solution to a succession crisis: how to keep the throne of England secure against a Roman Catholic successor to the Roman Catholic James II. The essential ingredients were the resolve of James’s

Elusive brothers in arms

History and fiction have their differences. The most obvious and the most important is that scrupulous historians hesitate to say anything for which they cannot provide some form of documentary evidence. But history and fiction are also more alike than is usually acknowledged. Both historians and novelists seek to show how the world operates (or