Category Archives: British History

History – it pays to be open minded


Like most people I know with an interest in History I have my ‘periods of interest’ and characters or places than fascinate me. I also have the unfortunate trait of being dismissive or simply uninterested in certain periods or individuals. One such individual is Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig, who commanded the British Expeditionary Force on the western front from 1915 until the end of the First World War.

As a result of this dubious attitude on my part I initially skipped the article in by Gary Sheffield ‘Postwar Revolutionary?’ (in the October edition of the BBC History magazine), despite its rather intriguing  title. It’s Haig, that’s enough to get me to look for a different article – even if it’s yet another one about the Tudors (which was actually rather good). I knew, as the article says in the opening paragraph, that the caricature of Haig in the popular mind has been shown to be grossly unfair, but still it’s Haig.

The thing is that, despite my rather doggy desire to dismiss such articles, another aspect of my character is to want to absorb, comprehend and challenge almost any history I encounter. If I visit or stay somewhere, see or hear something that I’m not familiar with I just have to look into its history. As a result, unless I’m ridiculously busy, I usually end up reading the History magazine from cover to cover – though I tend to avoid getting too absorbed in the letters page as it can get me going 🙂

So with most of the magazine read I did eventually turned back to Gary Sheffield’s article and in doing so found myself appreciating the history of post war Britain and the character of Haig in a new light. The article is well worth reading for the case it makes for Haig’s influence and for what he could but didn’t do in a turbulent period of British history. It was also a reminder to me that history, study and life is better when I remain open minded and liberal in my attitudes.

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England’s first iron lady


What ifs are fun aspects of historical study. The article on Ǽthelflaed in the August edition of the BBC’s History magazine includes a rather interesting what if? Had she not died before Edward ….’it is likely that the unification of England would have taken place, not under King Ǽthelstan in 927, but under a women, Ǽthelflaed. And her daughter Ǽlfwynn, would have succeeded her, not merely as ‘Lady of Mercia’ but as Queen of England.’

Alex Burghart’s article ‘Ǽthelflaed iron lady of Mercia’ is the latest in a series of fascinating pieces on the Anglo-Saxon’s. It describes the story of a remarkable woman who ruled, as the piece says, at a time when ‘rarely has British politics been so turbulent’.  I was also interested to discover the historic first achieved by Ǽthelflaed and her daughter Ǽlfwynn, but you should read the magazine to find out what I’m referring too.

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Some praise and a rant – I’ve been reading July’s BBC History Magazine


This post starts off with some recommendations and praise for the articles in this month’s BBC History Magazine and ends in a rant – you’ve been warned.

Clash of civilisations – nice headline but is it true?

‘On balance, the history of the crusades does not suggest that Islam and the west were predestined by some elemental rancour for a ‘clash of civilisations’’ so concludes Thomas Asbridge in his article ‘Traders and Crusaders’. The piece is a fascinating description of relations between Muslims and Christians in the medieval period and well worth a read both for historical interest and given the past is often misused in discussing modern relationships between the west and the Muslim world.

The ‘World news in context’

If you do take my advice and pick up a copy of the magazine, it’s also worth turning to page 18 and the ‘World news in context’ section. This month its focus is ‘Syria’s divided society’ which gives a greater understanding to the deeper social and political currents driving events in that country. Over the last few months this section of the magazine has run pieces on various countries experiencing the ‘Arab Spring’. In addition to acquiring new historical knowledge these articles really help to place 24 hour news coverage of events into a clearer and more meaningful context.

Hail Ǽthelstan the Great, step aside Alfred

Now I’m essentially biased when it comes to Romo-British and Anglo-Saxon history, I can’t get enough of them and regularly have a moan when these periods don’t get a look in. So clearly I was going to read and enjoy the article by Sarah Foot in which she asks why Alfred the Great is still venerated while his grandson Ǽthelstan is overlooked, despite the fact that the latter’s achievements dwarfed those of the former. It’s one of the pieces that really got my attention and left me wanting to go and read more about Ǽthelstan. A note to my Welsh and Scottish nationalist friends you may want to give this piece of history a miss, to quote from the article ‘Ǽthelstan…….. was the first king to rule all of England and laid claim to an imperial overlordship over the whole of Britain.’ And ‘Ǽthelstan also accepted the submission of all the other rulers of Britain. Welsh kings attended regularly at his court, travelling round the kingdom with him’.

Back to the news in context

Personally I’d like to see the magazine extend the ‘World news in context’ section with say, for instance, having two or three sections covering events in different continents each month. Alas I suspect such a move would illicit more letters to the editor complaining that the magazine should stop pandering to those who have an interest in history across the planet and focus solely upon British History.

So what’s that all about?

Well I should know better than to read the letters page, it was always going to be a mistake. But I did and there’s this letter having a go at the magazine for allegedly ‘pandering to American readers’. It seems that the writer wants ‘British History’ but has noticed ‘…creeping in articles pertaining to the US of A’. He talks about ‘…no end of fascinating history about the Sceptred Isle’ but does conclude by saying ‘If you feel you are running short, how about Australian history or Canadian history?’.

Now everyone is entitled to their opinion but the article that had got his back up most recently was entitled ‘American Civil War – Whose side was Britain on?’. I too read the piece in question and personally found it a genuinely interesting description of attitudes in Britain about a major event in the world at the time which had major consequences. So I’m left with the impression (which of course might be wrong) that the demand here is for some sort of history without foreigners (exceptions being Australians and Canadians). Well even if you want to narrow down the remit of this excellent publication to ‘British only’ you are still going to have to understand how Britain (and its empire) interacted with the rest of the world – unless you simply want to focus on some mythical English folklore idea of history.

The real trouble with this magazine (which is actually fine so leave it alone, but I’m annoyed so I’m going to have my say) is that it tends to focus too much on the British perspective of history and that of Britain’s major rivals. For instance, there is just too much about the two World Wars and what is discussed is always from British/German perspectives. I’ve just been reading about the end of World War I and the formation of the first Austrian Republic. Looking at the world through the lens of Austrian, Hungarian, Czech, Polish, Ukraine, Italian, or Slav perspectives provides interesting slants on the causes and aftermaths of both wars. Perspectives that still impact upon attitudes and relationship in the EU today but which have very different starting points from those highlighted in British History’s.

Right, so if I was editor we’d have far more pre-Norman conquest material, a lot less British (English) navel gazing and a lot more articles that widens the English speaking world’s view of history. Additionally, I’d have a ‘news in context’ article from each continent every month (there you go that would help cover Australia and Canada on a more regular basis dear letter writer), keep the ‘Out and About’ section, as well as expand the ‘Miscellany Q&A’. To keep everyone happy and ensure BBC balance, I’d have one page called this ‘Sceptred Isle’ in which absolutely no mention of anyone but the English/British will be allowed. There that’s that sorted.

Luckily neither I nor the contributors to the letters page are the editor and we should all probably just get on with reading the bits we’re interested in.

End of rant.

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The Menagerie


I enjoyed reading the article by Rob Attar, in the June edition of the BBC History magazine, about the 600 years history of wild animals housed at the Tower of London. From the polar bear that swam in the Thames to the Duke of Wellington closing down the menagerie because (in part) he was worried that it interfered with the fortresses military function, it paints an interesting different story of the Tower.

Thanks to the ‘Miscellany Q&A’ section I’m also a little better informed on the subjects of the Popes infallibility and about England’s Cinque Ports. From another answer I’ve also learnt a little about the liberal and radical ‘News Chronicle’ and the irony of the newspaper being consumed by the Daily Mail in 1960.

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Hadrians Wall


Interesting piece looking at Hadrians Wall, well worth a read:

http://structuralarchaeology.blogspot.com/2011/03/hadrians-lost-wall-and-war-in-north.html

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Annihilation – Romans, Eagles, Historians & Hollywood


Before heading off to the cinema to see the new Hollywood blockbuster ‘The Eagle’ (or even just checking out the movie reviews), first settle down with this month’s BBC History magazine. There’s a really helpful article (pages 41- 45) by Miles Russell about what really happened to the Legion of the Ninth. It’s actually a rather interesting question and the articles a good read whether or not you make it to your local cinema.

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Royal head, no weddings – BBC History Mag


BBC balance on front cover of History Magazine? Amused that the cover of the BBC History Mag has a picture of King Charles I who had his head chopped off (something for the Roundhead readership), this goes some way to offset ‘The A to Z of royal weddings’ headline at the bottom of the page (clearly aimed at the Royalist faction and those who haven’t had enough of nuptials)?

The May issue of the magazine has an interesting English Civil War article about Prince Rupert’s dog and its alleged devilish powers. I like the way propaganda at the time seems to have coloured later interpretations of historical facts. Wonder how future historians will interpret some of the political spin of our current era? Oh and Austrians make a brief appearance in the story.

Having managed to avoid sight of recent events in the UK, I think I will skip the five pages devoted to ‘The A to Z of royal weddings’. I wonder if I can get some sort of ‘Roundhead’ money back option or maybe a few more articles on pre-Roman Britain as compensation.

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