Great Tales from English History by Robert Lacey

In many languages, the same word is used for “history” and “story,” and obviously the two derive from the same linguistic root in English. The importance of strong narrative is not lost on many historians – Britisher Robert Lacey being one of them. His book Great Tales from English History: the Truth about King Arthur, Lady Godiva, Richard the Lionheart, and More  stirs “the blood with the old stories” – some really old – but (being a researcher and historian) he checks the tales against the latest evidence.

The book starts out in 7150 B.C.E., before the British Isles were islands. The would-be Great Britain was connected to what today is continental Europe, and humans and animals crossed to and fro. Eventually, Celtic tribes settled in the area and “Britannia” has its root in pretani, the Celtic word for “painted people,” for when going into battle the islanders “stripped down to their coarse woven undershorts and painted themselves.” The Romans learned that the Celts were friendly and always happy to do business, and as Tacitus later put it, the land of these painted people could be pretium victoriae – or “well worth the conquering.” And then the land became part of the Roman Empire.

Other invasions would follow. Within a century and a half of the Romans’ departure, the south-east corner of the island had become the Saxon Shore. In time, the Anglo-Saxon pushed the Celts inland, to present day Wales, and when the Welsh talk of England today, “they use a word that means ‘the lost lands.’”

But this is merely an overture of things to come: here is the once and future king, Arthur – the legend, and what can actually be said to be known about him – here is king Canute’s attempt to turn back the waves, and here is Robin Hood who in 1589 – more than 300 years after his legendary career – became known as the man who “tooke from the rich to give to the poore.” Here is even Jesus Christ who, according to folktales, in person visited the island between the Celtic Sea and the North Sea. Which, of course, he didn’t. But as Lacey points out, “over the centuries the story would play part in inspiring history.” A story may not be true, but there is truth to be found in every story. And this is a theme that Robert Lacey returns to over and over again, in his inspired little book on English history.

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