Book review: Geoffrey Hindley, A Brief History of Magna Carta

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I hadn’t heard of Geoffrey Hindley. Well, I do have a history degree, but the Middle Ages? They Aren’t My Period. He’s written a series of “brief histories” and he’s a medieval historian, that is, a contemporary living guy who writes about the Middle Ages.

I hadn’t known a lot about Magna Carta. I was slightly ahead of Tony Hancock (look him up in Wikipedia) and his “Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you? Did she die in vain?” quote, but I had a lot to learn.

Geoffrey Hindley writes well, if a little cosily-chattily at times. As far as I can tell he deals with detail in the story of King John’s confrontation with his barons with authority and verve. The complicated story of John’s troubled relations with the French king and his series of wars with the French doesn’t – for me – become too complicated and he manages to convey a lot about feudal relationships. When we think about feudalism as a rigid pyramid, we oversimplify. It was a system based on land. Each bit of land was farmed by person A and held from a lord B who taxed A and used his labour but also had a duty to protect him. B in term held the land from someone greater and in the end all land was held by the gracious will of the king, who could demand services and money from his barons but was expected to help them too. However, over time land-holdings and feudal relationships got complicated and it was theoretically possible for Lord A to hold land from Lord B and to be for that land his feudatory (subordinate), but for Lord B to hold another bit of land from Lord A and owe loyalty to him for that. In the case of the English kings and France, a King of England was subordinate to no-one (except perhaps the Pope) in respect of England, but from 1066 to 1558 English kings held land in France for which they owed loyalty to the French king. They eventually got round that by claiming to be the rightful kings of France themselves.

Complicated? Hindley explains it well.

He’s also good about teasing out the influence of John’s agreement with his rebellious barons on later events including the English Civil War and the American rebellion of 1776. He shows how views of the events around Magna Carta changed in different periods depending on current beliefs and interests, and shows that some English-influenced countries, former colonies like the U.S.A., Australia and India, seem to take it more seriously than the English today do.

Three quibbles. For my taste there are a few too many throwaway contentious remarks about contemporary or recent politics. There are two long chapters about interesting and important subjects of very limited relevance to Magna Carta – the position of Jews in medieval England and the role of women in the society of the time (might these have been to tempt the American market?). And there is one glaring historical boo-boo about the period I DO know well (which just makes me wonder about some of his facts I can’t easily check). Referring to Nottingham Castle, an important stronghold in the wars of John’s reign, he says it was a stronghold for the King throughout the English Civil War. Wrong. It was a stronghold for Parliament throughout, and that’s fairly well-known because it was held for Parliament by Colonel John Hutchinson, whose wife Lucy’s account of her husband’s life is a major source for historians wanting to get behind the headline events.

Still, not a bad tour-de-force, and here, to explain why it’s important, is the thing itself:

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4 Comments

  1. History terrifies me sometimes ! Great review 🙂

    Reply
    • Thanks! Why does it terrify you? The complications, the facts, the strange names – or the massacres, the hate, the blindness? Both have corresponding positives.

      Reply
  2. I love Lucy Hutchinson and her husband !!!
    Back in the late forties my grandfather went to the British Museum to see Magna Carta, and check on something after an argument at his club! He wrote a stinking letter to the director because it wasn’t out to see. He got a reply saying it was out now, so off he went and wrote another stinking letter saying it needed a translation to understandable English. Another letter back, so he went to see it again, and wrote another stinking letter saying it needed a chair to sit down and read it!
    I expect it’s back behind bars again now !!!!

    Reply

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