Rare Jewelled History of Our Sceptred Isle Memory of England. by Peter Vansittart (John Murray: Pounds 20). Review Ed by Richard Edmonds

The Independent (London, England), July 18, 1998 | Go to article overview
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Rare Jewelled History of Our Sceptred Isle Memory of England. by Peter Vansittart (John Murray: Pounds 20). Review Ed by Richard Edmonds


No history of England has ever been written as beautifully and evocatively as this one. Peter Vansittart not only leads you through the complexities of Norman, Elizabethan or Stuart England, but manages to create at the same time a sense of place and per son, peppering the text continually with delectable dainties culled, one would imagine from a lifetime of reading.

In the section "England in Language", Vansittart estimated the worth of the word 'golden' against the similar but less effective 'gold' - the latter, he suggests, is showy "resembling gold-capped teeth or Johannesburg watches". 'Golden', he believesis s lower - "more elegiac, resembling Shakespeare's golden lads and girls".

Albion's pantheon and its near extinction these days, draws a lament. Who today remembers Lug and Mapona, Mannonon or Nodens of the Bright Hand? Old King Cole may contain a musical trace element of a Welsh chieftain called Old Coelchecked the Splendid.

Only King Arthur and his retinue remain amongst us, helped along by Tennyson, Graves and T H White and there is always of course that soapy movie Camelot (but movies do not figure very much in this racing text which seethes with ideas, contentions and hu mour).

To write history like this is to cause old kindling wood to blaze into life. I had scarcely thought I would ever laugh aloud at a conference report, quoted by Vansittart on a meeting between that rather insufferable saint, Augustine, and the rather cagey King Aethelbert of Kent.

But laugh I did and the passage must be quoted: "I see you believe what you say or you would not have come all this way to say it. But you must not expect me to renounce immediately the customs which I, and the English, have followed from one generation to another. So, go on talking; no one will interfere with you: and, if you convince us, well, of course, it follows that we will accept your message." Augustine did found the first English library, at Canterbury, so he did make some contribution. And her e is Vansittart on that previously-closed book (well, to most of us at least) the Celtic church. "Unlike the centralised Roman Church, the Celtic, with autonomous monasteries arguably more important than bishoprics, tended to regard the deposed godsas o ld friends on halay, and in its own rites permitted dancing.".

Vansittart's history of England ranges across this island's vast tapestry from pre-Norman times to the Battle of the Somme, when the nation had emerged into manhood.

And European Unity is nothing new - at least, in a conceptual sense. Columbanus of Leinsterchecked (543-617AD) wrote in 603: "We are all joint members of one body, whether Franks or British or Irish, or whatever our race may be." The English scholar, Alc uin of York, when asked by Charlemagne the difference between a Scot and a sot replied: "Only the width of a table."

And could Shakespeare have known that King Alfred imposed Christianity on his enemies as a punishment when he was thinking of Shylock's final humiliation in the Merchant of Venice? A book which sets the mind bubbling with questions, must be an excellent book in my estimation.

But Vansittart moves through these themes with alacrity, showing what we once thought of our lives and the times we lived in, as innovators, diplomats, merchants, churchmen, traders or poets. In other words, Vansittart is writing about the common spread of humanity linking what we were to what we are today and you stand close enough to history to feel the breath of its people on your cheek.

William the Conqueror was never part of Albion. Impossible to imagine him strolling on the Malvern Hills communing with the saints or joying in salmon leaping up the Wye.

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