Jack Hight

Author of Historical Fiction

Archive for May, 2013

I talk Holy War, the Lionheart, the Crusades, and the clash of religions with Richard Lee of the Historical Novel Society:


First, some shameless self-promotion: Holy War is out on 23 May (order your copy now!). In this, the final volume of the Saladin Trilogy, Richard the Lionheart makes his long-awaited appearance in the Holy Land, where he does battle with the forces of Saladin. Richard provides great fodder for fiction, and writing his character was some of the most fun I’ve ever had as a novelist. In many ways, he was the perfect example of the knight-king. He was brave. He was hailed by even his enemies as a peerless warrior. He had a keen eye for battlefield tactics. And he seems to have been able to motivate his troops like few others. During his crusade, he subdued Sicily, conquered Cyprus, successfully completed the siege of Acre, and despite being outnumbered, won victories over Saladin at Arsuf and Jaffa.


Oh, and one more thing: he failed. Yes, he re-established the Latins in the Holy Land, allowing them to hold out for another one hundred years, but that was not the goal of his crusade. Richard came to take back Jerusalem, and he did not succeed. For while he bested Saladin in battle, he could not match the Saracen king’s ability to hold his army together. Richard’s outsized personality drove away his French and German allies, and his lack of foresight – he left behind a toxic situation in England – necessitated his return. So despite never losing a battle in the Holy Land, he was forced to make peace, a peace that he found so distasteful he refused to put his seal to it.

Of course, his rather mixed results on crusade have done nothing to dent Richard’s legend as perhaps England’s greatest king. He has that great moniker – Coeur de Lion… Lionheart – with all the romance and chivalry that it invokes. His statue occupies one of the choicer spots in London, the Old Palace Yard, where he looms over the entrance to Westminster Palace. He has been the hero of many a tale, from the late Middle Ages to our day.

The opinion of historians has been more mixed, so much so that John Gillingham, the renowned historian of the Angevins, titled the first chapter of his biography of Richard “The Best of Kings, the Worst of Kings.” Richard has been hailed as a great warrior and paragon of knightly virtue, whose crusade secured the Holy Land for a hundred years and who in Europe successfully defended English lands from the French. He has been castigated, in the words of Sir Steven Runciman, as “a bad son, a bad husband, and a bad king, but a gallant and splendid soldier.” Critics have taken him to task for his high taxes, for failing to provide England an heir, and for wasting time, money, and lives on a crusade that accomplished nothing of lasting good for England. So which is it? Is Richard the best of English kings or the worst?

But wait! Before determining his relative greatness, we must deal with the English part of the equation. For despite the fact that Richard has become something of an embodiment of English virtue, he was really rather French. Yes, he was born in Oxford and raised in England until around the age of eight. And yes, he was crowned king at Westminster. But that’s about all there was about him that was English. Richard spent his formative years in France. He spoke French. (He might have known English, but there is no record of his having spoken it.) As a king, he spent less than six months in England. (He spent more time in the Holy Land!) Of course, there was a good reason for this. Richard’s English territories were secure, so his presence there was not needed as it was in France or Outremer. That said, he really did not seem to care much for England. Accustomed to the sunny climate of Aquitaine, he is said to have complained that England was always cold and raining. Indeed, he treated it much as later kings would treat the colonies in the Americas: as a source of revenue for wars elsewhere. To fund his crusade, he levied heavy taxes and sold offices and royal lands. He is even said to have declared, “I would have sold London if I could find a buyer.” He was not buried in England, but rather piecemeal in France – his body in his family’s ancestral lands of Anjou; his heart in Rouen, the seat of his Norman dukedom; and his guts in Châlus, where he died. His heart, then, literally belonged to France. Richard may have been King of England, but in language, culture, and attitude he was more French than English.

But was he a good king? By modern standards, he seems a rather nasty piece of work. He twice made war on his father and hounded him to death. His coronation was marred by an anti-Jewish pogrom that he played a key role in provoking. He conducted war through rape and pillage – most notably in Cyprus. He executed over three thousand Saracen prisoners of war at Acre. He was unfaithful to his wife. But of course, it is not fair to judge him by today’s comparatively lofty ethical standards. Richard was hardly alone in promoting anti-Jewish violence, and at least he did put laws on the books to limit it (even if those laws were hardly enforced). Rape and pillage were a part of war. Even executing prisoners was far from unprecedented. Being unfaithful to his wife was almost expected in a king of his age (though his failure to produce an heir was rather more disappointing for contemporaries).

How does Richard stand up to contemporary judgment? It depends on who was doing the judging. Accounts of Richard come almost exclusively from two sources: nobles and clerics. One might think his Crusade would win him the favour of the Church, but at least in England, not so much. The Church tended to judge kings mainly on one criterion: did they leave the Church’s vast wealth alone? Richard did not. He taxed the Church heavily to fund both his Crusade and his ransom. Accordingly he received low marks from many clerical chroniclers.

His nobles – or at least the troubadours and poets they employed – viewed him in a different light. They were born and raised to fight, and what they valued above all was a king who was an effective warrior. They wanted someone who could lead them to victory and in doing so protect their holdings. Richard was really good at this. He won his first battle at age 16. His youthful exploits earned him the name of Lionheart even before he became king. Once on the throne, he kept his vassals in line, and protected his realm from King Philip of France. And his crusade is a chronicle of one victory after another.

But what about those who have left no records: the common people? For the people in his French territories, Richard’s reign meant near constant war. For the people of England, it meant heavy taxes. It also meant a rise in brigandry: many of the men he had freed from prison to go on crusade became outlaws upon their return. And it meant years of civil war, for which Richard must bear much of the blame. When leaving for his crusade, Richard approached choosing a regent as a chance to collect money from the highest bidder, which is perhaps why he chose two: Hugh de Puiset, Bishop of Durham, and William de Mandeville, Earl of Essex. Two regents is typically one too many, and so it proved in this case. William de Mandeville promptly died, to be replaced by the chancellor William Longchamp, who rather swiftly removed Puiset from his post. Longchamp, a native of Normandy, was a poor choice, who quickly alienated the English.

Richard might have done better to choose his heir as one of the regents. That was not possible, however, because in another error of judgment, he left England without having chosen an official heir. Later, while on Sicily, he selected his cousin Arthur of Brittany, but it was too late. Richard’s brother John had already set himself up as an alternative to the unpopular Longchamp. The result was four years of chaos and unrest until Richard’s eventual return, by which time John had already lost a sizeable part of the English crown’s French possessions. Yes, John was a famously bad ruler, but much of this mess must be laid at the feet of Richard.

Richard made matters worse by getting captured while returning from his crusade. Again, he had only himself to blame. His captor was a fellow crusader: Leopold, Duke of Austria. At Acre, Richard had cast Leopold’s standard down from the wall and refused to give him an equal part of the spoils. Leopold also accused Richard of conspiring in the death of his cousin, Conrad of Montferrat. Richard certainly wanted Conrad dead. The barons of the Holy Land had been named him King of Jerusalem instead of Richard’s candidate, Guy de Lusignan. A few days later, Conrad was murdered by assassins. We will never know if Richard was responsible, but it wouldn’t have been out of character. While Richard sat in prison, the chaos in England and his French territories intensified. His eventual ransom came at a huge cost: 65,000 pounds of silver, or two to three times the annual income of the English crown. On his return, Richard poured all his money and energy into war with King Philip of France. He again won some great victories. Again, the common people probably did not care.

That said, the lot of the common people was not exactly great under the other English kings of Richard’s era. His father Henry II also spent most of his time and the kingdom’s wealth on wars in France. Indeed, this would be an ongoing obsession of English kings. England may have been a bit chaotic when Richard was on crusade, but it never reached the destructive level of the civil war between Stephen and Matilda. In terms of taxes, Richard’s were more onerous than those of his father, but less than those of his successor John.

In terms of daily governance, then, he was not the best of kings, but he was far from the worst. He was certainly a great warrior, and in his day and age, that was a lot of what made a good king. But while he was almost unbeatable in the field, he proved his own worst enemy by bungling his choice of regent and hair, and alienating fellow rulers like Philip of France and Leopold of Austria. He also failed in one of a king’s most important tasks: producing an heir. Richard was capable (he birthed at least one bastard), but he delayed his marriage and then seems to have been less than interested in his wife.

How great, then was he? Calling Richard the greatest English king is a bit much. His politics were too clumsy for that and his rule was marred by the troubles during his prolonged absence on crusade. And it must never be forgotten just how French this English king was. That said, he was probably the greatest warrior to ever be king of England. In my humble opinion, he is also the most enjoyable of all English kings to fictionalize. And perhaps that more than anything explains why he remains such a legendary figure.

A wonderful book that is at once deeply philosophical and thoroughly enjoyable, while bringing the first half of the 20th century to vivid life.

For a book titled Life after Life, there certainly is an abundance of death in Kate Atkinson’s wonderful new novel.  Given the setting – the book’s arc encompasses both World Wars – that is hardly surprising.  Atkinson, however, takes her exploration of death a step further.  She makes it omnipresent in a way that would have pleased the philosophers Søren Kierkegaard or Martin Heidegger.  Kierkegaard wrote that most people live their lives while studiously ignoring their impending death.  That is to say, we know that we will someday die, but we treat our death as a future event with little bearing on the present.  We are mistaken.  Death is real, inevitable, and can come at any time.  Kierkegaard was only halfway joking when he wrote that when accepting an invitation to a party, you should not say, “I shall certainly attend,” but rather, “I shall certainly attend your party, but I must make an exception for the contingency that a roof tile happens to blow down and kill me; for in that case, I cannot attend.”

If Kierkegaard had lived today and had written a novel (a lot of “ifs” I know, but bear with me), it might have looked something like Life after Life.  Martin Heidegger – who shared Kierkegaard’s philosophy of death – wrote that “As soon as a man comes to life, he is at once old enough to die.”  And sure enough, the book’s heroine Ursula Todd has no sooner been born than she departs this world, her umbilical cord wrapped around her little neck.  This is no spoiler.  It happens within the first ten pages.  As the story unfolds, Ursula dies, and dies, and dies.  She drowns.  She falls.  She is crushed.  She is shot.  She asphyxiates.  And each death starts a new life, a chance to do it over again, a chance to get it right.

The result, for me, was a rather novel experience in which I read in constant anticipation of death, the precise state of mind in which Kierkegaard and Heidegger insisted we should all live.  The question constantly lurked: when will Urusula die?  Rather than being morbid, this obsession with death adds an extra measure of poignancy to each telling of Ursula’s life.  It also allows Atkinson to explore the contingency of life.  As we go through cycle after cycle of Ursula’s life, we see how the smallest events can change the course of an entire existence.  A chance encounter with one of her brother’s friends leads a young Ursula to a life of misery.  A decision to take a walk saves a life.  The gas on the stove flits out for a moment, and she dies.  It stays on, and she lives another twenty years.  Chance plays a role, as do the decisions of Ursula and the cast of interesting characters that surround her.  There is no fate, only repetition.

Which is another of Kierkegaard’s favorite subjects.  Indeed, I suspect that Atkinson has read her fair share of the Danish philosopher.  Fortunately, her book is a more enjoyable read than anything Kierkegaard produced (which is not damning with faint praise, as I rather enjoy Kierkegaard).  Normally the use of words like “fug”, “thrawn”, and “pulchritude” might be enough to turn me off, but Atkinson is a good enough writer to get away with such embellishments.  And she brings the past to vivid life, particularly the Blitz.  Some of the images she invokes – crawling though the ruins of an apartment building and finding oneself kneeling on the spongy remains of a baby caught in the explosion – will stick with me for some time, though I might rather forget them.  And I was glad to see that Atkinson also takes us inside the German bomb shelters.  For as horrible as the Blitz was, the bombing of Germany was much, much worse.  More than 40,000 civilians were killed in England, while between 300,000 and 500,000 German civilians died in RAF bombings that did little to aid the Allied war effort, but which certainly exacted a grizzly revenge for the Blitz.

Life after Life does not have much in the way of traditional plot, nor could it, considering the frequent deaths of its heroine.  It is a meditation on the nature of life and a character study, and fortunately, Atkinson has peopled it with a number of compelling characters.  Ursula’s acerbic mother and kind father, her boorish older brother and sweet, clear-headed sister Pamela, her unorthodox aunt, her lovers, neighbors, and friends are all vividly portrayed.  Indeed, the cast of characters is rich enough that the necessarily repetitive nature of the novel never becomes tedious.  In addition, Atkinson does a wonderful job of continually tweaking the book’s formula in order to keep the reader interested.  When a moment in her life starts to grow stale, the book moves on.  Sometimes, I longed for Ursula to dies.  Sometimes, I rooted for her to live.

In the end, Ursula embraces her mortality in a way that is a bit fantastical, but utterly satisfying.  Kierkegaard felt that to truly live, we must accept that we could die at any time.  By the end of Life after Life, it is safe to say that Ursula Todd has surely done so.



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