Great Tales from English History: Volume I – Robert Lacey (2003) – Part I


Searching for a more-or-less guaranteed good read, I picked up Volume One of Robert Lacey’s Great Tales from English History, part of a three-volume collection of tales from England’s long and storied history. Yes, I am English, but there is so much history out there (at least for England), that I felt there were significant gaps in my knowledge about England’s green and pleasant land of long ago.

Lacey is a very good conduit for these tales as he tells them in an interesting and witty manner without skimping on facts or taking too many liberties. In this volume, he covered the early historical events ranging from the Cheddar Man to the signing of the Doomsday Book to Ethelred the Unready and the Norman Conquest, and he does so in such a way that it’s a fascinating read to me. I did start off putting Post-It flags into the interesting pages and then realized that the whole book was going to be flagged in the end, so I just took notes of bits and pieces that really struck me in some way.

As I found this book to be really interesting, this blog post is in two parts. Part One is here.

Here are some of the notes that I took:

  • Boudicca/Boadicea and her link with Harry Potter: boudicca

Boadicea was a famous warrior queen who fought as fiercely as her troops did. In her last battle in London, she was felled by a sword and died where she landed on the battle field. That is also where, years later, the King’s Cross rail station was built and her grave is believed to be underneath where Platform 10 has been built. And that’s why HP’s Hogwarts Express leaves at Platform 9 ¾ – out of respect for the ancient warrior queen.

  • Hair cut monk wars: There was a time when the northern Celtic monks were vying for religious domination with the southern Roman monks who were more focused on the Pope side of Christianity. The monk hair cut (called a tonsure) was important to how people believed, with the Pope-ish monks having a shaved bald patch on top of their heads with a thin circle of hair around the head just above the temples (a la the stereotypical monk image).

monk_hairThe northern Celtic monks, however, preferred a look that was closer to the Druids and shaved the front of their heads along a line going from ear to ear with the back of their heads having long cascading rather dirty locks. Eventually, the southern monk haircut won out…


  • Why the town of Bury St. Edmund is called that. (I grew up hearing this town’s name a lot as it was in the same region that I lived.)

In the ninth century, Vikings invaded the north of England (one of many invasions by them) and as they came south to East Anglia, they met King Edmund who ruled the East Angle group. Edmund refused to change his religion to that of the invaders, and so was tied to a tree and shot with arrows, thus making him a martyr. Another legend of his death was that he died in the Norse tradition of “carving the blood eagle”: the ribs are cut away from the spine whilst still alive, and then the victim’s lungs are pulled out through that empty rib space and are spread across the back like a pair of eagle wings. (Yikes. Brutal.) In the tenth century, Edmund’s remains were relocated to a new place that became a place of pilgrimage and was called – wait for it – “Bury St. Edmunds”.

  • King Alfred the Great (the king who is legendary for burning the cakes) was a ninth century ruler and is the only sovereign in history to be given the title of “Great” in English history. He was very forward-thinking and believed that education was important for his subjects (one of the few who did). My favorite quotation from him: “The saddest thing about any man is that he be ignorant, and the most exciting thing is that he knows.”

Thus endeth the part the first. The sermon continueth on another day.

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