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Great Tales from English History: A Treasury…

Great Tales from English History: A Treasury of True Stories about the… (original 2003; edition 2007)

by Robert Lacey

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Title:Great Tales from English History: A Treasury of True Stories about the Extraordinary People -- Knights and Knaves, Rebels and Heroes, Queens and Commoners -- Who Made Britain Great
Authors:Robert Lacey
Info:Back Bay Books (2007), Paperback, 544 pages
Collections:Your library

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Great Tales from English History, Volume I by Robert Lacey (2003)


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This is a collection of very brief snippets from English history, combining in popular folk tales and legends so one can see how they flowed around and influenced actual events. It’s very neat and fun to read, a good overall brief introduction to English history. It lays things out chronologically, and is quite simplified, easy to digest and understand.

We begin with the oldest skeleton found in Britain, that belonging to “Cheddar Man” and then go into Roman Britain. The Iceni warrior queen Boudicca gets a nice mention.

The section on King Arthur is disappointingly brief. We get a very simple overview of where the legend came from, but Lacey could have gone into more detail about how additions were made to it. Some detail about the legends themselves, even, would have been nice.

Then we get into Alfred the Great and his descendants, his daughter Aethelflaed, “the Lady of the Mercians” certainly seems like an interesting historical figure, and one I wouldn’t mind reading more about sometime.

Edward the Confessor died without an heir, leaving the throne to be contested by Harold (the son of a powerful lord, but not a blood claim) and William the Bastard, Duke of Normandy which of course led to the famous Battle of Hastings in 1066.

Hereward the Wake seems to have been a real life Robin Hood-like figure, had a band of freedom fighters camped out in the swampy Fens to fight these Norman invaders. Hereward is another figure I wouldn’t mind reading further about . . .

Also interesting is the “White Ship” a medieval Titanic - a state of the art vessel sunk on its maiden voyage, this one taking the son of King Henry I, and many other court notables with down with it. This led to civil war as King Henry I died leaving his daughter Matilda as heir, which did not sit well with the barons and the fighting broke out between her and her cousin, Stephen Blois. Matilda’s son, Henry Plantagenet and his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine eventually were king and queen of England. I was a little surprised Eleanor of Aquitaine didn’t get more of a write up, but oh well. :(

Also related in this volume is an interesting segment on why the Bayeux Tapestry we see today is not the way it looked when it was first made. There are also chapters on: Lady Godiva, the Domesday Book, Thomas Becket, Richard the Lionhearted and the creation of the Magna Carter.

Also of interest to me was the story of Edward II’s love for Piers Gaveston - ”The reckless passion of Edward II for Piers Gaveston ranks as the first of the momentous love affairs that have shaken England’s monarchy over the centuries.” (p.176) Neat.

The book winds up with a couple chapters on the plague - or “the Great Mortality” as it was known at the time, and finally concludes with the Peasants’ Revolt led by Wat Tyler in 1381.

Great Tales is well worth reading, even if I would have liked the stories fleshed out a bit more. ( )
  catfantastic | Jul 26, 2015 |
In many ways it is a depressing fact that we put so little value on literature and books in general. Whilst the latest pot boiler/romantic clap trap sells, brand new, for exorbitant amounts; even the best books may be purchased for a pittance from either a car boot sale, or internet retailers. There is one web based emporium that seems to provide books at less than the cost of postage!

The ability to pick up works in this way for so little is a blessing, to me personally but, it does have one draw back. Buying in this manner does not allow for the flick through pre-judgement given to a book which one holds in one's mitt. This is my excuse for recently purchasing this book which, is clearly meant for someone who has seen many fewer summers than I. My excuse for starting to read same is that I am mean. My excuse for finishing same, ...... I don't have one. I simply found it a delight to read.

In a series of little stories, taking the reader from pre-history to the Peasants' Revolt, Mr Lacey provides numerous fascinating snippets (did you know that the word Britain means land of the painted people - from our penchant for wearing woad?)

This book should be a standard text book for school history. It would entertain the youngsters and bring them a sense of history at the same time. I am willing to bet that take up of places in history based subjects upon the curriculum would increase a hundred fold over a few years! Oh, and if your favourite on line seller has a copy of this book for pennies, and you share my historical knowledge of too many summers, buy it anyway! ( )
  the.ken.petersen | Sep 30, 2014 |
Last summer, while staying in a friend's apartment, I happened upon this book. Since I didn't finish it while there, I purchased my own copy of this fun and fascinating read. Okay, I can see you already searching for the phone number of the man with the net to come get me. A history book? Is she mad? Didn't we suffer enough in school? Believe me, I know, but before you make that call, hear me out, because this book has everything your 7th-grade history class lacked: accessibility; fun, bite-sized morsels of info; and nary a pop quiz in sight.

By accessibility, I mean this history of England is nowhere near your hated textbooks of yore. There are no long, drawn-out, boring chapters filled with endless drivel about this battle or that, an endless array of rulers and military men, the signing of yet another great document, or dates up the wazoo. Instead, each 2- to 3-page mini-chapter is a colorful snapshot of a historical person or moment, some well-known and some obscure, but all helping to shape the England of today. For instance, author Robert Lacey begins with a 1-1/2 page vignette about the Cheddar Man, England's oldest complete skeleton found in a cave near Bristol and dating back to 7000 B.C., still the time of hunter-gatherers. Naturally, not much is known about Cheddar Man's life, but one is fascinated by the clues Cheddar Man has left behind -- including the possibility that ancient Brits were cannibals. The next chapter fast forwards to 325 B. C., so while the stories are chronological, this is not your normal, comprehensive, boring history book.

Additionally, the stories Lacey chooses to highlight are tasty little tidbits you've most likely never heard. Do you know who we have to thank for those darned math word problems that have plagued school children for centuries? Any idea who is responsible for modern British spelling conventions? Did you ever learn Florence Nightingale had a Jamaica-born, mixed-race counterpart in Crimea? From what untutored girl did geology and paleontology experts steal knowledge and claim it as their own? All this and SO much more is contained in the pages of this unique take on British history, and it is almost impossible not to be fascinated with these little known historical gems of not only kings and queens, but of the common man, who contributed just as much to history as those whose names we all learned.

The other aspect I admire in this book is that there is no need to read it all at once. In fact, I put it down for months (not because I was bored). Happily, when I picked it back up, it was easy to continue because each chapter is a discrete story which doesn't depend on its predecessors. It is also a book that one can simply pick up, open to any page, and read a quick tale about something interesting. Meaning, this is a keeper in one's library.

And, the English teacher in me knows that Lacey's English composition teacher would be supremely proud of where he ended his history. Where? Exactly where he began -- with Cheddar Man -- but I won't tell you how.

As I read, I had only one moment of disappointment.When describing Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee celebrations, Lacey lists where all the attendees from around the Empire came from -- From Canada they came, from Australia, Africa, India, Borneo, Fiji, Hong Kong. Excuse me, but when are people going to get that Africa is not a country, but a continent of many countries with many diverse cultures that should not be carelessly lumped together?

Okay, enough for that little rant, because otherwise I simply loved this book.
  LitLoversLane | Feb 28, 2014 |
The title is correct: these are great TALES from English history. It doesn't mean you should believe them! The author has, at best, a passing respect for scholarship and a distant acquaintance with fact checking. He takes the position that it doesn't matter, they're still fun. And they are. ( )
  particle_p | Apr 1, 2013 |
Robert Lacey deftly animates each tale; the reader enjoys a wonderful balance of historical facts and circumstances, to lovely insights into the character of people who are idolized yet dehumanized and forgotten. I couldn't put it down! ( )
  kimberly.horning | Jul 25, 2012 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 031610910X, Hardcover)

With insight, humor and fascinating detail, Lacey brings brilliantly to life the stories that made England--from Ethelred the Unready to Richard the Lionheart, the Venerable Bede to Piers the Ploughman.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:25:00 -0400)

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There was a time, as recently as nine thousand years ago, when the British Isles were not islands at all. After the bleakness of the successive ice ages, the south-eastern corner of modern England was still linked to Europe by a wide swathe of low-lying marshes. People crossed to and fro, and so did animals - including antelopes and brown bears. We know this because the remains of these creatures were discovered by modern archaeologists in a cave in the Cheddar Gorge near Bristol. Scattered among numerous wild horse bones, the scraps of bear and antelope had made up the larder of 'Cheddar Man', England's oldest complete skeleton, found lying nearby in the cave with his legs curled up under him. According to the radiocarbon dating of his bones, Cheddar Man lived and died around 7150 bc. He was a member of one of the small bands of hunter-gatherers who were then padding their way over the soft forest floors of north-western Europe. The dry cave was his home base, where mothers and grandmothers reared children, kindling fires for warmth and lighting and for cooking the family dinner. We don't know what language Cheddar Man spoke. But we can deduce that wild horsemeat was his staple food and that he hunted his prey across the grey-green Mendip Hills with traps, clubs and spears tipped with delicately sharpened leaf-shaped flints.… (more)

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