Book review: Crown & Country by David Starkey

As British history increasingly takes a back seat in the country’s classrooms, where better place to go for an invigorating lesson about our past than the pages of a David Starkey book?

Monday, 20th December 2010, 6:00 am

Through the prism of the monarchy, one of our finest and most accessible historians casts his eye over England’s rich and colourful history, from warring tribal kings and the retreat of Rome right through to the dissolution of Charles and Diana’s marriage.

Substantially revised, updated and expanded, this compendium of two earlier volumes sees Starkey at his best.

With fresh material on the Middle Ages and the Wars of the Roses, we travel through the chaos of the Civil War that beheaded a monarch and into the Republic that sought to eradicate the very word ‘king’.

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Starkey’s rollercoaster journey is undertaken with his usual eye for detail, his wry delivery and brilliantly entertaining commentary.

Brimming with the great man’s energy and passion as well as the full force of his intellectual rigour, Crown & Country examines what the British monarchy meant in the past, what it means to us now and what it will continue to mean for generations to come.

This is a vivid portrait of British culture, politics and nationhood viewed through an institution that has defined the realm for nearly 2,000 years.

Starkey presents to us history’s greatest events from the arrow which famously hit King Harold in the eye to the beheading of Charles I and the abdication of Edward VIII.

And in the process, he brings to life the colourful cast of characters who not only took the throne but guided and plotted behind the scenes.

We meet the likes of Thomas Wolsey, Henry VIII’s scheming Lord Chancellor, Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth I’s spymaster, and ‘Kingmaker’ Richard Neville, the 16th Earl of Warwick and one of the main protagonists in the Wars of the Roses.

Acerbic and astute in his assessment of the leading players, Starkey can sum up a character with a bare minimum of words. The only innovation of the grindingly unimaginative and conservative George VI, we learn, was the invention of pinched-in dress trousers for the wearing of the Garter. ‘They did not catch on,’ remarks Starkey.

The English monarchy is different in that it is based on an unspoken contract between the king or queen and their people.

The strengths and weaknesses of that bond have been tested on many occasions and several times it has come close to being broken forever, but an institution that has survived civil war and a serious flirtation with republicanism is made of sterner stuff than other European monarchies.

Starkey is a superb historical analyst – compelling, ebullient and witheringly perceptive – and Crown & Country is the perfect blend of scholarship and sheer enjoyment.

An unmissable treat.

(Harper Press, hardback, £25)