Sunday, March 20, 2011

1066 And All That by Sellar and Yeatman

Do you love history? Was HE Marshall's Our Island Story or Charles Dickens's A Child's History of England part of your history curriculum? Do you still occasionally get Montrose and Monmouth confused? Then this book is for you...
1066 And All That: A Memorable History of England comprising all the parts you can remember, including 103 Good Things, 5 Bad Kings, and 2 Genuine Dates by Walter Sellar and Robert Yeatman is a history textbook with a difference! It's a parody based on the conceit that history is only what you can remember. In the Compulsory Preface (This Means You) they explain:
For instance, 2 out of the 4 Dates originally included were eliminated at the last moment, a research done at the Eton and Harrow match having revealed that they are not memorable.

They then launch into the history text proper. It covers the history of Britain from Caesar's invasion in 55BC-- “This was in the Olden Days, when the Romans were top nation on account of their classical education” all the way to the end of the First World War, after which “America was thus clearly top nation, and History came to a .”
You'll learn all about the Venomous Bead, King Alfred (or was that Arthur?) the Cake, the first English newspaper (The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle), the Sacred Scone of Scotland, the Pheasants' Revolt, Broody Mary and the Great Spanish Armadillo. You'll be introduced to a few unusual insights into history:
Noticing some fair-haired children in the slave market one morning, Pope Gregory, the memorable Pope, said (in Latin), 'What are those?' and on being told that they were Angels, made the memorable joke-- 'Non Angli, sed Angeli' ('not Angels, but Anglicans') and commanded one of his Saints called St Augustine to go and convert the rest.
Edward III had very good manners. One day at a royal dance he noticed some men-about-court mocking a lady whose garter had come off, whereupon to put her at her ease he stopped the dance and made the memorable epitaph: 'Honi soie qui mal y pense' ('Honey, your silk stocking's hanging down').
With the ascension of Charles I to the throne we come at last to the Central Period of English History (not to be confused with the Middle Ages, of course), consisting in the utterly memorable Struggle between the Cavaliers (Wrong but Wromantic) and the Roundheads (Right but Repulsive).
Charles I was a Cavalier King and therefore had a small pointed beard, long flowing curls, a large, flat, flowing hat and gay attire. The Roundheads, on the other hand, were clean-shaven and wore tall, conical hats, white ties, and sombre garments. Under these circumstances a Civil War was inevitable.
The Occasional Conformity Act was the only Act of its kind in History, until the Speed Limit was invented.
I love the sly poke at Elizabeth I at Tilbury as the Spanish Armada approached:
The crisis was boldly faced in England, especially by Big Bess herself, who instantly put on an enormous quantity of clothing and rode to and fro on a white horse at Tilbury—a courageous act which was warmly applauded by the English sailors.

You might be wondering, Why Bother with such a silly history book? The fact is it's the one history book you'll want to read over and over, and you really do need an excellent education in order to get all the jokes. For example, to understand this paragraph:
The hero of these adventures was the memorable Bonnie Prince Charlie (the Young Chandelier), who after being bloodily defeated by a Butcher at Flodden in Cumberland, was helped to escape by his many Scottish lovers, such as Flora MacNightingale (the fair maid of Perth), Amy Robsart, Lorna Doone, Annie Laurie, the Widow with Thumbs, etc.

--you need to be familiar not only with the history of the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745, but also with many works by Sir Walter Scott, Lorna Doone, Florence Nightingale and some old Scottish ballads. (Anyone who wants to help me out with the Widow-with-Thumbs reference is most welcome). A familiarity with the works of the Pre-Raphaelite artist John Everett Millais will help understand the St Bartholomew's joke, and the joke about Cramner and Latimer falls altogether flat if you don't recall the latter's dying words.
The danger is remembering the errors, instead of using the jokes to remember the real history. But don't let that put you off. 1066 And All That has a deceptively huge amount of real history in it.


James Graham said...

“The widow with thumbs” I have always assumed to be a reference to “A window in Thrums”, a rather sentimental novel by James Barrie, which would have been well known at the time.

Suzannah said...

Seriously? Awesome! Thanks for that little detail!

Anonymous said...

Thank you, both of you! I'm just re-reading 1066 for the umpteenth time over the last 60 years and decided to Google for "widow with thumbs" & this page was the only result that came up - and bingo!
I remember listening to a history quiz with my husband; he was looking up answers in a proper history book published in 1899 by, I think, Arthur Ransome's father & I was using "1066 and All That" which was consistently winning!

Suzannah said...

Wonderful! I'm glad Vintage Novels could solve the mystery :).

I'm continually amazed how much good history is in this book. And now I feel I should read it again...


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