13 July 2007

A Rhyming History of Britain: 55 B.C.–A.D.1966 (James Muirden)

My sister-in-law gave me this book for Xmas '05, and I've thoroughly enjoyed it. At first glance, it appears to be something along the line of 1066 and All That, but it's actually a serious (more or less) book. Inspired by Hilaire Belloc's Cautionary Verses, Muirden has written exactly what the title says – a history, in iambic tetrameter, of Britain. As he says in the introduction:
I am not a historian. In fact, I wrote this poem in order to teach myself some history. I thought that sorting facts into verse form would concentrate my mind wonderfully. Which it did!

He picked 55 BC because, as far as I know, that's the first definite date in British history.
To start this Rhyming History,
I've chosen 55 B.C.
The Romans, who had got their hands
on all the European lands,
Could see this last annoying bit,
And thought they ought to conquer it.
Their famous Caesar, Julius,
Did not know what to make of us –
He couldn't work out who was who,
Since everyone was painted blue.
He took some souvenirs away,
Went home, and said 'Et tu, Brute?'

The book progresses onward, through Celts and Saxons (55 BC-AD 927) and the houses of Cerdic and Denmark (927-1066). We learn, amongst other things, about Hadrian's wall, the Saxon invasion, Alfred the Great, the Danelaw, Athelstan (927-939*) Ethelred (978-1016), Canute (1016-1035) and Edward the Confessor (1042-1066). Then William, Duke of Normandy, arrives upon the scene.
King William wanted to create
An adjunct to the Norman State.
At Westminster, on Christmas Day,
He was crowned king; but on the way
He made clear his innate desire
To set each place he passed on fire.
Wherever his lieutenants went
Their dedicated efforts sent
Flames (and insurance costs) sky-high,
No doubt attracting passers-by,
To see what quadruped or chicken
Had thus been rendered finger-lickin'.

William I (1066-1087) was followed by his sons, William II Rufus (1087-1100) and Henry I (1100-1135). After Henry's son died, though, the nobles balked at having his daughter as ruling queen.
He [Henry], did, however, look abroad
To find Matilda (known as Maud),
His Scottish queen, who soon gave birth
To what he wanted most on earth –
A son, the princely William, who
Wed Maud (Matilda?) of Anjou.
Will sailed from France upon the flood,
His White Ship filled with noble blood...
An unseen rock – need I say more?
A single sailor reached the shore.
(Some of the crew were drunk; the manner
Of his sad death recalls Diana.)

We can conceive the king's despair.
He had no other male heir:
Though he and Maud (Matilda) tried,
All she could do before she died
Was bear Matilda (Maud), to be
His hope of continuity.
The husband Henry chose for her,
The Holy Roman Emperor,
Though head of an enormous nation,
Was not much good at procreation.
Matilda (Maud) tried Number Two:
Count Geoffrey, ruler of Anjou.

Now, since the Normans did not think
Rosé d'Anjou a pleasant drink,
Maud's husband was not to their taste.
Another challenge Henry faced
Was nephew Stephen, Count of Blois
(Tricky to rhyme, but there you are).
He'd wed the daughter of a lord,
Whose name just happened to be Maud,
Though also known as (try to guess),
So things were really in a mess:
Two sides convinced that they were right,
Engaging in a royal fight.

Stephen (1135-1154) won the ensuing civil war, but as part of the peace settlement agreed that Maud's son Henry would inherit the throne after him. The Angevin kings, or Plantagenets (so called because of the yellow broom – planta genista – they used as a badge) reigned until 1399, to be followed by the houses of Lancaster and York, and the wars of the Roses.

Along the way we get Henry II (1154-1189) and Thomas Becket, William Marshall, Simon de Montfort, Edward I Longshanks (1272-1307), Llewelyn ap Gruffyd, Robert the Bruce and Edward II (1307-1327).
Edward the Second disappeared:
Murdered, no doubt; and it is feared
A red-hot poker may have been
Inserted in his intestine.

And on and on, for a total of some 200 pages: Tudors, Stuarts, the Civil War and Protectorate, the houses of Hanover and of Saxe-Coburg & Gotha, and the Windsors. Side-notes provide information that isn't given in the verse: Names of battles, acts of Parliament and other events, queens, prime ministers and other important people, as well as dates. We learn about Archbishop Scrope, the Act of Supremacy (1534), Lord Darnley, the Gunpowder Plot (1605), the Great Plague (1665), the Bloody Assizes, the War of the Spanish Succession (1702-1713), the Old Pretender and Bonnie Prince Charlie, the Peterloo Massacre (1819), Disraeli and Gladstone, and the World Wars.
Pearl Harbor, that uncouth event,
Was, from our viewpoint, heaven-sent.
Japan and Germany had signed
A pact by which they were aligned,
Which meant that Adolf, right away,
Declared war on the USA;
Though what with fighting Russians too,
It seemed a crazy thing to do.
(The 'Axis' nations numbered three,
The other being Italy.
Captain Corelli's Mandolin
Describes the state that they were in.)

The book ends (on page 208 of my paperback copy) in 1966:
I'll end my convoluted rhyme
With Bobby Moore lifting up
The 1966 World Cup
When England took their Final bow:
'They think it's over – it is now!'

In addition to all this, the book is illustrated throughout with drawings by David Eccles. My favourites are the one of the English soldiers returning from France with their souvenirs (the Hundred Years War), the variations on British troops heading off to other wars ("Here we go"), and the one of George VI (1936-1952) and the Queen Mum during the Blitz.

Well worth reading, I think. And according to Amazon, Muirden and Eccles have also collaborated on Shakespeare Well-Versed: A Rhyming Guide to All His Plays (2004) and The Cosmic Verses: A Rhyming History of the Universe (2007), which I'm obviously going to have to obtain....

A Rhyming History of Britain: 55 B.C.–A.D.1966, by James Muirden. Walker & Company, New York, 2003. Text copyright 2003 by James Muirden; illustrations copyright 2003 by David Eccles.

* Dates given for rulers are dates of their reigns.

Click on the "Poetry Friday" button at left for this week's round-up, which is hosted by Susan at Chicken Spaghetti.


Becky said...

This one, as well as the other two, sound like great fun, as well as a good way to help kids remember names and dates (we homeschool). We're big Belloc fans, and have "1066" on the shelf, too.

Thanks for the review, and all the poems -- it gives one a very good idea of the book.

Sherry said...

Thanks for bringing this one to my attention. I think we'll have to find a copy somewhere.