The Hollow Crown by Miri Rubin

Medieval tales of rabbits, fish and kings
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Beware of the new. "Most change, deep change, occurs slowly, experimentally, cautiously, and through deliberation," warns Miri Rubin at the end of her perceptive and illuminating portrait of Britain in the late middle ages: between 1307, when Edward II succeeded his mighty father, and 1485, when Henry Tudor defeated Richard III on the battlefield of Bosworth. She proves conclusively that there was not as much of a rift as supposed between the famous "new monarchy" of the Tudors and the notoriously turbulent centuries of the Black Death, the Hundred Years War and the Wars of the Roses. The Tudors' success was firmly rooted in the past, on the hitherto unsung achievements of generations of clerics, civil servants, lawyers, farmers, merchants and parliamentarians.

Telling the stories of these bit players reveals the immense importance of religion and the equally significant development of legal institutions. It also allows Rubin to enrich her narrative with atmospheric details: the dog-hair eyebrows that still embellish the funerary effigy of Edward III, a poem singing the splendid hospitality of the rebel Welsh prince Owain Glyn Dwr's manor of Sycharch, a legacy leaving a squirrel-fur garment to warm the limbs of a hermit, the messages in the margins of splendidly illustrated books, the management of rabbit warrens, the stocking of fish-ponds with bream, tench, roach, perch and pike.

Kings and queens undoubtedly mattered. Able kings like Edward III, Henry IV, Henry V and Edward IV held their thrones; feeble or arrogant kings like Edward II, Richard II and Henry VI were deposed or murdered. But Rubin's two-century span makes the reader appreciate that personality was not everything.

Famine played its part in the downfall of Edward II; the plague that swept away so many people in the second half of the 14th century made a more prosperous economy possible in the 15th. Henry V's apparently successful conquest of Normandy after Agincourt led to a haemorraghing of royal monies that brought down his son's government.

And throughout both centuries, a critical audience of great magnates and self-confident landed gentry jockeyed ruthlessly for royal favour; nor were they afraid to rock the throne itself. Although lip-service was paid to the sanctity of the monarchy, divinity did not yet hedge it round, as it did in its brief apotheosis under the Tudors. After finishing The Hollow Crown, I felt that the execution of Charles I in 1649 could be seen as a return to type rather than a new development.

What has made it possible for Rubin to write her richly-textured history is that, for the last 40 years or so, historians have been producing a formidable deluge of books and articles that look closely at short periods, or concentrate on single aspects of the age or specific localities. They include Anne Curry's work on the English in Normandy, Anne Sutton and Livia Visser-Fuchs's studies of 15th-century books, Michael Hicks's analyses of aspects of the Wars of the Roses, Christine Carpenter's survey of society and politics in Warwickshire and her editions of letters. Rubin recognises her debt to all in a bibliographical essay, which offers a useful chart of where a reader hooked on the late middle ages could go next for honeyed medieval intimacies.

Although not a few of the scholars she cites will quibble with her version of events (there are one or two factual inaccuracies that a new edition will no doubt iron out), Rubin deserves full credit for the boldness with which she transforms a mountain of detailed research into such a compelling, and readable, joined-up story.

Christina Hardyment's life of Sir Thomas Malory is due from HarperCollins this autumn

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