Sounding the Trumpet
I don’t often review books to which I’ve contributed, but this week, I’m going to make an exception and do a bit of trumpet blowing. During the last couple of weeks, the post has brought, inter alia, two complimentary copies of titles with which I was associated to varying degrees. The first is of the National Maritime Museum’s new book, Tudor and Stuart Seafarers, produced to tie in with the opening next month of the museum’s new Tudor and Stuart gallery – one of no fewer than four new galleries, which will expand the museum’s exhibition space by a staggering 40%. Needless to say, I can’t wait to see all of that, and hope to blog about it as soon as possible after the launch event. The second is the first volume of Famous Battles and How they Shaped the Modern World, published by Pen and Sword. I’m not actually in this one – my contribution, on the Dutch attack on the Medway in 1667, is in volume 2 – but even so, I’m evidently entitled to a freebie, so I’ll throw in a bonus review!
Tudor and Stuart Seafarers is lavishly produced, with wall-to-wall colour illustrations drawn from the NMM’s own collection. It’s clearly aimed at general readers, such as the sort of visitors who’ll go around the gallery and decide they’d like to know more about what they’ve seen, and I suspect it’ll also be an ideal ‘coffee table’ book. So those looking for a detailed academic thesis will undoubtedly be disappointed, although all of the authors have taken to care to ensure that their chapters reflect modern research, in many cases their own. There’s an introductory overview by James Davey, which tackles head on some of the uncomfortable truths about imperialism and slavery, followed by a chapter on ‘New Worlds, 1485-1505’ by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, who provides the European and global contexts of the voyages of exploration by the likes of Columbus, Cabot and da Gama. James Davey returns with Chapter 2, ‘Adventurers: England Turns to the Sea, 1550-80’, which does exactly what it says on the tin (and will undoubtedly get James an acknowledgement in the next instalment of my Tudor naval series). David Scott then provides a clear, insightful synthesis of ‘The Spanish Armada and England’s Conflict with Spain, 1585-1604’, although I’d have liked to have seen a little more coverage of the war after 1589 – a personal bugbear which readers of The Rage of Fortune will know all about!
Chapter 4, ‘Building a Navy’, is, to paraphrase the eminent naval historian Mr Ernest Wise, the one wot I writ, so I’ll leave judgement on it to others, who even now will be sharpening their quills in such remote outposts as High Wycombe and Bolton. Chapter 5, ‘Using the Seas and Skies: Navigation in Early Modern England’, is by Megan Barford and Louise Devoy, and again does what it says on the tin, deploying particularly fascinating illustrations even by the standards of this book (let’s face it, you can’t go wrong with old sea charts, unlike the mariners who were trying to use them). Laura Humphreys contributes Chapter 6 on ‘Encounter and Exploitation: the English Colonization of North America, 1585-1615’: the dates may suggest that the Mayflower has been forgotten, but in fact, the chapter does cover this, and it also provides the beginning of James Davey’s introductory chapter. In Chapter 7, Robert J Blyth looks at ‘Of Profit and Loss: The Trading World of Seventeenth Century England’, while Chapter 8 sees Elaine Murphy examine ‘The British Civil Wars 1638-53’ – the subject of her new book with Richard Blakemore, who provides Chapter 9 on ‘Life at Sea’. In Chapter 10, Rebecca Rideal considers ‘The Seventeenth Century Anglo-Dutch Wars’, while Chapter 11 inevitably brings us to ‘the P word’, with Aaron Jaffer’s study of ‘A Sea of Scoundrels: Pirates of the Stuart Era’. Christine Riding concludes the book with a chapter on ‘Art and the Maritime World, 1550-1714’, and again, the richness of the NMM’s collection, plus the production of the book entirely in colour, means that this is really a feast for the eyes.
So what criticisms might I make, other than the ones suggested above?
Well, that’s obviously a tricky one, given that I have a clear vested interest in the book’s success. But here we go regardless…
First and foremost, the title, Tudor and Stuart Seafarers, is blatantly Anglocentric, as some of my Scottish friends were quick to point out on Twitter. (Yes, Scotland is in there, but probably not as much as it could or should have been.) But with thirteen published books under my belt – fifteen, if you include the Quinton prequel novella and my current work in progress, of which more below – I’m a veteran of that peculiar circle of Hell reserved for those who sometimes have to agonise about the best title for a new book. Indeed, I was once prepared to go to the wire over the title I originally wanted to inflict upon the first Quinton novel, Gentleman Captain. I thought my title was brilliant, my (then) newly-acquired agent thought it was rubbish, and duly suggested GC instead. To cut a long story short, he was right (as he invariably has been ever since), I was wrong…and I suspect similar angst might have accompanied the naming of this particular tome. After all, British Seafarers of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries might have been more ‘politically correct’, but it would be quite a mouthful, and would undoubtedly fail on what it took me a long time to realise is one of the most important criteria of all when deciding on the name for a book: how small a font size would one need to fit the title comfortably on the spine, and yet make it large enough to stand out on the shelf in a bookshop?
Secondly, the choice of themes means that, inevitably, there are gaps. Readers of this blog (and I hope you’re both well) might already have noticed a strange leap from 1505 to 1550 in the chapter coverage, and although this is tackled head on by James Davey, who suggests there was very little focus on the sea in England in the first half of the sixteenth century, and the naval side of that period is touched on in the ubiquitous Chapter 4, I can’t help but feel that we may have done at least a slight injustice to two or three generations of seafarers. The same is true of the French wars of 1689 to 1713, which continue to be a hugely neglected area of naval history…yes, partly because people like me continue to focus on the earlier period, which has the advantage of the colossal amount of source material assembled by naval history’s Marmite man, Samuel Pepys. (For instance, the book makes no mention of the Battle of Barfleur in 1692, one of the biggest British naval victories before Nelson’s time, or the capture of Gibraltar in 1704, or, come to that, that strangest of all colonial interludes, the earlier English occupation of Tangier.)
But these are relatively minor points. If this book gets more people interested in, and knowledgeable about, early modern maritime history, then all of us who were part of ‘the team’ will feel that it’s very much ‘job done’. Moreover, it is truly heartening to see a book on this subject where nearly half the contributors are women, two of whom wrote the chapters specifically about naval warfare.
And so on to Famous Battles and How They Shaped the Modern World. The title has undoubtedly conscious echoes of one of the great seminal works of military history, J F C Fuller’s Decisive Battles of the Western World and Their Influence Upon History, which was one of the first proper, weighty books of this kind that I read, probably when I was fourteen or fifteen or thereabouts (and yes, you’re right, I really should have been getting out more instead). To betray a little insider secret, this was originally going to be a single volume, but like Topsy, it just growed, and the publisher ultimately decided to split it into two. It grew out of a day school in Reading a couple of years back, where contributors to this and the second volume spoke about their chosen battles, and was really fun to be involved with: from a personal point of view, I’d like to thank the joint editors, Beatrice Heuser and Athena Leoussi of the University of Reading, for their support, input and efficiency.
At this point, I should issue a disclaimer to the effect that I haven’t yet had time to read the book, but knowing the original parameters of the project and the line the editors took, I think it’s important to stress from the outset that this is light years removed from the old histories of battles. (‘At 0907 precisely, General Melchett despatched orders to the 69th Brigade, consisting of the 4th Barsetshire, the 7th Midsomer Murderers, and the Old Hogwartian Rifles, to advance upon the Grand Redoubt de Certain Slaughter. These orders were conveyed by Captain A. M. P. P. Q. Radish, riding a four year old grey stallion called Brian.’) The original focus of the day school, and of the projected book, was on the myths surrounding the chosen battles, and that focus still underpins this volume – it certainly underpins my own essay on the Dutch attack on Chatham. This first volume concentrates on the ancient and medieval eras, going from the siege of Troy, via Marathon and Thermopylai (and no, I didn’t know it was now spelt like that, either) to the wars of the Ancient Israelites, the Battle of the Teutoberg Forest, the Battle of Hastings, Béziers 1209 and Courtrai 1302. There are also two overview chapters, by Athena and Beatrice. I can safely say that, with the exceptions of Troy, Marathon and Hastings, I don’t know that much about most of these, so will look forward to finding out more…and again, the fact that exactly half the contributors are women suggests that the days when military history, like maritime and naval history, was written exclusively by old white men in blazers, are thankfully long behind us.
Finally, after keeping my head down recently, I’m delighted to announce that I’ve completed the first draft of my new Tudor novel for Canelo. I can’t say much more about it until the publishers decide whether they like it or not, but suffice to say that it developed in some unexpected directions as I expanded it from the original novella, especially when I stumbled across the extraordinary story of a real family who encountered unbelievable tragedy as they struggled to cope with the impact of Henry VIII’s policies, and realised that I had a way of weaving their story seamlessly (I hope!) into my existing narrative. But I’m glad to say that I managed to stick to my principles about writing a Tudor novel, especially when it comes to wives, teen models, and Those Queens; and by coincidence, the line I intend to take through the entire planned trilogy fits neatly with the big themes developed by the other contributors to Tudor and Stuart Seafarers. Great minds, etc.
Anyway, there’s going to be quite a bit of dashing around in the next few weeks, so blogging may continue to be intermittent. But a real highlight should be the Historical Novel Society conference in Scotland in a couple of weeks’ time, where I’m looking forward to catching up with lots of old friends – and if time allows, I’ll try to blog either during it or immediately afterwards!