Great Tales from English History (Book 2)

Joan of Arc, the Princes in the Tower, Bloody Mary, Oliver Cromwell, Sir Isaac Newton, and More


By Robert Lacey

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With insight, humor and fascinating detail, Lacey brings brilliantly to life the stories that made England — from Ethelred the Unready to Richard the Lionheart, the Venerable Bede to Piers the Ploughman.

The greatest historians are vivid storytellers, Robert Lacey reminds us, and in Great Tales from English History, he proves his place among them, illuminating in unforgettable detail the characters and events that shaped a nation.

In this volume, Lacey limns the most important period in England’s past, highlighting the spread of the English language, the rejection of both a religion and a traditional view of kingly authority, and an unstoppable movement toward intellectual and political freedom from 1387 to 1689.

Opening with Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and culminating in William and Mary’s “Glorious Revolution,” Lacey revisits some of the truly classic stories of English history: the Battle of Agincourt, where Henry V’s skilled archers defeated a French army three times as large; the tragic tale of the two young princes locked in the Tower of London (and almost certainly murdered) by their usurping uncle, Richard III; Henry VIII’s schismatic divorce, not just from his wife but from the authority of the Catholic Church; “Bloody Mary” and the burning of religious dissidents; Sir Francis Drake’s dramatic, if questionable, part in the defeat of the Spanish Armada; and the terrible and transformative Great Fire of London, to name but a few.

Here Anglophiles will find their favorite English kings and queens, villains and victims, authors and architects – from Richard II to Anne Boleyn, the Virgin Queen to Oliver Cromwell, Samuel Pepys to Christopher Wren, and many more.

Continuing the “eminently readable, highly enjoyable” (St. Louis Post-Dispatch) history he began in volume I of Great Tales from English History, Robert Lacey has drawn on the most up-to-date research to present a taut and riveting narrative, breathing life into the most pivotal characters and exciting landmarks in England’s history.


Also by Robert Lacey





















Illustrations and maps © 2004 by Fred van Deelen

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review.

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First published in Great Britain by Little, Brown and Company, 2004 First United States edition, June 2005

First eBook Edition: November 2009

ISBN: 978-0-316-09039-1



Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote

The droghte of March hath perced to the roote

GEOFFREY CHAUCER'S CANTERBURY TALES opens on a green spring morning beside the River Thames, towards the end of the fourteenth century. Birds are singing, the sap is rising, and a group of travellers gathers in the Tabard Inn — one of the rambling wooden hostelries with stables and dormitory-like bedrooms round a courtyard, that clustered around the southern end of London Bridge. At first hearing, Chaucer's'English' sounds foreign, but in its phrasing we can detect the rhythms and wording of our own speech, especially if we read it aloud, as people usually did six hundred years ago:'Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages…'

The pilgrimage was the package holiday of the Middle Ages, and Chaucer imagines a group of holidaymakers in search of country air, leisurely exercise and spiritual refreshment at England's premier tourist attraction, the tomb of St Thomas Becket at Canterbury: a brawny miller tootling on his bagpipes; a grey-eyed prioress daintily feeding titbits to her lapdogs; a poor knight whose chain mail has left smudgings of rust on his tunic. To read Geoffrey Chaucer is to be transported back in time, to feel the skin and clothes — and sometimes, even, to smell the leek- or onion-laden breath — of people as they went about their daily business in what we call the Middle Ages. For them, of course, it was'now', one of the oldest words in the English language.

The host of the Tabard, the innkeeper Harry Bailey, suggests a story-telling competition to enliven the journey — free supper to the winner — and so we meet the poor knight, the dainty prioress and the miller, along with a merchant, a sea captain, a cook, and twenty other deeply believable characters plucked from the three or four million or so inhabitants of King Richard II's England. Chaucer includes himself as one of the pilgrims, offering to entertain the company with a rhyming tale of his own. But scarcely has he started when he is cut short by Harry the host:

'By God! quod he, for pleynly, at a word,

Thy drasty ryming is nat worth a toord!'

It is lines like these that have won Chaucer his fondly rude niche in the English folk memory. People's eyes light up at the mention of The Canterbury Tales, as they recall embarrassed schoolteachers struggling to explain words like'turd' and to bypass tales of backsides being stuck out of windows.'Please, sir, what is this "something" that is "rough and hairy"?'

In one passage Chaucer describes a friar (or religious brother, from the French word frère) who, while visiting hell in the course of a dream, is pleased to detect no trace of other friars, and complacently concludes that all friars must go to heaven.

'Oh no, we've got millions of them here!' an angel corrects him, pointing to the Devil's massively broad tail:

'Hold up thy tayl, thou Satanas!' quod he,

'Shewe forth thyn ers, and lat the frere se…'

Whereupon twenty thousand friars swarm out of the Devil's ers and fly around hell like angry bees, before creeping back inside their warm and cosy home for eternity.

In gathering for a pilgrimage, Chaucer's travellers were taking part in a Church-inspired ritual. But the poet's message was that the Church — the massive nationalised industry that ran the schools and hospitals of medieval England as well as its worship — was in serious trouble. While his imaginary company of pilgrims included a pious Oxford cleric and a parish priest who was a genuinely good shepherd to his flock, it also included men who were only too happy to make a corrupt living out of God's service on earth: a worldly monk who liked to feast on roast swan; a pimpled'Summoner' who took bribes from sinners not to summon them to the church courts; and a'Pardoner' who sold bogus relics like the veil of the Virgin Mary (actually an old pillowcase) and a rubble of pig's bones that he labelled as belonging to various saints. Buy one of these, was the message of this medieval insurance salesman, and you would go straight to heaven.

Chaucer humorously but unsparingly describes a country where almost everything is for sale. Four decades earlier England's population had been halved by the onslaught of the'Black Death' — the bubonic plague that would return several more times before the end of the century — and the consequence of this appalling tragedy had been a sharp-elbowed economic scramble among the survivors. Wages had risen, plague-cleared land was going cheap. For a dozen years before he wrote The Canterbury Tales Chaucer had lived over the Aldgate, or'Old Gate', the most easterly of the six gates in London's fortified wall, and from his windows in the arch he had been able to look down on the changing scene. In 1381 the angry men of Essex had come and gone through the Aldgate, waving their billhooks — the'mad multitude' known to history as the ill-fated Peasants' Revolt. During the plague years the city's iron-wheeled refuse carts had rumbled beneath the poet's floorboards with their bouncing heaps of corpses, heading for the limepits.

Chaucer paints the keen detail of this reviving community in a newly revived language — the spoken English that the Norman Conquest had threatened to suppress. Written between 1387 and 1400, the year of Chaucer's death, The Canterbury Tales is one of the earliest pieces of English that is intelligible to a modern ear. For three hundred years English had endured among the ordinary people, and particularly among the gentry. Even in French-speaking noble households Anglo-Saxon wives and local nursemaids had chattered to children in the native language. English had survived because it was literally the mother tongue, and it was in these post-plague years that it reasserted itself. In 1356 the Mayor of London decreed that English should be the language of council meetings, and in 1363 the Lord Chancellor made a point of opening Parliament in English — not, as had previously been the case, in the language of the enemy across the Channel.

Geoffrey Chaucer's cheery and companionable writing sets out the ideas that are the themes of this volume. In the pages that follow we shall trace the unstoppable spread of the English language — carried from England in the course of the next few centuries to the far side of the world. We shall see men and women reject the commerce of the old religion, while making fortunes from the new. And as they change their views about God, they will also change their views profoundly about the authority of kings and earthly power. They will sharpen their words and start freeing their minds — and in embarking upon that, they will also begin the uncertain process of freeing themselves.



THE LAST TIME WE MET RICHARD II HE WAS a boy of fourteen, facing down Wat Tyler and his rebels at the climax of the Peasants' Revolt.'Sirs, will you shoot your king? I will be your captain!' the young man had cried in June 1381 as the'mad multitude' massed angrily on the grass at Smithfield outside the city walls. His domineering uncle John of Gaunt was away from London, negotiating a truce in Scotland, and Richard's advisers had shown themselves wavering. But the boy king had said his prayers and ridden out to face the brandished billhooks.

An uncomplicated faith brought Richard II a brave and famous triumph, and it was small wonder that he should grow up with an exalted idea of himself and his powers. While waiting for vespers, the evening prayer, the young man who had been treated as a king from the age of ten liked to sit enthroned for hours, doing nothing much more than wearing his crown and'speaking to no man'. People who entered his presence were expected to bow the knee and lower the eyes. While previous English kings had been content to be addressed as'My Lord', now the titles of'Highness' and'Majesty' were demanded.

Richard came to believe that he was ordained of God. He had himself painted like Christ in Majesty, a golden icon glowing on his throne — the earliest surviving portrait that we have of any English king. When the King of Armenia came to the capital, Richard ordered that Westminster Abbey be opened in the middle of the night and proudly showed his visitor his crown, his sceptre and the other symbols of regality by the flicker of candlelight.

But Richard's public grandeur was a mask for insecurity. The King suffered from a stammer, and by the time he was fully grown, at nearly six feet tall, his fits of anger could be terrifying. Cheeks flushed, and shaking his yellow Plantagenet hair, on one occasion Richard drew his sword on a noble who dared to cross him, and struck another across the cheek. When Parliament was critical of his advisers, he declared that he'would not even dismiss a scullion' from his kitchens at their request. When Parliament was compliant, he proclaimed proudly that he had no need of Lords or Commons, since the laws of England were'in his mouth or his breast'.

Richard's dream was to rule without having to answer to anyone, and to that end he made peace with France, calling a truce in the series of draining conflicts that we know as the Hundred Years War. No fighting meant no extra taxes, calculated Richard — and that meant he might never have to call Parliament again.

Some modern historians have frowned on Richard II's ambition to rule without Parliament. They condemn his attempts to interrupt the traditional story of England's march towards democracy — only six Parliaments met during his reign of twenty-two years. But it is by no means certain that Richard's subjects saw this as regrettable. On the contrary. The summoning of Parliament was invariably followed by the appearance of tax assessors in the towns and villages. So there was much to be said for a king who left his people in peace and who managed to'live of his own' — without levying taxes.

Richard's gilded, image-dazzled style, however, won him few friends. He made no pretence to love the common man, and it was his attempt to live of his own' that brought about his downfall. When John of Gaunt died in 1399, aged fifty-eight, Richard could not resist the temptation to seize his uncle's lands. Gaunt's Duchy of Lancaster estates were the largest single landholding in England, and his son Henry Bolingbroke had recently been sent into exile, banished for ten years following a dispute with another nobleman.

Bolingbroke, named after the Lincolnshire castle where he was born in 1366, was the same age as Richard. The two cousins had grown up at court together, sharing the frightening experience of being inside the Tower of London at one stage of the Peasants' Revolt as the angry rebels had flocked outside the walls, yelling and hurling abuse. Some rioters who broke through managed to capture Henry, and he had been lucky to escape the fate of the Archbishop of Canterbury, who was dragged outside to be beaten, then beheaded.

Henry was not one jot less pious than his royal cousin. In 1390, aged twenty-four, he had been on crusade to fight alongside Germany's Teutonic Knights as they took Christianity to Lithuania, and in 1392 he travelled on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. A tough character, the leading jouster of his generation, he was not the sort to surrender his family inheritance without a fight. Land was sacred to a medieval baron, and many magnates supported Bolingbroke's quarrel with the King. No one's estates were safe if the great Duchy of Lancaster could be seized at the royal whim.

When Richard decided to go campaigning against Irish rebels in the summer of 1399, his cousin grabbed his chance. Bolingbroke had spent his nine-month exile in France. Now he landed in Yorkshire, to be welcomed by the Earl of Northumberland and his son Henry'Hotspur', the great warriors of the north. Henry had won control of most of central and eastern England, and was in a position to claim much more than his family's estate. Richard returned from Ireland to find himself facing a coup.

'Now I can see the end of my days coming,' the King mournfully declared as he stood on the ramparts of Flint Castle in north Wales early in August 1399, watching the advance of his cousin's army along the coast.

Captured, escorted to London and imprisoned in the Tower, Richard resisted three attempts to make him renounce in Henry's favour, until he was finally worn down — though he refused to hand the crown directly to his supplanter. Instead, he defiantly placed the gold circlet on God's earth, symbolically resigning his sovereignty to his Maker.

Sent north to the gloomy fortress of Pontefract in Yorkshire, Richard survived only a few months. A Christmas rising by his supporters made him too dangerous to keep alive. According to Shakespeare's play Richard II the deposed monarch met his end heroically in a scuffle in which he killed two of his would-be assassins before being himself struck down. But the truth was less theatrical. The official story was that Richard went on hunger strike, so that the opening that led to his stomach gradually contracted. His supporters maintained that the gaolers deliberately deprived him of food. Either way, the thirty-three-year-old ex-monarch starved to death. According to one account, in his hunger he gnawed desperately at his own arm.

Of comfort no man speak…

Let us sit upon the ground

And tell sad stories of the death of kings!

Writing two hundred years later, Shakespeare drew a simple moral from the tale of Richard II. Richard may have been a flawed character, but the deposition of an anointed monarch upset the ordained order of things. The playwright knew what would happen next — the generations of conflict between the families of Richard and Henry that have come to be known as the'Wars of the Roses',



AS HENRY IV TOOK CONTROL OF HIS NEW kingdom at the end of 1399, he pointedly promised that, unlike his wilful predecessor, he would rule with the guidance of'wise and discreet' persons. Richard II had been criticised for shunning the advice of his counsellors. He was nicknamed'Richard the Redeless' — the'uncounselled'. So Henry made sure that the advisers he summoned to his early council were a sober mixture of bishops and barons.

Then on 8 December that year the new King sent for a different sort of expert — a merchant and businessman, the first ever to sit on the Royal Council. Sir Richard Whittington was a cloth trader and moneylender from the City of London, who had served as Mayor of the City and who would, in fact, be elected Mayor no less than three times.

'Oh yes he did! Oh no he didn't!' Every Christmas the adventures of Dick Whittington still inspire pantomime audiences in theatres and church halls around the country. We see Whittington, usually played by a pretty girl in tights, striding off from Gloucestershire to seek his fortune in London, only to leave soon afterwards, dispirited to discover that the streets are not paved with gold. But sitting down to rest with his cat, the only friend he has managed to make on his travels, Dick hears the bells of London pealing out behind him.

'Turn again, Dick Whittington,' they seem to be calling,'thrice Lord Mayor of London!'

Reinvigorated, Dick returns to the city, where he gets a job in the house of Alderman Fitzwarren and falls in love with Fitzwarren's beautiful daughter, Alice. Disaster strikes when Dick is falsely accused of stealing a valuable necklace. So, deciding he had better make himself scarce, he and his cat stow away on one of the alderman's ships trading silks and satins with the Barbary Coast. There Puss wins favour with the local sultan by ridding his palace of rats, and Dick is rewarded with sackfuls of gold and jewels, which he bears home in triumph — more than enough to replace the necklace, which, it turns out, had been stolen by Puss's mortal enemy, King Rat. Alice and Dick are married, and Dick goes on to fulfil the bells' prophecy, becoming thrice Lord Mayor of London.

Much of this is true. Young Richard Whittington, a third son with no chance of an inheritance, did leave the village of Pauntley in Gloucestershire sometime in the 1360s to seek his fortune in London. And there he was indeed apprenticed to one Sir Hugh Fitzwarren, a mercer who dealt in precious cloth, some of it imported from the land of the Berbers, the Barbary Coast of North Africa. Dick became a mercer himself (the word derives from the Latin merx, or wares, the same root that gives us'merchant'). He supplied sumptuous cloth to both Richard II and Henry IV, providing two of Henry's daughters with cloth of gold for their wedding trousseaus. He also became a friendly bank manager to the royal family, extending generous overdrafts whenever they were strapped for cash. In the decades around 1400 Dick Whittington made no less than fifty-three loans to Richard and Henry, and also to Henry's son Henry V. He routinely took royal jewels as security, and on one occasion lost a necklace, whose value he had to repay.

Dick was elected mayor of London in 1397,1406 and 1419. With the populist flair that a mayor needs to go down in history, he campaigned against watered beer, greedy brewers who overcharged, and the destruction of old walls and monuments. There was a'green' touch to his removal from the Thames of illegal'fish weirs', the standing traps of basketwork or netting that threatened fish stocks when their apertures were too small and trapped even the tiniest tiddlers.

Less kind to the river, perhaps, was the money that he left in his will for the building of'Whittington's Longhouse'. This monster public lavatory contained 128 seats, half for men and half for women, in two very long rows with no partitions and no privacy. It overhung a gully near modern Cannon Street that was flushed by the tide. Dying childless in 1423, Dick spread his vast fortune across a generous range of London almshouses, hospitals and charities.

The trouble is the cat. There is not the slightest evidence that Dick Whittington ever owned any pets, let alone a skilled ratter who might have won the favour of the Sultan of Barbary. Puss does not enter the story for another two hundred years, and was probably introduced into the plot by mummers in early pantomimes.

'To Southwark Fair,' wrote Samuel Pepys in his diary for 21 September 1668.'Very dirty, and there saw the puppet show of Whittington which was pretty to see.'

Stories of clever cats are found in the earliest Egyptian and Hindu myths; Portuguese, Spanish and Italian fables tell of men whose fortunes are made by their cats. Puss in Boots, a rival pantomime, also celebrates the exploits of a trickster cat that magically enriches his impoverished master.

Experts call this a'migratory myth'. Blending the cosy notion of a furry, four-legged partner with the story of the advancement of hard-nosed Richard Whittington, England's biggest moneylender, took the edge off people's envy at the rise of the merchant class in the years after the Black Death — these new magnates who mattered in the reign of King Money. And when it comes to our own day, Dick's tale of luck and ambition provides a timeless stereotype for the pop stars and celebrities who play him in panto: the classless, self-made wannabes who leave their life in the sticks and reinvent themselves in the big city.



WHEN PARLIAMENT FIRST WELCOMED Henry IV as king in September 1399 with cries of'Yes, Yes, Yes', he told them to shout it again. The first round of yeses had not been loud enough for him. At that moment the deposed Richard II, just a mile or so down-river in the Tower of London, was still alive. The new King quite understood, he told the company who assembled that day in Westminster, that some of them might have reservations.

This may have been a joke on Henry IV's part — he had a self-deprecating sense of humour. But the fact that he had usurped the throne was to be the theme of his reign. For his coronation in October, he introduced a new'imperial' style of crown consisting of a circlet surmounted by arches that English kings and queens have worn ever since. He commissioned a book to emphasise the significance of England's coronation regalia — and he had himself anointed with an especially potent and prestigious oil that Richard II had located in his increasing obsession with majesty. The Virgin Mary herself, it was said, had given it to St Thomas Becket.

The fancy oil delivered its own verdict on the usurper — an infestation of headlice that afflicted Henry for months. He spent the first half of his reign fighting off challenges, particularly from the fractious Percy family of Northumberland who plotted against him in the north and were behind no less than three dangerous rebellions. In Wales the English King had to contend with the defiance of the charismatic Owain Glyndwr, who kept the red dragon fluttering from castles and misty Celtic mountain-tops.

Henry defeated his enemies in a run of brisk campaigns that confirmed his prowess as a military leader. But he was not able to enjoy his triumphs. In 1406, at the age of forty, the stocky and heavy-jowled monarch was struck down by a mystery illness that made it difficult for him to travel or to communicate verbally.

Modern doctors think that Henry must have suffered a series of strokes. For the rest of his reign he was disabled in both mind and body, though he went to great lengths to conceal his infirmity. Letters went out to the local sheriffs ordering the arrest of those who spread rumours of his sickness, while his bishops received letters requesting prayers to be said for his physical recovery. Depressed and speaking of himself as a sinful wretch', Henry came to believe that his salvation rested in a repeat of his youthful pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

One cause of his melancholy was the conflicts that arose with his eldest son, Henry of Monmouth. A brave and forceful warrior who fought alongside his father against the Percys and took charge of the campaign against Owain Glyndwr,'Prince Hal' was not the dissolute hell-raiser portrayed by Shakespeare. But he was an impatient critic of the ailing King. In 1410 he elbowed aside Henry's advisers to take control of the Royal Council for a spell — it seems possible he was even pushing his father to abdicate.

In 1413 the old King collapsed while at prayer in Westminster Abbey. Carried to the abbot's quarters and placed on a straw mattress beside the fire, he fell into a deep sleep, with his crown placed, as was the medieval custom, on the pillow beside him. Thinking he had breathed his last, his attendants covered his face with a linen cloth, while the Prince of Wales picked up the crown and left the room.


On Sale
Nov 29, 2009
Page Count
288 pages

Robert Lacey

About the Author

Robert Lacey is the coauthor of The Year 1000 and the author of such bestselling books as Majesty, The Kingdom, and The Queen Mother’s Century. He lives in London.

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