EAnotes

Adventures in Bookland: Kingmakers by Timothy Venning

The great strength of this book is the forensic detail with which it examines the Marcher lords, the Anglo-Norman barons installed by William the Conqueror to guard his border with Wales. Unfortunately, this is also the book’s great weakness. For those uninitiated into the murderous feuds and labyrinthine family politics of the region, the endless succession of betrayals, murders and double crossings dealt out through generations of bloodshed causes the eyes to glaze over and the head to nod. The author’s extreme reluctance to use paragraphs – their average length is four pages – also does not help to bring into focus this parade of feuding barons and fratricidal Welsh princes.

To deal with the author’s virtues first, I must note and commend his command of the source material. Only someone completely at home with the history of the Marcher lords could negotiate the extraordinarily complicated family feuds and rivalries that drove much of the politics of the region. Timothy Venning clearly has no difficulty in remembering that, for instance, Gerald of Windsor’s wife, Nest, was the daughter of Rhys ap Tewdr and mistress to Henry II, and together they produced Maurice FitzGerald, who would go on to found the Fitzgerald dynasty in Ireland, another son who produced the Carew family via his lordship of Caer Yw Castle, and a daughter who was the mother of the historian Gerald of Wales. Indeed, such is Venning’s command of the intricacies of family relationships that this reviewer thinks it a shame he did not live then: he would have understood perfectly the extraordinarily complicated knots of relationships that drove the history of the Marches and, later, Ireland. For the reader who takes similar delight in learning the dynastic details of the time, this book will be perfect. I know of nothing to match its attention to familial detail.

But this is also the book’s great fault. The mark of a great historian is the mastery of detail combined with the gift of knowing what detail to include and what to exclude. There is no doubting Venning’s mastery of the detail, but very little of that detail is excluded from the story, meaning that the general reader is likely to be quickly overwhelmed by the succession of names. Venning’s thesis is that the Marcher lords played a major part in the power politics of medieval England and he certainly makes that case, but he could have done so just as well by focusing more closely on the more significant interventions in the monarchy by these lords, rather than seeking to cram in to his book pretty well every battle and plot between the Conquest and the accession of Richard III, when the book ends, sputtering out in the heavy rain that drowned the revolt of Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham.

That the book should end thus, with a final addition of detail rather than a rounded summing up of what has gone before, rather tells its own story: it’s a book of pieces stuck into history, but with too little narrative drive to push the general reader through to its conclusion.

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