Folly and fortune in early British history

Kenneth Henshall

Why I looked at this book

British history didn't begin in 1066, and I'm interested in how different parts of Britain gradually came together. In particular I'm interested in the interactions between the various Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. I'm not sure whether this will have much about that, but it looks to be worth reading as a way of learning something about early British history.

First impressions

The sample I read was essentially just the introduction. I hadn't really twigged from the title that 'Folly' is going to be an important part of the book - looking at what people got wrong. It looks unlikely to have much about Anglo-Saxon interactions, but I'm hopeful that it may enlighten me about something. The English are proud of how Alfred and his descendants saved the kingdom from Viking invasion, but 1: both are essentially invaders from the East and 2:eventually the Viking Cnut becomes king. I've always found that a bit puzzling.

I'm not entirely sure who the book is aimed at. Sometimes the style seemed a bit 'literary', but I think that it will be accessible to non-specialists.

Main review

The structure of this book suggests to me that it is written with classroom use in mind, as each chapter finishes with a series of questions (and answers) which could be used for discussion purposes. It's still certainly accessible to a more general readership, but it isn't a light hearted look at history that a title starting with 'Folly' might suggest (although it does quote from 1066 and all that).

I think the main message of the book is that it's hard to ascribe folly to a particular person when they lived in a world of shifting loyalties. So Boudica's army might well have won if it had been more disciplined. A leader may show folly though in being bad at dealing with such shifting loyalties. It looks like Ethelred, for instance, wasn't so much unready, or even badly advised, as inconsistent in his use of force. He attempted a massacre of Danes within the kingdom, creating a lot of bad feeling, but didn't clamp down strongly enough on infighting between his generals. The book also goes some way to answering my question about how there was a Danish takeover - by this time a substantial proportion of the occupants of Britain had Danish origins.

William the Conqueror, on the other hand, was quick to deal with any sort of trouble from his subordinates. In a battle of A vs B we don't tend to think of differences of opinion within each group, but in this era it was very likely there would be such differences, and it's those leaders which can suppress them, such as William or the Romans, who tended to do best.

Henshall still thinks that William's invasion had a dose of folly, and that he was lucky in his victory, or equivalently that Harold showed a large amount of folly. Harold could have waited until more forces arrived, and he should have had a backup plan - losing a battle shouldn't have automatically meant losing the war.

I found the book gave an interesting slant on pre-1066 history of Britain, and although it goes into some detail with some of the battles (in particular Hastings), it maintained my interest. I felt that I learned a lot from this book and it was well worth reading
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