Archive | January 2023

War Lord

War Lord is the last in Bernard Cornwell’s thirteen novel series set in the 9th and 10th centuries and covering the formation of England from the earlier kingdoms of Wessex, Kent, East Anglia, Mercia and, finally, Northumbria. Throughout the series, Uhtred, an impulsive and emotional man, has made promises to members of Alfred’s family, at least one of which he now regrets.

Uhtred is established in his ancestral home of Bebbanburg on the north-east coast of Northumbria hoping for a more peaceful time. But Athelstan, King of Wessex, Mercia and East Anglia is determined to achieve the dream of his grandfather, Alfred, and unite all the kingdoms into England. Whether they like it or not.

To the North is the King of Scotland and to the West a King in Ireland, both with eyes on the fertile lands of Northumbria. Uhtred’s not really in a position to defend Bebbanburg against any one of these avaricious Kings so alights on the idea of getting them to fight each other through a combination of misinformation and trickery.

As ever, Cornwell does a deft job of weaving a fast-paced adventure story around a nugget of historical fact (or as close to fact as we can get) and brings Uhtred’s story to a bittersweet conclusion. Bittersweet for two reasons. First, Uhtred gets his happy ending of ruling in Bebbanburg with expanded lands and family to succeed him but it’s in the context of a bigger kingdom of England which isn’t what he really wanted. Second, that kingdom is Christian and has a policy of stamping out paganism and with the birth of Christian England comes the loss of the old gods and older ways, which, throughout the series, has felt increasingly sad.

War Lord is great, good fun and an easy read, pleasingly supported by good historical detail.

The British Museum, A History

Published in 2002 to mark the 250th anniversary (in 2003) of the British Museum, The British Museum, A History is a history of the institution told by a former Director of the Museum, David M. Wilson.

Much of the focus of the book is on the first 150 years from the origins of the collection and the twisting path the Museum has taken to grow into the towering presence we know today. The careers and personalities of the Directors and curatorial staff in this period are presented in great detail, as at that time there were not so many of them so as to make it impractical, and a sense of their influence of the development of the Museum is vividly created. Donations and purchases of some of the most significant objects in the Museum are also covered in detail, showing how the collection came to be assembled; often by luck, accident or opportunism and only occasionally (more so in the last 50 years) by deliberate policy.

The 20th century is dealt with a bit more briskly. The impact of the wars is discussed and especially the long shadow of WWII; some galleries weren’t completely repaired until the 1980s or 1990s. There is discussion of the structure and organization of the Museum trustees and employees. It’s an organization that has evolved rather than been planned. Decisions about organizational structure have often been made in response to specific events and constrained by tight, inadequate budgets, which leads inevitably to problems that have to be addressed later down the line.

What was most interesting to me is the relative youth of the academic study of history, art history and archaeology. Wilson talks about the need for the Museum to develop expertise in these areas as they were not taught by the universities. It was a bit of a revelation to me that art history wasn’t even a thing until the 1920s.

This book is probably only for fans of the Museum and appears to be out of print now, but I enjoyed it. It’s been on my ‘books to read’ shelf for about twenty years (it’s a large, heavy, not at all portable hardback) so I’m pleased I finally got round to reading it.