I’m not sure how my husband got his hands on the official UK version of this book; the US version is out tomorrow (Oct. 3) with the subtitle as shown in the photo, not the subtitle on the UK version which I have put in the title bar. But he knew I would love it because we are both fans of David Mitchell from the various British panel shows he has been on. Mitchell describes himself as a comedian, and he is, but for the purposes of this book he has become an historian, and I have to say that if history were taught the way Mitchell presents it, people would probably pay a lot more attention. Mitchell’s object with this history is to try to get at why monarchy took root in England and persists to this day. Spoiler — Mitchell is not a big fan of monarchy but he does get to the root of why it’s there, the purpose it served, and its association with national identity. It is an immensely entertaining read filled with facts and Mitchell’s trademark snarky asides. It looks like the audiobook is narrated by Mitchell himself (his voice was in my head the whole time I was reading) which means I might have to get it as well.
Unruly starts with the end of Roman Britain and the coming of the Anglo-Saxons (Part I is entitled “Pre-Willy”, as in before William the Conqueror), debunking the myth of Arthur from the get go but also explaining why Arthur’s legend is such a big deal. The idea of King Arthur mattered to the men who wanted to validate the power that they took. Mitchell ends his book with the Tudors and William Shakespeare. His explanation for ending there is a good one: he argues that the concept of kingship began to decline after the Tudors – a family that took power without much proof that they had primary hereditary right to it (others had a more solid claim). Other people (ministers, chancellors, etc) become more important in governing from this time onward, and Shakespeare’s work reflects a change in the way kingship was viewed, ie how a king ought to behave. In between, Mitchell introduces the reader to the men (mostly; very few women get near power until the Tudors) who throughout the history of England fought for ascendency and what arguments they used to justify their actions. Naturally the church and religion are important factors here, but so is a desire for stability. Even the “good” kings were brutal men, but that brutality — the assurance that there would be comeuppance for transgressions against the king’s authority — actually helped keep things peaceful sometimes, which is what the titled landowning class wanted and what the common people needed. As Mitchell points out, it’s the little guy who suffers most from instability on the throne, as it tends to lead to civil wars and foreign invasions.
I laughed out loud a number of times while reading Unruly. Mitchell’s antipathy for Edward “the Butter-Side-Up” the Confessor is hilarious and comes up whenever he can find an opportunity. The chapter on Aethelred the Unready (his actual historical moniker, not one made up by Mitchell) was hilarious, which is quite a feat given the horrible things that happened under his terrible rule. Really, you could pick any page and find a pithy, withering remark, but here is one of my favorites, on Shakespeare’s historical plays:
…he couldn’t really do the Tudors because, for the first half of his career, they were in charge and very sensitive unless described in a manner so ludicrously adulatory as to be unwatchable by anyone whose surname wasn’t Tudor. At the end of his life, he collaborated on a play about Henry VIII – the Stuarts were reigning by then so he could get away with it – but it’s not what you’d call a corker. I suppose it must have been tricky, for the creator of Falstaff, to write about a time when the shouty, boozy fatso was actually king.
Unruly is a good pick for fans of British humor. You’ll learn some history and get a good laugh at the same time.