Michael Thomas Barry,
Great Britain's Royal Tombs:
A Guide to the Lives & Burial Places of British Monarchs

(Schiffer, 2012)

In Great Britain's Royal Tombs, A Guide to the Lives & Burial Places of British Monarchs, author Michael Thomas Barry carries us back as far as the Dark Ages to bring us a pantheon of English monarchs and other major players who graced the stage throughout British history. While the locations of all burial places are indeed included, the bulk of this book is the history of England's monarchy dating back more than a thousand years.

Comprehensive and thorough, many questions that you didn't even know you had are answered here. Who were William the Conqueror, Richard the Lionheart and the revered Edward the Confessor? What makes Thomas Becket a memorable character? How did "Bloody Mary" gain her notoriety? And just exactly what was really up with the infamous King Henry VIII? Such questions and more are answered here, with no stone left unturned.

Although this could be called a rather long, dry history of the monarchy, for the most part it's engagingly written and kept me engrossed through most of the book. I found it fascinating -- most fascinating to me are the battling kings of the Middle Ages -- and I am now able to put so many names from the past into their proper perspective. Each chapter closely follows a formula that works well for the subject matter while managing to retain originality, as the players are constantly changing. There is a comprehensive section at the beginning of the book that details by dates and Houses the reigns of the various English monarchs.

One thing I would like to see added would be a brief synopsis of and dates for the Dark Ages, Middle Ages, Renaissance and the very general term, "Medieval Times." This would add another layer of depth to understanding the time in which much of this history is set. I googled these terms, and the definitions were a great help to me in understanding the timeline.

Also worthy of mention is the sheer volume of photographs, engravings and paintings that have been collected here. Many of the photos are the author's own work, and others come from different sources. The author has also included a comprehensively detailed bibliography and index. However, one thing that is suspect is how the medieval kings are portrayed in engravings done in the 19th century. Are there any actual images of the kings that these later artists were working from? I have to assume there are. Also, the sketches of the medieval queens were done in the latter half of the 19th century (credited to one artist), and suspiciously all look very much alike. In this case, I have no doubt that the sketches of the queens are the artist's own interpretation, rather than being based on any actual images. I don't fault the author for including them; I would just like this loose end cleared up.

Modern politics actually have more in common with medieval politics than we may care to admit. Between the ambitions of the titled and power-hungry, the ruthless jockeying for position, the brutal in-fighting -- and even murder -- the life of a medieval monarch was tenuous indeed. We must remember that this book portrays real people, some of whom lived a thousand or more years ago in an era we cannot imagine. We look back a millennium and see what we would describe as barbarians, constantly battling with their neighbors and chopping each others' heads off. Will our descendants look back a millennium from now -- at us -- and see the same thing? Maybe. With two world wars in the past century alone, as well as many other conflicts that have plagued the globe, we may indeed seem uncivilized to our descendants, who hopefully will have become a more peaceful society. It is my hope that our descendants will learn from the past, rather than repeat it.

Overall, Barry has great success in bringing the monarchy of England under the microscope for our inspection. The details of battles, lineage and intriguing politics keep the book on a fast pace that, for the most part, prevents the text from becoming dull. I highly recommend Great Britain's Royal Tombs for those interested in the history of England.

book review by
Lee Lukaszewicz

27 April 2013

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