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Reviewed by David McLaughlan
By David Carpenter
Penguin History, New York, 562 pages

Think of Britain and we inevitably think of England as the dominant power. In The Struggle for Mastery, David Carpenter shows that England’s supremacy on the island was not a foregone conclusion.

After the Battle of Hastings the English were a subjected race. Their Norman masters had other, more valuable lands across the Channel to concern them; the Scots were becoming a nation under a series of expansionist kings; and the Welsh, seemingly unassailable in their mountainous stronghold, were threatening to win back the entire island for the Britons. By rereading historical documents of the three nations, Carpenter offers fresh insight into how these countries perceived each other and how power ebbed and flowed as princes, barons and kings fought and connived for mastery of their own peoples and, ultimately, for the whole of Britain.

The atmosphere of the book is summed up by its dual-natured title. The Struggle for Mastery has the sound of a thriller, while the subtitle, The Penguin History of Britain, 1066-1284, could only belong to a serious history book. The author keeps in good balance this seemingly difficult combination. Carpenter, professor of medieval history at King’s College in London, leads his readers into early medieval Britain not like a lecturer chalking up dates on a blackboard, but like a friend taking the reader by the hand and saying, “This is how it really was.”

With tales of conquest, kings struggling for survival, political marriages and dynasties created and crushed, the narrative has plenty to keep the reader’s interest, and Carpenter doesn’t mind ending a chapter on a cliffhanger to leave you wanting more. In a vignette illustrating the capriciousness of fate, he takes William II from a king of previously unimagined power to a mangled corpse in a rickety wagon in the space of a few short sentences. Given the bloodiness and violence of the subject matter, it is hard to criticize the author for his roller-coaster writing style. Instead we might wonder how other historians managed to make the subject seem so dull.

Gripping read that it is, the author never forgets he is writing a history book. In addition to the machinations of kings we learn of matters affecting the common folk, like literacy, education and the economy. We are introduced to named individuals and the sometimes calamitous, sometimes ennobling effects such issues had on their lives. Carpenter’s comfortable familiarity with the period allows him to bring to life a variety of historical people. Indeed, some are likely to stay with the reader long after the book has finally been closed.

In that turbulent time, we see England’s fortunes wax and wane. The loss of foreign dominions means the Angevin kings turn their gaze to lands nearer home. Wales rises and falls and Ireland is parceled out to the barons. Scotland dances backward and forward over the border heading toward its eventual brutal suppression. We hear how royal patronage and the hope of favor in heaven enabled the great monasteries to flourish. We learn how Oxford and Cambridge came to be and the source of their centuries-old rivalry, we learn there was not one but many Magna Cartas, and we gain new insights into the creation of such pillars of the modern establishment as the House of Commons and the Exchequer. Real power passes from the king to the barons to the knights and, finally, to a representative parliament.

In stark contrast to civilizing societal and legal frameworks, we see warfare move from a time of chivalric battles, where the intention was to take enemy nobles hostage for a ransom (and slaughtering anyone else who got in the way), to a time when the heads of enemy princes were impaled on spears and displayed over castle walls.

History, for the author, is obviously not dead and gone. Contrasting the reign of Henry III, who regularly fed hundreds of paupers, with modern London, Carpenter notes wryly, “There were no beggars on the Strand in Henry’s day.” The rise in unpunished serious crime by “unknown malefactors” at the beginning of Edward I’s reign is described as “not unlike the situation today.” It’s little wonder Carpenter does not hesitate to compare the past with the present day; in many ways the period laid the foundation for what Britain would be in centuries to come.

Complete with maps, family trees for all the British royal families of the time and an extensive bibliography, The Struggle for Mastery will provide fresh perspectives for the historian and leave the newcomer not only wanting more but knowing where to look.