Two French battlefields, Waterloo and Agincourt, were picked over again after 200 and 600 years, while other historians focused on a meadow “between Windsor and Staines” where the most famous document in English history, Magna Carta, was sealed eight centuries ago. The most original take on Napoleon’s last stand was Brian Cathcart’s account of the Waterloo Dispatch, The News from Waterloo (Faber), which reconstructs the rather haphazard fashion in which the “most complete victory that [Wellington] had ever gained” was reported to an anxious population across the Channel.
Cathcart follows the news day by day, demolishing a few myths along the way — not least the one that the banker Nathan Rothschild was the first to hear of the victory. Despite the urgency of the circumstances, there is a reminder of an age to which “rolling news” was an alien concept. Wellington retired on the night of the battle, and did not begin writing his dispatch until he had snatched a few hours’ sleep, “too exhausted” even to write to the king of France before he retired.
As well as a brilliant, even-handed short study of Waterloo by Alan Forrest, the Great Battles series from Oxford University Press published an analysis of another famous French defeat, though one with rather fewer strategic consequences for the victor, in 1415. Agincourt is by the doyenne of historians of that battle, Anne Curry.
Curry also co-edited (with Malcolm Mercer) the fabulously illustrated catalogue and collection of essays, The Battle of Agincourt (Yale), which accompanies the ongoing Royal Armouries exhibition at the Tower of London. She has gone deeply into the muster rolls and accounts of the dead and wounded, and is at the forefront of efforts to reinterpret the battle as a slightly less unequal contest than traditional accounts, not least Shakespeare’s, would have us believe.
The third anniversary that attracted historians this year, Magna Carta, may seem less dramatic than those bloody battlefield encounters. But there was widespread recognition of the world-historical significance of the moment in June 1215 when a group of barons managed to compel an obstinate king to agree to a set of terms that put him under the law, and laid the foundations of the rights to liberty not just of those nobles, but of all humanity.
David Carpenter’s lucidly insightful and nuanced new edition of Magna Carta, edited for Penguin Classics, is a worthy tribute to that moment. As a medieval historian, Carpenter is able to place King John and the charter in the context of its times, when the document was initially cast aside as a failed move in an ongoing civil war. He unravels the complexities not only of the clauses of the charter that still resonate, about justice and holding sovereign power to account, but also those that are very much of their time, about fish weirs and what widows can and can’t do.
When Wellington heard news of yet another death of a close comrade, an eyewitness described tears “chasing one another in furrows over his dusty cheeks”. Anyone who is surprised that the Iron Duke could melt so unashamedly should seek out Thomas Dixon’s Weeping Britannia: Portrait of a Nation in Tears (Oxford). Dixon shows how the stiff upper lip — a phrase imported to Britain from the United States — was only a British aspiration for a relatively short time, roughly bookended by the deaths of Dickens and Churchill.
In between, the English were awash, from Margery Kempe’s and Oliver Cromwell’s pious outpourings to Oscar Wilde’s ritual of prison tears, “every day at the same hour and for the same space of time”. Churchill himself, often portrayed as the “last Victorian”, was a great weeper, in and out of parliament, Dixon reminds us.
The demands of empire were one reason for the adoption of the convenient fiction that a Britisher never weeps. In Ferdinand Mount’s study of an extended clan of imperial servants, Tears of the Rajas (Simon & Schuster), the anguish is evenly shared between colonisers and colonised. Using the correspondence of men and women for whom India was somewhere between duty and destiny, Mount evokes a society forever on the brink of collapse in the face of overwhelming odds, but somehow avoiding it for much longer than should have been possible.
In The Raj at War (Bodley Head), Yasmin Khan tells the story of the Indian experience of the crisis that finally did for that world. Like all Indian stories, it is complex and contradictory, but she shows convincingly how Indians could no longer be fooled, or fool themselves, that the British presence was either benign or irreversible.
On the other side of the world, at the heart of what remained the imperial metropolis for a few years more, lived the Soviet ambassador Ivan Maisky, dexterously calibrating his relations with the British establishment as his motherland posed as a neutral power, an enemy and finally an ally. The Maisky Diaries (Yale), edited by Gabriel Gorodetsky, is only a selection, though at 500-odd pages not a slim one, of the reflections of a man who combined an urbane cultivation of western tastes with an ability to winkle information out of politicians, such as Churchill and Eden, whose friendship he courted assiduously. To read Maisky’s wistful account of attending a production of The Importance of Being Earnest in the days before Chamberlain declared war in September 1939 is to be transported back with him to a world of innocence folding up before his eyes: “We laughed for two hours. That’s something to be grateful for.”
Nikolaus Wachsmann’s history of the Nazi concentration camps, KL (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), is a brilliant, detailed anatomy of the institution that defined the regime the allies faced. KL was the regime’s own abbreviation (of Konzentrationslager) for a system that began in Dachau in 1933, months after Hitler’s rise to power, and continued, in ever more debased recensions, until the liberations of 1945. It stretched from Germany to the lands of occupation, including Poland, France, even the Channel Islands.
Wachsmann’s vivid account of the horrors (one chapter is entitled “Anus Mundi”) goes hand in hand with a sober detailing of the origins and “development” of a system that reflected and imposed the Nazi regime’s wider ideological obsessions.
Perhaps the most original work of history published this year, certainly for a popular audience, is Noel Malcolm’s Agents of Empire (Allen Lane). Like Tears of the Rajas, it follows the fortunes of a family of imperial servants, but the empire in question is the Venetian empire, and the family are not lowland Scots but Venetian-Albanian. Through extraordinarily diligent and impressively multilingual detective work, Malcolm displays the effect of a 16th-century clash of empires — Venetian and Ottoman, with the involvement of various other powers at different times — on a succession of resourceful and talented individuals.
–Guardian News & Media Ltd