Click here to read reviewer Barbara Bamberger Scott's take on Richard and John: Kings at War.
History books, probably like most other nonfiction books, can be two contradictory things at the same time: extremely interesting yet also boring. This generally happens when the information the author is giving to the reader is something that they would find fascinating, but itís told in such a way that the book is a chore to read. Richard and John: Kings at War by Frank McLynn is a perfect example of this. History has always attracted me, and I donít know much about the reigns of these two kings of England. In that sense, I enjoyed every minute I spent with this book. However, getting from beginning to end was tedious and had me nodding off more often than during a lecture from one of my college professors.
Richard and John is extremely detailed, telling almost everything that is known about these two kingsí lives and how they governed the Angevin Empire (which included many parts of France as well as England). Two more different brothers there could not have been. Richard was a military genius and generally a man of honor, with his one potential war crime explained by McLynn within the text of the book. John was devious, cowardly, and paranoid. Both men have their fans, and both men have their detractors. McLynn definitely comes down on Richardís side, almost to a fault. While he does discuss some of Richardís problems, he generally explains them away in some fashion.
John, on the other hand, is shown in the worst possible light, with McLynn mentioning and disposing of most of the pro-John sentiment thatís out there throughout the text. McLynn builds a logical case for his thesis, acknowledging the many positive thoughts about Johnís reign, indicating they may have some validity (unlike Alison Weir, who hasnít done that in the books Iíve read). He then proceeds to make his case clearly and concisely, showing why those positive thoughts must be wrong. I was impressed with the logical case that he built, as well as the even-handed way he dealt with those he disagreed with.
Richard and John begins with Henry II, his wife, the illustrious Eleanor of Aquitaine, and the births of their children. Most prominent among these children were Richard and John, and McLynn quickly moves on to their childhood and their dealings with their parents. Richard seemed to inherit Henryís military capability and John his paranoia and temperament. When Henry died and Richard ascended the throne, he dealt mostly with the parts of the Angevin Empire on the continent, especially his beloved Aquitaine. McLynn highlights the conflicts with Philip, King of France, as well as Richardís military exploits during the Third Crusade (taking a chapter to give a short history of Saladin and how the Holy Land came to be in its current predicament at the time of the Crusade).
Once Richard was gone and Johnís reign begain, he lost everything Richard had gained, eventually resulting in the signing of Magna Carta. McLynn gives a wonderful overview of just what Magna Carta was, what Johnís barons wanted to get out of it, and what John was willing to concede to them. Most especially, he shows the reader how John wanted to get out of it almost as soon as it was signed. This attention to detail is what I loved about Richard and John, a book filled with fascinating stories and facts about these two monumental men.
Which is why itís a shame that McLynnís prose is exceedingly dull at times. Iím a fan of detail, but McLynn sometimes goes overboard with it and he canít always tell it in an interesting fashion. Thatís why this book tears at me; I canít think of a more comprehensive look at these two kings and the tumultuous times that they were in power, but it shouldnít be putting you to sleep even as you want to find out just a little bit more.
That is, however, the only fault I can find with this book. McLynn uses so many primary sources that you canít help but think heís closer to being right than many others might be. He acknowledges when facts are scarce. When he makes an assumption, he tells the reader that itís an assumption, and then he doesnít try to build a further case on top of that (Hello, Ms. Weir!). He uses logic throughout the book to fight salacious interpretation of the history, such as how many historians feel that Richard was homosexual based on the interpretation of a few words in the old texts as well as the relative lack of illegitimate children. In addition to the primary sources, he includes many secondary ones, though some of them are included mainly so he can knock down their arguments. The bibliography in this book is quite extensive.
While Richard and John is not the definitive book on the subject (I would like to read some opposing points of view to see how they make their argument), it is an interesting, comprehensive history of both these men and the military conflicts they took part in. While the book does deal with some domestic issues, these are mainly presented in how they affected the ongoing martial action which pervaded this time period. Itís fascinating reading for those with an interest in the subject, and definitely worth plowing through despite the fatigue-inducing prose. Donít let my closed eyes fool you. Iím just contemplating all of the information that McLynn has presented to me. Yeah, thatís the ticket.