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Arise, England

Six Kings and the Making of the English State

Caroline Burt, April 2024, Faber and Faber, 640 pages

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Front cover of the book


Middle Ages


Burtington takes us through the narrative of English history from 1199 and the accession of King John, to 1399 and the deposition of Richard II in a year by year account.

If you are in the target demographic of medieval history nerd and / or history undergrad I can easily recommend this book. I found the detailed high political narrative style a sometimes challenging but ultimately rewarding read.


Review by Anthony Webb, 17 May 2024

Can you predict the actions of any individual? Can you even predict what you will yourself do tomorrow? Of course, for most of us for most of the time, what we choose to do tomorrow won’t have much consequence in the grand scheme of things.

But if you are the ruling monarch of a medieval state sometimes what you do could really mess things up, or maybe even make things better. In Arise England, Six Kings and the Making of the English State authors Caroline Burt and Richard Partington (henceforth referred to as Burtington) are very alive to the capacity of kings and other individuals to make a difference.

Which leads to my just invented “quantum theory of history”1. (If you are not interested in reading about this theory skip to the main body of the review.)

Quantum theory of history

I don’t know what mess Edward II is going to get himself into next - assuming I am a contemporary. I might assign probabilities to him doing this or that, but exact predictions are not dependable. He is an unpredictable quantum element: the quanta of history is a human being.

Predictably unpredictable

But if I broaden the timescale to a multi-generational view, I can be 100% confident that some kings will be more competent than others - they are not pre-programmed robots. And the effect of their behaviour will more or less average out over the generations. So I would expect that the power and influence of a kingship will ebb and flow.

If I broaden out still further and consider larger organisational units such as states over time, we can make even more confident assertions such as: in the medieval period England will never rule France on any permanent basis. Equally no matter how many battles Scots might win against the English the idea of a medieval Scottish king and nobility permanently ruling England is fanciful.

History as biology

Zoom out even more and perceive a tumultuous mass of humanity: being born, eating, fighting, dying. Exactly who wins a battle is as inconsequential as exactly which termite mound is in the ascendency in a South African savannah.

Adjusting our zoom in and out, our unpredictable quantum unit - you - will at some timescale and with a sufficient number of yous behave predictably.

Unpredictably predictable

Just as with the more established quantum theory of the physical universe there are a few inherent difficulties to overcome with my quantum theory of history: at what point does quantum unpredictability become classically predictable? Over how many years or involving how many people? And given we are positing inherent randomness in the actions of individuals, might they not act this out on the macro scale?

Anthony’s human

For example let us consider the thought experiment “Anthony’s human”. Imagine a human is put in a box and rigged up to a global network of hydrogen bombs. This person is not allowed out of the box unless he or she triggers the bombs - which would destroy humanity as we know it.

I leave it to my successors and disciples to consider the interaction of chaotic systems with the quantum theory of history - is Edward II already equivalent to the boxed person in “Anthony’s human”? - the role of the observer and other such refinements.

Arise England - a quantum narrative

For now I will just point out that Arise England takes place mainly at the quantum level, with individuals doing all sorts of silly or clever things, with the starring role played by the English kings.

Good kings and bad kings

Burtington is refreshingly judgemental about each of the English Kings. For example Edward II, perhaps the most feeble of the bunch, is described as showing “fecklessness, lack of application and poor political judgement”. They go on: he did not “completely lack cognitive ability. His delinquency was therefore at some level a matter of choice.

Richard II is also a target:

From the arrogant, lazy and somewhat feckless young man of the early reign, he developed into a paranoid, vindictive and vengeful tyrant.

Arise England

By contrast Edward I and Edward III are astute, hardworking and politically sophisticated. Crucially they also are effective in war.

State construction

Burtington takes us through the narrative of English history from 1199 and the accession of King John to 1399 and the deposition of Richard II in a year by year account: who did what to whom. Collectively these actions had the effect of building up the state of England in ways that we would recognise today: shared purpose, state justice, parliament and marauding national armies.

For example: at the beginning of the period in 1199, the King’s lands in France were considered his own personal business and not something that the English nobility wanted to pay to defend. But by the end of the period in 1399 there was much more of a sense of the crown and people ‘togetherness’ - ie an English state: there was broad agreement that raising money to defend ‘English’ territory in France was an acceptable purpose of taxation.

An unstoppable process?

Central to this process of development are the characters of the six English kings of the period and how they interacted with their subjects, represented by Burtington as follows:

  • John 😡 bad
  • Henry III 🥺 feeble
  • Edward I 😎 awesome
  • Edward II 😨 abjectly pathetic
  • Edward III 😍 my hero
  • Richard II 😬 rubbish

Interestingly, regal inaction and incompetence could be equally effective in state development as proactive monarchical initiatives.

An active warlike king such as Edward III stretched the resources of the English people to such an extent that the government was forced to innovate in an attempt to stump up more cash.

But an indolent wastrel like Richard II, by doing as little as he felt he could get away with, created the space for existing state institutions to do more and expand - not least when he was deposed by his cousin Henry Bolingbroke, later Henry IV (spoiler alert) and parliament was asked to ratify his demotion.

War and taxes

The consistent thread running through the whole period is war - the English vs the French, vs the Welsh and vs the Scots

Warfare was the great engine of state in this period. War is expensive and difficult, and the kings in this period tried lots of different ways of squeezing money out of their subjects to pay for it - both driving and funding state activity.

King John’s wheezes included demanding arbitrarily huge sums of money from his nobles to allow them to inherit their lands or on other significant occasions (payments raised in this way were known as scutage).

Scutage scam

In an ingenious variation on this trick John would grant a favourite huge tracts of land, and apply very high scutage charges that would take years if not decades to pay off. Then when they started to get on his nerves, he would insist on immediate payment, thus forcing instant ruin.

This sort of thing went down very badly and led to the Magna Carta which was the start of formalising the process of no representation without taxation.

In contrast John’s grandson Edward I generally worked with the new institution of parliament2 to establish consensus about the need for handing over money and acceptable ways of doing so - in other words: the apparatus of state.

Law, what is it good for?

While war was the engine or impetus of English state development, law was the fabric of the state (the chassis perhaps, or the bit that connects the engine to the wheels?).

And while Arise England keeps you informed of all the major battles it is the legal developments which are the central focus. There are lots of lengthy passages explaining the developments of Trailbastons, the Eyre, Gaol Delivery, Justices of the Assize and other things which I struggle to remember and didn’t quite understand, but which are very important.

So if you are English and reading the book hoping for a rousing account of the battle of Crecy or the battle of Poitiers: they get a mention but you may be a little disappointed by the brevity. Although Burtington comes across as a proud Englishperson who is quietly satisfied to report on English military successes against the Scots or the French, they are too professional a historian to get overly carried away.

Who is this book good for?

All of which means that this book feels like it is written with the medieval history fan and the undergraduate reading list in mind.

The dense - and clearly written - prose, focuses on legal history and traditional historical subject matter (kings and queens) mean that you probably have to have pre-existing interest in and knowledge of the period to really enjoy reading it.

If you are looking for an intro to the period you are likely to be put off, not least by the 600 pages, excluding notes. Long shall be the struggle in this case.

I liked it

But if you are in the target market I can easily recommend the book. Personally I found the detailed high political narrative style with academic overtones to be rewarding - partly because it was at times challenging.

Burtington also gives you confidence that they really know their onions when it comes to the sources and the historiography, something that you would expect from two Cambridge academics who have (presumably) been researching and teaching this stuff for decades.

Cold case

Just in case you are left with the impression that it is all dry: Arise England also clears up a long standing question for me - did Edward II really die from having a red hot poker stuck up his bum as rumoured. Not quite... Burtington reports:

According to the chroniclers, on the night of 21 September [1327], at Berkeley Castle, they smothered Edward [II] under a huge weight of feather pillows, and then, to ensure that he was dead without leaving a mark on his body, inserted a red-hot iron into his intestines via a horn introduced into his rectum.

Arise England


Which takes us back to the start: when you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground. This is more or less predictable. But until we study the period we can’t say exactly who will die or how - in the bedroom with the poker or otherwise.

This is where Arise England comes in, giving you high politics at the molecular level: the actors bouncing off each other chaotically, slowly (inexorably?) building grain by grain, the edifice that is the English state.

  1. A quick google of the term doesn’t reveal any prominent ‘theories of quantum history’ which might compromise my claim of originality 🙂. ↩︎

  2. First referenced in 1236 in a legal case which was put off until the next ‘Parliamentum’. As Burtington states “it could little have been imagined then that this institution would ensure even seven centuries later”. ↩︎


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