Friday, May 7, 2010

Mad Dogs and Englishmen

Mad Dogs and Englishmen: An Expedition Round My Family, Ranulph Fiennes

An elderly friend recommended this to me so I duly went off to the library to get my hands on it. I don't read many histories, although one of the few areas of history that does interest me is English history, owing to Year 8 study of Tudor England and seeing the Bayeux tapestry in Bayeux in 2000.

Unbenowst to me before now, Ranulph Fiennes is a rather well-known explorer who has climbed Everest and reached both poles. I have to admit, I thought my friend was talking about Joseph Fiennes, the actor, when she recommended the book to me - turns out they are cousins. It was interesting later to note that the family home, Broughton Castle, occupied by the Fiennes for 21 generations, was the castle where Shakespeare in Love was filmed, starring the same Joseph Fiennes.

Ranulph uses his family history to recount the history of England, able to trace his direct ancestry to Charlemagne (~800 AD). His relatives were part of William the Conqueror's invasion of England in 1066 and others fought on the other side for Henry. One is immortalised in the Bayeux Tapestry giving advice to William. Amongst his other relatives he can include men who were at the signing of the Magna Carta, one who sat on the jury of Anne Boleyn's trial, and women who were direct ancestors of both King Henry VI and Richard III. One Celia Fiennes in the 17th C wrote of her explorations of England which resulted in the rhyme 'Ride a cockhorse to Banbury Cross to see a Fiennes [fine] lady upon a white horse'. It's amazing how involved various parts of his family were in the major points of British history.

It's a long book and it's a history that covers over 1000 years, so there is bound to be some dry patches in there (which there were) but overall it was very interesting. I really liked his writing style too. Here are a few excerpts for you:
Many English people today point to Norman ancestry and boast, 'My lot came here in 1066.' Quite why that should be a point of pride rather than of shame, when one considers how those same ancestors behaved, is questionable and, as I shall reveal, the Fienneses are as guilty as anyone. (p3)

He includes some choice details that I never recall being told at school:
The Bastard (William the Conqueror) was buried in Caen, so corpulent that when the attendant bishops tried to force his body into the royal sarcophagus, his entrails burst forth and the resulting pestilent stench caused panic amongst the mourners, many of whom fled the ceremony. (p19)
Tell me that detail would not make history more interesting for your average teenage boy!

Commenting on the long-term relationship between Britain and France, when an agreement was formed between the two nations in the early 1900s:
[it] put an end to a thousand years of intermittent warfare. It did not, of course, stop the two nations constantly sniping at each other because it is difficult to break an enjoyable habit.
It was sad to read at the end that Fiennes never met his father (he was conceived during the war, after which his father was killed in action):
A psychologist would probably say that my growing up without ever meeting my father or grandfather, nor having any brothers, uncles or male relatives, was bound to make me keen to trace my forbears.... You should give it a go, as you never know whose blood might run in your veins. It could be Genghis Khan, Florence Nightingale, or even Caligula. (p369)

I'm glad I read it.

Bayeux tapestry photo sourced from

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