Matthew Lewis, Medieval Britain in 100 Facts (Albright)

Matthew Lewis

Medieval Britain in 100 Facts

(Amberley, 2015) 192 pp. $13.00

Medieval Britain in 100 Facts

Although the text on the back cover of the book is a bit misleading in that it promises material “from its formation after the Roman exodus,” when the earliest essay is a thoughtful examination of the fact that Edgar Ætheling was actually the last Anglo-Saxon king, given that he was appointed by the Anglo-Saxon Witenagemot after the battle of Hastings and before the botched coronation of William the Conqueror, the material in the book is of interest to beginning students of British medieval history.  In the short introduction to the book, author Matthew Lewis states that “contained herein are 100 facts, some true, some not well known, and some that will set the record straight.  In their telling, we will take a whistle-stop tour of 500 years of British history, dipping in for glimpses of the lives our ancestors lived and hopefully enjoying the expedition into the past (7-8).”  Although the book only covers the slightly more than 400 years between Hastings in 1066 and Bosworth in 1485, the book largely lives up to the modest aims of its author to provide an enjoyable romp through British medieval history that seeks, at least in some cases, to set the record straight, even if it must be conceded that not all of the “facts” spoken of by the author are actually facts, but rather suppositions or assumptions.

The organization of the material in this book is chronological, and some of the discussions flow naturally into the next to create a sense of coherence, even though the facts themselves are not divided into sections.  As might be expected, the author pays a great deal of attention to military and political history, and also has an interest in unusual and quirky texts, like the first known Valentine’s Day letter in English (fact #97), the groundbreaking English-language autobiography of Marjery Kempe (fact #87),and the origins of the Exchequer as a tally board (fact #24) and a couple of discussions about the Magna Carta (facts #34 and #35), the latter of which discusses the importance of the Charter of the Forest in allowing for the foraging rights of freemen, which had been eroded by the depredations of generations of Angevin kings.  The author shows interest in sports topics, including medieval football (fact #64), has a strong interest in Welsh freedom which fills several essays, and generally has a high view of medieval knowledge about medicine, proverbs, the status of the earth as a globe, comets, and political savvy.  The result is a book that corrects a few misconceptions about the ignorance of the people of the Middle Ages that has lingered on.  Unfortunately, it should be noted that the author fails to correct at least one popular misconception, and that is the supposed justice and righteousness of King Richard III (fact #99) in taking the throne, which the author vigorously (if falsely) maintains was not stolen, and did not involve violence against the princes in the tower, claiming:  “Richard III did not kill his nephews in order to take the crown.  They were seen for weeks after he was crowned on 6 July 1483.  If he killed them it was to remove them as figureheads for rebellions that were growing in their name, but which would eventually adopt Henry VIII as a figurehead.  There are other candidates for their murderers and even theories that they survived.  Without new evidence, it will remain a mystery and a well-spring of controversy (188).”

One of the notable qualities of the book is that it entirely lacks footnotes and endnotes and citations of any kind.  Some of the sources of the various “facts” that the author speaks of are implied in the discussions, such as the Paxton letters, a notable epistolary collection, as well as various documents like the Magna Carta, but in other cases the reader must simply take the word of the author that what he speaks of are facts, because not enough information is provided for the reader to verify the stories personally.  As a result, this book is not useful as a scholarly text, although for a youthful audience just beginning a study into medieval history, the book offers enough information in a way that is easy to read and understand that it should encourage its readers to study other works of history that will provide further detail as well as evidence and sources.  For readers beyond their early schooling, this book will mainly be of interest as a lighthearted read and the source of provocative comments for starting historical debates, as well as commenting on some of the more speculative claims of the author regarding, for example, the possible origin of the symptoms that led to people being diagnosed with demon possession and prosecuted as witches in ergotism (84), or a speculation that the Black Plague might have been carried from Asia into Europe via giant gerbils (127).  Even readers very familiar with medieval history will likely find some unknown trivia here, like the origins of Oxford’s lengthy town & gown divide and the last battle between private retinues in England at Nibley Green, which makes the book worthwhile to read for enjoyment for those who are fond of British medieval history despite its lack of scholarly credentials.

It should be noted, though, in the author’s defense, that the author does not note any information about himself like his education or background or the source of his authority as a writer of medieval history, which suggests that the book is not being aimed at those who would expect or require such bona fides.  A search of the author reveals that he is a Ricardian [1] who has written previous books for the same publisher, one of which has the provocative title Richard, Duke of York:  King By Right, and is working on a book discussing the survival of the princes in the tower after their supposed death at the hands of their uncle, and was previously the author of a historical novel about Richard III.  Revealing his own previous work, and his commitment to certain interpretations of history, would have given the author the proper amount of skepticism about claims of impartiality or factuality.  It is likely that few readers will investigate the author’s background and previous research, but very likely that many readers will want to read further about the stories and facts discussed here, and by that standard, the book will likely succeed in its aim of encouraging a love of medieval history among young students of history.

Nathan Albright
Norwich University

[1] “Matt’s History Blog,” accessed June 16, 2016,

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