I remember interviewing John Julius Norwich a few years ago. A popular historian and entertainer, he told me cryptically that he had never discovered a single new historical fact!
Whether writing popular works about Byzantium, Venice, the Normans in Sicily or other subjects, he saw himself as a synthesizer of existing knowledge. Of course, Lord Norwich also made dozens of films and had his own radio show on the BBC.
I recently re-read his 1999 book, Shakespeare’s Kings, and it certainly defies his self-characterization as a mere synthesizer.
The work covers Shakespeare’s representation of the kings of England between 1337 and 1485, and shows how and why Shakespeare sometimes departed from the factual record in his historical plays.
The author compares what Shakespeare wrote, compared to what medieval chroniclers recounted, describing the Bard’s occasional telescoping and reordering of events, and invention of some characters, for dramatic or comic effect.
Shakespeare’s Kings is no mere work of synthesis: it is an original though harrowing work, which deals with the exercise of power. And Norwich, a viscount who sat in the House of Lords for 47 years, from 1952 to 1999, was an eye-witness to power.
Shakespeare’s Kings goes beyond England’s nation-building myth of chivalry, with all its pageantry, to record the back-story of the medieval consolidation of royal power in England. And this back-story involves kings, queens, bishops, lords, ladies and imposters, many of whom spontaneously resorted to murders, slaughter, torture, the massacre of prisoners, hostage-takings, broken oaths, bribery, plundering, piracy, arbitrary executions, rape, royal incest, forced marriages, blood feuds, shifting alliances, betrayals, civil wars and treason. Such practices were then common. National sovereignty was equated with the sovereign himself, who ruled in an arbitrary fashion and was able to bend or ignore laws as he saw fit. There were no settled laws of succession, and transitions of power from one sovereign to the next were often violent.
Although I enjoy Richard III for its Machiavellian portrayal of the hunchbacked king, and Henry V especially as played by Laurence Olivier, I prefer Macbeth, The Tempest, King Lear, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
John Julius Norwich died in 2018.