Time for two mini-reviews!
First up, The Making of the British Army. Retired brigadier Allan Mallinson traces the history of Britain’s army to the creation of the New Model Army during the English civil war. Unlike armies of old, the New Model Army was a professional, standing one; it wasn’t a feudal rabble, an emergency militia rudely armed with farm implements and dispersed as soon as danger was over. After the roundheads were defeated and cheerful corruption replaced by dour, humorless corruption, the army found a peaceable purpose for itself as the keepers of public order. Although frequently challenged by fiscal tightening, England’s rise as an influencer on the continent — and then the world — gave it steady work, despite being overshadowed by the Navy. Although Making is technically a military history, it’s not a chronicle of battles. Instead, the focus is on the British army as an organization; certain battles are highlighted for bringing prominent leaders to the fore, or developing Britain’s military philosophy. I found it quite the education, and not just about the British army! Whenever I encounter lancers in the 19th century, I invariably used to think of them as medieval anarchornism that Europe hadn’t gotten around to disbanding yet. I had no idea that lances actually made a comeback once infantry began going without armor ! That’s what happens when most of one’s military interest involves either swords and shields, or airplanes: a great deal in the middle is overlooked entirely.
Although there are not many facts to work with, Arman has created a very readable and balanced story of Æthelflæd’s extraordinary life. Resources on her more famous father, Alfred the Great, are hard to come by themselves, so you can imagine how scarce materials are regarding his daughter — who, though accomplished, led a much less prominent kingdom than Wessex. Arman does her utmost to glean a story about Æthelflæd’s life by reading between the the lines of other sources — guessing at what her education might have been through comparison with similar subjects, for instance, and consulting other histories and literary works for allusions to her. I was particularly taken with Arman’s frequent gentle reminders to readers that there’s a great deal believed about the modern period which is misleading, if not downright erroneous. The world was not regarded as flat, and women did not sit at home darning their husband’s tights: in the medieval household, regardless of social position, husbands and wives were two oxen at the same plow — both working together. Æthelflæd’s novelty was as ruling as queen in her own right, well after her husband had perished, and training her daughter to succeed her. Arman also notes Æthelflæd’s military activity, although she notes three other examples of prominent military females in the medieval period — and none were Joan of Arc. While this narrative is more about Æthelflæd’s times, rather than a detailed account of her life, it has much of interest.