David Mitchell’s ‘Unruly: A History of England’s King’s and Queens’ is a riotously funny romp through one thousand or so years of English history. Whereas some attempts to make history funny – ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’ springs to mind – have done so by subverting it, David Mitchell’s book really is historically accurate. It will provide history buffs and those keen to brush up on their British monarchs and know their Athelstan from their Aethelred with plenty of facts, figures and analysis. But readers will also find plenty to chortle at along the way.
To give away a spoiler: unlike the author’s account, King Arthur, he of round table and Holy Grail legend, is not historically accurate. That’s Mitchell’s opening gambit. He goes on to explain why the evidence for Arthur existing is slight to non-existent, before moving on to monarchs for whom there is an abundance of verifiable research to prove they really did once live.
The chapter on King Alfred the Great is a good example of Mitchell’s irreverent, intellectual approach to retelling the history of England. He points out that, as Alfred pre-dates William the Conquerer, generally considered the first king of a largely unified England, he can’t be considered Alfred the First. Not only that but the moniker ‘the Great’ results from a contemporary hagiography, meaning that Alfred’s achievements don’t quite impress in the same way as others afforded the same suffix. There is a hilarious aside on why overly-sensitive historical revisionists wish to rebrand ‘The Dark Ages’ to cast them in a more favourable light. Commendably, Mitchell offers a robust defence of the traditional nomenclature.
Many names from opening chapters on the Dark Ages and Early Middle Ages may be unfamiliar to readers with but a casual interest in English history. Don’t worry, the author vividly brings every single one of the monarchs to life. Their stories are told with Mitchell’s trademark comic timing. There are even a few punning chapter headings, such as ‘See Next You Tuesday’ and ‘A Pair of Cnuts’, to provide a touch of cheeky schoolboy humour.
Mitchell takes each monarch in chronological turn, examining their reign and their contributions to history. They are humanised by their abundant weaknesses and character flaws. Edward I is unable to understand nuance; Edward II is too prone to pick favourites in the royal court, thus creating enemies, Richard II is vain and incapable of self-reflection. Others who are already considered rotters, like Richard III who is unable to escape Shakespeare’s Machiavellian depiction, are given a fair hearing (without actually being acquitted of being, in many ways, utter bastards).
At first glance it may be counterintuitive that the book ends with the long reign of Elizabeth I. After all, there have been numerous monarchs since. The point that Mitchell makes is that her successors were British rather than English monarchs, and, especially following the execution of Charles I and the Interregnum, their powers would diminish as Parliament’s grew. Therefore their contribution to our national story is less significant. It’s a fair enough point, but I enjoyed ‘Unruly’ so much that I hope Mitchell will write a sequel and cover the British monarchs up to the present day.
I cannot remember the last time I laughed as much as I did listening to ‘Unruly: A History of England’s Kings and Queens’. Mitchell’s take on history is unremittingly funny as well as insightful. There are so many exquisite turns of phrase but it would not be possible to do justice to them in a review and out of context. I had to stop listening whilst cooking for fear I’d drop red-hot pans, I was shaking with laughter so much. I couldn’t wait for any opportunity to shove the headphones back in and hear more. But there is a wider point that, in capturing so much history so effectively, Mitchell also proves his worth as a cultural commentator of considerable merit. If every history teacher in the land made his or her subject come to life in the way that David Mitchell achieves in ‘Unruly’, then the next generation would know our national history back to front and could probably give a potted summary of every monarch in chronological order.
Although Mitchell is eminently successful in his primary objective of making his reader laugh, he also never loses sight of the human stories behind the often tragic history. It is this historian’s critique that makes the subject so essential to keep alive. Although his own thoughts and feelings bubble to the surface occasionally, this is often to explain how some people achieved considerable power and what conditions were like for their subjects. It’s hard to disagree with Mitchell’s take in the final chapter that describes the burgeoning artistic scene culminating in the plays of Shakespeare. Truly, his conclusions make one’s heart sing.
I expect that ‘Unruly: A History of England’s Kings and Queens’ will prove to be an enormously enjoyable book when read off the page. I have never previously experienced an audiobook where the text and the narrator are so well-paired. David Mitchell reads his own words as if he is delivering one long anecdote. He has the perfect voice for humour: authoritative but at the same time self-effacing in that English way of not wanting to seem too cocky, educated without being off-puttingly posh or effete, and perhaps most crucially, able to inject a splash of acid whenever some human folly or malice really grinds his gears.
The audiobook version of David Mitchell’s ‘Unruly: A History of England’s Kings and Queens’ is the perfect marriage of text and narrator. If you like David Mitchell’s comedy and have an at-least-passing interest in English history, there’s a very good chance you’ll absolutely adore this book. It is witty, sparkling and enormous fun from start to finish. As an added bonus, you may even learn something too!
Publisher: Penguin Random House UK audio Narrator: David Mitchell Publication date: 28th September 2023 Buy ‘Unruly: A History of England’s Kings and Queens’