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Review: David Mitchell’s Unruly: A History of England’s Kings and Queens

Laura Noller | Lancaster University

The cover of Mitchell's book. The cover design is a golden orb with a lit fuse recalling the image cartoon bomb.
David Mitchell, Unruly: A History of England's Kings and Queens (Penguin, 2023).

In her review for The Guardian, Fiona Sturges likens comedian David Mitchell’s new book Unruly: A History of England’s Kings and Queens to ‘Horrible Histories with added swearing’. Readers who, like myself, grew up on both the Horrible Histories books and TV shows, will recognise this assessment as oddly accurate, though the book’s take on the historical comedy genre is refreshingly grown-up. Eschewing (most) cheap gags about bodily excreta, Mitchell focuses instead on the cheap gags which can be derived from the similarity of one particular Danish prince’s name to a swear word. Irreverent, sometimes to the point of crassness, Mitchell’s book details the British monarchy until the end of the Tudor period, interested not in grand historical narratives, but in finding the humour in this uniquely British institution.


The book’s scope is broad, and, admirably, does not adhere to the convention of declaring the moment William the Conqueror set foot on British soil as the defining genesis of British history. Instead, he begins with King Arthur, spends a good deal of time emphasising how very fictional he is, and then gets on to King Ceolwulf of Northumbria. From there, he dedicates a chapter to each monarch until Elizabeth I, even the ones whose status as monarch is broadly debatable.


Historical debate, however, is not a major concern of the book. Despite Mitchell’s clear intelligence and quick wit, the writer and comedian whose TV appearances include Peep Show, Would I Lie to You?, and QI has himself confessed that he was ‘lazy’ when reading for a History BA at Cambridge University. As such, this book has no pretence toward academia; this is a history book more about comedy than history.


The book’s issue is its own promise; that Mitchell introduces some fascinating premises in the introduction, and demonstrates a remarkable level of self-awareness, before dropping these themes and never so much as touching on them again. One example of this is that he spends almost the entire introduction arguing that the concept of the nation, specifically Britain, is defined by the ‘continuity of its institutions’, an original and radical concept of nationhood. In an intellectual landscape where nationality is defined by likes of Ernest Renan, who declared the nation was a ‘daily plebiscite’, and Benedict Anderson who suggests it is an ‘imagined political community’, Mitchell’s pitch that British nationhood centres around the continuity of the institution of ‘a person wearing a sparkly metal hat’ is not only amusing, but strikingly compelling. Yet, Mitchell does not use this to explore the meaning of Britishness, nor to try to understand where the boundary of the nation lies, and I found myself craving further elucidation of this promptly abandoned idea.


Likewise, Mitchell acknowledges that ‘one of the boring things about a lot of history’ is the lack of female agency depicted in scholarship, particularly in the eras which his book spans. Yet, even those women for whom sources abound fail to be acknowledged in any great detail throughout the book. Eleanor of Aquitaine was one of the most influential figures of the Middle Ages, but is mentioned only as a wife and mother, with her own achievements and accomplishments ignored almost entirely. Mitchell is clearly aware of history’s misogynistic lens, yet I wish he had tried harder to shift his own perspective away from this.


Yet, it is this perspective which, in other ways, brings a great deal of charm to the book. This book is less interested in the history itself, than what Mitchell makes of the history. It is heavy-laden with his own voice. If you are a fan of his TV appearances, you will likely find yourself hearing Mitchell’s voice intoning the words on the page inside your head. And it is Mitchell’s voice which brings life to the history between Unruly’s pages.


Mitchell has the ability to elucidate historical people into fully-formed characters who provide entertaining reading material. In the chapter regarding King John, he describes various barons as ‘sidling up to this bad-tempered king… and asking if, in the light of His Majesty’s Monumental Recent Cock-Up, they might swear allegiance to his nemesis so that they could keep all their stuff’. In this way, he takes the faceless authors of the Magna Carta and transforms them, through modern language with rather too much swearing, into people whose motivations it is possible for twenty-first-century readers to understand.


Similarly, he has an undeniable talent for making historical debates understandable to the general reader. The conflicts between Henry II and Thomas Becket, the subject of so many books and articles, are summed up in just over a single paragraph. Whilst this necessarily omits some nuance, it leaves the reader with a clear and memorable understanding of the key players and their motivations in a given context. Indeed, Mitchell himself admits that he isn’t interested in objectivity or nuance. His book is an accurate statement of the facts, albeit simplified, but it isn’t concerned with teasing out the nuance in the way more academic styles of history are. He writes:


I’m not a professional historian so I don’t have to pretend I haven’t picked a side. In fact, I’d argue that historians telling themselves they haven’t picked a side are more misleading in an insidious way, because they definitely will have done, even if they don’t know it.


As a historian, there is little I can do to argue with this statement. All historians, like it or not, pick sides. We all have agendas and arguments – that’s what makes good history, a perspective on the facts. It just so happens that Mitchell doesn’t want to argue for a particular revisionist perspective on history, but instead a comedic one and it’s surprisingly refreshing to find an account which leans into the absurdity of historical events when we are so used to taking things too seriously.


Unruly isn’t good history, it doesn’t claim to be. It is, however, excellent comedy.


 

Laura Noller is an ESRC-funded postgraduate historical researcher at Lancaster University whose research focuses on points of contact between German soldiers and islanders during the Nazi Occupation of the Channel Islands, 1940-1945. She welcomes all conversation about her research, or social history in general, on LinkedIn.

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