The Uses Made of History by the Kings of Medieval England


KingshipThe Uses Made of History by the Kings of Medieval England

Antonia Gransden

Culture et idéologie dans la genèse de l’État moderne: Actes de la table ronde de Rome (15-17 octobre 1984) Rome : École Française de Rome, 1985. pp. 463-478. (Publications de l’École française de Rome, 82)


The kings of medieval England, besides using history for the entertainment of themselves and their courts, turned it to practical purposes. They plundered history-books for precedents and other evidences to justify their claims and acts. They also recognised its value as propaganda, to bolster up their positions at home and strengthen their hands abroad. Although they rarely resorted to the production of official histories, they sometimes brought their influence to bear on the writing of non-official ones, to ensure a narrative favourable to their cause ; in general, their impact on historiography increased as the Middle Ages proceeded. 


It is known that a number of the kings of medieval England liked history. Their taste might extend to general history : King Alfred translated and interpolated Orosius’ History against the Pagans. More typically, it tended towards national history : presumably Ceolwulf, king of Northumbria (729-737 χ 8), was interested in the history of his people, since Bede dedicated the Ecclesiastical History to him, with the request that he pointed out errors1. But more especially they liked to learn about their own forebears. We know, for example, that Richard II rummaged in the boxes in the Tower “because he was very inquisitive about the relics of his ancestors”. Kings found it enter taining and gratifying to hear about the achievements and glorious deeds of their predecessors, whether real or legendary. The influence of a history-book, even one written in the first instance for the king and his family, had no fixed bounds. It spread by reading aloud from the literate to the illiterate, and if copies were distributed, this in creased the number of points of dissemination. Its dissemination was aided by the fact that others besides the king liked history, a subject of perennial interest to mankind. Kings were quick to realise that it could do much more for them than provide entertainment and self-gratification. It could also be used to reinforce their authority.

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