The Drone and the Wail

I don’t know if I’ve mentioned it before on this blog, but I am a pianist. Not a fantastic one it’s true, but enough to be able to read, appreciate and talk with a degree of authority about music, and I’m certainly able to appreciate (and to an extent exploit) the instrument’s unparalleled versatility and the simple beauty of its sound. However, the piano is a lonely, solitary instrument and I, like many other pianists before me, have often longed to dabble in another instruments. Most would lean towards the guitar or somesuch, in order to further expand the horizons of the music they are able to contribute to. However, the instrument that I have always wanted to learn might be considered slightly unconventional by many standards; the bagpipes.

This is in part a reflection of a slightly plaintive desire to reconnect with my somewhat loose Scottish roots, and indeed a country I have always liked (although in actuality the bagpipes originate from the middle east), but also for the simple reason that the pipes are inherently bizarre instruments. Here is the only instrument I know of played with the elbow, the only one where the majority of the instrument is made from thick cloth rather than something rigid and the only wind instrument where the bit with which the pitch is controlled is completely separate from where the sound itself is produced. Part of my reason for writing this post was purely to find out how the hell the thing worked.

That much my research has alluded to. To go back a step, in most woodwind instruments such as the oboe or clarinet, sound is produced by moving air over a stiff reed made of cane, which then vibrates and produces a clear note. The air within the tube attached to said tube then resonates, amplifying the sound. The holes in the tube control this resonance; the vibrating air will only form a standing wave and resonate up to the point at which the air escapes, so up to the furthest uncovered hole (it’s actually more complicated than that, but I lack the ability to explain this properly). Thus, which holes are covered and uncovered determines which standing waves are formed in the tube, and thus which frequencies are amplified by the tube and what note is played.

A bagpipe consists of four different parts; the blowpipe (the tube into which air is blown), the bag, the chanter (the bit at the bottom that the hands play in order to produce a note) and the drones (those three whacking great tubes that are to be found slung over a piper’s shoulder). Unlike most woodwind instruments, which locate the reed at the same place the air is blown in (the mouthpiece), the multiple reeds of a bagpipe are built into the base of the drones and the chanter; one reed in each. Air is blown from the mouthpiece into the airtight bag, and from there steady pressure is applied to the bag by the elbow in order to force air through the drones and chanter, creating the sound.

The bagpipe’s distinctive sound comes from the way these various components are set up and used; the drones are used to create the constant note running in the background of all bagpipe music, and it is their great length that causes long-wavelength, low-frequency, low-pitched notes to be produced. Most highland bagpipes have three drones; one long bass drone and two shorter tenor drones, producing a nice harmony. However, because most drone designs are just a single straight tube without the ability to adjust their pitch beforehand, this necessarily means that most bagpipes are effectively tuned to one key for their entire lives. This, combined with the fact that bagpipes are usually played in bands with multiple instruments all set to the same pitch in order to produce a coherent sound, presumably leading to the mass-production of only a few pitches, might account for why quite a lot of bagpipe music sounds somewhat samey. A partial solution to this may be the electric bagpipes, which presumably can be tuned to an infinitely more varied degree if you know how.

The shorter chanter underneath the bag, complete with finger-holes to allow its note to be controlled by the piper, is what produces the distinctive, high-pitched, almost nasal melodic sound of the bagpipes. Unfortunately, getting a note out of the instrument is significantly more than just blowing, squeezing and messing around with the notes; once you have experimented with a practice chanter (in essence a high-pitched recorder) to learn your notes, you then have to get an inordinate amount of practice in just to get the thing to produce any noise. Filling a set of pipes’ bag with air from empty can take several minutes just to start with, by which time you’re surely puffing and blowing having not managed to produce any sound other than a barely audible wheeze. After a while, the bag will reach capacity and the drones will start to sound out of sheer air pressure, but even then getting them to sound off properly takes an adroit little manoeuvre; the bag must be struck sharply at a specific point whilst blowing hard in order to get the drones to ‘tap in’ (or ‘strike in’). Striking in cleanly is apparently the single biggest challenge for the inexperienced piper. Once the drones are playing smoothly, engaging the chanter is apparently a relatively simple affair of going at the bag with a bit more vigour (which of course requires even more aggressive blowing into the thing), but even once you’ve started correctly, a careful cycle of squeeze-blow-take a desperate breath-squeeze again must be so well-practiced as to be automatic in order to keep the bag inflated and the sound flowing. In some ways, playing the bagpipes is like flying an aircraft; the middle section is a relatively simple job of just keeping on going and ensuring you don’t screw up or try anything dumb, whilst the beginning and end (which requires very careful timing in order to ensure the end of the song is crisp) are both rather technical procedures that have to be performed to perfection to prevent you making an unwanted, messy whining sound/crashing and killing hundreds of people. The comparison breaks down a little at that point, I’ll grant you.

For a final word on the subject of bagpipes, I turn to the words of some Englishman from days gone by who I now misquote: “If a neighbour has annoyed you, buy all his children a set of bagpipes”.

It’s Only A Game

When reading Brian Moore’s autobiography, Beware Of The Dog (which I can thoroughly recommend to rugby fans everywhere, particularly those who hate him) recently, one phrase stuck out at me. In reference to the period in the late 80s & early 90s when South African sides were excluded from the sporting world in protest against apartheid, Moore writes that “I have never subscribed to boycotting sporting events unless they are accompanied by a total breaking of trade and diplomatic relations. I do not accept that sport should pay the political price when governments and business do not do likewise. Sport is an easy target, one that can be, and is, bullied by those who will not take similarly difficult decisions”. That single statement perfectly distils much of the ‘official’ attitude to sport; whilst clearly a significant enough part of our modern world to be considered a part of the political sphere, it isn’t really held to have much value over the purely symbolic, with the economy and wars taking significant precedence. Indeed, this attitude of sport being some sort of add-on, rather than the central constituent of one’s way of life, pervades all classes and levels of modern society; despite the way that the football clubs of our nation continue to be our biggest-selling global brand and are such prominent figures of our social world, sporting news is relegated to its own private little section of the paper and TV news, and during the Olympics of last summer there were even columnists who wrote articles of the opinion that the news’ greatly increased coverage of sport during this period was distracting the focus of these broadcasts away from ‘real news’*.

This attitude could potentially be considered an offshoot of our schooldays; schoolteachers, particularly at the lower ages, hate their charges becoming overly competitive, as taking it all too seriously can easily lead to jealousies, resentments and arrogance that just make the lot of a teacher even more of a social minefield than it already is. That’s not to say they think all competition is a bad thing, merely that it all works much better for everyone if it’s not blown out of all proportion and made to be the be-all and end-all of the school hierarchy. Since this competitiveness is, of course, most prominently demonstrated on the sporting field and, despite many a teacher’s efforts to the contrary, the practice of class’ social structure dividing along lines very similar to sporting (or, in many cases simply footballing) ability is common in schools across the country, among schoolchildren of all ages. In an effort to at least try and prevent this, many children are encouraged from a young age not to take the results of various sporting contests too seriously; hence the origin of that age-old phrase ‘it’s only a game’.

But is it really ‘just a game’? Is sport to be so easily dismissed as an irrelevant sideshow, just a game for kids to mess around with and to make us laugh, before we get on with the business of the ‘real world’? It’s true that sport has all manner of reasons for not totally dominating our way of life; it doesn’t greatly affect how many people are in work or the productive output of the human race in general, it doesn’t help save the environment or make any real change on our world’s political landscape, and its contribution to human technological advancement isn’t quite as significant as that of, say, NASA. However, this doesn’t mean that sport is merely some meaningless sideshow, unimportant in the grand scheme of things without lasting consequences; indeed, arguably, sport does just as much for mankind as a whole than everything your chosen newspaper will publish this year.

Consider the story of the famous Christmas football matches that took place in No Man’s Land in the winter of 1915 on the Western front, allowing Entente and Alliance forces to come into contact with one another and realise that these young men on the other side of the barbed wire were not so very different from themselves; one of the first times that the jingoistic view of the enemy as some kind of unimaginable monster was challenged and thus helping to pave the way for modern pacifism. Consider the 1995 Rugby World Cup, in which the new South African president Nelson Mandela was able to unite members of all ethnicities within ‘the Rainbow Nation’ behind a traditionally Afrikaner sport and to start making slow inroads into the decades of institutionalised racism that had previously blighted the country.  Consider how, every Saturday, men and women across the globe give up a few hours of their day to do something that helps them get a little bit healthier, gets them out and about and interacting with other people, and in many cases provides a regular reminder of the value of teamwork and generally getting along with one another.

Admittedly, these sentiments are not universally practiced within the sporting world, but in the majority of cases they are; and in that respect sport may be taking us closer to utopia than any number of technological achievements. Sport demonstrates to us the value of commitment, teamwork, dedication and the need to make sacrifices in the pursuit of greatness, not to mention the astounding ability sport has to bring people from all walks of life together and show them off at their best, in the process serving social equality and understanding better than any political lobbying. A post like this has little in the way of a natural conclusion, but it does have a point; the idea that sport is ‘only a game’ ignores that it, and what it stands for, can be so much more than that, and that to ignore its significance, to dismiss it as something merely symbolic, is indicative of an attitude that may have somewhat lost sight of what its ultimate goal is.

Basically, sport is a pretty awesome thing and deserves a little more respect in places.

*The ‘real news’ in question actually referred to the situation in Syria, something I’ve already done a post and personally consider something definitely not worth being shoved to one side for anything; but it was nonetheless reported with all appropriate seriousness and the main complaint of the writer in question appeared to be that newsreaders were being too happy by announcing medals immediately after reporting on it. And anyway, it weakens my point to mention that.

Leave Reality at Home

One of the most contentious issues surrounding criticisms of many forms of media, particularly in films and videogames, is the issue of realism. How realistic a videogame is, how accurately it replicates the world around us both visually and thematically, is the most frequently cited factor in determining how immersive a game is, how much you ‘get into it’, and films that keep their feet very much in the real world delight both nerds and film critics alike by responding favourably to their nit-picking. But the place of realism in these media is not a simple question of ‘as much realism as possible is better’; finding the ideally realistic situation (which is a phrase I totally didn’t just make up) is a delicate balance that can vary enormously from one product to another, and getting that balance right is frequently the key to success.

That too much realism can be a bad thing can be demonstrated quite easily on both a thematic and visual front. To deal with the visual sphere of things first, I believe I have talked before about ‘the uncanny valley’, which is originated as a robotics term first hypothesised by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori. The theory, now supported by research from the likes of Hiroshi Ishiguro (who specialises in making hyper-realistic robots), states that as a robot gets steadily more and more human in appearance, humans tend to react more favourably to it, until we reach a high point of a stylised, human-like appearance that is nonetheless clearly non-human. Beyond this point, however, our reactions to such a robot get dramatically worse, as the design starts to look less like a human-like robot and more like a very weird looking human, until we get to the point at which the two are indistinguishable from one another and we reach another peak. This dip in positive reacton, the point where faces start to look ‘creepy’, is known as the uncanny valley, and the principle can be applied just as easily to computer graphics as it can to robots. The main way of overcoming the issue involves a careful design process intended to stylise certain features; in other words, the only way to make something quite realistic not look creepy is to make it selectively less realistic. Thus, hyper-realism is not always the way forward in drawn/animated forms of media, and won’t be until the magical end-goal of photorealistic graphics are achieved. If that ever happens.

However, the uncanny valley is far less interesting than the questions that arise when considering the idea of thematic realism (which I again totally didn’t just make up). These are the extent to which stories are realistic, or aspects of a story, or events in a film and somesuch, and here we arrive at an apparent double standard. Here, our evidence comes from nerds; as we all know, film nerds (and I suspect everyone else if they can find them) delight in pointing out continuity errors in everything they watch (a personal favourite is the ‘Hollywood’ sign in the remake of The Italian Job that quite clearly says OHLLYWOOD at one camera angle), and are prepared to go into a veritable tizz of enjoyment when something apparently implausible is somehow able to adhere fastidiously to the laws of physics. Being realistic is clearly something that can add a great deal to a film, indicating that the director has really thought about this; not only is this frequently an indicator of a properly good film, but it also helps satisfy a nerd’s natural desire to know all the details and background (which is the reason, by the way, that comic books spend so much of their time referencing to overcomplicated bits of canon).

However, evidence that reality is not at the core of our enjoyment when it comes to film and gaming can be quite easily revealed by considering the enormous popularity of the sci-fi and fantasy genres. We all of course know that these worlds are not real and, despite a lot of the jargon spouted in sci-fi to satisfy the already mentioned nerd curiosity, we also know that they fundamentally cannot be real. There is no such thing as magic, no dilithium crystals, no hyperspace and no elves, but that doesn’t prevent the idea of them from enjoying massive popularity from all sides. I mean, just about the biggest film of last summer was The Avengers, in which a group of superheroes fight a group of giant monsters sent through a magical portal by an ancient Norse god; about as realistic as a tap-dancing elephant, and yet most agreed as to the general awesomeness of that film. These fantastical, otherworldly and/or downright ridiculous worlds and stories have barely any bearing on the real world, and yet somehow this somehow makes it better.

The key detail here is, I think, the concept of escapism. Possibly the single biggest reason why we watch films, spend hours in front of Netflix, dedicate days of our life to videogames, is in pursuit of escapism; to get away from the mundaneness of our world and escape into our own little fantasy. We can follow a super-soldier blasting through waves of bad guys such as we all dream to be able to do, we can play as a hero with otherworldly magic at our fingertips , we can lead our sports teams to glory like we could never do in real life. Some of these stories take place in a realistic setting, others in a world of fantasy, yet in all the real pull factor is the same; we are getting to play or see a world that we fantasise about being able to live ourselves, and yet cannot.

The trick of successfully incorporating reality into these worlds is, therefore, one of supporting our escapism. In certain situations, such as in an ultra-realistic modern military shooter, an increasingly realistic situation makes this situation more like our fantasy, and as such adds to the immersion and the joy of the escapism; when we are facing challenges similar to those experienced by real soldiers (or at least the over-romanticised view of soldiering that we in fact fantasise about, rather than the day-to-day drudgery that is so often ignored), it makes our fantasy seem more tangible, fuelling the idea that we are, in fact, living the dream. On the other hand, applying the wrong sort of realism to a situation (like, say, not being able to make the impossible jumps or failing to have perfect balance) can kill the fantasy, reminding us just as easily as the unreality of a continuity error that this fantasy we are entertaining cannot actually happen, reminding us of the real world and ruining all the fun. There is, therefore, a kind of thematic uncanny valley as well; a state at which the reality of a film or videogame is just… wrong, and is thus able to take us out of the act of escapism. The location of this valley, however, is a lot harder to plot on a graph.

King Rubbish the Awful

Last time you got a top 5 best English monarchs, but in the interests of balance and fair representation, it is worth remembering that the monarchs of England and Great Britain, like those of just about every other country, were on the whole a bunch of feckless idiots who hadn’t the faintest idea how to rule and were distinctly underqualified for the job. And here, to represent them as best (or worst) as possible is a Top 4 (because seriously, this post is long enough already without having to pick another one of the morons), distilling from a long and competitive list the four worst rulers ever to sit upon the throne of England. Or Great Britain.

Once again, we proceed in chronological order…

Ethelred the Unready*(978-1016) 

In his ‘History of the English-Speaking Peoples’, Winston Churchill describes Ethelred as ‘a weakling, a vacillator, a faithless, feckless creature’, and by all accounts that wasn’t a bad description. One of the few kings whose bad reputation doesn’t come from having fallen out with the Church or a subsequent King, Ethelred’s utter uselessness almost single-handedly ended Anglo-Saxon rule in England- twice.

Ethelred came to power at a time when Vikings had, after being kept out first by Athelstan and several subsequent generations of Saxon kings, began once again to pillage the coast of England. However, whilst other kings had faced down the invaders with an army at their back, when Vikings landed on Ethelred’s shores he simply paid them to go away. These ‘Danegeld’ payments were made in 991, 994 and 1002, costing England 56,000 pounds in total to buy a peace that kept being broken. On their own, this might have been fine, as even Alfred the Great had bought the Danes off to buy him time, but they utterly failed to stop the raids and Ethelred for his part did not prevent them from still coming. Rather than preparing for the inevitable open war that would surely result he instead became paranoid and made one of the most horrific and downright cowardly orders in history; that every single Dane living in England, even Anglicised Danes who had been living there for years, was to be assassinated on the same day. The St. Brice’s Day massacre was pure bloodthirsty genocide, as Ethelred’s men even burnt down churches full of people in one of the world’s most horrible displays of the savage side to human nature. One-third of the Danish population of England are estimated to have died, including a noblewoman called Gunhilde. Gunhilde’s brother, Swein Forkbeard, happened to be King of Denmark, and next year he came across the north sea and attacked England. Twice in the next ten years Ethelred paid the Danegeld again, costing a total of 84,000 pounds this time, before finally he was uprooted from the throne and replaced with Swein’s son Canute.

That wasn’t the end of the invasions Ethelred brought to England. He had married Emma of Normandy, who later married King Canute and, when neither of his sons produced heirs, this allowed the throne to pass back to Ethelred’s son Edward the Confessor. However, Emma’s brother Robert would later produce a son who would rise to become Duke of Normandy. It was this loose link to the Ethelred (Edward was his second cousin), that gave his claim to the English throne legitimacy, and led William, Duke of Normandy to invade and become William I of England.

Although that one can’t really be judged his fault.

*Ethelred’s nickname ‘the unready’ is actually a mis-translated play on his name; ‘red’ or ‘raed’ means ‘counsel’ in old English, and Ethelred roughly translates to ‘noble counsel’ (or ‘good advice’). His Old English nickname was actually ‘Unraed’, which roughly means ‘no counsel’ or ‘bad advice’. His name is, therefore, the Old English equivalent of a pun; ‘Good counsel the no counsel’ (jokes were very much in their infancy back then). Whether ‘no counsel’ should be taken to mean ‘ill-advised’ or ‘bad planner’ is unclear, but it illustrates the point that, whether he or his advisors were to blame, Ethelred’s reign was not a good one. Although, admittedly, he did apparently make some good legal reforms; just a shame about all the Vikings getting in the way.

John (1199-1216)

Everyone knows about king John and his general awfulness, even if their image is straight out of Robin Hood. The signs weren’t good from before he even took the throne; acting as caretaker ruler whilst his brother Richard (who almost made this list himself) was fighting the crusades, he both attempted (and failed) to rebel against him and then, when Richard was captured he (allegedly; the Church may have made this up) sent a message to the Holy Roman Emperor offering him a large sum of money not to let him go. An even larger sum eventually bankrupted England and got Richard home again, whereupon he promptly set off to France to get killed in a siege and landed John on the throne. This annoyed a lot of his French barons, who promptly switched their allegiance to John’s twelve year-old nephew Arthur instead, and when John had Arthur captured and killed he successfully alienated the king of France and most of his barons. With noble after noble allying themselves with the French, John lost all the French possessions his father Henry II had won, and then crowned the catastrophe by losing Normandy to the French as well. It was this that earned him the nickname ‘Softsword’.

Not content with merely losing half of modern France (and spending a ton of money in the process, and pissing everyone off with his heavy-handed attempts to keep the economy afloat, and dropping the Crown Jewels in quicksand for good measure), he then proceeded to argue with the Pope too. This, more than anything, cemented his dreadful reputation, since the Church wrote the history books; the Vatican effectively excommunicated the entire country and declared all baptisms that occurred illegitimate, and John responded by nicking a ton of Church land in an attempt to drum up some much-needed cash. This got John himself excommunicated, and under any other circumstance he would surely have been replaced in no time. However, with no other proper claimant to the throne, it was John’s barons who took the initiative, forcing him to sign the Magna Carta to ensure he toed to a line of some sort. Not that it worked, and the First Barons War started as a result. And the country got a French prince on the throne for a year.

Richard II (1377-99)

The reign of this most unmemorable of Richards (the only one of England’s 3 thus far not to die in battle) started with such promise. When the most famous of England’s peasant revolts took place in London in 1381 (in response to some particularly harsh post-Black Death economic measures), killing several officials at the Tower of London, the fourteen year old king was ‘volunteered’, presumably by his terrified advisors, to go and meet with their leader Wat Tyler. Upon being presented with a list of demands that would have made Lenin look like a Tory, Richard made the smart move (from both a political and a ‘keeping-your-neck-intact’ perspective) of simply agreeing with them and asking to meet the next day and go over the details. In that meeting, Tyler was killed, Richard was able to calm everyone down and the mob were dispersed without any of their demands met.

Unfortunately, Richard failed to utilise any of this tact and manners when dealing with his nobles, and as he grew older he grew particularly bad-tempered and unpopular (some historians believe he may have been schizophrenic or have some other personality disorder), particularly among his barons. Richard believed in the absolute royal right to rule and disliked having to appease his other landed gentry; this was not unusual at the time, but Richard was a vain man (the first to insist on being called ‘your majesty’) and lived expensively, wasting most of the money saved by peace. His belief in his own power also led him to become increasingly tyrannical. He packed the court with his favourites (and possibly a gay lover too) rather than the person best suited to the job, and lavished money on them; when asked by his barons to sack his Chancellor Michael de la Pole, he refused to dismiss ‘a scullion’ on Parliament’s wishes, and war was imminent. Richard lost, was returned to the throne (minus his favourites, many of whom were executed) by his uncle John of Gaunt*, spent eight years brooding about it and then started nicking the land of all the nobles who’d rebelled against him. When he finally took the land of Henry Bolingbroke, John of Gaunt’s son and heir to the throne, the country rallied to Henry and swept Richard from power (becoming Henry IV). He died in prison a year later, and history remembers him as another king who pushed Parliament too far.

*John of Gaunt was the dominant political figure of Richard’s age and was so called, for some reason, because he came from Ghent. His main claim to fame comes from the oft-quoted claim that everybody in Europe today is, statistically, his descendant.

Charles I (1625-49)

When we’re talking about pushing Parliament too far, it’s hard to trump the sheer idiocy of Charles I. Like his father James I, Charles was brought up to believe in the divine right of kings; that God had placed him on the throne and no man had the right to challenge his authority. Again like his father, he was also sympathetic to the Catholic cause, and was married to a French catholic. This was not sensible in a country such as England, where a hard line Puritan Parliament was a noble’s main source of funding and power and Catholicism was reviled across the land; but this might have been tolerated as it was for his father and son had Charles not taken to his role with such sheer arrogance. Charles dissolved Parliament in 1629 and arresting nine men after they disagreed with him, which was seen as downright tyrannical, and then attempted to rule without Parliament for 12 years, something even his father hadn’t dared try. With this major income source cut off, Charles embarked on a series of deeply unpopular, often inefficient and in places straight up illegal moneymaking techniques, which did nothing to improve his PR. When he attempted to introduce a new prayer book in Scotland without asking anyone first, the resulting backlash ended in military defeat and he was finally forced to call Parliament again. A month later, amid massive financial argument, Charles dismissed his Parliament, got trounced by the Scots again, and was forced to recall it. After getting half his advisers convicted of treason and Parliament granting themselves a sharp increase in power just to put two fingers up to Charles, Ireland chose that moment to erupt into religious civil war. Charles’ power was falling about around his ears, but not even this was enough to persuade the English to do something so bad-mannered as to rebel against their arrogant, unpopular, Catholic-sympathising king.

Indeed, had it ended there, Charles’ reign would probably have been almost a carbon copy of King John’s; military failure followed by disagreement with Church and nobility forcing Charles to hand much of his power over to the latter. Here, however, Charles played his trump card of insanely dumb ideas; marching into Parliament armed with 400 soldiers and attempting to arrest his five main opponents- which would have been fine were freedom from arrest within the chamber not one of the fundamental rights of Parliament, and the fact that they hadn’t done anything illegal. Having successfully alienated pretty much the entire country, Charles then proceeded to lose the English Civil war, become the only English king ever to get beheaded  and put the Puritan Taliban (sorry, Oliver Cromwell and co.) in charge of Britain. So thanks a balls ton.

And the worst part is, there’s even historical proof that it was all unnecessary. Charles’ son, Charles II, was also anti-Parliamentarian (digging up those who had executed his father and re-hanging their dead bodies, among other things), a Catholic sympathiser and a frequently absentee monarch, but when he remembered to recall Parliament his charm was such that he was cheered through the House of Commons and invited the members to the royal wine cellar for a drink. Charles II was a likeable, friendly character who disagreed with parliament about everything and still managed to enjoy 25 peaceful years in power. Charles I was an arrogant twerp who nobody liked, and we got one of Britain’s bloodiest wars out of it.

 

A final note; developments in my personal life mean that, at least for the moment, I’m going to have to once again drop the post count. For the immediate future, posts will be on Saturdays only

Top 5 ‘Upper Class Idiots In Charge’

In his excellent book ‘An Utterly Impartial History Of Britain’ (which I use as partial source material for far too many of my history-based posts), author John O’Farrell offers us the subtitle of ‘Two Thousand Years of Upper Class Idiots In Charge’. As a description of Britain’s, and indeed most of the world’s, political history, it is an almost depressingly accurate sobriquet; only in the last hundred years (and some would argue not even nowadays given who currently sits in No. 10) have ‘commoners’ been given the chance to rule our little island, and not since King William III has any effective power rested with anyone other than the hereditary monarch. However, just as with elected Prime Ministers, some of these upper-class idiots have done a significantly better job than others at running our country, and since I love a good arbitrary list as much as anyone I thought I would dedicate this post to detailing my Top 5 English* Monarchs. Oh, and a quick apology; this is going to be a long one.

*Because I am not all that familiar with pre-Union Scottish, Irish or Welsh history, my list will be drawn from the line representing the English monarchy that began in 927 and later became the Kingdom of Great Britain under the ‘rule’ of Queen Anne. Technically, therefore, some of the monarchs considered will be British, rather than English, but to dub this a list of British monarchs would a) be doing the other kings of this isle who do not form part of this line and who I am unfamiliar with a severe disservice and b) make the job of choosing just five one hell of a lot more complicated. OK, let’s begin, in chronological order:

Athelstan (927-39)

Despite strong challenges from his grandfather, Alfred the Great (who was unfortunately ruler of Wessex, rather than England) and the Viking king Canute, Athelstan takes his rightful place here as the greatest pre-Norman king of England. This is partly thanks to the fact he created the title; in 924 he inherited the Kingdom of Wessex and immediately embarked on a campaign to throw the Vikings out of the Danegeld (the land north of the old Roman road Watling street) that had been allocated to them by Alfred. It should be mentioned that this was less a ‘liberation’ than a land grab, but nonetheless he was one of the most staggeringly effective military leaders in British history; he conquered all the land between the Midlands and Northumberland (including the historic Viking capital of York), defeated the King of Scotland, marched back down south to take control of Wales (hence why the ‘English’ throne has always incorporated Wales) and the inconveniently titled West Wales (Devon & Cornwall), and finally defeated a coalition army of pretty much all of the above to become recognised as the undisputed king of all England (and a few other bits besides) in 937. Little is known about his domestic policy (this was the Dark Ages after all), but he nonetheless deserves credit as being a truly ‘great’ leader in the classical sense of the word.

Henry II (1154-89)

Henry II was not really an English monarch; he was a Frenchman, head of the Angevin Empire that stretched from Scotland to the southern tip of France, incorporating France’s entire Atlantic coast and control of both sides of the English channel. This owed much to his cleverly strategic marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine, de facto ruler of much of western France at the time, and it is a tribute to his sheer energy that he was able to manage all of it with such aplomb. So impatient was he to get on with the day’s work, he reportedly chose his chaplain based on who could get through mass the fastest.

During his reign, Henry made some quite staggering achievements, controlling his barons (who would later force his son John to sign the Magna Carta) to great effect, reconquering the land won back by the Scots and Welsh from his predecessors’ rule, revolutionising the justice system with the creation of the offices of sherriff and coroner and generally micromanaging the realm to within an inch of its life with great effect, both military and economic. In fact, he only made two notable mistakes during his entire reign; the first was an invasion of Ireland that set the two countries on course for an 800 year long dispute that would cost thousands of lives, and the second concerned his attempts to bring the ultra-powerful Church under his control. When his hand-picked Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas a Becket, began to stop toeing the Henry line, the infamously hot tempered king shouted an order that was misinterpreted by a group of his knights to walk into Canterbury Cathedral (holy ground, upon which blood was not allowed to be spilt) and bash Becket’s brains out then and there. The Church milked the scandal for all it was worth, making Thomas a saint and vilifying Henry to the highest degree. Even today, many only know Henry because of the ‘Becket incident’.

Edward III (1327-77)

During his half-century reign, Edward III made a major impression in just about every part of England and English life at the time. Whilst his father Edward II had lost to the Scots at Bannockburn, enabling them to establish independence, Edward III was quick to march back over the border and quickly won victory over Robert the Bruce’s son David II at Halidon Hill, forcing him into exile and replacing him with the more compliant Edward Balliol, who promptly gave back all the land Robert had taken from the English. This was, in fact, a preferable situation to having the Scots under English rule, where they would simply rebel, as the subsequent half-century of political muddling over Scotland’s future prevented it from mounting a threat to English lands. With Scotland out of the way, Edward made the slightly more dubious decision to begin the Hundred Years War (had he known that was going to be the title, he might have considered against it) to enforce his claim to the French throne, and in doing so won stunning victories at the Battles of Sluys (at sea, in which the court jester was forced to break the humiliating news to the French king by saying how the cowardly English didn’t dare jump into the sea like the brave Frenchmen) and Crecy (on land, in which his bowmen and infantry soundly defeated the French cavalry, shattering the supposed invincibility of the mounted knight and beginning the slow demise of the knight in warfare). Had the Black Death not had the discourtesy to come along in the middle and wipe out nearly 40% of the European population (in turn utterly changing the balance of power in Europe), the Hundred Years’ War might have all but ended there with England’s victory over the French (although that would require the war to get a new name). Especially since he’d captured the French king.

But it was not just on the battlefield that Edward had success. He founded the Order of the Garter, still the highest office in the British Honours system, to maintain the chivalric code a little longer, cleared corrupt officials out of government to create an efficient, profitable taxation system and government, strengthened the legal system and Parliament (making the House of Commons and Lords separate entities) whilst increasing the monarchy’s importance and authority, and fostered a sense of Englishness in his country for the first time; St George, for example, became England’s patron saint. It is worth noting in relation to this latter point that this was also the era of Geoffrey Chaucer, whose Canterbury Tales would become among the most significant works in history by establishing English as a written language for the first time.

Henry VII (1485-1509)

As every schoolboy knows, Henry VII became the first Tudor king after victory at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, but that was to be the last significant military action during his reign (and indeed, the last time an English king won their throne in battle). Unlike many of his ‘great’ predecessors, Henry gains a place on this list by being one of the most effective, if unglamorous, of all British rulers on the domestic front. Soon after Bosworth Field, the Lancastrian Henry married the Yorkist Eleanor of York, both bolstering his claim to the throne and uniting the two houses that had fought so viciously during the wars of the roses and ensuring his heir would be regarded as legitimate by all. He then, somehow, managed to persuade all the barons to obey his edict that banned their keeping the private militias that had so helped him on his rise to power, and then started milking off most of the resulting cash generated as part of his highly effective taxation system. That he managed to stay on the throne of a country full of immensely powerful barons who he was then able to gain control over and squeeze money out of based on a rather weak claim without any significant bloodshed is as good a testament as any to his interpersonal and management skills, and he spent the next two decades amassing the biggest fortune of any English king to date (in spite of his decision not to grant Columbus a royal charter to sail across the Atlantic, a deal that would net Spain all the gold of South America). It’s a shame his son Henry VIII would go on to spend nearly all of it on rather wasteful ventures, but that was hardly his fault

Elizabeth II

OK, a bold call I’ll admit, but hear me out. The English monarchy can be argued to have passed through three stages in its long and illustrious history; the pre-feudal phase, when a mixture of an elective council, assassins and armies were the ultimate decider of who was on the throne, the medieval phase (post William the Conqueror) in which Britain was a fairly typical feudal monarchy run by its hereditary monarch, and the Parliamentary phase (post William III) where the monarchy became more and more of a ceremonial role with all real power coming from Parliament (some would date this period from Charles I and Oliver Cromwell’s rule, but there was significant power jostling between monarch and Parliament for the rest of the Stuart era until the monarchs finally assumed a subservient position). Of  my previous four picks, three has been from the medieval phase and one from the pre-feudal, but the very nature of the monarchy during this third period means that ‘greatness’ doesn’t really spring up in the traditional sense. However, I felt this period needed some representation, and our current Queen has adapted to the role of a monarch during this period better than any other, fulfilling her symbolic role whilst not arrogantly attempting to pretend to power. Not only that, but she has had to do so during what must be the most tumultuous period of change experienced in any monarch’s reign, and has coped with this change magnificently. Whether you think that her role or the concept of a monarch should exist at all, it is hard to deny that she has done her job. Which is more that can be said for most of her ancestors.