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March 2019



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1066 And All What?

You know how sometimes you find random mentions of a book in quite different places, and that these usually go in threes? This has happened to me in the past week with 1066 and All That by Sellar and Yeatman*, first published in 1930 and one of the great comic classics. So I read it again. When I was a student, everyone had to read What is History? by E H Carr. Sellar and Yeatman answer the question thus: it is what you can remember. I first met the book at school and these are the kinds of things I found killingly funny when I was young:
Richard I being known as ‘Richard Gare de Lyon’ because as soon as he arrived back in England he set off again for the Mediterranean.
‘Prince Rupert of Hentzau, who was very dashing in all directions’
(Palmerston’s) ‘heartless conspiracy to murder Bill
The book is full of such obviously funny things (well, they’re funny to me), but a lot went over my head then and it’s so densely written that I’m sure there are plenty of jokes in it I still haven’t got. Just on this last reading I noticed for the *first time* duh, that in the chapter on James I, when ‘1 New Presbyter = 1 OLD PRIEST’, ‘old priest’ is actually ‘writ large’ in the book.*2

It seems to be taken for granted that S & Y were mocking the style of narrative history made popular by H E Marshall in Our Island Story, a history book for children published in 1905. (This was recently reprinted at the behest of conservative-minded people feeling that children are now deprived of narrative history.) Fifty years later the same style could be found in the Ladybird Adventures in History series, written by L du Garde Peach. These are among my very favourite history books: ‘Everything would have been wonderful in England if it hadn’t been for the Danes’. Oh, those pesky Danes, coming over here, of course in Waves.

Waves, ‘that long succession of Waves of which History is largely composed.’ is just one of the many clichés used throughout the book. Good Things, Bad Kings, surfeits, causes and results abound But S & Y are laughing not only at historical writing but at the Anglo-centric attitude that the English *must* be best. This is brilliantly expressed in the Flanders and Swann song The English:
‘And all the world over each nation's the same
They've simply no notion of playing the game
They argue with umpires, they cheer when they've won
And they practise before hand which spoils all the fun’
In 1066&AT the English always prefer to be fighting against the odds (the reason they were defeated at Bannockburn by a spider) and are Whiggishly progressing inexorably towards being top nation.

Sellar & Yeatman wrote several other ‘funny’ books which no one reads now. I think the reason is that there are some serious points buried in 1066&AT. Take this account:
‘The Scots (originally Irish, but by now Scotch) were at this time inhabiting Ireland, having driven the Irish (Picts) out of Scotland; while the Picts (originally Scots) were now Irish (living in brackets) and vice versa. It is essential to keep these distinctions clearly in mind (and verce visa).’
I don’t think many people could explain that any better! There’s certainly a lot of truth in the assertion that Gladstone’s attempts to ‘guess the answer to the Irish Question’ were doomed because ‘whenever he was getting warm, the Irish secretly changed the question.’

I think a lot of the writing is actually rather subversive. Each clause of Magna Carta ends ‘(Except the Common People)’; ‘religion’ usually means killing people; blowing up Parliament would have been a Good Thing; the ‘Industrial Revelation’ ‘changed the faces of the North of England.’ The chapter on late nineteenth century imperial wars (‘wave of justifiable wars’) is masterly.

There’s almost a rage in some of this, such as Jim Dixon expresses at the end of his notorious lecture on Merrie England in Lucky Jim:
‘The point about Merrie England is that it was about the most un-Merrie period in our history.’
Lucky Jim is another book written after a World War and also discusses briefly the proper teaching of history.

I’d be lying if I said I read this book for its historiographical criticism. I read it because it makes me smile. It also confuses me. I’ve been reading Private Eye for so long that I sometimes can’t remember the real names of the politicians, lawyers and other malefactors they’ve given funny names to and the same applies to 1066&AT. For goodness sake, don’t read it before taking an exam or doing a quiz; you’ll never know Perkin Warbeck from Lambert Simnel again. Or is it Perkin Warmnel, or Lamkin or Warmmneck or Permnel…?

*Apparently, pronounced ‘Yetman’
*2 James I said, ‘New presbyter is but old priest writ large’


It's one thing I don't have a copy of and really should get.
I've got two!
I don't think I have a copy of that, and I really should - although all my primary school history was scottish, so a lot of it just goes over my head.

I do have a copy somewhere of a sort of sequel about all sorts of other things, which is very funny in places, although more hit and miss in others. I seem to remember it being very good about maths :)
Most Scottish history is a mystery to me, except when it's also English history; the very point Sellar & Yeatman made!

I think the book you have may be And Now All This?
I did a few years of school in Scotland and remember the James VI milk carton from when I was about 5. I think it was the fact that he could be James VI and James I that was memorable.

There was a good series on Scottish history on BBC 4, and it was very interesting. Religious differences seemed to play an even bigger part there than in England.
As we all know, James I 'slobbered at he mouth and had favourites' and so was a Bad King. I love him having Sir Walter Raleigh executed for being left over from the reign before.

I only know Scottish history where it comes into the Reformation and the Civil War. You're so right about the religious differences.
I read this book way back when, in my teens. It was the only history book I appreciated at a time when the history they were trying to teach us in school was dull, dull, dull.
I really must get another copy (that one belonged to my dad and I don't think he'll let me have it).
It's never been out of print, so there must be plenty of copies about.
It is going on my very next amazon order.
I think I was in my twenties before I read '1066 and All That': I knew the title, but little else, and was delighted when I finally did read it. Now I want to go and read it again - and maybe get even more out of it.
Hope you do!
Growing up in Scotland, I learnt most of my English history from Sellars and Yeatman. It left me with a Tendency to Capitalisation and a fondness for a number of Bad Kings.
I have that Folio edition and am pretty sure I only get a fraction of the jokes, but what I do get I find very funny.
I'm glad that so far everyone has said they find the book funny, too.


I know I thought this was hilarious when I read it aged 13, but you've made me realise how much must have passed over my head ... I certainly wouldn't have caught onto old priests Writ Large!
if you could do with a laugh, why not try it again?