Our Island Story is in our opinion, the best substantial narrative book on British history available for children. Considering that it was written nearly one hundred years ago, the content is remarkably good. However there are problems with this book in two areas:
1. There are errors of fact and interpretation, particularly in the early part of the book. These are mainly a function of the date at which the book was written. More is known as a result of modern research, and historical opinion has changed since the early twentieth century.
2. H.E.Marshall was writing from a Protestant perspective. Nothing in her writing suggests that she had any deliberate intent to be anti-Catholic, but she does make certain assumptions about aspects of Church history which are clearly influenced by her Protestant background. Occasionally these assumptions are plain wrong; at other times she is giving only one side of the story.
These notes are intended to make you aware of specific problems in Our Island Story and to help you to correct or counterbalance them when reading or discussing the book with your child. Occasionally you will need to edit the material, omitting or replacing a short section. More often you will need to add some extra information. With the help of these notes, you should find that Our Island Story is a living book you can use with confidence.
England, Britain and the United Kingdom
Before starting on Our Island Story it would be a good idea to look at a map with your child and learn the different countries that make up the British Isles: England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Today the British Isles contain two separate political units: the United Kingdom, made up of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (which still exist as countries within a country); and the Republic of Ireland (Eire). It is important to realise that when Our Island Story talks about England, it is not talking about either the United Kingdom or the whole of the British Isles. The United Kingdom as such did not come into existence until 1714.
Roman Britain and the Middle Ages
This first part of Our Island Story (Chapters I to XXV) is considerably weaker than the rest of the book as an historical account. The amount of written evidence for the period up to the Norman Conquest in 1066 is much less than for later history. At the time H.E.Marshall was writing what was known about Roman and Anglo-Saxon history was largely based on old chronicles, which were often a mixture of fact, fiction and fantasy. Even today, when a great deal more is known about this period thanks to modern archaeological techniques and more careful study of the sources that are available, there are still many gaps. The account of Anglo-Saxon England in particular reflects the mixture of fact and legend that was current in H.E.Marshall’s day. Sometimes she points out that a story is just legend, but she isn’t consistent about this.
Is it worth reading an account of history that we know is at times inaccurate and fantastical? I believe it is, as many of the stories told in Our Island Story have become part of British tradition. For generations all British children were familiar with the story of King Alfred burning the cakes (Ch.XVI); a story which may not be literally true, but does tell us something about the character King Alfred was supposed to have possessed. The stories of King Arthur were largely invented much later in the middle ages, but again, they have become part of the common currency of western culture. From quite a young age children are capable of distinguishing legend and reality. Where necessary, simply explain that a certain story is just that – a story, but a story that has been told for many hundreds of years.
Another problem that particularly affects this early section is interpretation. H.E.Marshall adopted the commonly held (and in her day historically respectable) view that English history was one of steady progress from the Anglo-Saxon period onwards. The Norman Conquest of England in 1066 was seen as an unfortunate setback, in which the English were defeated by perfidious foreigners. Her pro-English bias leads her into a number of errors, particularly in the chapters on the eleventh century.
From the Norman Conquest onwards, historians had far more evidence to draw on, and the basic outline of British history was already well understood when H.E.Marshall was writing. While today more detail is known and the interpretation of events has changed, the general outline of British history remains very much as H.E.Marshall portrays it.
This story is an old legend, told as a scene setter.
The description of Druids in this chapter is simply a popular romantic fantasy, without a grain of truth. When reading aloud, omit the section from ‘It is said that they received their name from Druis’ to ‘they even killed human beings in their sacrifices’. If this chapter is being read independently, explain that this is just a story that some people wrongly came to believe was true.
Chapters VIII, IX and X
These chapters are a mix of fact and legend. The stories of Vortigern, Constans, Rowena and Hengist and Horsa are just stories, but very old stories that are worth re-telling. They are part of ancient English folklore, and tell us what people long ago thought might have happened. The important truth here is the arrival of the Saxons and the conflict between the newcomers and the Britons. Even now historians know very little about this period of English history.
This chapter is pure fairy tale, but again, shows how people long ago imagined something might have happened. H.E.Marshall explains this herself: ‘Most people say this is a fairy tale, and ought not to be put in a history book. … I dare say they are right, but fairy tales are very interesting, and this fairy tale (if it is one) is to be found in some of the first histories of Britain that were ever written. So certainly at one time people must have believed it to be true.’ After reading this chapter, look at a picture of Stonehenge and discuss how and why it might have been built.
Chapters XII and XIII
The same applies here – ancient stories which are worth telling in their own right, but are fantasy not history. The story of King Arthur and his knights as we know it was first told in a twelfth century chronicle, The History of the Kings of Britain, by Geoffrey of Monmouth. Through the middle ages the story grew and developed, until it reached its best known form in the fifteenth century in Le Mort D’Arthur by Thomas Malory. Whole books have been written about whether or not ‘King Arthur’ ever existed. It is known that in the sixth century the Britons won a great victory against the advancing Saxons, which slowed their progress across the country for some time. It is possible that the real ‘Arthur’ was a warleader or chieftain who led the Britons in this battle.
This is the last legendary chapter. From now on we are back in the realms of real history.
This is the first chapter to present problems for Catholics. King Edward the Confessor is a canonised saint, but H.E.Marshall’s paints a very negative picture of him. It is important to note that this is because she sees him as favouring Normans over the Saxon Earl Godwin and his family. It is true that a number of Normans came to England when Edward returned to exile and that this led to political conflicts. However, the picture of Earl Godwin and his son Harold as great Anglo-Saxon heroes is not one that modern historians would accept. At the end of the chapter H.E.Marshall tries to be fair (‘King Edward on the whole was a good king, but he had not those things in him which make a great king’). Then she is overcome by her conviction that Edward was ultimately responsible for the Norman Conquest: Edward encouraged Normans, focused on religious matters rather than good government, and ‘brought great sorrow upon the country’. Reading this could lead into a discussion about whether being a saintly individual necessarily makes somebody a good king.
H.E.Marshall’s bias continues as she gets carried away with enthusiasm for King Harold, ‘brave, handsome and kingly’. She is indulging in a little wishful thinking here! Harold was a powerful man in his own right before he became king and fought bravely for his throne, but there is nothing to suggest he was any more brave, more handsome or more kingly than his rival William. This chapter does give a very good description of Harold’s coronation, in a ceremony which has changed little over the past thousand years. What H.E.Marshall does not mention is that because of Harold’s oath-breaking William’s expedition to England was sanctioned by Pope Alexander II and took place under a papal banner.
‘Stigand, the archbishop who had crowned Harold, refused to crown William, and William in wrath retorted that he was no true bishop, and that he did not wish to be crowned by him.’
This is correct. Stigand, the archbishop of Canterbury at the time of the Norman Conquest, had never received the pallium (a circle of lambswool sent to every archbishop by the pope as a token of their office) from a legitimate pope. He had been promoted from bishop of Winchester to archbishop of Canterbury when his Norman predecessor was driven out in 1053, but the see of Canterbury had never been declared vacant. He also broke the rules of the Church by continuing to hold the bishopric of Winchester. William was right to say that he was “no true bishop”, and he was soon deposed and replaced by a legitimate archbishop. King Harold had been aware of Stigand’s dubious position and in fact chose to be crowned by the archbishop of York instead to avoid any doubt that the coronation was valid. (H.E.Marshall gets this right in Chapter XXII, but wrong in Chapter XXV.)
In this chapter she also talks about ‘wicked monks’ who were used to easy living, fine food and drink betraying the English rebel Hereward. You might wish to edit this bit.
The story of Gilbert and Rohesia, the parents of Thomas Becket is purely legendary and could be left out if you prefer.
Note: St Thomas is properly known as Thomas of Canterbury of Thomas Becket. The style ‘Thomas Ã Becket’ was a later romantic variation.
You may wish to omit the paragraph about Thomas’ motivation for his holy lifestyle: ‘It is difficult to understand why he did this’ to ‘… it was thought that he must be a saint’.
The causes given for the dispute between King Henry and the archbishop are generally accurate. In the mid-eleventh century the papacy had begun to clamp down on the appointment of bishops by kings and local rulers. It turned out to be a long running issue that flared up at intervals in various parts of Europe. So in part, at least, the clash between Henry and Becket was part of a wider argument. Another point at issue was the matter of Church courts. These had been introduced into England after the Norman Conquest, and H.E.Marshall is right to say that priests and others in holy orders (which included a large number of clerks in minor orders) could only be tried in the Church courts where penalties were limited. Occasionally the results were scandalous. It is doubtful whether it was the scandals that bothered King Henry: what truly worried him was the idea that the Church courts were dealing with matters that he felt should be subject to his own justice. Becket, on the other hand, was determined not to relinquish any of the privileges of his Church. In addition to these two big issues there were a number of more minor local causes of the dispute. While this section is generally correct, I would recommend omitting the unnecessary sentence ‘Many wicked people became priests simply that they might be able to do as much wrong as they liked, without being punished for it.’
Although King Henry II did penance for the death of St Thomas, it was not a total victory for the Church. For example, Henry acknowledged that bishops should be appointed by the Church, but this did not stop him interfering. When the see of Winchester fell vacant, his order to the monks whose duty it was to elect the new bishop was ‘I order you to hold a free election; nevertheless, I forbid you to appoint anyone save Richard, my clerk’. His clerk Richard was duly appointed!
It is true that Henry II went to Ireland with papal encouragement. In fact, the right to conquer Ireland had been granted to Henry by Pope Adrian IV in 1155. The papal bull (order) containing this donation is sometimes said to be a forgery, but historians now accept it as genuine.
Note: The Republic of Ireland became independent after this book was written, so it talks of Ireland as part of the United Kingdom.