August 7th, 2011


August Books 6) The Plot Against Pepys, by James Long and Ben Long

An excellent narrative of the chain of events by which Samuel Pepys was imprisoned in the Tower of London as part of the Popish Plot hysteria of 1679 - a truly horrible moment of witch-hunting against Catholics and suspected allies of the Duke of York, the heir to the throne, who had been exiled from England because of his religion. Faced by false accusers who had powerful political allies, Pepys' life was clearly in danger; but he cooly assembled evidence in his own defence and was able to hang on until the political wind changed in his favour. A very nice micro-study of how a well-known set of political events affected a well-known figure of the time. Particularly nice to have detail on Pepys' main accuser, an adventurer who had got enmeshed in the politics of Connecticut, Long Island, and New Amsterdam (which had recently been captured by the British and renamed after the Duke of York).

I watched the 2003 TV play, The Private Life of Samuel Pepys, starring Steve Coogan in the title role last week, but it really didn't work for me - Coogan is too tall (Pepys was only 5'1", 155 cm) and the part was written too awkwardly and naively - the real Pepys was always outwardly confident, especially with women. This book, published 5 years later, is much better.

August Books 7) Primate Robinson, 1709-94, by A.P.W. Malcolmson

Anyone who knows Armagh at all well will be familiar with the architectural legacy of Richard Robinson, who was the Church of Ireland archbishop there from 1765 to his death in 1794, and built the archbishops' palace, the old library and the observatory, the latter intended to be the nucleus of a university which never came into being. In this short book Malcolmson deconstructs Robinson's record, pointing out that after the first twelve years of his almost three decades at the top of the Irish ecclesiastical tree, he did almost nothing, lingering in England for the sake of his health; and also cruelly pointing out that given the resources available to him, both financial and architectural, one could reasonably have expected something more substantial and interesting to be done for Armagh - the great Francis Johnston was involved but only at the very start of his career. Malcolmson is also critical of Robinson's political apathy; having reached a key position in the Irish scene at a relatively early age, he then did nothing with it but block his rivals, and even lost interest in doing that after 1779.

It's an entertaining bash of a little-known figure. I do think it's a little unfair. Robinson's buildings in Armagh are still pleasing elements of the townscape over two centuries on, and he also built the Canterbury quad at his old Oxford college, Christ Church. Given the poisonous politics of the time I think silence in public discourse is a perfectly defensible strategy. And even by Malcolmson's account, Robinson remained moderately active in public life until after his seventieth birthday, at a time when male life expectancy was half of that. It's fair to say that he was more mediocre than I had realised but he had never been a particular hero.

Gibbon Chapter LVIII: The First Crusade

In this chapter, Peter the Hermit preaches the crusade to liberate Jerusalem from the Turks; the Pope and the western European rulers pick it up; Alexius Comnenus, the Byzantine Emperor, succeeds in channelling the Crusaders' energies to Syria and Palestine, where they carve out a set of new Christian kingdoms. See also notes on Islamophobia, Anna Comnena, whether the Crusades were a just war, the Celts among the crusaders, cannibalism, the Holy Lance and the Assizes of Jerusalem.