British comedian and actor David Mitchell is well-known for his many TV shows. UNRULY is his first book and it’s a gem. Subtitled ‘A history of England’s Kings and Queens’ this is unlike any history book you’ve read before. It’s more like the demon child of Blackadder and Horrible Histories after a big night out. Unruly is hilarious, it’s irreverent, and it’s very rude and crude. This is absolutely not the book to gift to your old aunt who likes watching The Crown.
Beginning with King Arthur, who was never actually king because there was no such person, and ending with the death of Elizabeth the First in 1603, this is a hilarious romp through roughly a thousand years of royal history. And as Mitchell says ‘while King Arthur didn’t exist, the idea of him is lurking, guiltily or inspiringly, in the minds of many of the rulers who did.’
As you would expect from a professional comic like Mitchell, UNRULY is very funny. The parliament of Edward I is described as ‘a lot of astronomically posh men with the recent addition of some very posh men.’ And Henry the Eighth, probably the best-known today of all these royals, especially after the success of Six the Musical and many film and TV portrayals, is described as having a ‘cruel piggy-eyed face. He looks a right c**t.’ (I added the **; Mitchell uses the word in full, surprisingly often throughout the book. Along with many other words that would make your old aunt blush.
Describing an image showing the murder of Thomas Becket, Mitchell says ‘note the monk on the right doing f**k all about it.’) This is definitely not a book for children or readers of a more delicate disposition. Richard II is described as ‘a colossal twat’ and Henry the Sixth was ‘a kindly prat who caused chaos.’ And it’s fair to say from reading this that the great majority of kings and queens profiled here were a whole lot worse than that.
Mitchell supports all his mayhem and madness with an impressive depth of research and lots of little details that show he actually does know his history. He reveals how the actions of Edward I back in the early 14th Century ‘caused a deep cultural pain’ in Scotland, making him ‘an unwitting blacksmith in the sword of Scottish independence.’
Mitchell also observes in the epilogue (quaintly called the bookend) that the Viking invasion stirred the beginnings of a real sense of English unity. ‘English national identity was first defined merely as not being Scandinavian or Celtic. Ultimately, he says the monarchs were ‘a product of a flawed system, like litter or traffic jams.’
It’s not surprising that UNRULY instantly shot to the number one spot on the Sunday Times best-seller list when it was released in the UK last year. We can only pray that its success will encourage Mitchell to write a sequel – I would love to read his take on more recent generations of the royal family.
This is one of the most amusing history books you’ll find and even at some 400 pages it’s a surprisingly easy read. Each chapter is just a jolly little romp of a few pages and then it’s on to the next disreputable monarch, another ill-considered war, or yet another failed crusade. And so it goes on. Mitchell also narrates the audio book of UNRULY that comes at over eleven hours – enough to keep you company on a slow drive from Sydney to Melbourne. Highly recommended.
David Mitchell’s UNRULY is published by Penguin Random House, RRP $36.99
Review by Dr Diana Carroll