My adolescence was littered with references no-one ever took the trouble to explain. One of Henry VIII’s wives was Catherine of Aragon. Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost was set in Navarre. And a historical atlas we were supplied with showed the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. What were Aragon, Navarre and the last-mentioned impossibility? I suspect none of our teachers knew. But Norman Davies, a historian with posts at Oxford, Cambridge and, unexpectedly, Krakow, and a hugely knowledgeable and witty writer, knows, and has devoted a book to relating their histories, and much more.
Vanished Kingdoms is utterly satisfying, a feast of 15 mouth-watering and intellectually nutritious courses. Single chapters cover swathes of history with great erudition, so that you feel it all adds up to a history of Europe itself (something Davies has already tackled, in fact). But instead you’re introduced to Savoy, Piedmont, Prussia, Burgundy, a state that only lasted a day, and another, Byzantium, that lasted over 1000 years.
There’s an exceptionally scholarly chapter on the ancient kingdom centered on Dumbarton in Scotland that’s virtually a history of the whole of northern Britain from the 5th to the 12th centuries. And Davies’s history of Savoy begins in 1033 and continues down to the squabbles of Italy’s dethroned royalty when one claimant punched another in the face, twice, at a wedding in Madrid in 2004.
But there’s also a semi-secret subtext to this incomparable book. That no state lasts forever is its oft-proclaimed theme, but what is less overtly stated is that Italy, Spain and the UK, among others, are already in the early stages of dissolution. Italy has never been very successful as a unified country, Davies asserts, and Spain’s Catalans and Basques have made their dissatisfaction with Madrid’s rule clear. As for the UK, it lost most of Ireland in 1922, and Scotland will be voting on separation in 2014. In our own lifetimes the Soviet Union has disappeared, Czechoslovakia has split in two, and Yugoslavia broken apart. What makes us think the process will stop there?
Davies, as a result, is essentially a historian of diverse localities. The great European states, which to us seem cast in bronze, are to him uneasy conglomerations of innumerable tiny zones, each with their own traditions and — more significantly — their own possible futures. Davies is the opposite of a believer in creeping internationalism, let alone the wider ambitions of the EU.
Meanwhile, he has stumbled on an astonishing subject for a long and meaty book. Some of the old European states — he couldn’t possibly cover them all — shifted their borders every few generations. Burgundy, today mostly in south-eastern France, had 15 manifestations in nearly 1,400 years, and Davies quietly awards reference books scores out of 15 for how many they manage to include (none scores the full total).
And he has enormous fun with all these princelings and petty potentates. Napoleon’s advance into what’s now (for the time being) Italy more than once proves fertile territory. Ancient mini-states were toppled by the revolutionary French, then resurrected in different form by the victors after the Battle of Waterloo. Napoleon III later offered assistance to the movement for Italian unity on condition that Nice and Savoy were ceded to France, and pseudo-plebiscites were arranged to confirm this already secretly-agreed arrangement. (The king of Savoy had assented because he saw that the kingship of a united Italy was within his grasp — a prize he was eventually to attain).
All the chapters follow the same format. They begin by describing a trip to somewhere in the area they intend to anatomize. Then comes the long exposition, invariably lively as well as informative, of the state’s rise and fall. Finally Davies muses on how and why it failed, often slightly sadly because he’s no moralist but rather a historical polymath with a whimsical taste for poetry and for abandoned loyalties.
It’s no accident that Davies is a Welsh name. Wales, with its long land border and small population, is likely to be the last part of the UK to secede, leaving England to welter in its abandoned factories and class-ridden population, still maintaining the old divisions among the ruins —is your house detached or semi-detached, do you eat butter or margarine? — plus no-doubt some newer ones.
But melancholy isn’t Davies’s style. Rather, he’s an enthusiast for almost everyone who comes within his purview — Poles, Prussians, Estonians, Irishmen — and this is probably because he doesn’t really view them as coming under these headings at all. Instead, they’re inhabitants of this valley or that, poor people as often as not whose ancestors have had to bow down to a wide variety of sovereigns, and sometimes to die defending dynasties to which they owe nothing substantial, merely confusing them, as they have been deliberately led to do, with their homeland, under slogans such as “king and country”.
All Davies’ chapters are revelations, but in this context none more so than the one on the Duchy of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, birthplace of Queen Victoria’s spouse Albert, and hence producing the direct ancestors of the current UK royal family, already deeply Germanic in its antecedents. “Most of their subjects do not know,” Davies writes, “that [Princess Diana] was the very first person of primarily English descent who” (in the last 300 years) “ever came near the British throne”. It’s a rare instance of an almost spiteful note afflicting the author. I’d prefer to see the UK royals in a different light, that of immigrants, and call them the most spectacularly successful of all recent arrivals.
I can, nevertheless, recommend this book almost unreservedly. It’s granted me hours of fantastic reading. As for general reasons why states fail, a concluding chapter on the subject comes to no conclusion. Instead, it quotes Rousseau. “If Sparta and Rome perished, what state can hope to last for ever?”