Mad Dogs & Englishmen by Sir Ranulph Fiennes
This book took me by surprise. I had somehow formed the impression, perhaps from the title, that I was going to read about some of the bizarre antics of the author and his more eccentric ancestors. That impression was not challenged by the cover of the book, which reveals very little about its content: there is a photograph of the author, another of him on Mount Everest, a couple of one-liners from Adrian Chiles and Robin Hanbury-Tenison and a blurb that simply states “Ranulph Fiennes tells the story of his unconventional, exceptional family, and reveals the ingredients for the man described by the Guiness Book of Records as ‘the world’s greatest living explorer’”. It’s not often that the cover of a book undersells its contents, but this one does.
Many of Sir Ranulph’s exploits are well known (running those seven marathons in seven days on seven continents just four months after a heart attack and a double by-pass; climbing Mount Everest at the age of 65; being the first person to walk to both Poles; cutting off his own frost-damaged fingertips with an electric saw in his garden shed) and he is a very accomplished writer, this being his 21st book. He is a truly extraordinary man, but this book is not about him, it is about his truly extraordinary family.
His full name is Ranulph Twistleton-Wykeham-Fiennes, the Wykehams and Twistletons having joined the Fiennes (originally de Fiennes) clan by marriage. He can trace his aristocratic family tree back to two generations before the Emperor Charlemagne (768-814). This book takes us through the history of England from that time to the date of the author’s birth. It does so generation-by-generation, monarch-by-monarch, with the main features of each monarch’s reign listed and analysed in a very reader-friendly way. It is history made accessible and fascinating. It provides a different level of insight resulting from the author’s access to a vast volume of family records accumulated over the centuries.
In the reign of each monarch, Fiennes are there, prodding, guiding, fighting, making their very significant presence felt, on both sides of The Channel: king-makers and king-breakers. The sheer scope of this book could make it an indigestible list of dates and names, but it isn’t. The author has a light touch. There is humour, and his empathy with the people of each period shines through. He has the knack of pulling out facts that stick in the mind. Here are a few examples.
During his 10-year reign, Richard I, who spoke only French, spent just six months in England.
A Fiennes ancestor was a signatory of Magna Carta. 800 years later Oliver Fiennes (cousin of Ranulph), in his position of Dean of Lincoln Cathedral, had one of the four original copies in his care.
At the battle of Crecy senior officers on both sides were members of the Fiennes family. It rained heavily before the battle which gave the English archers an advantage; they removed the strings from their bows and kept them dry in their hats. Their opponents used crossbows that couldn’t be so readily unstrung; the wet strings stretched and the weapons became ineffective.
By 1536 Henry VIII was suffering from the effects of malaria, smallpox, migraines, pus-filled leg ulcers and his weight had shot up to over 20 stones. He was carried about by servants and hauled upstairs by a system of ropes and pulleys – and he still had four wives to go!
Life expectancy was very poor in Tudor times. A well-known teacher/preacher, John Colet, Dean of St Paul’s, was the only one of his mother’s twenty-two children to reach maturity.
Just before the Battle of Worcester in 1651, Charles II contracted Worcester clothiers to outfit his army. The £453 bill was never paid – until June 2008 when it was settled by Prince Charles. In that battle the three colonels in Cromwell’s Model Army were Twistleton brothers.
During WWII, after a successful North African campaign, the Scots Greys regiment joined the Eighth Army for the invasion of Italy. The three colonels of the Greys were called Twistleton, Wykeham and Fiennes!
A remarkable book: a remarkable family.