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Wolf Hall for kids: why Ronald Welch's novels will help your children fall in love with history
Iona McLaren

Finally back in print, the Carey Family adventure stories are the perfect antidote to the worthy, romance-killing school curriculum

Ronald Welch, a tank commander turned schoolmaster, is one of the 20th century’s most underrated children’s writers. Like Hilary Mantel, he understood that what makes a lost epoch stick in your mind is not the dates but the details.

His books positively foam with information: why a longbow is so much more deadly than a crossbow; the art of reloading a screw-barrelled pistol; how to get revenge when your 14th-century warlord neighbour pinches one of your fields; the cheapest way to get from Cambridge to London in 1789, what those charming cylindrical, be-pom-pommed hats in the Napoleonic Wars are called (shakos, apparently). Such was Welch’s mastery of detail that his publisher, Oxford University Press, asked him to fact-check their other historical novelists.

In all, Welch wrote 20 novels, but his grandest project was the Carey Family cycle, published between 1954 and 1972. Out of print for years, but now reissued by Slightly Foxed, these 12 enchanting – and addictive – adventures follow a single noble Welsh family, starting in Palestine (or “the Kingdom of Outremer”) in 1186 with Knight Crusader, and ending in 1917 with Tank Commander. As the series’ modern editor, Hazel Woods, puts it, they “join up the dots of English history in a remarkably vivid way”.

Their grand sweep takes in the longbowmen’s triumph at the Battle of Crécy, Elizabethan privateering, the Civil War, the Duke of Marlborough’s campaign, with a showdown at Blenheim, Wolfe in Quebec, the French Revolution, the Peninsular War, the Crimean War and the Indian Mutiny. Not a bad curriculum.

They are less subtle than the novels of his brilliant contemporary Rosemary Sutcliff, with her outcast, marginal character heroes, but Welch makes up for it in guilty pleasure. Through the twistiest of plots, Welch’s hero typically discovers himself to be the best fighter of his generation, who ends up brushing with the Big Names of the period, fixed in the reader’s mind for all time with memorable pen portraits: the ruthless crusader Reynaud de Chatillon (“with a hooked nose that sprang from the centre of his dark face, blue eyes that blazed under shaggy brows, and a pointed beard that jutted out belligerently, jerking up and down as he spoke”); Good Queen Bess with her full-face of slap and “tempests of blistering fury”; Louis XIV at Versailles, radiating charm, his grimy hand with “nails black, and the long fingers smelling of some scented oil” . . .

Above all, Welch’s is a moral universe. His novels are as much about manners, honour and fair dealings as they are about cavalry charges (and they are a lot about that). Only one of the heroes, Richard Carey in Escape from France (1960), is haughty, but the point of the book is that he gets taken down a peg or two. The rest of Welch’s protagonists are down-to-earth, honest and courteous – indeed, matey with their servants to the point of anachronism. The only bad example they set is having wine for breakfast.

Not all the books end happily, but they do all end satisfyingly. And most usefully of all, for families confined by coronavirus to these shores, they restore to Britain its romance, blurring out the A-roads and newbuilds to reveal, underneath, an earlier landscape of armour-littered battlefields, brigands in the copses and knights trotting up Roman roads.’ © Iona McLaren, Telegraph, 28 June 2020

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Wolf Hall for kids: Why Ronald Welch’s novels will help your children fall in love with history

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