"Black Rood: The Lost Crown Jewel of Scotland" by David Willem is a superbly-written account of an object that even those of us who think we are fairly familiar with Scottish history have probably never hear of. I certainly hadn't and I very much enjoyed remedying my ignorance.
As the rear cover explains: "Black Rood tells the fascinating story of one of Scotland’s oldest and most significant crown jewels. Once as famous as the Stone of Scone, the Black Rood was a gold and jewel-studded reliquary for a piece of the True Cross. This profound and holy treasure was smuggled into Scotland after the Norman invasion by the sister of the last Anglo-Saxon king of England. On her marriage to King Malcolm III, the Black Rood passed into the Scottish royal family, and so became a symbol of the authority and legitimacy of Scotland’s kingship. Giving its name to the abbey and then the palace and now the parliament of Holyrood, the Black Rood was to help define Scotland as a kingdom which was at least the equal of England in the eyes of God, and in some ways superior to it."
Other than its - to me - completely novel subject, what appealed most about this book was the intensely human way in which the author tells the story of the Black Rood. History can be impersonal and dry. It's sometimes easy to forget that even when we are discussing the lives of kings and queens, we are dealing with real people who - even a thousand years ago - were not so very different from you or I. David Willem has brought this slice of history to life by turning the key players into those real people. The book is extremely well researched, but the author has not let the limitations of the written records from the age prevent him turning Queen Margaret, King Malcolm III, and others who figure later in the story, into rounded and believable characters. It's an approach that might not necessarily appeal to an academic historian who wouldn't place a comma without direct historical evidence, but it certainly brings this book to life and makes the story of the Black Rood totally compelling.
What is particularly nice is that this is also a book about a mystery. What became of the Black Rood? Was it destroyed like its equivalent in Wales? Or was it simply hidden away, waiting to reappear centuries later like its equivalent in Ireland. That's a question that can only be answered if it one day turns up under a palace floorboard or in an archeological dig. In the meantime we can only wonder.