Things: The History of England

A line of blog posts highlighting something I found interesting. Something that sparked curiosity, whiled away over a few hours. Something I liked, anyway.

Peter Ackroyd, for those who don’t know, writes rather interesting books. A prolific author, he writes both fiction and non-fiction, and has a strong interest in history – in particular that of London.

He is currently working on a six volume History of England. Volumes one through four are out in paperback, with volume five out in hardback. Volume six, I hope, is on the way, and I thought I’d bring the series to your attention. Grab yourself a biscuit and a cup of tea, then please do read on.

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The History of England: Volumes I-IV, in paperback.

I first came across Peter Ackroyd after staring a London-based job in 2008, where I found myself wanting to know a little more about the history of the city that I now worked in. His huge tome, London: The Biography, kept me occupied on the long commute to and from the city.

He’s written about several aspects of London, in both its past and present incarnations, including the Thames and the world under the surface. From the ‘London’ collection, I have read two of the three and thoroughly enjoyed them. He writes in a manner that is astonishingly well researched, but avoids being stuffy while citing huge amounts of detail; bringing your attention to key moments occurring in the passage of time. The books are peppered with dry observation, interesting asides and unearthed revelations, all at a steady pace through the very many years covered.

When I discovered the History of England, therefore, I quickly snapped up the first three volumes (all that were out at the time). Over the course of six planned books, the reader is taken from the settlement of England, 15,000 years ago, through to the formation a nation and a kingdom, then on to the famous dynasties, their conflicts, the civil war, and the subsequent emergence of a recognisable England.

I worked through the first two volumes at a hungry pace, but stalled out on the third for a couple of years. I recently finished it up and am now working on volume four (I’ll wait for the paperback on volume five – I’ve got to have the whole set in the same format).

Volume I: Foundation

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Volume I: Foundation.

This book goes way back. Way back. Though it focuses on the lasting occupation of the country that started 15,000 years ago, it actually notes that the oldest human remains go back to 29,000 years ago. Yet the oldest traces of inhabitants go back even further: 900,000 years. This land is old.

The historical account in Foundation moves from these early settlers and the faint clues that they leave in our past, through to the much better documented times that came with later civilisations.

The Romans come and so do the Danish. The Germanics, the Saxons and the Normans all leave their mark. Warlords become kings, kingdoms fight and merge. Familiar names are seen: Ethelred the Unready, Edward the Confessor, Richard the Lionheart. And so are familiar events, noteworthy in other ways: The Battle of Hastings, the black death, the Battle of Agincourt.

The volume ends in 1509 with the death of Henry VII, with a country and kingdom established, a system of governance in place, and a period of famed intrigue and power about to arrive.

Volume II: Tudors

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Volume II: Tudors.

Picking up where Volume I left off, this book starts with the crowning of a new king of England: the then-17-year-old Henry VIII.

During his reign the Church of England was formed, and the seeds planted for future political and religious struggles that the country would face. All in the pursuit of, inevitably, wealth and power. The book charts the declining hold of Catholicism over the country, as the interests of those in power move away from the influence of the pope in Rome.

Philosophers such as Thomas Moore emerge as new political and social thoughts are born, and an inevitably wide cast of characters surrounds the famed king and his many wives. The story follows the rise of his power and the battles with the church, shining light on the plots, conspiracy and intrigue that take place in his later years and following his death.

It enters the Elizabethan era with the ascension of Elizabeth I, and concludes when she passes away on 23rd March 1603, making King James IV of Scotland also King James I of England – the first king to hold the combined crowns of Great Britain.

Volume III: Civil War (also printed as Rebellion)

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Volume III: Civil War.

This is the one that took me a while to finish. Despite its importance in our history I have always struggled with digesting the events of the Civil War. It is not the fault of the author at all, another book on the topic remains unfinished on my shelves.

Volume III records the events leading up to, during, and after the Civil War of 1642-1651. It details the struggles of Parliament and King as they vie for power and money, with King Charles I seeing his rule as divine right and Parliament refusing to fund his wars with Spain and France – without recognition of their own legitimacy.

Oliver Cromwell’s rule is explained – he is not lavishly painted as a hero, nor solely as a demon, though his actions against Ireland earn him well-deserved ire in their nation’s history. Peter Ackroyd remains the neutral observer in his accounting, showing and telegraphing each turn of event that leads the story ever on. Spoiler: quite a lot of people die (I mean, this is history after all… none of them made it out alive).

With the arrival of William of Orange in 1688, King James II flees the country, never again to be in power. The volume closes on the Glorious Revolution.

Volume IV: Revolution

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Volume IV: Revolution.

At the time of writing this, I am also working through the early stages of Volume IV. This again picks up immediately after the prior book finishes, and follows the development of the political, financial and social structures that we know today.

The Bank of England emerges, the Whigs and Tories take centre stage in politics, insurance becomes widespread, stock-broking and gambling are the sports of the day. The first daily newspapers are printed (freedom of the press occurring by legislative accident, apparently).

The book will, I can see from the back cover, go on to follow the famed madness of King George III, and further conflicts with France – though in the place of the House of Bourbon and Louis XIV in the earlier years of the nation, it is now Napoleon – culminating in the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.

Volume V: Dominion

Currently in hardback only, the paperback will be available 19th September 2019.

I know very little about this, other than it exists. I will be picking it up on the above date (diary reminder already made) to find out. The linked blurb in the title above shows that it spans from Waterloo into the reign of Queen Victoria, covering the dramatic change in technology that took place in those years, along with the evolution of political, social and written thought.

And, you know, a British Empire sort of happened somewhere in there, too.

Volume VI: ???

My guess is that this volume will start with the passing of Queen Victoria in 1901, covering the 118 years to present day. There will be a lot of material to cover here: two world wars, the impact of rationing, the ascension of the longest reigning monarch Queen Elizabeth II, the emergence of modern culture and equal rights, the entry into the European Union, and the ailing industries of the 70’s and 80’s.

Will it then discuss the dramatic change of fortunes that follow the financial ‘big bang’ of 1983 and more recent disruption as digital technology makes its presence felt?

Or will it finish earlier? At what point does the history end and become the present, I wonder. I look forward to finding out. And while I’m waiting for the Dominion paperback, well, I guess I’ll finally finish of the London ‘trilogy’.

Oh, and re-buy the copy of London: The Biography that I lent to a friend four years ago. Time to admit defeat there, I think…


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