BOOK REVIEW News Weekly
More historical myths dispelled
, May 12, 2012
THE HISTORY OF ENGLAND:
Volume 1: Foundation
by Peter Ackroyd
Paperback: 352 pages
Reviewed by Bill James
Peter Ackroyd is not an historian as such, but he has written histories of London and Venice, as well as a number of biographies.
His account of England to 1485 is literally just that, i.e., it mentions only Scotland, Ireland and Wales as those countries’ stories overlap with that of England.
He is old-fashioned as well as literal, because he relates his narrative in a straight, chronological fashion, with chapters on everyday life (work, agriculture, food, health, clothes, houses, amusements, law and order, the family), interspersed with chapters on dynastic, military, political, economic and religious events and developments.
And speaking of old-fashioned, he even retains BC and AD, eschewing the new-fangled CE and BCE.
His only stylistic infelicities are a couple of tautologies: “oblong rectangular” and “burning fire”.
This is neither a “history from below”, which ignores kings and battles (“The history of England cannot be written without a careful account of its sovereigns”), nor a refraction of the past through the tedious, trendy, trinitarian prism of class, race and gender.
Which is not to say that it is conservative; it certainly does not consist of a mere 1066 And All That-style compilation of facts.
If the narrative rejects the tired old progressive liberal historicism which taught the inevitable triumph of parliamentary democracy (the so-called “Whig interpretation of history”), it has no time at all for the tired old Marxist historicism which taught the inevitable triumph of the proletariat.
While suspicious of historical “laws”, Ackroyd does draw attention to two major tendencies which he perceives in what used to be called “the island story”.
The first is that of chance.
Much that happens consists of arbitrary and unplanned responses to immediate exigencies, the significance of which can only be seen in retrospect — as in the development of common law, or parliament.
The framers of Magna Carta, he says, “were more concerned with correcting manifest wrongs than proclaiming self-evident rights”.
The other is continuity.
The location of features such as roads, villages and local boundaries can sometimes be traced back millennia, while a cathedral might have grown out of a Norman church with its foundations in an Anglo-Saxon church which had been built over a Roman pagan temple which was erected at a prehistoric sacred site.
The earliest traces of human habitation in England, some flint tools, are over 800,000 years old.
Over the millennia, waves of immigrants moved into England cross-country from the east, and, when it was finally cut off about 6,000 years ago, continued to arrive by sea.
It used to be taught that a last wave, which arrived about 500 BC, consisted of an ethnically and culturally homogeneous group described as Celts; but Ackroyd’s account reflects the demise of this neat designation.
Genetic material from a body interred 9,000 years ago closely matched that of people still living in the area where it was discovered.
Similar studies have shown that the later Angles and Saxons from north-eastern Europe, who arrived after England’s Roman era (43-410), were the ancestors of only 5 to 10 per cent of today’s population.
In other words, the English are largely derived from prehistoric populations, and the older crude dichotomy of an Anglo-Saxon “race” in the English heartland, surrounded by a Celtic fringe, as if each term referred to some sort of pure ethnic entity, is a myth.
The former idea of sudden arrivals must also be modified.
The Romans were trading with England long before they invaded in 43, and there were Angles, Saxons and Jutes living in England before 410, just as there were Scandinavians living there before the commencement of the Viking raids in 793.
Roman civilisation largely disappeared from England with the departure of the legions, except for one of its major manifestations and vehicles, Christianity.
It is not known how the worship of Jesus Christ reached Roman Britain, but over the subsequent centuries it survived and eventually replaced post-Roman cults such as Woden and Thor.
Christianity, which according to Ackroyd was the single most important unifying feature of pre-Norman England, triumphed as the result of missionaries such as Augustine and Aidan, and the considerably more robust military activities of kings such as Oswald and Alfred.
William I’s invasion of 1066 was perhaps more sudden than its predecessors, and replaced the royal families of Wessex and Norway with the Norman and then Plantagenet kings.
William himself was a violent king. His son William Rufus died without issue under suspicious circumstances, supposedly killed in a hunting accident. The period of dispute between William I’s grand-children Stephen and Matilda was marked by chaos and cruelty.
But if the Norman monarchs verged on the uncouth, the house of the Plantagenets, from Henry II (1154-89) to Richard III (1483-5) was, according to Ackroyd, “brimming with blood.… King John murdered, or caused to be murdered, his nephew Arthur; Richard II dispatched his uncle, Thomas of Gloucester; Richard in turn was killed on the orders of his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke; Henry VI was killed in the Tower on the orders of his cousin, Edward IV; Edward IV murdered his brother, Clarence, just as his own two sons were murdered by their uncle [Richard III]”.
On top of this domestic unpleasantness, the period 1066-1485 included bloodlettings such as the Hundred Years’ War and the Wars of the Roses.
However, it also marked the emergence of English identity — Edward IV (1461-83) was the first king to hold no French territory except the port of Calais — as well as the triumph of English, not French, as the language of England.
The same four centuries saw the introduction of royal preserves, pulpits and pews, written records, gunpowder, clocks, cranes, handkerchiefs, enclosures, blast furnaces and printing presses, as well as the extermination of England’s wolves, and the expulsion of England’s Jews.
In 1485, the first of the Tudors, Henry VII, replaced a French royal line with a Welsh one, but by possessing Lancastrian blood, and marrying the Yorkist daughter of Edward IV, he brought the Wars of the Roses to a conclusion, and the people of England were prepared to accept him for the sake of a little peace and quiet.
Little did they realise what excitement his son and grand children had in store for them!
The decline of history in schools over the last decades has left a population with scattered fragments of English history — names, battles, incidents — at their fingertips, but a frustrating ignorance of the connections between them.
Ackroyd’s book not only presents integrated information, but dispels myths.
For example: “[Bad King] John and Richard [III] were no more vicious or cunning than many other more lauded sovereigns; they were perhaps unfortunate, however, in the chroniclers who chose to write about them.”
Engagingly presented, and at fewer than 500 pages to cover nearly a million years, Ackroyd’s Foundation is truly multum in parvo, much in little.
Read in conjunction with a map of England and a chronology of England’s monarchs, it is an excellent survey of the story of the country to which, multiculturalist dogma notwithstanding, Australia owes the most, for good (overwhelmingly) and for ill.
Despite my ancestors having come from the English-subjugated territories of Wales and Cornwall, I strongly commend it.