Canaletto’s ‘The River Thames with St Paul’s Cathedral on Lord Mayor’s Day’ (c1746)
Canaletto’s ‘The River Thames with St Paul’s Cathedral on Lord Mayor’s Day’ (c1746)

There have been two massive history books published this year that deserve to be widely read. One is the English translation of The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Century by the German historian Jürgen Osterhammel. The other is this compelling and intriguing analysis of English history by Robert Tombs, a Cambridge professor who is better known as a specialist in France. Both are vast in scope and full to the brim with scholarship that has been painstakingly absorbed only to be disgorged with an exhilarating mixture of conviction and lightness of touch.

Each of the seven parts of The English and Their History contains narrative chapters followed by a chapter reflecting on how the period in question has been remembered and represented. Tombs embraces transnational comparisons and demonstrates that English history and identity merit examination apart from their British perspective. By drawing on literature and art he seeks “to make memory and its creation an inherent part of the story”. Four “memory themes” predominate: the protracted legacy of the Norman Conquest; the Whig notion of progress arising out of the post-civil war settlement; the sometimes proud, sometimes toxic legacy of empire; and the myth of post-imperial decline. He demonstrates a seamless mastery of political, economic, social and cultural history, and, while even-handed in ideological terms, he offers robust judgments in hearty and often sonorous prose.

The Norman Conquest “annihilated England’s ruling class” and represented “the biggest transfer of property in English history”. It proved to be more blessing than curse, however, since centralisation of power meant that although the 18 kings who reigned between William the Conqueror and Henry VII suffered challenges to their succession and rebellions, the English as a whole avoided further invasion and the constant conflict between over-mighty barons that afflicted much of continental Europe. The Black Death, which arrived in 1348, wiped out half the population but England fared better than neighbours in its aftermath because a scarcity of labour and the accumulated legal rights of peasants brought an end to serfdom some 400 years sooner than in most other parts of Europe.

The second half of the 14th century was also marked by “the sudden emergence of English as the first language of public life and modern literature”. Shakespeare’s plays and Tyndale’s translation of the Bible made a huge contribution to cultural self-confidence. “The closeness to speech of the greatest literature of the sixteenth century,” says Tombs, “is surely a major reason why the written and spoken language has not fundamentally changed since” and “has left an indelible trace on human experience”.

The Wars of the Roses were largely confined to members of the ruling class and their direct retainers. The Reformation brought bloodshed, though nothing on the scale of the Thirty Years War and other European wars of religion. Charles I, while politically inept, was a very mild tyrant who only ordered the execution of two of his subjects – his loyal servants Laud and Strafford, whose survival would have jeopardised his self-preservation. The period when Charles ruled without parliament was paradoxically a time of peace and prosperity, and it was religion not despotic rule that was his undoing. Although a natural conciliator, Cromwell “showed no long-term vision” and his Protectorate was both culturally joyless and “the most sexually repressive regime in our history, making adultery a capital offence”.

Tombs is sceptical of claims that the industrial revolution, and thus English prosperity, were founded on the basis of predatory imperialism and slavery, pointing out that economic historians are divided over whether exports or domestic demand were the crucial factor. Because of “the already high wages of English workers” and “buoyant consumer demand . . . heavy investment in continuous technological development was thus viable in England”, whereas cheap labour in France and India ensured that there was no need to invest in spinning jennies. For Tombs, the British empire was a vastly complex phenomenon with “contradictory consequences that include the bad, the good and the indifferent”; to those who see it as an unambiguous evil, he counters that the “real alternativesto British hegemony would probably have been conquests by others, or perhaps global anarchy”.

The period between 1815 and 1914 was “the time when the English, for good or ill, made a permanent impact on the common life of humanity”, and yet it is also “the period of our history about which we feel most ambivalent”. Tombs explores “the English century” through the prisms of three loaded adjectives: Dickensian, Victorian and imperial. Victorian England wallowed in self-congratulation but was also able to laugh at itself. It had “perhaps the smallest central-government machinery ever found in an industrial society”, yet it was “far more intrusive and effective than the ramshackle European absolutist states condemned by English Liberals”. It was “more outward looking than any nation before, more involved in its everyday life with more of the world”. Queen Victoria “was neither snobbish, nor racist, nor insular”, and Victorian hypocrisy is largely a myth.

When it comes to the first world war, Tombs argues that subsequent generations have tended to see the fallen as duped victims rather than, on their own terms, as sincerely opposed to German militarism. The Dunkirk evacuation in 1940 is “the most moving saga in our history”, and Allied victory over Germany in 1945 would have been impossible without Britain’s refusal to sue for peace, her control of the seas, her planning of the D-Day landings and her aerial bombing campaign.

One myth that has gained much currency, since this has suited politicians of both left and right at different times and for different reasons, is that of post-imperial decline. Britain occupies much the same position, in the top half-dozen powers, as it did three centuries ago. America may have outdistanced it, and every other state, in wealth and military power but no country “has been able (or perhaps wished) to exercise comparable sway” as the British empire once did. In 2008, the UK was second only to the US among more populous countries in gross per capita income.

However, as a result of two world wars but also of Thatcherite rule, England today is an over-centralised polity whose awkward relationship with the European Union will “to some extent have to be recast”. It was ahead of the game in several respects during its first 13 centuries: “no country became so early and so rapidly urban, industrial, rich, (semi-)democratic and intellectually pluralist”. Much of the problem with England’s self-image in recent times has been in adapting to the rest of the world catching up.

The English and Their History, by Robert Tombs, Allen Lane, RRP£35, 1,024 pages

Illustration by AKG Images

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