“There are,” John Julius Norwich notes with pardonable exaggeration in his lively and engaging volume on the subject, “a thousand histories of England, ranging from the scholarly to the popular, the impartial to the tendentious, the consistently riveting to the utterly unreadable.”
The Venerable Bede was the first in the field with his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, completed in AD731. Almost 1,200 years and much more history later, another Northumbrian, G.M. Trevelyan, produced the defining account of the national past, not only for his generation but for the next as well. Yet few histories of England have ever attained the canonical status of Bede or Trevelyan, and the best put-down to what has all too often been a formulaic, parochial and self-satisfied genre remains 1066 and All That by W.C. Sellar and R.J. Yeatman. In a bravura display of historical comedy, they unrelentingly sent up the conventional national narratives built around dates and dynasties, which categorised all people and events as either “good” or “bad”, which chronicled England’s pre-destined rise to being “top nation”, and which lamented that history came to a “full stop” when that pre-eminence was given up at the close of the first world war.
Sellar and Yeatman published their incisive masterpiece of historical hilarity in 1930 but it would be another 50 years before the no-longer-deniable decline of Britain as a great power, and the growing demands for devolution in Wales and Scotland, combined with the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland, encouraged a fundamental rethink of the traditional English national narrative – a reappraisal beginning in 1984 with the Oxford Illustrated History of Britain, developed by Hugh Kearney in his “four nations” history of the British Isles, and brought to broader public attention either side of the millennium by Norman Davies in The Isles: A History and by Simon Schama in his television series History of Britain.
As they saw it, the history of England was no longer the right way to define, approach or understand the national past: instead, they urged a more complex and nuanced treatment, exploring the relations between England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, recognising the constructed and contingent nature of “Britishness” and paying appropriate attention to the constant interactions between the British and continental Europe and the wider world beyond. Thus understood, the English past was merely one specific component of a much bigger history and multilayered narrative.
But if the three books under review here are any indication, English history has carried on regardless: for their authors are wholly unengaged with or unimpressed by the scholarly rethinking and upscaling of what constitutes our national past that has by now been going on for three decades and more. John Julius Norwich would shed no tears if Scotland became independent and he focuses exclusively on England because writing its history in one hundred places was just about possible, whereas dealing with Britain as a whole with the same number was not.
For Simon Jenkins, too, England is the subject of his concern. Wales, Scotland and Ireland are separate countries with separate histories, which have only occasionally connected with England: Wales was “a thorn in the side of Norman monarchs”; Scotland had an unrivalled “capacity for causing trouble” for the English; while after the Act of Union, Ireland was “a curse on British political leaders”. And although he had thought of including the histories of Wales, Scotland and Ireland, Peter Ackroyd also concentrates on England, on the grounds that a broader approach would run the risk of “their seeming to become merely extensions of England” – which is exactly how he treats them anyway.
So here, once again, are three little England histories: 1066 and All That, but without the jokes. In A Short History of England, Simon Jenkins provides a brisk and confident narrative from the Saxon dawn beginning in 410 to David Cameron exactly 1,600 years later. He focuses on high politics: kings and queens, war and peace, with (as might be expected of a National Trust chairman) occasional allusions to landscape, churches and country houses. There is nothing here that is new and his account is devoid of context, analysis or explanation, falling back on such banalities as “England had a genius for opportunistic social change” and “new forces were now coming into play”. The Black Death, the “rising middle classes” of Tudor and Stuart times, and the Industrial Revolution are dismissed in little more than a few lines. The marriage of the Prince of Wales and Lady Diana Spencer is thought of more importance than the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species or the Indian Mutiny. If the book has a theme, it is the growth of parliament, but this is insufficiently developed. In the conclusion, we are told on one page that no extra-parliamentary movement has ever acquired political traction but, soon after, we learn that progress in England has always been the result of social, economic and political change welling up from below. It is impossible to make sense of such contradictory signals.
Peter Ackroyd’s Foundation is not only on a larger scale than Jenkins’ brief canter across the centuries, it is also the first of a projected six-volume history of England, which will test the stamina not only of the author but also of his readers. In this opening instalment, he takes us from pre-Stonehenge times to the death of Henry VII in 1509. As with Jenkins, the narrative is built around the reigns of kings and queens, and their interminable quarrels, and even Ackroyd’s talents as a storyteller are taxed when he takes us through the Wars of the Roses, where everyone seems to have been called Henry or Edward or, alternatively, Norfolk or Suffolk, or Gloucester or Salisbury. These chapters stress chance, contingency and unintended consequences, and he interleaves them with accounts of the ordinary lives of ordinary people: religion, family, education, crime, medicine and so on. According to Ackroyd, it is in the deep continuity of ordinary people’s lives and circumstances, rather than in the chaos and confusion of royal politics and dynastic quarrels, that the essence of English history and national identity is to be found. But he offers no convincing explanation as to how or why this has been true or could be true; and he seems unaware of the fact that the job of the historian is at least as much to investigate and question identities as to support and create them.
Like Jenkins, Ackroyd adopts a traditional style of exposition, and tells us little that is new, whereas John Julius Norwich adopts a wholly novel approach, whose obvious indebtedness to Neil MacGregor’s recent History of the World in 100 Objects in no sense diminishes his own book’s interest. In A History of England in 100 Places, he takes us from Stonehenge to the Gherkin, via Offa’s Dyke, Bodiam Castle, Blenheim Palace, Ironbridge, the Albert Memorial and the National Theatre; but he also includes such unexpected places as Brick Lane Mosque in London, Old Sarum in Wiltshire, the Liverpool houses in which John Lennon and Paul McCartney grew up, and Greenham Common. In these short histories, Norwich succeeds in conveying the complex texture and endless fascination of English history in ways that elude both Jenkins and Ackroyd. He has wise things to say about, for example, the general ghastliness of medieval life and medieval monarchs, the splendours of the King James Bible (“the only world-class masterpiece ever created by a committee”), the limitations of the English educational system, and the inexcusable destruction of Dresden by the allies during the second world war (though he does harbour a particular – and unexplained – animus against Queen Anne).
Despite their differences of scale and approach, dates and names and kings and queens loom very large in all three of these books. Ackroyd takes us through English history from the Saxons to the Yorkists reign by reign; Norwich prints a list of monarchs from Offa to Elizabeth II; and Jenkins not only has his own table of English sovereigns but also adds the names of all prime ministers from Sir Robert Walpole to David Cameron, along with his choice of 100 key dates, which he regards as “the finger-posts of history”, and as “the most important turning points in the national story”.
No one would deny that names and dates, narrative and chronology, are important in our past or in that of any other nation. But as these lists serve eloquently (and inadvertently) to show, without context and explanation, so-called “finger posts” and “turning points” can be as meaningless as the names and numbers in a telephone directory. When some politicians call for a “return” to history taught around kings and queens, they need to be reminded that such calls have repeatedly been made for the best part of a century, and that all too often, the cult of names and dates can be a substitute for teaching or learning history, rather than opening up the real thing itself.
In addition to their excessive stress on kings and queens, all three authors go too far in asserting the singular importance and identity of England. Ackroyd tells us that Hampshire is “older” than France (but what exactly does that mean, and do the French know or care?). Jenkins insists that England’s history is “the most consistently eventful of any nation on earth” (he does not seem to have heard of China or Iran). And while writing his book, Norwich was constantly struck by “how unlike the English are to any of their neighbours” (though most of their neighbours would probably say the same thing about themselves).
But while these claims to exceptionalism seem overstated and, indeed, inappropriate to the middle-ranking European power that Britain has for several decades been, all three authors are to be congratulated for offering relatively even-handed accounts of the national past, and for avoiding the sort of cheerleading propaganda that some politicians are also again urging. Each of these books describes extraordinary achievements and (on occasions) admirable and exemplary lives. But they also describe poverty and suffering, cruelty and destruction, duplicity and aggression on a scale that calls to mind what is happening in the most impoverished and war-ravaged parts of the world today.
By focusing as they do so specifically on the history of England, all three authors are in ignorant or deliberate denial of a generation’s scholarship that has done so much to make us aware of the many and more complex interactions between England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland, between Britain and France, Scandinavia and Germany, and between Britain and the wider world beyond. A national narrative that gives no more than walk-on parts to the rest of the British Isles, to continental Europe, to the British Empire, and to those places that were never coloured red, is in too many ways a contradiction in terms.
Little England has always been part of a bigger world and, for good or ill, English history has taken place in many parts of the globe beyond its boundaries and its shores. It was Rudyard Kipling (among other things the author of a distinctly tendentious national history) who once inquired: “What do they know of England who only England know?” As these three books inadvertently make plain, there are two very different answers to that question. The first is “a considerable amount”. But the second is “not nearly enough”.
Sir David Cannadine is Dodge professor of history at Princeton University. His ‘The Right Kind of History’, co-authored with Jenny Keating and Nicola Sheldon, is published in November by Palgrave Macmillan
Foundation: The History of England, Volume 1, by Peter Ackroyd, Macmillan, RRP£25, 352 pages
A Short History of England, by Simon Jenkins, Profile, RRP£25, 384 pages
A History of England in 100 Places: From Stonehenge to the Gherkin, by John Julius Norwich, John Murray, RRP£25, 512 pages