I’ve recently finished reading the first two volumes of Peter Ackroyd’s history of England. Ackroyd, if you don’t know him, is an acclaimed novelist as well as a respected historian and biographer. His best known novel is probably “Hawksmoor”; his “London: The Biography” is probably the definitive account of the history of our great city. So when I saw the first two volumes of his planned six volume history on offer in Waterstones just before Christmas, I leapt at the chance to read them.
I’m reasonably familiar with the history of my country. I know some bits better than others – much still depends on what I learned at school; on top of that there are random chunks of history that I’ve read up on from time to time. Shakespeare, too, provides insight; although you cannot rely on him for the historical truth, always.
Come what may, though, it’s always worth revisiting history. It teaches you so much about the present as well as the past. Because yes, history does repeat itself and society is pretty useless at learning from it. The same mistakes are made again and again. It’s fascinating to read a narrative and see this so clearly.
England’s government too centralised? Most things made up as we go along? Drinking culture? Don’t get on with the French, although we are intimately connected? Unreliable allies? Not really that religious? Good at finance and commerce and therefore open to new people, foreign trade? Hard to invade because we are on an island, but prone to a spat with the Scots, who often lean to the French? Generally a bit arsey and anti-authority? But also, especially in the countryside, imbued with a deep sense of tradition, quite conservative really? Yes, yes, yes. It’s been like that since Saxon times, if not before.
And this is what comes through so strongly in Ackroyd’s histories, especially the first volume, which takes us from neolithic times, through to the first Tudor king, Henry VII. It’s a violent, brutal story, because it is, of course, focused on those at the top. The warriors, the governors, the religious leaders. Constantly at war, or on the verge of war, with each other. The struggle for power – and riches – is never-ending. Sadly, we know that hasn’t really changed. To an extent, in the modern West and other democracies, we’ve found ways of containing all that negative energy. But we see elsewhere, and in our own recent, twentieth century history, that man’s brutality to man continues.
Peter Ackroyd’s writing and insight really brings the history alive. We get the high level events; but also what was happening at ground level, in ordinary lives. In the first volume, the strongest theme is of continuity. Adaptation, yes, but from a solid base. Many of the field patterns, roads, religious sites, were established by ancient tribes, before the Romans arrived. They built on them; the Saxons arrived from Germany and Denmark first as mercenaries. They settled, integrated. Later more waves invaded; Vikings from further North too. But all in time were absorbed, became part of the tradition. From France came the Normans – Vikings themselves by heritage – and thus began the intimate relationship of France and England. Kings of England, from 1066 through to Richard III, who was defeated in battle by Henry Tudor in 1485 at the battle of Bosworth, were essentially French. Over time they became more English; but most of them had aspirations in France. Think of the two kings who are probably regarded as the greats of the mediaeval period: Richard I, the Lionheart; Henry V. Richard was French and hardly spent any time in England. His reputation was based on his participation in the Crusades. Henry V was renowned for his conquests of French territory. Had he not died prematurely, he would have become King of France.
So, amid all the turmoil, all the battles, the conflict between kings and their nobles, which saw the gradual development of Parliament as a counterforce to monarchical domination, life went on; traditions formed the basis of most people’s lives, adapting to changes in technology, religious movements, new ways of trading and travelling. It is fascinating to follow the narrative, to see how advanced in some ways people were by the 15th century, how the English character which we assume today, without making a big thing of it, had already been formed.
The second volume is about the Tudors, apart from the first king, Henry VII. That means mostly Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. Both iconic. Presiding over times when England went its own way religiously. Breaking with the Roman Catholic Church. Absorbing aspects of Protestantism; but ultimately coming up with a classic English, make-it-up-as-you-go-along fudge. AKA the Church of England! Henry made the break with the Pope, although he remained a practising Catholic to his dying day. The religious struggle was actually a battle for control, and money. The monasteries were looted to bolster the royal coffers, to finance pointless mini-wars with France and maintain the lavish royal lifestyle. Henry is, of course, best known for his six wives, two of whom lost their heads. His sickly son, Edward V, oversaw the strongest lurch to Protestantism; “Bloody” Mary restored Catholic hegemony and burned a lot of people at the stake; Elizabeth stabilised things and presided over the creation of the religious establishment which is not much altered to this day. She, of course, never married, though she came close. Ackroyd implies that she was so scarred by her early experiences, especially under Bloody Mary, that she could never bring herself to commit. She just didn’t trust anyone. Of course she had many favourites, notably Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. There may have been relations…
Intriguing times, and a period when England became a real sea power. Defeating the Spanish Armada, in 1588, with the help of the weather, is another of those moments which is ingrained in the English folk memory. Sir Francis Drake and all that. And of course, this was when we and others in Europe set our sights on the rest of the world. What consequences that had!
There’s a third volume out already. This one concentrates on the period of the Stuarts. The funny thing about England is that although it has forged such a strong, if unspoken, identity, it has actually had foreign monarchs ever since Roman times. In succession after the Romans: Germans, Scandinavians, French, Welsh (Tudors), Scottish (Stuarts), Dutch (William of Orange) and then German again – the Hanoverians, who morphed into the Windsors. We had the Oliver Cromwell interlude – he was English – but we didn’t much like that.
And because tradition has such deep roots, we are still quite happy with a monarchy whose antecedents are German, even if no-one really thinks of it in that way anymore. Its power is now theoretical anyway. Parliament is supreme, having begun as a way of letting the nobles have some say in exchange for giving the King lots of money! The government makes most of the decisions, of course; and just like those Saxon kings, it doesn’t like local government having too much say.
I shall get that third volume when it’s out in paperback. The first two have been an absolute joy to read. Again and again, I’ve said to myself, as I’ve been reading, you know, nothings’s really changed. We are still making things up as we go along, making money wherever we can, drinking too much and behaving boorishly, sticking two fingers up to continental Europe and bickering with the Scots. We are essentially quite tolerant of each other, sceptical about ideologies (including religious ones) and suspicious of authority. Our leaders and politicians might make you think differently; but they come and go. Eng-er-land lives on.
And that, despite all the tumult, is what I think Peter Ackroyd is saying too.
Mine’s a pint!