The English rarely maintain intensity in political matters,” writes Peter Ackroyd in the sixth and final volume of his History of England. “Sooner or later, their instinct is to wipe the sweat from the demagogue’s collar and propose a soothing cup of tea.” The English “still live deep in the past,” and “[c]ontinuity, rather than change, is the measure of the country.” Yet a country’s history is a tale that its people tell themselves. “Everything grows out of the soil of contingent circumstance,” and “the writing of history is often another way of defining chaos,” Ackroyd observes. We choose what goes on the list.
How we choose is an increasingly contested issue. Almost 70 years ago, Clement Attlee mockingly proposed that Winston Churchill rename his History of the English-Speaking Peoples “Things in History That Interested Me.” Today, grand-sweep narrative history is even more out of style. But if anyone is still allowed to chronicle a nation, that chronicler is Ackroyd, and the nation his native England. He has produced acclaimed works on Chaucer and Shakespeare, Newton and More, Blake and Dickens. He has written books about English ghosts, English rivers, English imagination, and, naturally, London, the great English city. The History of England, whose entries appeared between 2011 and 2021, is the work of a lifetime.
The basic outline of English history is quickly told. Hunter-gatherers and tribal peoples occupied what is now the island of Great Britain for hundreds of thousands of years. Little is known about them. They are “races without a history,” Ackroyd says; before the coming of the Romans, “all lies in mist and twilight.” Not for nothing did Churchill begin his history with his famous line about the proconsul of Gaul, Gaius Julius Caesar, turning his gaze upon Britain. Yet we know surprisingly little about the Roman period, either. “The Roman governance of England lasted for 350 years,” Ackroyd reflects, “and yet it is the least-known phase in the country’s history.” The only famous figure of the era was not Roman. Boudica, queen of the Iceni, burned Londinium to the ground in A.D. 61. A layer of oxidized iron—the residue of Boudica’s rage—can still be found under the city’s streets.
The island’s Roman authority collapsed in the fifth century. Not long after, the Angles, Saxons, and other Germanic peoples came, pushing out the native Britons. For several hundred years, the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms—primarily Wessex, Mercia, and Northumberland—ruled the land. This was the time of King Offa, namesake of a 98-mile-long dike that traverses western England and Wales to this day. At the turn of the ninth century, the Norsemen arrived, followed by the Danes. The Danes were opposed by Alfred the Great, remembered today as the first Rex Anglo. In the eleventh century, it was the Normans’ turn to invade. William the Conqueror prevailed at the Battle of Hastings, donned the crown in Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day, 1066, and proceeded to “harry the North” in a scorched-earth campaign not unlike genocide. In the twelfth century, under the energetic Henry II—the first Plantagenet king—the Angevin Empire, a union of England and western France, formed. During the reign of Henry’s slothful son, John, that empire was lost.
The House of Plantagenet spent the Late Middle Ages slaughtering its enemies and one another: it fought the Hundred Years’ War (1337–1453) against France and the Wars of the Roses (1455–87) among themselves. At the end of the second period, the Plantagenet factions—Lancaster and York—reunited to form the House of Tudor.
Under the Tudors, royal power reached its apogee. The despotic Henry VIII declared a second break with Rome, so that he could divorce his wife and marry Anne Boleyn. Boleyn’s daughter, Elizabeth I, would always be at odds with a Vatican that, in Ackroyd’s words, “had denounced her mother as a prostitute and herself as a bastard.” Consider Elizabeth’s famous reaction to a procession of monks bearing candles—a ceremonial flourish that the monarch equated with popery. “Away with these torches,” she called out. “We see very well.” Shortly before the Virgin Queen’s death, Shakespeare wrote Hamlet.
The Stuarts followed the Tudors. They tried to rule as the Tudors had—with a high hand—but found that the times had changed. King and Parliament fought a civil war (1642–51) that ultimately cost Charles I his head. The Puritans then governed the kingless realm as a commonwealth. They banned festivals and gambling. When their regime duly collapsed, there was, according to the diarist Samuel Pepys, “great joy all [day] at London, and at night more bonfires than ever.” The restored king, Charles II, was a degenerate. His brother and successor, James II, was something even worse: a Catholic. In 1688 came another revolution, this time a bloodless one that brought to the throne the uprightly Protestant William of Orange. A year earlier, Newton published his Principia.
The eighteenth century saw more wars with France, including the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–14) and the Seven Years’ War (1756–63). Along the way, the English—or rather, the British, following unification with Scotland in 1707—defended some colonists in North America. Seeking those colonists’ help in paying for the expense of empire, Parliament levied new taxes. The colonists took it poorly: they threw tea into a harbor; they threw rocks at redcoats; and they fought a war of revolution (1775–83). The year the Americans declared independence, Gibbon released the first volume of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
The burgeoning British Empire survived the loss of the American colonies. Indeed, its grandest days remained ahead of it. Ackroyd correctly contends that “there was no planning, no strategy, no coherent policy” behind the empire’s growth. At the outset, at least, it all had something to do with trade, which, in turn, had something to do with what we now call the Industrial Revolution. Harnessing the power of coal, Britain for a “crucial period” enjoyed a supply of energy “greater than that of any other European economy.” By the second half of the eighteenth century, it was widely understood that something momentous was happening. Adam Smith wrote in The Wealth of Nations of “the natural progress of England towards wealth and improvement.”
During a final war with France, Napoleon considered swarming Britain with hot-air balloons. The Corn Laws sparked debate and unrest. The Chartists demanded reform, and the political process was gradually democratized. Alice fell down a rabbit hole, and Sherlock Holmes solved mysteries from 221B Baker Street. There was a small war in Africa against the Boer, a Great Depression, and two very big wars against Germany. Churchill offered blood, toil, tears, and sweat; the Rolling Stones offered sympathy for the devil. The social safety net was constructed, the empire disbanded. Trade unions were strong, and then they weren’t. James Bond obtained a license to kill.
The history of England, Ackroyd reminds us, “cannot be written without a careful account of its sovereigns.” Like that of the nation itself, the story of English royalty is one of astounding continuity, punctuated by spectacular disruption.
From one point of view, the monarchy is not even properly English. In this telling, Britain is a land of the periphery, subject to continual occupation. Canute was a Dane. Edward the Confessor was, at root, a Norman. In the words of a twelfth-century native, the castles that William the Conqueror built were “filled with devils and wicked men.” In the time of Edward III, the king and his court still spoke French. William I, Stephen, Henry II, Henry Bolingbroke, Henry Tudor, James I, Charles II, William of Orange, George I, and George II: all were invaders of one sort or another. Many can aptly be described as impostors. Some, such as George I, Elector of Brunswick-Lüneburg, were inveterately foreign. One might say that, since the death of Queen Anne in 1714, the British monarchy has been a vestigial branch of the House of Hanover. During the Great War against the German Empire, George V had quietly to cashier the family surname, Saxe-Coburg-Gotha.
Nor have English monarchs tended to clothe themselves in glory. True, the chivalrous Edward III triumphed at Crécy, and Henry V prevailed at Agincourt. But when William Rufus, dangerously ill, was told by his religious advisors to repent his sins, it “must have been difficult for him to know where to start.” Ackroyd calls Henry III “submissive,” “credulous,” and “impulsive.” Edward II was “weak and ineffectual.” The best the historian can say of John—“a king whose memory has been universally execrated”—is that “in his rapacity and greed he did not materially differ from his predecessors.” The feebleminded Henry VI was no more than a puppet king; imprisoned by warring rivals three times, he was ultimately murdered in captivity. His simple piety, wrote Churchill, was “the stay and comfort of his long, ignominious, and terrifying pilgrimage.” Henry Bolingbroke deposed Richard II. Richard III (one presumes) did away with the Princes in the Tower. Henry Tudor then destroyed Richard III. Charles II asked the king of France for a bribe to convert to Catholicism. “After I am dead,” George V said of his son Edward, “the boy will ruin himself in twelve months.” In the event, the boy abdicated with several weeks to spare.
A few powerful kings, such as Edward I (the “Hammer of the Scots”), and the two great queens, Elizabeth I and Victoria, personified their age. Modern kings and queens, for their part, have displayed a decidedly English quality: a knack for muddling through. The job requirements have changed, and the monarchy has changed in turn. In the distant past, notes Ackroyd, “a king was supposed to embody the prowess and vigour of the country.” Today, a good monarch is usually seen (preferably while waving) and not heard. In Ackroyd’s final volume, the crown is most notable for its gradual departure from the narrative. On the few occasions when Elizabeth II or her husband is mentioned, the bywords are “grace” and “duty.” The royal touch may no longer cure scrofula, but in rare moments—at a time of national tragedy; on the day of a royal wedding—there remains a hint of sacral kingship, of the monarch as the nation incarnate. In “all matters royal,” the novelist Martin Amis observed, we are still “dealing with signs and symbols, with fever and magic.”
Again and again, Ackroyd returns to the terrain—the tangible fragments and emblems of English continuity. “Modern roads follow the line of old paths and trackways”; the English “still move in the footsteps” of their ancestors. Over the centuries, peasant dwellings “rise from the land and return to it.” “In Iron Age England,” Ackroyd points out, “it was believed that the cock served as a defense against thunderstorms.” This is why there are weathercocks on church steeples today. The names of Canterbury and Dover are prehistoric. Ludgate Hill, in London, draws its name from pre-Roman mythology. “Below the surface of events,” insists Ackroyd, “lies a deep, almost geological, calm.”
Continuity can be seen also in the customs of the people. “The old history still manifests itself. It still matters.” The men of Kent played a prominent role in the Peasants’ Revolt, then in the popular uprising against Richard III, and once again in the miners’ strike of 1984. Ackroyd traces this independent streak to the prevalence of individual farmsteading in the area in Anglo-Saxon times.
The English taste for continuity itself has ancient roots. In the Middle Ages, “the past was revered beyond measure”: “nothing was good because it was new. It was good because it was old.” “The medieval delight in ritual and ceremony” was a sign of this “veneration of custom.” So was a strong desire for permanence in the law. A sixth-century king “described his laws as those which had been long accepted and established.” “Rights and duties were perpetual. . . . The unanswerable complaint of the labourer or the villager was that ‘we have never been accustomed to do this!’ ” It was the same with the nobility: “in the reign of Henry III the barons of the realm announced Nolumus leges Angliae mutari—‘we do not wish the laws of England to be changed.’ ” The law was expected to remain in its present state forever. Any change “had to be explained as a return to some long-lost tradition.”
This respect for custom and instinctual gradualism persisted into the Enlightenment. A few Englishmen spoke in favor of the French Revolution when it broke out, but most everyone else, Ackroyd informs us, saw the smattering of enthusiasm as “pernicious talk of reform for reform’s sake.” This was, of course, “the intuitive reaction of Edmund Burke.” Ackroyd ably summarizes Burke’s almost mystical sense of caution:
He despised the “men of theory,” the intellectuals who thought to lead a revolution with their first principles and rational calculations. He put his faith in historical experience, practical utility and the fund of common knowledge transmitted from generation to generation.
The “speculative and enthusiastic” French could have their revolution. The radical impulse made no headway against “the conservative cast of the English people, accustomed to an established order and to the traditions of historical existence.”
Inherent in Burke’s philosophy was a suggestion that the lower orders were “instinctively conservative.” That stance seemed to be vindicated in the following century, when England somehow became more conservative as it expanded the franchise. The Tories even led the charge. “Disraeli discerned the Conservative working man as the sculptor perceives the angel prisoned in the block of marble,” Ackroyd records, quoting the Times.
Disraeli may have opened the door, but it was Lord Salisbury who walked in and became the great conservative figure of the era. He served three stints as prime minister, four as foreign secretary. In foreign affairs, he believed that the proper English policy was to “float lazily down stream, occasionally putting out a boat-hook to avoid collisions.” At home, he disdained “bold schemes,” wary as he was of the unintended consequences of legislation. “Whatever happens will be for the worse,” he announced, “and therefore it is in our interest that as little should happen as possible.” Yet he was vigorous in serving the needs of his party. As Edmund Fawcett observes in his recently published history of conservatism, Salisbury was “the consolidator of a mass party that governed Britain in the spirit of right-wing liberalism for much of the next one hundred and forty years.”
Shortly after Salisbury departed the scene, another eminent conservative appeared. It was usually “far better to do nothing,” Stanley Baldwin reckoned, according to Ackroyd, “or to cautiously react to events as they unfolded.” Baldwin intuited this same attitude in the nation at large, believing, in Ackroyd’s summary, that the English were “a nostalgic and conservative people, distinguished by the virtues of decency, modesty, justice, and common sense.” Baldwin had a point. While the Americans took a sharp leftward turn at the onset of the Great Depression, Baldwin, in Britain’s election of 1931, led his party to a resounding victory. “The vast majority of the middle classes, and over 50 per cent of the working class and the female electorate, had voted Tory,” Ackroyd reports. “For the next eight or nine years the Conservatives would have everything their own way.”
Unfortunately, under Baldwin, their way included appeasing Hitler. The cautious conservative is at risk of failing to spot the true crisis hiding amid the false ones. Even so, “Baldwin’s postwar reputation as sleepwalker in a lost decade, encouraged by Churchill and his friends in the Beaverbrook press, was unearned,” Fawcett maintains. “With lightness and skill,” he “fashioned conservatism as the natural, inevitable politics of middle England.”
Near the end of Kingsley Amis’s comic novel Lucky Jim, the title character embarks on a drunken rant about the myth of “Merrie England,” but, as Ackroyd sees it, “the rage expressed is curiously apolitical.” “In this,” Ackroyd supposes, “Amis was as much of his nation as of his class.”
This is not to say that English history is free of violence, unrest, and radicalism—on the contrary. When, during the Peasants’ Revolt, the people of London found the Chief Justice of the King’s Bench hiding in Westminster Abbey, they dragged him from sanctuary, executed him, and carved images of the devil and the zodiac on his corpse. Ackroyd relays a comment Benjamin Franklin made in 1769: “I have seen, within a year, riots in the country, about corn; riots about elections; riots about workhouses; riots of colliers, riots of weavers, riots of coal-heavers.” In the following century, the Luddites went on their spree of machine breaking, and in the century after that, the trade unions cut the electricity, prompting the government to impose the three-day week.
Among the English, however, the fear of disorder tends to outstrip disorder itself. “I expect every day to hear that the mob of London are masters of the country,” Lord Wellington once exclaimed; but his anxiety about “civil war and bloodshed,” Ackroyd assures us, had “about as much reality as a bad dream.” Revolutionaries swept through the continent in the mid-nineteenth century, yet in England “dire warnings and threats of revolution” were “followed by mass outbursts of loyalty and good feeling.” At one point in his account, Ackroyd describes the London mob as, at bottom, “traditionalist” and “by instinct loyal to the established authorities of monarchy and religion.” The working classes of England “never became a ‘movement’ in any revolutionary sense.” Though the early twentieth century witnessed mass strikes, social reform and material progress in the end outpaced discontent. As it approached real power, meantime, the Labour Party lost its zeal and softened its tone.
Ackroyd repeats a line that an “astute observer” jotted to himself in 1837: “The Tories prognosticate all sorts of dismal consequences none of which of course will come to pass. Nothing will happen because in this country nothing ever does.”
Yet so much has happened. Ackroyd declares the history of England “one of continual movement and of constant variation.” “Afternoon tea and scones” have “given way in the metropolis to curry and rice.” When the Romans had them cornered on the Isle of Anglesey, the Druids offered sacrifices, held their arms aloft, and screeched terrible curses, “[y]et their gods did not come to their rescue; they were all cut down and their sanctuaries put to the flame.” Well over a thousand years later, at his trial for treason, the Catholic saint Edmund Campion chastised his Anglican persecutors. “In condemning us,” Evelyn Waugh has him say in a biography, “you condemn all your own ancestors—all the ancient priests, bishops and kings—all that was once the glory of England, the island of saints, and the most devoted child of Saint Peter.” Needless to say, Campion was hanged, drawn, and quartered anyway. “One result of historical enquiry,” Ackroyd sighs, “is the recognition of transience.” The “most fervent beliefs will one day be discredited, and the most certain certainties will be abandoned.”
To the English, this has generally not been a welcome thought. “The society of England held together” after the Black Death, yet “the pestilence had slow but permanent effects on English society.” As the wages—and thus the freedom—of the surviving peasants increased, the ruling class responded with legislation. The “wives of yeoman were not permitted to purchase silk veils,” and at “supper the lower classes were to enjoy only two courses.” But these “maladroit exercises in social control” could not preserve feudalism. A poet of the time complained that:
The world is changed and overthrown
That it is well-nigh upside down
Compared with days of long ago.
Grumbling about change is an honored English tradition.
Still, the spirit of adventure deserves a word. “The fewer men” who survive a battle, Shakespeare’s Henry V tells his troops at Agincourt, “the greater share of honour.” In his four-volume biography of his illustrious ancestor, the Duke of Marlborough, Churchill enthuses: “It was only in love or on the battlefield that he took all risks. In these supreme exaltations he was swept from his system and rule of living, and blazed resplendent with the heroic virtues.” During the Napoleonic Wars, the dauntless English spy lands near Alexandria in the dead of night, shawled à la Turque. “I am going to serve my king and my country,” he says to the departing boatmen, “if, by the help of God, I can.”
In England as elsewhere, it is the optimists who drive the world forward. They must have their moment of rebuttal. “It is a privilege to live in this age of rapid and brilliant events,” Disraeli said of his day. “What an error to consider it a utilitarian age! It is one of infinite romance.”
Ackroyd speaks of “the poetry of history,” and well he may. He sees with a third eye. Meditating upon the death of William the Aetheling in the White Ship, he writes: “Statesmen may plot and plan. Learned men may calculate and conclude. Diplomats may debate and prevaricate. But chance rules the immediate affairs of humankind.” In the fourteenth century, the kings of France and England were the most powerful in Europe. “So it was perhaps inevitable,” Ackroyd intones, “that France and England should vie for mastery. That is the law of life.” In addition to comprehending high politics, Ackroyd communes with the myths, the experiences, the character—and, above all, the quirks—of the people. “A feast was held in 1171, celebrated by 110 knights with the name of William,” Ackroyd notices; “no one with another name was allowed to join them.” He retells the legend of the man who, after eating near the same neighbor at a tavern for 25 years, finally asks the fellow his name. “Sir,” he is told in response, “you are impertinent.” It is, Ackroyd comments, “a very English exchange.”
The author and Englishman Paul Kingsnorth recently remarked that “human history could be seen as a never-ending series of battles over stories.” The stories are “symbols, the battle over which will determine who ‘we’ are.” Ackroyd’s greatest gift is an abundance of negative capability: he is able, as Keats put it, to dwell in “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” In the battle over stories, Ackroyd’s achievement is to impose a truce, within the confines of his pages. Is England at the center, or at the periphery? Is it a land of violence and radicalism, or of order and moderation? Is its history one of ceaseless change, or one of numinous continuity? Ackroyd shows that, in each instance, it is everything at once. A cacophony is transformed into the anthem of a nation.
This historian can be called a cynic—albeit a humble one. “When we look over the course of human affairs,” Ackroyd believes, “we are more likely than not to find only error and confusion.” A “fog of surmise and speculation” is the setting in which history takes shape. “Truth lies at the bottom of a well.” Meaning is not to be found at the level of logic or ideology. Ackroyd acknowledges that this “may not be a particularly exciting philosophy of history.” But it is the way of things.
“History is about longing and belonging,” Ackroyd claims. As fallen creatures, we must endure conflict, tumult, chaos, and incoherence. He quotes Milton:
So shall the world go on
To good malignant, to bad men benign,
Under her own weight groaning.
But others have come before us. If we read of their lives, Ackroyd suggests, we will discover that “some things, such as piety and passion, are never lost,” and that “the great general drama of the human spirit is ever fresh and ever renewed.” We look upon the past and see beings who are foreign to us; yet we look upon them and find ourselves. We fulfill our “atavistic desire to find deep sources of identity.” Ackroyd sees history as a form of singing around a fire. In his hands, throughout his epic History of England, it is.
Top Photo: We study history to fulfill our “atavistic desire to find deep sources of identity,” writes Ackroyd. (SOPHIE BASSOULS/SYGMA/GETTY IMAGES)