I came to this book familiar with Peter Ackroyd as a biographer. In the works I have read, I enjoyed his witty writing style and his interest in slightly obscure facts and conjectures. These exact traits have translated beautifully into his history writing, which is both accesible and engaging.
Volume one of The History of England takes us from a geographical overview of prehistory through the tribal chieftain-monarchies of early England and the establishment of single ruling dynasties, up to the reign of the first Tudor monarch, Henry VII.
The book is split into short, manageable chapters wherein everything is explained clearly and concisely. Presenting a general overview of a wide span of history, Ackroyd doesn’t get too bogged down with names and dates, but follows a roughly chronological narrative of the “big” events. The main players are very easy to follow, even in the earlier chapters where many Kings belonging to various regions of England, Wales and Scotland are all involved in a game of shifting borders.
The narrative chronology is interspersed with shorter chapters of social history; topics such as the make up of the household, the history of names, birth and death, toys and games etc. These chapters provide some light relief from the grand history of Kings and Queens, and are strategically placed between each change in monarch.
The book itself is full of interesting facts. Like the fact that elephants and macaques roamed the landscape of pirimeval Britain, yet rabbits weren’t introduced until the twelfth century. These facts often arrive as suprising little nuggets inside the main narrative: ‘In the reign of Richard II, a splendid and dangerous sovereign, the handkerchief was introduced to England.’ These playful touches appear throughout the book, which as a result boasts a lively prose style full of the unexpected.
The illustrations in my 2012 paperback edition of this book are split into three sections of full colour pages on good quality paper. The images are well chosen and well presented, and offer a closer look at some of the events, customs, and people described in the main narrative.
Being an overview, not every interesting detail can be included. At some points however it seems as if Ackroyd tries to do just that. Sometimes sentences, usually in the concluding paragraphs of a chapter, seem to be thrown in more so as not to be left out than to add anything to the chapter as a whole. I rather enjoyed this aspect of the book as it shows an interest in the subject matter and serves to underpin the witty, conversational narrative style, though I recognise that for others this may not be so welcome, as it makes for some rather untidy conclusions.
In terms of the narrative Ackroyd choses to create, it is clear that there is a not insignificant thread of pride in the “English way” running through this book. The early Norman rulers (William the Conquerer, William II, Henry I) all come in for a bit of a bashing, while the focus is placed on a foundational English system of governance strong enough to withstand the petty whims of the country’s norman rulers. Ackroyd views the history of England, in spite of invasion and civil war, as one of gradual change. For example, the rule of law associated with the Norman kings is for Ackroyd simply the inevitable concusion of existing structures; the infamous domesday book is only possible, Ackroyd argues, due to the pre-existance of similar records on a local level.
While Ackroyd’s argument isn’t too overbearing, his belief in the inherent “Englishness” of England does wash over the importance of the diversity of influences that were integral to England’s foundation as a country and as a society. Simon Schama’s A History of Britain provides a good balance to this aspect of Ackroyd’s representation should anyone be interested in a slightly different view.
As a non-historian, I tend to enjoy more popular narritivised accounts of history, and Ackroyd’s book certainly did the job for me. It was fun to read, easy to follow, and full of strange and interesting facts as well as the more obvious core history of kings and queens.