Last year, I read the first two books of this trilogy, Mr Ackroyd’s comprehensive overview of the history of England from earliest times up to the Glorious Revolution of 1688. And I loved them. I came into this entire series with a bias as I had read, a few years earlier, his London: The Autobiography, which was a GODDAMNED OUTSTANDING history/mash note of/to that awesome, insane city.
So, yeah, long story short, Ackroyd knows and does England well. It’s his thing.
One of the key aspects of this series that makes it manageable (even at three volumes) is its sharp, laser-focus on _England_. This is not a history of Great Britain, or the Empire, or the colonies, or even Ireland or Scotland. It’s about England, that weird little 2/3rds of a rather dumpy, damp island that has punched orders of magnitude above its weight in human affairs for a couple of centuries now. Mr. Ackroyd makes no apologies for this focus; one of the tasks of the historian-as-author is circumscribing what they’re going to present rather than let that admittedly-interesting but increasingly distant from the theme subtopics run away with the entire narrative.
So, for example, the whole complex web of Irish history is pretty much absent save for when it directly impacts the goings-on in England proper. Ditto Scotland. The conflict between the Anglican Church and the Puritans gets a very large chunk of the text devoted to it, as it was extremely important, particularly in the time period covered by this volume, but, as noted in the book itself, once a large chunk of Puritan leadership decides to fuck off for America, that’s the last the book concerns itself with them.
Within the boundaries of these constraints, what you’re left with is just a wonderfully detailed, deep look at the people, processes and actions that shaped England throughout this era. As it was a particularly violent and clamorous time, it lends itself to being a good read. The Stuarts were not quite as bloodily bonkers as the Tudors who preceded them, but what they lacked in personal viciousness they generally made up for in bull-headed, stubborn incompetence. This naturally led to the English Civil War, a fairly catastrophic event for the English people (~140k dead in a country of five million souls is… well, it’s a fuckin’ LOT), followed by the grim stretch of Cromwell & Son’s grey rule over a joy-deprived island.
Ackroyd maintains a lively trip through this otherwise dark and bloody era, leading the reader along through the very bad goings-on but also taking care to show the hard-earned lessons the English learned from their suffering, all culminating in the reestablishment of the monarchy in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Stronger boundaries were proscribed around both the throne’s and Parliament’s spheres of action by this, and most agreed that it was basically time to shunt religion out of the political arena entirely, leaving it generally up to the individual’s conscience. The sense as this volume and series closes is that, for all the blood, the Civil War and Protectorate taught the English people the right lessons that directly led to the next two-odd centuries’ worth of general growth and prosperity.
Interspersed throughout this volume, and every volume in the series, are shorter, stand-alone chapters that cover various single important works of art, or scientists, or, in the earlier volumes, what people ate, wore, lived in… these asides add a tremendous amount of color to the otherwise-standard chronological march through time of powerful people and their doings. I enjoyed these breaks from the main narrative, and digging into a chapter on, say, how the writings of John Milton reflected the uncertainties and passion of Republican England adds as much to the reader’s understanding of the era as the raw facts do.
In all, this is a wonderful end to a wonderful series by a frankly wonderful author. Ending with the Glorious Revolution is a wise choice, as from there forward the history of England is inextricably intertwined with the story of the Empire and of Europe, and the scope would have to widen considerably. Stopping here allows this series to stand alone as a history of pre-modern _England_ all on its own.
I genuinely like and respect all of Peter Ackroyd’s work that I’ve read to date, and I can heartily recommend this particular series to any reader interested in any aspect of English history. It’s definitely a popular history, so no prior knowledge of the topic is required to understand or appreciate the work. But, being popular by no means implies that it is shallow or poorly-done; it’s masterfully written and will be equally engaging to those of us who were already quite familiar with the period covered here.