Foundation: The History of England, Volume I

The first part of Peter Ackroyd’s new national history may not be ground-breaking, but it is an engaging read, says Christopher Lee

foundation-8647499

Reviewed by: Christopher Lee
Author: Peter Ackroyd
Publisher: Macmillan
Price (RRP): £25

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We have progressed many volumes since writers held that English history started with the Romans. Generations of teachers taught that the Romans reconnoitred, invaded and eventually settled in England as a matter of course and the only opposition were howling, half-naked, wode-dyed savages screaming from the tops of white cliffs.

The heroine of the Iceni was remembered, but with no great certainty and little detail. The horrid in history was yet to be popular reading.

For a lot of the 20th century, pre-Roman history in secondary schools was dull scholarship. DNA dating was not available so pre-Saxon England was a difficult subject. (Now see, for example, Stephen Oppenheimer’s book on the country’s gene pool The Origin of the British). Much teaching was about things that could be drawn for the classroom wall – cavemen, axemen, the Bronze Age and the Iron Age that allowed the men of the prettier metal to be killed.

It was a common classroom text that the Romans invaded because the British Isles were simply to be added to the parade list of imperial triumphs. As the Romans believed, had not Jupiter set upon them bounds of neither space nor of time and bestowed upon them empire without limit – imperium sine fine?

Yet, as Peter Salway in his Roman Britain (part of the Oxford History of England) noted, most of the empire came as a result of wars whose causes were very varied or even, as a consequence of some peoples simply wanting to join for economic, social and security reasons. Here then, were similar motives of signatories as those of the 20th-century Treaty of Rome. That was all then.

Peter Ackroyd in Foundation, the first of his six volumes of The History of England (Volume 2, Reformation, is due out in 2012) uses his limited bibliography well to source his interpretation of early English history.

We are given good measure of retrieved skulls, grains, migrations and dialect, the Ice Age and structures of early, including Stonehengean, societies. None of this is Ackroyd’s period but he is a truly fine storyteller.

He demonstrates pre-Roman England as a fertile and well-farmed society in the south and far more structured than often imagined. Stonehenge was no whimsy of mystics. Regional order, language, dialectic and social differences were apparent perhaps 8,000 years ago.

Like earlier writers, Ackroyd really gets going with the Romans and makes the point that by 100 BC the Romans saw Britain (more accurately, England) as a source of wealth and trade. For the next 2,000 years, Britain would always be a source of wealth and trade, albeit not all of it homegrown or resourced.

Edward Sands at Cambridge would say there was history and, there was what people ate and wore history. Ackroyd mixes the two as he has done (very well) before especially in his London: The Biography and has given us, in this first volume, a card index of the history of England.

There is no sense of scholarship but there is cultured storytelling that leads us sympathetically, albeit speedily, through a chaotic history of a nation’s peoples. In 40 short chapters from the first sarsen stone to the death in 1509 of Henry VII Ackroyd gives us another way of defining chaos.

Ackroyd says that convenience, rather than the shibboleth of progress or evolution, is the agent for change. He asserts that the history of England is “one of continual movement and of constant variation”.

It may be unfair to extract a truism except that the author makes it with determination. The reader deserves more.

After a long summing up before a judge who’d heard most of it before, the lawyer and statesman FE Smith agreed that his lordship might be none the wiser but at least better informed. Ackroyd will leave the general reader better informed but others none the wiser, even short-changed.

On this latter grump, was it the author or the publisher who failed to provide us with any foot or end notes? With five more volumes to come and with only a skimpy bibliography (unhindered by primary sources) this single omission may prove irritating. 

Christopher Lee is the author of This Sceptred Isle: 55 BC–1901 (BBC Books, 1997)

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Look out for a forthcoming interview with Peter Ackroyd on our podcast