Enduring England

Academics have dismissed the field of national histories as parochial. But, argues Dominic Sandbrook, three new accounts of England show that myths of national identity remain strong
August 24, 2011
1066 and all that: in his new book Simon Jenkins contrasts “Anglo-Saxon” localism with “Norman” love of big government

A Short History of Englandby Simon Jenkins (Profile, £25)

Foundation: A History of England Volume 1by Peter Ackroyd (Macmillan, £25)

Visions of England by Roy Strong (Bodley Head, £17.99)

Is there such a thing as an enduring national character? Most academic historians would probably scoff at the idea of a nation having a distinct personality, surviving down the centuries beneath the changing tides of fashion and technology. Many academics now frown upon national histories, preferring to talk of “trans-national” developments and dismissing what they see as the parochial concerns of their predecessors. So when Norman Davies published a massive history of his native land, The Isles, in 1999, he went to great efforts to ditch the timeworn conventions of national history. For Davies, England had never stood alone and had never been a jewel set in a silver sea. His England had always been part of a multicultural archipelago, its face turned to the continent. For much of its history it was part of the “isles of Outremer,” a kind of French colonial possession, run by people called Henri Plantagenêt and Le Roi Jean (King John to you and me). He even ended with the prediction that one day the English Republic would cheerfully take its place within a booming EU— a forecast that only 12 years later feels like ancient history.

Entertaining and provocative as Davies’s book was, his new coinages completely failed to catch on. Academics might produce a thousand articles pointing out that England’s medieval kings usually spoke French, but if the phrase “Le Roi Jean” survives, it will be only as what Kingsley Amis used to call a “wanker detector.” The old conventions, like the garbled legends of Canute and the waves, Alfred and the cakes and Cromwell banning Christmas, seem indestructible. Indeed, a glance at publishers’ catalogues suggests that, by and large, academic historians have retreated from the field, abandoning it to popular writers who have no compunction about dusting down the familiar stories. Thanks to the gradual semi-detachment of Scotland and Wales, and perhaps to a quiet reaction against globalisation, England’s past has become trendy again. Like Cath Kidston designs, austerity cookbooks and recipes for cupcakes, books about England are everywhere. But none of them has been written by an academic.

Of the flurry of new books on England, Simon Jenkins’s short history is the most immediately accessible. It whizzes through the centuries at breakneck speed, dashing from the coming of the Anglo-Saxons to the advent of David Cameron in just 350 pages. As always, Jenkins writes with brisk, cool confidence; his judgements sound authoritative, even when his facts are dodgy. And though he has absolutely nothing new to say, he says it very enjoyably.

The striking thing about Jenkins’s book is how unashamedly old-fashioned it is. In his introduction he acknowledges the “fashion” for personal, social and cultural history, but then swats it aside: his narrative, he says, is the story of “those who deployed power.” Social and economic developments are almost entirely absent; while there is an entire chapter on the Wars of the Roses, the industrial revolution comes and goes in five sentences. And his interpretation is pure Whiggery. England has been a great success story, he says, thanks to the “True hero of our tale,” the institution of parliament. He announces that Henry VIII and Elizabeth I were the best monarchs we ever had; he admires Walpole, Pitt, Burke and Fox; he thinks that the Roundheads went too far and that the Great Reform Act of 1832 was “the true ‘glorious revolution.’”

Despite the brevity of his narrative, Jenkins finds room for some howlers. Sir Edmund Verney was the Royalists’ standard-bearer at Edgehill, not their commander. Far from being humourless, Oliver Cromwell was fond of crude practical jokes. Stanley Baldwin came from Bewdley, not Birmingham. And as Jenkins should surely know, while 26 people were shot on Bloody Sunday, 13 of them, not the full 26, were killed. Meanwhile, academics will surely shudder at his main conceit, which pits the supposedly “Anglo-Saxon” traditions of localism and self-government against the “Norman” love of top-down big government. The notion that “Thatcher was a ruler in Norman rather than Saxon style” (meaning more like William Rufus than Athelstan?) does not get us very far. Still, his book is an entertaining and useful one, and if his ideal reader is probably a bright young schoolboy, inspired by a visit to some crumbling castle and keen to find out more about his nation’s history, there is nothing wrong with that.

If Jenkins’s short history sometimes feels a bit too short, nobody could level that complaint at Peter Ackroyd. The first of a projected six volumes taking the story of England from prehistory to the present, Foundation takes 450 pages to get to 1509, which gives him plenty of room for digressions. But in Ackroyd’s tale there is no sense of progress towards a Whiggish ideal. Indeed, he goes out of his way to emphasize that “human history, as it is generally described and understood, is the sum total of accident and unintended consequence.” Writing a history book, he says, is really “another way of defining chaos.” The great changes go largely unnoticed; behind the headlines, the daily grind goes on. The stuff of life is “turmoil and accident and coincidence… Everything grows out of the soil of contingent circumstance.”

On the surface, this might imply a much more anarchic, even subversive take on early English history. In fact, Ackroyd’s book is just as conservative as Jenkins’s. “We may grow weary of the life and death of kings,” he admits, but “for an historical account of medieval England, there is no other sure or certain touchstone.” Here too, it is the rise and fall of monarchs that underpins the narrative. Such set pieces as there are—for Ackroyd is more of a landscape artist than a pure storyteller— tend to involve kings and battles. William the Conqueror lands at Pevensey; Matilda escapes from Oxford; Edward II meets a red-hot poker; Richard III seizes the crown.

By concentrating so much on the cut and thrust of kings and barons, Foundation, like Jenkins’s book, often feels remarkably old-fashioned. Indeed, reading the familiar stories of Thomas Becket, Simon de Montfort and Warwick the Kingmaker, about which neither Ackroyd nor Jenkins have anything very innovative to say, I sometimes wished they had taken a more imaginative approach. There is a telling contrast here with Norman Davies: while The Isles is often regarded as an interesting failure, even a kind of grand literary folly, its more daring, even experimental approach makes it a much more invigorating and provocative read. There is no iron law of history dictating that such books must be structured by the reigns of kings, and although a book concentrating on, say, the plight of the oppressed peasantry would probably be a painfully tedious read, there are times when you yearn for a break from the endless succession of good and bad kings. Men of power (and they were generally men) exert an obvious fascination, but the voices of the powerless are often equally intriguing. And although kings, barons and politicians are bound to be the central characters in short introductions to English history, our national story need not always concentrate on the men at the top.

Indeed, the real pleasure of Ackroyd’s book comes when he briefly abandons the high-political narrative for excursions down country lanes or along the back streets of market towns. In a few lines he can capture the colour and flavour of medieval life. In the tenth century, he tells us, men wore their hair long; to cut somebody’s hair was “as criminal as cutting off a nose or an ear.” Men and women alike wore strong perfume and sported tattoos on their arms and faces (so perhaps nothing changes); rich women wore gold ornaments on their long tunics and wrapped their heads in silk. Like their modern successors, medieval Englishmen and women were addicted to all manner of medicines. For tonsillitis, one book recommended skinning a cat, crumbling the guts with the “grease of a hedgehog and the fat of a bear,” stuffing this back into the cat, roasting it whole and anointing the patient with the fat that oozed out.

As Ackroyd points out, life in medieval England was a lot shorter than it is now, with many adults dying in their thirties. (Jenkins, too, remarks that the Wars of the Roses were glorified gangland vendettas led by armour-clad teenagers.) It was “a life more intense and more arduous than our own; it was at once more sensitive and more irritable.” And it was also, Ackroyd observes, a lot more violent; indeed, perhaps the abiding impression of Foundation is one of physial cruelty. When a nun in Yorkshire’s East Riding lost her virginity to a young priest in the 1160s, her fellow nuns interrogated her and dragged the man to her cell. They forced her to castrate him with a knife, and then “stuffed his genitals into her mouth” before flogging and chaining her.

Judicial punishments were often horrific, too. When a Worcester man was accused of malicious wounding, his victim’s family were allowed to blind and castrate him. Afterwards, they threw his eyeballs on the ground and played football with his testicles.

On the face of it, anecdotes like these seem to bear out Ackroyd’s emphasis on the sheer chaos of the past. This was a violent, anarchic world in which you might die at any moment, a world without themes or order. Or was it? For like Jenkins, Ackroyd is often at pains to stress the continuities of English history. Despite the battles and invasions, he argues, ordinary life went on much as it always had, in its parochial, introverted, small-scale way. Then as now, people clung to traditions without really knowing why, celebrating their religious feasts, playing their seasonal games, their social and cultural lives dominated by their parish churches. Customs survived for no very obvious reason other than the fact that they always had. In Kidderminster, on the day of the bailiff’s election, the common people were allowed to take over the town for an hour. They spent their time throwing cabbages at one another; then they solemnly pelted the bailiff’s procession with apples.

Its gleeful nastiness a useful corrective to Jenkins’s Whiggish optimism, Ackroyd’s narrative closes with the death of Henry VII. We will have to wait for his next volume on the rest of the Tudors, but given his emphasis on greed and gore, it would be interesting to know what he makes of Roy Strong’s Visions of England. For while Ackroyd’s England is a dirty and brutal place, Strong’s is a pastoral paradise, an Elizabethan Arcadia. Under Gloriana, he argues, a sense of Englishness first appeared, driven by the printing press, Protestantism, maps, explorers, Spenser and Shakespeare. It was “an immortal period in our history,” an era with “an intensity about it which time cannot erode.” And although Strong does not quite say so, you rather suspect he thinks everything has been downhill since then.

But although some critics have had great fun poking holes in Strong’s rose-tinted vision of Elizabethan England, his book is arguably the most insightful and provocative of the trio, precisely because he refrains from following his competitors down the traditional chronological path. His England is a land of the imagination; what interests him are not kings and battles but paintings and poems. He thinks that when men left their factories to fight in the first world war, “they did not fight for Manchester or Birmingham but for the likes of Chipping Campden and Lavenham.” At one level this is ludicrous; at another it is deadly accurate. The pastoral myth of Englishness, as Strong shows, is even more compelling and enduring than Jenkins’s narrative of progress. “England is the country and the country is England,” said Stanley Baldwin in 1926, at a point when thousands of suburban semis and roadside pubs were springing up across greater Metro-land. On the face of it he was wrong, but in a deeper sense he was right: in a crowded, suburbanised country, millions of people wanted to believe him. Even now, there are more than 100 different clips on YouTube of the “Jerusalem” hymn from Prince William’s wedding, with its misty-eyed evocation of England’s green and pleasant land.

Even if you do not find it moving, Strong’s emphasis on the pastoral tradition is a valuable reminder of the essential continuity that binds together English history. The reason that Norman Davies’s project failed, after all, was that most readers genuinely do believe that England is different; like George Orwell, most of us instinctively believe that “the beer is bitterer, the coins are heavier, the grass is greener,” and so on. Whether these things are factually true is beside the point; the fact that we believe them is precisely what gives us that elusive thing, a national character. Ripped free from their roots and traditions, so-called transnational histories will never appeal to millions of readers who believe themselves to be part of a family that stretches from Dover to Durham, but no further. However much academics may turn up their noses at national histories, you merely need to look at the shelves of your local bookshop to realise that, in the imagination at least, the nation-state is as healthy as ever.

For Strong, the last thousand years have thrown up two competing visions of England: one quiet, rural, pastoral (not unlike Simon Jenkins’s “Saxon” England), the other bombastic, military, imperial (“Norman”). The latter, he thinks, is almost defunct, but the vision of a bucolic Arcadia lives on. I think he is right. We may have become a consumerist, multicultural, technology-crazed people, but many of us still dream of a place in the countryside. We spend our weekends at garden centres; we visit National Trust properties; we make a fuss about our dogs and worry about the weather. Even the royal wedding, on the surface a celebration of imperial Englishness, had its pastoral element in those much-discussed trees along the aisle in Westminster Abbey. We may no longer, mercifully, play football with people’s testicles, but in our longing for a quiet life in the country—as well, of course, as our haughtiness, self-love and thirst for alcohol—we are not as different from our forefathers as we often think.