Foundation: The History of England from Its Earliest Beginnings to the Tudors
“When the first sarsen stone was raised in the circle of Stonehenge, the land we call England was already very ancient.”
This history of England covers the first 12,000 years of so of English history, ending specifically the reign of Henry Tudor, Henry VII, who took over the throne with possibly sketchy evidence after defeating Richard III. This more or less signified the end of the War of the Roses, but there were two more pretender kings to show up and demand the throne and announce their own legitimacy. We don’t get a lot of pretenders to the throne anymore, and that’s unfortunate because it’s exciting and I am not in the UK, and I think even some people within the UK (specifically the pretenders) might enjoy that.
This history, though, begins several thousand years before this final moment with some of the archaeological evidence that marks the transition from prehistory to history. Because of both Roman and Nordic invasions of Great Britain, and the rampant chaos and the cultural eradication those brought with them, a lot of the evidence of early England must lie with the primitive settlements, ancient roads, and other prehistoric evidence. The book takes on these with level of energy that is oddly compelling. Peter Ackroyd’s history, before there is history to use, takes advantage of the relative stability of 2000 years of Great Britain (at least at the scale of total destruction) and finds some interesting consistencies throughout history.
Once we move into the middle ages (and a little earlier) things settle down a little more. Earlier to this, Ackroyd must rely on sources like Bede, Romans, and other limited or biased sources that can only offer up limited analysis. Once we get to the couple of centuries predating the Norman Invasion, the sources become “English” so to speak (I mean, not the Normans obviously), and the history can move toward more credible tellings and more familiar tellings. Because this is an English history, there are some references to what’s happening in Scotland, Ireland, Wales, and France, but in very limited fashion. So we might know the story of Macbeth from Shakespeare, but here, we get the story of Edward the Confessor, and not the later happenings. This is mostly a top down history, with some additional supporting chapters on culture, language, and other forms of living beyond the nobility, but given the ways in which the nobility completely controlled the lives of serfs, which Ackroyd makes clear means slave, and given the limited literacy at least until the 15th century, we have what we have.
I hope this history is accurate, because it’s deeply compelling. I will continue to read up on this history as I check out other sources, but this, as the title suggests, lays a good foundation up until about 1500 or so.
A Coffin for King Charles
This is a popular history of the end of the English Civil War. And I mean popular, as my copy is a Time Life Books edition, which I associate with cheaply bound (although fake fancy) copies of older books. I specifically bought this book because of recommendations from James Mustisch, and also because I have another CV Wedgwood book about the Thirty Years War that I have had for a long time.
The book, like I said, is a history of the end of the English Civil War in that this is the third of a trilogy, but rather than as a continuing story, or rather in addition to being a continuing story, this book is a singular volume about the arrest, trial, conviction, and execution of the king. This is of note because of everything I think is possible in the world today, I can’t really imagine the king of England being tried and executed. In fact, I can’t envision a monarch in the UK being tried for almost anything going back at least three hundred years. Perhaps this event is so singular that that’s the reason it happened, exactly once. Though of course prior to this there’s been other deposed English monarch, Mary though being tried after being overthrown, and not in the process of it. Regardless, this is a short, pithy, and interesting exploration of a wild time, and maybe the last real wild time in English history.