Princes, the Dregs of Their Dull Race

Peter Ackroyd, The History of England Volume I: Foundation

Pan Macmillan, 243pp, £25, ISBN 9780230706392

reviewed by David Renton

Millions of readers know what to expect from a Peter Ackroyd history: an eye for detail, the appalling anecdote, deep use of literary and archaeological sources. The History of England exhibits these familiar virtues. The literary sources begin with the Greek merchant Pytheas, landing in Britain two centuries before Caesar. A Viking triumph is illustrated by a quotation from a 10th century lament. To illustrate the ubiquity of violence in mediaeval England, Ackroyd cites the story of a 12th century nun, seduced by a priest, and forced by the members of her order to castrate her lover, after which the nuns stuffed the priest’s excised genitals into his mouth.

Ackroyd’s description of the architecture of the Roman villa is convincing: he uses the building and rebuilding of a single Kentish farm to illustrate the addition of bath-houses and corn ovens (Roman innovations) beside what had been Iron Age homes. When Ackroyd tells us that there were more small roads and tracks in 14th than 21st century England, it is hard not to be impressed. A fine description of the excavation of Wharram Percy, a deserted Yorkshire village, reminds us that early modern homes were often larger than our contemporary new-build.

The back cover of this new History contains praise for Ackroyd’s London: A Biography (Chatto & Windus, 2000) and readers are implicitly invited to compare the two books. Unfortunately, the comparison weighs in favour of the older book. Any city grows in height over time, as successive settlements are built upon the bones and discarded possessions of distant ancestors. So it was with London; in which Ackroyd analysed London thematically, in set-piece descriptions of key moments in the city’s history. A country lacks the narrow, claustrophobic setting of a single London street. Without strong themes to bind together his story, Ackroyd reverts too often to a biographical narrative of successive kings and queens. The author is well aware that the rulers of the past were often violent and wasteful tyrants; in telling their story you feel that their petty quarrels have overwhelmed Ackroyd’s distinctive voice.

So Ackroyd, the brilliant historian of the English imagination, restricts his comments on the King Arthur of legend to nine lines of potted text. The three passing references to Beowulf are no more illuminating. The Saxon fighter of legend, Hereward the Wake, appears and departs with equal haste. There is no mention of Merlin the magician, nor of Cockaigne, the peasant fantasy of a world without hunger, nor even of Geoffey of Monmouth, the first historian of England, whose story blends equal (but creative) doses of fantasy and myth. You will look in vain for any passage in his History which matches the brilliant, detailed narrative of the Great Fire of 1665 that appears in Ackroyd’s London.

The author compensates for the loss of detail by putting a repeated argument that the history of England is a story of continuities which give the country its form. Our farms, it is observed, follow prehistoric boundaries, modern roads follow ancient trackways, the boundaries of parishes have been maintained for centuries. If Ackroyd is right, there is no more typical figure in all England, in the past or today than a ploughman trudging from the fields to mass. The fallacy here is in the use of the present tense. That England ceased to be typical more than two centuries ago under the hammer blows of the industrial revolution.

Continuity ‘is the essential feature of England’, Ackroyd tells us, forcing in particular the transition from Saxon to Norman rule into this narrative of no-change. Is he right? The most important relationships in 11th century England were those that historians have subsumed under the label of feudalism: in essence, land was held by peasants from their lords who held it from the King. The right to hold land was conditional on the promise of military service. Feudalism persisted under Norman and Saxon, Ackroyd tells us; this is both true and utterly misleading.

Between the King and his Lords, much changed after 1066: for the simple reason that many of the Saxon lords were killed and their land taken by Norman successors. Different people were subject to formally the same relationships; but because different people were involved the relationships were changed. The Norman Kings, able to dole out vast tracts of land, had a greater power over their barons than their rival monarchs anywhere else in Europe. Between the Lords and the peasants, all too was different. New Lords were in place. Many of the peasants were dramatically less free. In Domesday Book, it is recorded that one seventh of the population were unambiguous slaves (“servi”). This level of unadorned slavery had not been the norm before 1066, and was ultimately incompatible with a feudal economy.

Ackroyd’s story ends in 1509; with the mourning of King Henry VII. Within three decades the monasteries were dissolved and England was outside the European Catholic faith. Within a century, there were Stuart rulers trying to recreate Duke William’s absolute monarchy, and within one hundred and fifty years, so advanced was England that we were capable of living without feudal dues or a King.

It is possible to see a unity in the history of England; if so, it is to be found either in our partial contribution to the world’s adoption of democracy; or, in the subtle social and economic developments that culminated in Britain becoming the world’s first industrial nation. Neither of these dynamics can be explained by a story which imposes a fixed message of continuity in place of the actuality of change.