Book Review: Foundation: A History Of England From Its Earliest Beginnings To The Tudors

Foundation:  A History Of England From Its Earliest Beginnings To The Tudors, by Peter Ackroyd

What is the author aiming at with this work.  This book is the start of several volumes of works written about English history from a generally “popular” historian, and when someone sets out to write a set of volumes about a subject about which many books already exist, it is fair to ask what it is that the author intends on adding to what is already known.  As this is not a particularly scholarly history that gets into the deep discussion of matters that a monograph would, but is a popular history designed for readers who are less than demanding as readers.  But that makes it all the more important to figure out what the author himself is bringing to the table in terms of his agendas and worldviews.  The author appears very interested in extrapolating contemporary discussions about English identity to the past and providing a revisionist history based on genetic research, and also has an ambivalent view of authority, looking at neither centralized authority nor more participatory regimes as being inevitable but both of them being contingent on the strength of the various people involved in government.  Moreover, he has a rather cynical view about the nature of authority in Medieval England.  If that is to your taste, you will find much to appreciate here.

This book is about 450 pages log and is divided into 41 chapters.  The chapters range from being a page or two long to being considerably longer, which are usually focused on a particular ruler.  The first chapter covers the stone age, and the second chapter covers the Roman period.  A single chapter covers the invasions of the Anglo-Saxons and Norse, and we are only in the seventh chapter by the time we get to William the Conqueror, which means the vast majority of the book is spent on the Middle Ages.  This is not a bad thing, as it is obviously the area the author is most knowledgeable about.  But given that the author spends only time time talking about the Norse invasions, it is rather striking that an entire chapter is given to most of the reigns of the medieval English monarchs and a great many chapters besides on the loss of the village or ancient climate change or the seasons of the year or cycles of birth and death or religious change.  The book ends at the end of the Wars of the Roses and the suspicious reign of Henry VII that forms a bookend with the author’s next book, on the Tudors.

Although I was occasionally irritated by the continual interest of the author in matters of political history as well as his seeming interest in continually harping on the level of brutality necessary to be a successful monarch during the Middle Ages, there were some aspects of this book that I found particularly enjoyable.  For one, the author did a good job in the smaller chapters of the book at cutting away from the overall narrative of the work and focusing his attention on smaller vignettes of English history that were sometimes speculative (such as his ideas about early English urbanization during the stone age period) or his love of talking about manors and the life of peasants.  So long as your interests in English history include a look at social history, there is a lot to enjoy here.  The author does at least mix up his interest in the reigns of various monarchs with discussions of larger social trends including even the change of various names, and the result is a book that can seem a bit scattered and which is way too ambitious for its size, but at the same time is a book that can be easily enjoyed by a reader.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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