The English and Their History, by Robert Tombs
Anglophobes take note: this monumental work of research credits the very Englishness of the English for their capital country being ‘among the richest, safest and best governed places on earth’
The English and Their History
‘If a nation is a group of people with a sense of kinship, a political identity and representative institutions, then the English have a fair claim to be the oldest nation in the world.”
So says Robert Tombs, the author of this monumental work that documents the history of England over the best part of 1,500 years, from the arrival in Kent of St Augustine in 597 to the coming of New Labour.
Sixth-century England was a collection of warring kingdoms, preyed upon by invading Vikings. As Christianity spread, so did literacy and the rule of law. Some sort of political union was ultimately achieved as local kings and warlords united to resist the invaders.
Alfred, King of Wessex, was the first to unify the Anglo Saxons against the Danes. Gradually he expanded his kingdom to the north and east, seizing London in 886.
“If you want a date for the birth of an English kingdom, this is as good as any,” writes Tombs. Although much of the country was still under Viking control, Alfred’s head began to appear on coins, and he established a common system of law and taxation – and a common language.
It was, however, Alfred’s son, Aethelston, who can more accurately lay claim to have been the first king of the English. In 937 he drove the Danes out of Northumbria and inflicted a decisive defeat on Viking invaders who attempted a further invasion from their base in Dublin.
Gradually an administrative system was established over the entire country and a witan, or Council of the English People, provided an elementary parliament, though it would be another 270 years before the institution bearing that name actually came into being.
Thus, writes Tombs, the boundaries of England were fixed 1,000 years before those of most other European countries. From the ninth century, a country with a distinctive language, culture and religion, more prosperous than most of its neighbours, began to evolve.
Norman but not forever
The first three centuries following the Conquest gave rise to a bewildering series of alliances, murderous conflicts, endemic treachery and occasional anarchy, as the Norman kings sought to assert authority over their possessions in France. All this was interspersed with occasional rebellions by the much-put-upon peasantry in protest against the penal taxation inflicted upon them by monarchs seeking to fund their wars.
Meanwhile, the Scots rarely missed an opportunity to invade from the north whenever the attention of the English was distracted. Suffice to say that only eight of the 18 kings who ruled between the Conquest and 1485 died peacefully in their beds. On top of all that came the Black Death, which in just three years reduced the population by more than half.
Yet, remarkably, despite the turmoil, Tombs asserts that the England of the middle ages was generally peaceful and prosperous. GDP was said to be an astonishing $1,000 per head (in 1990 dollars), a figure yet to be achieved today in many parts of the world.
The scope and ambition of this blockbuster are breathtaking. The book is to be dipped into rather than read chronologically. One can open it at almost any page and find something of interest. Tombs, whose speciality is French rather than English history, scrupulously documents and interprets 13 centuries.
No corner of England’s political, social or cultural history is left unvisited – the Reformation, the Civil War, the industrial revolution, the rise and fall of the British empire, the First and Second World Wars, the Troubles in Northern Ireland. There are even a few paragraphs on the rise of Ukip. The references alone occupy 80 pages.
How can one man know so much? Granted, much of this is familiar territory, but Tombs manages to combine erudition with a light touch. His prose is fluent, his facts effortlessly marshalled, his judgments balanced and interesting.
The final section addresses what the author dubs “Declinism”, the sometimes overwhelming sense of pessimism that overcame English – and perhaps British – culture in the past 60 years.
Some date it back to the Suez fiasco, some to the steady decline of British industry and the wave of industrial unrest in the 1960s and ’70s, briefly interrupted by bouts of chauvinistic flag-waving, such as that which followed the recapture of the Falkland Islands. In my view, the tabloid virus, which of late has spread to the broadcast media and some broadsheet newspapers, has also been a factor.
The same, of course, could be said of much of the Western world, at least in recent years. However, writes Tombs, the people of England over the past 400 years can take some credit “for their economic and technological labours; for their long pioneering of the rule of law, of accountability and representation in government, of religious toleration and of civil institutions; and for their determined role in the defeat of modern tyrannies”.
Some will see this as a rosy view of history. And perhaps it is over-generous to attribute such triumphs to Englishmen, when England has been part of the United Kingdom since 1801 and shared a monarchy with the Scots since 1603. This is, remarked one critic, “English history in the way that the English have chosen to remember it”.
To be sure, there is some truth in that, but overall The English and Their History is a masterful and extraordinary work.
Chris Mullin was the MP for Sunderland South from 1987 to 2010. He is the author of three volumes of diaries recounting the rise and fall of New Labour