There are only two authors (Christopher Fowler and Agatha Christie) who I’ve read more books by and yet my responses to this author do vary. At his best he can beat off all competition, “London: The Biography” (2000) was my favourite read of 2002. He can impress enough to appear in my end of year Top 10’s “Dickens”, “House Of Doctor Dee”, “Dan Leno And The Limehouse Golem”, “Life Of Thomas More”, “Albion”, or just miss out,“Queer City”, or he can just be solidly good as with “English Music”, “Milton In America”, “The Clerkenwell Tales, “The Casebook Of Victor Frankenstein”. The book of his which didn’t do it for me was “Hawksmoor” his 1985 breakthrough success, but perhaps I just wasn’t in the mood for it when I read in 1998.
In 2011 we saw the first volume of his hugely ambitious history of England which has since been completed with “The Tudors” (2012),“Rebellion (also called “Civil War”) (2014), “Revolution” (2016), “Dominion” (2018) and “Innovation” (2021). It’s hard to think of an author who could be more appropriate for a work of this scope. Both his fiction and non-fiction are permeated with such a strong sense of the past. He is learned and yet accessible, there’s always more than a hint of Ackroyd in his non-fiction voice- a personal touch which always keeps me involved. He’s as good with the minor details as with the broad themes.
The reason why it has taken me longer to get started reading this than the time it took the author to write the whole series is this, the first volume. With its subtitle “The History Of England From Its Earliest Beginnings To The Tudors” it just all felt too much. The further we go back in history the less evidence there is and the little incidentals and digressions which Ackroyd excels in are just not possible here.
So, what we have inevitably ended up here with is more of a catalogue of Kings, the people they surrounded themselves with and ongoing battles with France which tended to blend into one another. I had hoped that this might be the book which would help me sort the Henrys from the Richards and the Edwards but it wasn’t. I think I’d need to go much more in depth for that and read books with a less broad focus.
The chronological chapters are interspersed with those that explore a theme with a longer time span which did provide variety but also broke the flow of the actual what was going on when for me. Ackroyd just looks at England, to incorporate other parts of Great Britain in this would have been overwhelming and the Welsh and Scots, in particular, were on very different paths to the English for much of this time and relationships were often antagonistic.
I felt pleased that I got through this book and there is a lot to fascinate, especially how early certain things were established, for examples, town and places of worships were developed on sites where really early towns and places of worship had been, suggesting that sense of location was really strong, same for roads and many administrative structures were developed early on. This truly was a time of Foundation. I am confident that later books in this series will have more appeal for me. He devotes the whole of the next volume to the Tudor period, which means that a much shorter time-scale will let, I’m sure, the great storyteller Peter Ackroyd is, to shine more than he could with this work. But he has here provided a solid opener to what could be a very inspirational series.
The History Of England Volume 1: Foundation was first published in 2011 by Macmillan.