Once again, Ackroyd (London Under: The Secret History Beneath the Streets, 2011) exhibits his magic touch with the written word, this time with the first in a six-volume history of England.
The first few thousand years of English history is understandably sparse. Written records amount to a few carvings, physical evidence is found in barrows or other burials, and myths passed down over the years tend to become adulterated. The author spends little time in the years of Roman rule, other than to point out that the pilgrims’ paths and the great Roman roads are on prehistoric pathways to shrines and holy wells. Ackroyd’s genius is in his focus on individual kings and on England alone, without Scotland, Ireland and Wales. He explains some myths, debunks others and brings England’s kings to life. Change was slow but inexorable. From even the earliest times, England had central, organized administrations, an aristocratic society and social stratification. However it came to pass, the country has always held a sense of community. Alfred the Great set the foundations for civil service, the judiciary and Parliament; most of today’s villages in England were formed before the 12th century; King John’s reign increased the use of written records; and it wasn’t until the 14th century, with the arrival of the Franciscans and Dominicans, that sermons were first delivered. Curiously, invaders occupied the land from the first through the 13th centuries, and England’s monarchs have all had non-English origins, from the Normans through to the Hanoverians (e.g., French, Welsh, Scots). Delightfully, with each king, Ackroyd summarizes their good and bad attributes along with delightful non sequiturs, such as the first use of the handkerchief.
A true history of England tightly focused on the building blocks that made her.