Ackroyd (Queer City: Gay London from the Romans to the Present Day, 2017, etc.) fans rejoice! The fourth volume of the author’s History of England series has arrived.
As usual, history buffs will find plenty to ponder, and casual readers will enjoy Ackroyd’s storytelling manner as he continues to expose little-known facts of British history—e.g., the Bank of England was originally a subscription effort, and the pound sterling became the monetary standard under Sir Isaac Newton. In the third volume, Ackroyd dealt with the Glorious Revolution of 1688; here, he digs deeply into the financial revolution under William and Mary. The Bank of England, pound, and the stock exchange were initiated to fund the latest war with France. New finances encouraged the lower gentry—those with money and land but no lineage—in their slavery to the false gods of aspiring “middling” classes. The time period also saw a significant agricultural revolution, with an increase in enclosures of large estates; wide-scale farmers looked to new methods of drainage, hedging and rotating crops, putting many peasant farmers out of business and forcing them to the cities. The conversion from wood to coal required miners; the arrival of steam gave birth to mills and factories, which required the small hands of women and children; and the union with Scotland created the largest free-trade area in the world. While the Enlightenment barely touched England’s shores, the Industrial Revolution could only have been born there, where geography, material and mineral riches, and thriving colonial trade all combined to make the perfect spot. The loss of America showed Britain that it was easier to trade with colonies than to rule them. In this dizzying era, there was also time for the birth of the Fourth Estate because Parliament forgot to extend a censorship law, giving rise to the golden age of political journalism. Through it all, the author is a delightful guide.
All chroniclers of popular history should be required to study Ackroyd’s writing, his methodology, and the totality of his treatment of his subjects.