Sam Leith Sam Leith

The bigger picture

Sam Leith has been enjoying two very different histories of England

Many among you, I know, have been fretting that thanks to a combination of political correctness, New Labour educational policy and the European Union’s usurpation of everything the free-born Englishman holds dear, big-picture narrative history is on the point of vanishing from the earth. All that our children’s children will know of British history, you worry, will be a vague sense of how beastly the Nazis were to Mary Seacole. Well, there is good news for you. Here are two new histories (of England, mind — not of Britain) by two of our best writers. Gosh, though. They could scarcely be more different.

Peter Ackroyd’s is very long — or promises to be. Foundation is only the first in a projected six-volume history running from the origins of Stonehenge (‘The Druids: no one knows who they were, or what they were doing’ —Spinal Tap. Ackroyd agrees) to the turn of the 21st century. That’s what historians, I believe, call a ‘demi-Gibbon’.
This first volume ends with the death of Henry VII in 1509, and the rejoicing of one noble that ‘avarice has fled the country’. ‘The days of royal avarice,’ Ackroyd corrects him with an audible rubbing of the hands, ‘were just beginning.’

His method is to shuttle back and forth between the top-line history of battles and kings, and the slower, more obliquely evidenced level of how life was lived. These are the chapters in which he really digs deep (his archaeological and philological work is exceptionally rich). They deal with the houses people lived in, the violence of their day-to-day lives; their forms of worship and trade; their crazy medicine; their understanding — as far as it can be divined — of the world about them.  

Ackroyd isn’t a conventional historian, and never has been. He’s more engaged than that.

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