Robert Tombs has written an epic history of England. As more of a specialist in French history, Tombs admits that, had he focussed his career on England, he might indeed have baulked at the challenge of attempting such a vast undertaking. he ambition of this book should not be understated: it contains a vast historical sweep, from the inception of what he suggests is the first nation state to the current period. Along the way, it incorporates political, economic, social and cultural themes within an overarching narrative of how a specifically English identity evolved over thirteen centuries. Tombs takes a fairly traditional, chronological approach to the story of England. However, this narrative framework enables him to highlight the importance of memory, myth and legend, as much as historical fact, in the creation of an ever-evolving national consciousness that remains recognisable —and recognisably English— throughout tumultuous events and centuries.
The importance of myth and memory in establishing English identity is made more potent by Tombs’ opening gambit that the “idea” of England preceded the reality. The centrality of religious factors in the history of England was established from the outset, in that Pope Gregory the Great had seen the ‘Angles’ as a single people to be converted to Christianity, helping to establish a distinct English Church even before the various ancient kingdoms had coalesced into what became a coherent nation state. Tombs shows the ongoing importance of religion in shaping the wider sociopolitical developments that continue to influence England. The fact of the established Church’s evolution alongside religious dissent and non-conformism highlights the theme of division, which Tombs picks up at various points throughout his narrative — it plays a central role in the fissures that run through the Civil War, the Restoration and beyond, for example (as he suggests) in the development of the modern Labour Party, informed and shaped more by Methodism than Marx.
The importance of the written word —whether records of history, myth, and legend, religious tract, drama or literature— in establishing English identity and an “imagined Englishness” is emphasised throughout. Examples are legion, from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, which first defines “an English identity which has proved permanent,” to William Tyndale’s translation of the Bible into English and its creation of “a language for England” with wide-ranging cultural influence that was “possibly greater than that of Shakespeare’s.” The latter’s influence is nevertheless huge, of course, identified by Tombs today not only in the continuing popularity of his work and the prevalence of certain phrases and figures of speech in contemporary English, but also —perhaps more importantly— in the contribution of the history plays in particular to the ongoing resonance of common memories and tropes of English history. In a similar vein, Dickens conveyed a dramatic evocation and interpretation of the later Victorian England to his contemporaries via colourful characterisations and storylines that remain evocative to us today and shape much of our understanding and interpretation of the period. Nevertheless, Tombs warns against relying too heavily on these Dickensian perceptions of Englishness and English concerns, or assuming that such preoccupation with social questions was unique to England.
To what degree English history can be be seen as unique or materially distinct from that of other nations is, perhaps unsurprisingly, another theme that appears throughout this history. The main conclusion in this regard seems to be that whilst not wholly unique (after all, other nations industrialised, other nations experienced imperial expansion), what does tend to mark out the English experience is that after the 1066 conquest, and despite the ‘Norman yoke,’ English institutions, culture and characteristics survived largely intact and avoided many of the major upheavals, revolutions and uncertainties that others experienced. England was never again invaded, and a certain sense of superiority seemed to take hold in the national psyche.
Tombs often challenges orthodoxies of national historical memory, in particular our interpretations of conflicts, their causes and aftermaths, most particularly in the case of the First World War. He argues that our understanding of the war is formed around a rather too settled and comfortable set of assumptions, that it was perhaps not a completely inexplicable and unnecessary conflict, that many of the recruits were not ignorant of its realities or indeed the reasons for it —and even asks whether it might have been worth the huge sacrifices. What has become a consensus or conventional interpretation has, Tombs suggests, often carried with it a rather condescending and inaccurate picture that does a dis-service to many people involved at the time. Similarly, with regard to England and Britain’s imperial history, Tombs examines the more recent concept of ‘declinism’: the narrative which the British (more pertinently, in this context, the English) have told themselves about the contemporary era as a period of inevitable and ongoing decline in power and influence, both economically and politically, on the global stage. Tombs is persuasive to varying degrees in challenging these cherished shibboleths of national memory.
This is a largely top-down approach to history, and indeed Tombs does at times seem rather dismissive of the impact of extra-Parliamentary protest movements. The suffragettes are airily described as having had little or no influence on the fact or timing of the franchise’s extension. Similarly, the role of the Chartists in influencing electoral reform is minimised. Throughout we are given the impression that reform was coming anyway, and that such groups were not a key factor in effecting change. This rather blasé attitude becomes a little wearing as we come up to recent times, when too broad a brush is sometimes applied to summaries of political developments— no mention of the “can’t pay, won't pay” poll tax campaign of civil disobedience, or indeed the poll tax riots, as contributing anything much to the downfall of Margaret Thatcher, for example.
There is a strong bias, understandably, towards the modern age, with events from the 19th, 20th and early 21st centuries occupying many more pages than those devoted to the preceding eras of English history. Despite this greater focus on recent developments, these later sections of the book seem at times a little rushed, and for this reader they do suffer somewhat in comparison with some of the earlier chapters. There are attempts to link in cultural references which are, at times, a bit glib and occasionally inaccurate. With regard to the 1970s period of economic downturn and industrial strife, specifically the long hot summer of 1976, we are told that the apposite musical backdrop was provided by The Kinks’ Sunny Afternoon, which had been a hit ten years previously. Tony Blair becomes Prime Minister at the age of 43, and yet a few chapters later we are informed that in 2010 David Cameron, at 44, is the youngest PM since Lord Liverpool. These are small and insignificant slips in the grand sweep of this excellent book, and perhaps it is a little pedantic to point them out, but they did undermine this reader’s confidence in some other assertions, especially those that are somewhat politically charged. For instance, should we take at face value the assertion that Gordon Brown was a “strangely inept Prime Minister”? Of course, in electoral terms that can't be argued with, but should this damning assessment perhaps take greater note of other observers who emphasise Brown’s role in fashioning not only a British, but also a global response to the financial crash of 2008?
At close to 1000 pages, this book could be seen as quite an undertaking for the reader as well as the author, directed as it is at a general audience. It is, though, wonderfully free-flowing in its style, an accessibly presented, continuously unfolding narrative that covers the key aspects of each stage of English history, whilst deftly weaving in new threads that will appear time and again throughout the book. So many of these themes are well-known, but while their impact on English identity and history has been the focus of well-worn arguments, claims and counter-claims, they remain fascinating. Tombs highlights the importance of the English language’s development in helping to foster a shared narrative and common cultural experience. He also suggests that a geography which placed a few crucial miles of sea between England and the Continent helped foster a sense of exceptionalism and disassociation from Europe, and allowed England to establish maritime supremacy. This in turn brought with it imperial expansion and global perspectives —politically, economically, culturally, and in terms of military engagement.
As Tombs says, the English and their history is one of the most written-about, debated, told and re-told of stories, amongst both themselves and other peoples throughout the world. In highlighting and questioning some of the cherished precepts of Englishness that have been passed down to us, Tombs has simply added another intriguing set of questions to prompt further consideration and re-consideration. This book is a great achievement and a most welcome addition to the ongoing debate. --Steve Cox