Rarely have I enjoyed reading a history book as much as I’ve enjoyed Peter Ackroyd’s Foundation: The History of England from its Earliest Beginnings to the Tudors.
In one sense, it is a traditional history. Covering the period from the earliest traces of people in Mesolithic times (some 15,000 years ago) to the beginning of the Tudor dynasty about 1500, Foundation is structured largely along the lines of rulers and kings, whom, Ackroyd aptly points out, we know more about than commoners, farmers, serfs, and others of the lower classes. And so we learn about Julius Caesar and Claudius, the legend of King Arthur, the Anglo-Saxon kings, the Plantagenets, Yorks and Tudors.
But Foundation is a traditional history with a twist, actually two twists.
First, Ackroyd breaks up his kingly (and queenly) history with short vignettes: the effects of climate; how houses of the people changed; what the roads were like; descriptions of that most English of institutions, the village; the seasons; how non-English writers viewed the English; family life; the seasons; and others. These short chapters are less a sop to contemporary sensibilities (we democrats want the commoners’ story told) than it is an almost welcome relief from what otherwise would have been a pile-on of royal history.
Second, there is Ackroyd’s style. It is lively, fast-paced, and pointed, engaging the reader’s from the beginning and never once letting go. Ackroyd engages with the people he’s writing about, whether a monster like Richard III (or was that just a bad rep courtesy of Sir Thomas More and William Shakespeare) or a more saintly rulers, like Edward the Confessor. Without coming outright and saying so, the author seems to favor Henry II over St. Thomas a Becket, who doesn’t come across as the saintly figure he’s believed to be, at least in Ackroyd’s hands.
It can seem a jumble at times, just trying to keep track of all of the lines of Saxons, Vikings and Danes, Normans, Burgundians, Bretons, Welsh, and Scots, not to mention the English themselves and all their tangled lines and descents. But Ackroyd ties it together with essentially two themes. One is that England is not a country so much of law as it is a country of custom. And the other theme, related to the first, is that while much had changed over the course of 15,000 years, some things in English life have not changed at all. It’s a point he repeatedly returns to.
Foundation is a thoroughly enjoyable, highly readable book, filled with large ideas and small stories, artfully combined to present a picture of the country we know as England.
Related: Reading Peter Ackroyd
Photograph: Arundel Castle, West Sussex, by Karen Arnold via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.