Monday, February 6, 2017

A Wild Century: “Rebellion” by Peter Ackroyd

The 1600s were a tumultuous century in British history. The Tudor dynasty came to an end with the death of Elizabeth I, and the Stuarts ascended the throne. Disagreements between king and Parliament increased, with the eventual explosion of civil war in the 1640s and the Cromwell protectorate in the 1650s. Then came the Restoration, with Charles II crowned king. Upon his death, his brother James II became king, but his Catholicism and imperial ways were too much. William and Mary, James II’s son-in-law and daughter, ascended the throne in the relatively bloodless Glorious Revolution of 1688.

This is the political history of the century told in detail by writer Peter Ackroyd in Rebellion: The History of England from James I to the Glorious Revolution. It is the third volume in his history of England, following Foundation and Tudors.

Rebellion is firmly in the tradition of popular history writing in the U.K., and Ackroyd is one of its most prolific writers. The book is a lively, exciting story, and it draws upon a lively, exciting period. Ackroyd writes history with all of its warts, and none of the romanticizing that many popular writers might be prone to.

The most detailed and extensive section is the era that was the most pivotal – roughly 1640 to 1660, covering the fight between Charles I and the royalists on one side and the Independents and Presbyterians of Parliament on the other. The detailed discussion provides a solid summary of both causes and effects, and emphasizes that the it wasn’t a simple “crown versus Parliament” fight. Loyalties could be fluid, and both sides were guilty of extreme positions and acts. It was a time of extremes.

The 17th century was also a time when some of the greatest literature and theological statements in English history was created. Shakespeare wrote some of his most famous plays. A royal commission of scholars translated and created the King James Version of the Bible. Thomas Hobbes wrote his  Leviathan. Milton wrote his incredible poetry (and spent a time in prison for siding with Cromwell and Parliament). John Bunyan wrote Pilgrim’s Progress. Theologians spent five years (meeting at Hampton Court Palace) creating the Westminster Confession.

Peter Ackroyd
While the focus is political history (and particularly the political history of England), Rebellion also provides context of what was happening in the daily lives of the people. We learn about crop failures; the growth, contraction, and growth of trade; the return of the plague; and the first of London in 1666 (both King Charles II and his brother worked to fight the fire, which burned for three September days).

But it’s the political history where Ackroyd excels and tells his best stories. We learn of the workings and the corruption of the royal courts, the intrigues with various European powers and how that played out in domestic politics, and the inner workings o parliament and how it came to assume power and fight for power.

It’s a rich, exciting story, and Ackroyd tells it extremely well.


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