Monday, May 28, 2018

“Revolution” by Peter Ackroyd

From 1688 to 1815 occurred some of the most tumultuous events that shaped the modern world. James IIwas replaced on the English throne by William and Mary; France under Louis XIV became the pivot of war in Europe; The Seven Years War (aka the French and Indian War) reshaped the political map of North America; the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution; the American Revolution; the French Revolution and Reign of Terror; and the Napoleonic era, finding ending in the fields outside Brussels. 

In Revolution: The History of England from the Battle of the Boyne to the Battle of Waterloo, British author Peter Ackroyddepicts the story of monarchs, war, societal upheavals, and cultural changes. Continuing his series on the history of England (this is volume 4), he tells a riveting story.

The religious wars that started with the Reformation in the early 1500s finally played themselves out in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. James II was a bit too Catholic and finds himself replaced by William of Orange and James’s daughter Mary. Childless, they’re succeeded by Queen Anne, but she, too, dies without an heir (only one child survived infancy and he died young). Parliament turned to a distant relation in the German state of Hanover,George I (1660-1727), who was staunchly Protestant. But if there is a central figure in this period, it is George III (1738-1820), the nemesis of the American colonists, and the monarch whose bouts with madness caused no end of reactions and responses.

Ackroyd pays close attention to the significant events affecting business and industry during the period. The Bank of England was founded. Freedom of the press emerged in England less as a declared right and more because Parliament forgot to extend a law regulating printing (Ackroyd notes the almost immediate effect of an explosion of news sheets had on politics). The Industrial Revolution emerged as a significant factor in society, including the manufacture of Josiah Wedgewood’s plates, mechanized spinning of textiles, and the steam engine. 

Social justice issues, like the call for the abolition of slavery, began to be sounded by people like William Wilberforce and Hannah More. And this was the era of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s plays, Samuel Johnson’s dictionary, The Rights of Man by Thomas Paine, the speeches of Edmund Burke, and the writings of Adam Smith. And in the 1790s, William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge helped give birth to Romanticism.

Peter Ackroyd
Political and economic changes led to almost ongoing social unrest. The upper classes in England feared (and understandably so) the spread of the French Revolution, but crop failures, economic downturns, political changes, and even rumors fueled riots and protests.

Ackroyd points out that the American Revolution was the first political change that wasn’t about installing a new monarch or a new church, inspiring many revolutions and political changes that followed.

The author is one of Britain’s most prolific popular historians. In addition to his history of England series, he’s also written biographies of Charles Dickens and the artist J.M.W. Turner, among several others; a history of London (and a history of London beneath the streets); and many other works.

The period from 1688 to 1815 was exciting and momentous, and Ackroyd’s Revolution brings it fully to life.


Top illustration: George III’s coronation portrait (1762) by Allan Ramsay.

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