Wave the Union Jack! Cambridge don Robert Tombs has compressed the millennia-long history of England into a compulsively readable single volume, brimming with insight and pageantry. “The English and Their History” unabashedly sings the praises of a people whose confidence and decency have left an indelible mark on the story of civilization.
Tombs begins with the island’s first known human habitation 800,000 years ago, moving quickly to the welter of early kingdoms. From a paucity of evidence he conjures a fascinating pre-Norman “Anglelond,” where literacy levels and primitive representative government surpassed those on the Continent. The Norman Conquest in 1066 brought in new, often cruel rulers and infused the young language with rich French vocabulary and constructs, shifting the written word closer to the spoken and culminating in English’s Elizabethan flowering: “Tyndale, Cranmer and Shakespeare aimed at simplicity, keeping the expanding literary and intellectual language close to the styles and forms of speech. They thus achieved the rare feat of being both popular and avant-garde.”
Tombs makes some wise choices: He breezes through familiar periods, such as the reigns of the Tudors, and lingers over lesser known epochs, untangling the threads that obscure the Cavaliers and Roundheads and the remote Oliver Cromwell. He’s particularly strong on the bright glories of the Restoration, charting England’s rise as a global power and the careers of such geniuses as Sir Isaac Newton and John Locke.
He devotes the bulk of his narrative to more recent history, though, from the Napoleonic wars onward, and in these pages Tombs’ Tory slip starts to show. He celebrates the achievements of empire, from India to Africa to the Americas, while eliding the enduring harm done to indigenous cultures. He takes potshots at Liberal and Labour politicians and policymakers, Gladstone and John Maynard Keynes among them.
His disdain for the United States may put off American readers, as he seeks to set the record straight about levels of colonial taxation (low), the significance of our revolution to the evolution of democratic government (negligible) and the U.S. contribution to D-Day (inferior): “The British took on by far the strongest opposition in Normandy, and so, despite these careful tactics, their loss of life was twice that of the Americans, whose subsequent advances were facilitated by the British army’s decimation of the main German forces.”
These correctives would go down more smoothly if he were sharper on his stateside history — for instance, he portrays Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation as an act of craven opportunism rather than the endpoint of Lincoln’s own complex journey toward ending slavery.
These quibbles aside, Tombs tells an epic story with flair and élan. With captivating characters and revelatory detail, “The English and Their History” delights the Anglophile in us all.
Hamilton Cain, a finalist for a 2006 National Magazine Award, contributes to various publications. He lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.