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Foundation: The History of England Volume I

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He recounts the foreign wars, the civil strife and warring kings. He also offers a vivid sense of how life was in England from the jokes people told, the houses they built, the food they ate and the clothes they wore. Peter tells of the cataclysmic break of England with Rome brought about by Henry VIII due to his relentless pursuit of the perfect heIr and perfect wife. He tells of how the short reign of Edward VI the teenage king resulted in the reign of Bloody Mary who violently reimposed Catholicism. Between 2003 and 2005, he was the author of “Voyages Through Time,” a six title non fiction series that he wrote for young readers. This would be his first ever work meant for younger readers.

This book covers from Stonehenge to the end of the Plantagenet rule with the death of Richard III in 1485 at the Battle of Bosworth Field. I also had a relative that fought on the side of the Tudor usurpers (well how they are referred to in my household anyway) he was knighted on the battlefield by Henry VII for his role in helping to slay Richard.The author offers thoughtful new insights into age-old discussions of English history. I particularly enjoyed the way the chapters alternate between narratives about the people in power, and descriptions of everyday life. Most of these works are little read now, from David Hume’s 1750s The History of England all the way through to Winston Churchill’s idiosyncratic A History of the English-Speaking Peoples in the 1950s. The grand sweep has a tendency to define the significant in advance. Many of these histories can explain a sequence of legislation, such as the Factory Acts, but are incapable of really evoking the texture of the times or the tenor of minds. At best, they are a useful framework — I mean, who doesn’t mentally place events of the past against the dates of rulers, thinking of Victorian and Edwardian architects as subtly different in some way?

In Foundation, the chronicler of London and of its river, the Thames, takes us from the primeval forests of England's prehistory to the death, in 1509, of the first Tudor king, Henry VII. He guides us from the building of Stonehenge to the founding of the two great glories of medieval England: common law and the cathedrals. He shows us glimpses of the country's most distant past--a Neolithic stirrup found in a grave, a Roman fort, a Saxon tomb, a medieval manor house--and describes in rich prose the successive waves of invaders who made England English, despite being themselves Roman, Viking, Saxon, or Norman French. Not that it should be overlooked, the point is important enough I won’t discuss that. But it fills 80% of the book, the rest being succession issues and unimportant details. To say it left me wanting is an understatement. These astonishingly frequent errors clearly undermine the general authority of the book; but even cleaned up, I think it would fail to convince. And Innovation is an odd title to choose when you have so little interest in technology and scientific breakthroughs. The internet, the discovery of antibiotics, nuclear power and many other things with specific English connections are passed over either in silence or with the briefest possible mention.Henry VIII began the process of breaking away from Rome for political and dynastic reasons, not because he was swayed by the new teachings of Luther or Calvin. By the end of his reign, the monasteries were destroyed, much of the church lands and treasure confiscated and the monarch was head of the Church in England. It would go on to become a critically acclaimed series which was peculiar as such readers are not known for loving history. For his work early on he got a nomination from the Royal Society of Literature. The book is quite startlingly inaccurate on dozens of occasions. George VI became king in 1936, not 1937. The famous 1933 Oxford Union motion about not fighting for king and country is significantly misquoted. How Elgar could be regarded as one of the two most successful British composers in the 1930s escapes me: he wrote nothing of any importance after 1919 and was painfully out of fashion by the time he died in 1934. Mrs Thatcher didn’t ‘form a new acquaintance, one Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev’, at Yuri Andropov’s funeral in 1984. She wanted to meet him, but was rebuffed. She first met him on his trip to the UK at the end of the year, three months before he became General Secretary. It wasn’t the ‘leader of East Germany’ who announced the opening of the Berlin Wall in 1989 but an ill-informed Günter Schabowski, by mistake. The novel of Kingsley Amis’s that Thatcher was so dismissive about (‘Huh! Get another crystal ball!’) is not about ‘a communist take-over of Britain’ but a Russian occupation — communism having long been replaced by feudalism. And so on.

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