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Foundation: A History of England Volume I (History of England Vol 1) - Peter Ackroyd

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Genre: History / Author: Peter Ackroyd / Hardcover / 352 Pages / Book is published 2011-09-02 by Macmillan

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      09.12.2013 16:46
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      Appropriately enough, Foundation is solid, without being spectacular

      Foundation is the first volume in Peter Ackroyd's ambitious multi-volume work on the history of England. It focuses in on the development of England as a single nation, from a series of divided tribes and small kingdoms via the Norman Conquest and ending with the end of the "medieval" kings following the death of Richard III. It's an ambitious task. Not only is Ackroyd trying to bring history (a subject which makes many people shudder) to the masses, he is trying to cover a massive span of time in one book. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the end result is a bit of a mixed bag.

      Overall, Ackroyd has succeeded in the first goal of bringing history to the masses. He has a very readable and accessible style that combines known facts and details with the occasional interesting aside. He doesn't go overboard, bombarding the reader with chronologies, family trees, dates of battles and so on; nor does he become overly analytical, which would be off-putting to the more casual reader. It's true that he sometimes has a tendency to make general statements which do not always bear scrutiny. For the most part, though, where there is speculation, it is generally informed speculation - taking known facts or events and extrapolating what might have been the result - which is exactly what professional historians do.

      Foundation is not an "academic" book. And by that, I don't mean it's of low quality or dubious scholarship. Rather, I mean that it is not dry and fusty, but accessible to a more general readership. It's not packed with footnotes, references to obscure texts or a confusing array of scholarly arguments and disputes. It's a well-written and readable account of the development of England as a nation. Of course it has a lot of information in it, but it's written in such a way that this is never confusing, even if you know nothings at all about the people or period under discussion. Ackroyd's book is a nice mix between a "serious" history book and a "popular" book about history.

      The format does lead to some concerns, though. Ackroyd is trying to cover almost 1500 years of history (the book ends with the death of Richard III in 1485) in around 450 pages. That's an awful lot to cram into a relatively short space. Inevitably the treatment of events is a little variable. Some monarchs, events or periods get quite a lot written about them, others are gone in the blink of an eye and leave the reader feeling no wiser.

      This was always going to be an issue. Compared with Volume 2 (which focused solely on the Tudors - a period of around 120 years and afforded time for more in-depth consideration of individual events or figures), Foundation feels squeezed. Essentially, Ackroyd is making the classic mistake of thinking that English history begins in 1485, with the reign of Henry VII. Even as a Tudor historian, this is not an argument I find sustainable.

      He can also occasionally be quite judgemental in his writing, bringing 21st century values to bear on 13th or 14th century attitudes and ideas. This is particularly true in the matter of religion (a central part of the medieval world) where Ackroyd is frequently dismissive, imposing the view of an atheist or agnostic onto earlier times.

      Ackroyd can also fall into the common trap of thinking that the history of England is the same thing as the history of London. Of course as the capital London played an important role in shaping the nation, but at times it's as though the rest of the country doesn't exist. Attitudes outside London were often very different and the provinces played a vital role in the overall direction of the country, with local lords often having far more influence in these regions than a distant king. For someone from the north of England who doesn't believe that London is the centre of the known universe, this downplaying of the role the regions had in shaping England is frustrating.

      On the plus side, Ackroyd should be applauded for not just focussing on political events. Inevitably (if only because this is where most of the surviving evidence lies), there is a strong focus on the upper echelons of society. However, wherever he is able, Ackroyd uses extant information to shed light on the lives of those lower down the social ladder. He looks at wider issues like housing, justice, diet and health. Whilst these chapters are often just 2-3 pages, they provide contextual information that helps the reader to a greater understanding of what medieval society is like.

      Ultimately, though, Foundation is not as strong an entry as volume 2. The vast expanse of time to cover in such a relatively short space does bring issues that leaves the reader feeling short-changed. That said if you're after an accessible account of the early years of the English nation then you could do a lot worse.

      Copies of Foundation (across all formats) can be picked up for just over £5.

      Basic Information
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      Foundation: The History of England Volume 1
      Peter Ackroyd
      Pan, 2012
      ISBN: 978-0330544283

      (c) Copyright SWSt 2013

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        18.04.2012 18:10
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        A worthwhile read for anyone remotely interested in English history

        Foundation is the first volume of Peter Ackroyd's new series on the history of England, and I received the hardback edition as a Christmas present. The book tells the story of England and the English from prehistory to the death of Henry VII, the first Tudor king, in 1509. Much of the book, therefore, deals with the medieval period and the attractive cover reflects this: the dust jacket is designed to resemble a medieval manuscript, with embossed lettering. You shouldn't judge a book by its cover of course, but it is very nice!

        I have a history degree and there is often snobbery surrounding "coffee table" history books like this among serious historians. Personally I feel this is rather unfair. It's impossible to go into the same amount of detail in a general overview, and in any case it's sometimes helpful to take a step back and look at things from a wider perspective. Most of the time I spent studying history involved looking at individual topics or periods in depth: while an approach like Ackroyd's can't rival this method for in-depth analysis, it provides an introduction and helps to set events in context. I've read fiction and non-fiction by Ackroyd before and I really like his style, so I was looking forward to his take on English history, something which he has touched upon in several of his previous books.

        This book is the first of six volumes. I'm slightly concerned that the first volume covers such a huge timespan, leaving approximately one hundred years per volume for the next five. I know that there is a dearth of evidence surrounding the period covered as opposed to later centuries, but I'm sure there would be enough for two or three volumes at least. On the other hand, you do get a sense of the development of the nation over the course of that period.

        By the history of England, Ackroyd means the history of the various peoples and cultures which have inhabited the part of Great Britain now known, but not always known, as England. I do think this is the best way to address the issue, seeing as there have been so many different groups here over the years. Wales and Scotland are touched on briefly, but only insofar as they impact on 'English' history; the same goes for Ireland and mainland Europe.

        As I expected, Ackroyd's narrative style is engaging and fascinating. He writes about events in a largely chronological order, covering the beginnings of English history and going on to cover the Roman and Viking invasions, the Anglo Saxons, the Norman conquest and the development of medieval England. Chronological chapters are interspersed with shorter chapters on topics such as names, road, houses, play, and birth and death. These shorter chapters provide a break in the continuous narrative and the variation in pace keeps the reader interested. They also offer insight into the ordinary people of England, as the longer chapters tend to concentrate on the ruling classes. As befits a novelist, the period is really brought to life and I think someone with little previous interest in history would still enjoy reading this book.

        Ackroyd's general theme in the book is the overarching continuity and lack of change in everyday life. Despite continual changes in rulers and cultures, differences trickled down to ordinary people much more slowly and in the short term at least they were little affected by upheaval. This does ring true based on other historical topics I have studied, although of course there will be differing views on the subject. I know comparatively little about the first fifteen hundred years of English history, and found the book very useful in refreshing and adding to my knowledge of events during this period. In his assessment of the various rulers who governed England, Ackroyd is fairly balanced. I noticed this particularly in his summing-up of Richard III and Henry VII, two kings which I do know something about: he discusses the traditional negative interpretation of Richard III and balances it with his achievements and qualities, while I recognised his portrayal of Henry VII from my own historical studies. Ackroyd argues that kings and rulers were by and large selfish, pursuing their own ends rather than considering the needs of their people, and that important developments such as the growth of Parliament were put in place to deal with the issues of the time, rather than with a view to the future. While possible and plausible, this theory seems a little too simplistic for me.

        Ackroyd seems to be arguing for the existence of a general English consciousness, and does provide evidence to back this up: I enjoyed, for example, the comments by various Europeans suggesting that the English were known for their drunkenness during Anglo-Saxon times. Clearly not much has changed over the years! However, this theory, though appealing, seems to me slightly romanticised and doesn't take account of the differences in the way those in the past thought and behaved. It does, however, make Ackroyd's history more readable and probably more appealing to a modern lay audience.

        I read several reviews of this book on Amazon and one in particular caught my eye. The author, clearly knowledgeable and erudite, suggests that several facts stated in this book - such as the number of people belonging to different armies - are actually incorrect. I don't have the time, inclination or resources to investigate this myself but this does concern me. Though many 'facts' of this nature, particularly from earlier history, are often subject to dispute, and the general reader is hardly going to take away these statistics as the most memorable part of their reading, I agree with the reviewer that if they are incorrect then that is a bit of an insult to readers.

        This is a fascinating, absorbing history of England and the English from earliest recorded times to the early sixteenth century. I really enjoyed reading it and can see its appeal for those wanting to explore the history of the nation. I did have some issues with the slightly simplistic and romanticised theories put forward, but these do add to the readability of the work and the simplicity at least is a natural consequence of the long time span of the book. I look forward to the next volume, which should cover the majority of the Tudor period - having studied this era in some depth, I'm interested to see what Peter Ackroyd makes of it.

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          19.01.2012 14:51
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          A brilliant history of England

          Foundation: A history of England vol1 is a new perspective on the history of England written by Peter Ackroyd. The book is the first in a six part series chronologically depicting the history of England by the historian who gave use a history of London and the Thames, the future books are set to be published over the next ten years.

          This book as with all other history of a nation books begins in pre-history and concludes with the death of Richard III at the battle of Bosworth and leaves us with the Tudor dynasty just taking over. The book after the initial couple of chapters which narrates some of the tribes that are known ion pre-roman society and gives us a few clues to the reality of these tribes in place names still in existence but the book really begins with the roman invasion of 55AD. This is the usual starting point for any history of England and is the first time England is joined up in a meaningful nature with the rest of continental despite the author acknowledging that continental goods have been found in burials and the people of Britannica being mentioned by Roman commentators. The book then begins with the impact of the invading Romans on the tribes of what is now Kent and Essex and how the slow spread of Romans changed the tribes in the south and midlands into Romanized versions of their previous lives.
          From this point on the book is a strict linear re-telling of history, we go through the Saxons, Anglo-Saxons, Jutes, Danes, Norse, Normans and the Plantagenet's. The over-riding measure is a land of endless invasion, spoil and change but somehow there seems a core Englishness which seems to convert the invaders quicker than the locals.

          After each chapter is a short chapter reviewing an aspect of English life, the weather, the crops, trees, tribes, languages, the sea, the concept of kings and other topics are covered by the author. These chapters can be as short as 3 or 4 pages looking at say forest laws in Norman times to quite long chapters (20+ pages) on the love of the English for beer or the weather. These small very focused chapters soon became a favourite of this reader and gave a nice break between the straight re-telling of the major events of each Kings reign.

          After reading the book, I have to say that Peter Ackroyd's writing style reminds me strongly of Bill Bryson he has a lovely skill of depicting very complex or diverse events in a manner which the reader both understands and enjoys. The writing is light, precise but with a hand which makes the 800 pages feel like a short book rather than a dry depiction which some historians have pushed out in the past. So the fights between the Britons and the Romans are brought alive with the simple addition of personal tales of Roman legionnaires or British tribal leaders, we have the shock of the Norman invasion and the author sometimes makes points which makes even this fairly well read non-historian raise an eye-brow and think that's an interesting point. One was the suggestion that the Norman invasion begin with the acceptance of Edward the confessor as king who had till that time lived in Normandy and spoke only French, I certainly didn't know that but now I do and well it made me look up his history on a well known online encyclopaedia.

          I've been reading a lot of Peter Ackroyd lately, I read his fictional re-telling of famous stories such as the Diary of Frankenstein and his adaptation of the Arthurian tales so when I heard him give an interview saying he was writing a history of England over the next ten years I put this book as my Christmas book. I wasn't disappointed, the book was a joy to read over the two weeks or so it took me from receiving it on Christmas Day I dipped into the book rather than intensely reading it so I enjoyed reading about Alfred the Great, William the conqueror, Henry II's battles with his sons, the Hundred years war and the war of the roses. Ackroyd doesn't condemn or critique the actions of kings from centuries ago and states what happens and suggests why the king may have done it, every king of England from William onwards has been given a thorough character assessment and his behaviour placed in context of the times he lived so he doesn't criticise John or Richard III or praise Richard I or Henry V despite most historians tending to do both. I'm looking forward to the next book and hope that the quality of the writing continues until the end of the series.

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