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It took me a long time to read this book as it is quite heavy going. However, it was very interesting to find out how the history of Britain developed and the ways events are interlinked. I have studied history at school but only learned about isolated events and not how they relate to each other so this book was very useful and informative. It is heavily based on Churchill's A History of the English-Speaking Peoples and from the excerpts from his writing that are quoted, I'm glad someone took the time to update it as it is much easier to absorb in more modern writing. I would advise reading it chunks though as it is so much to take in. It is a great book to have on your shelf to refer too especially as so many news stories report as if you know the whole history of what they are talking about!
History teaching in schools today isn't what it used to be. We've moved away from rote learning of names and dates toward a more analytical method, studying isolated historical events. It is not uncommon for A-grade GCSE students who know their Elizabethan England inside out to have no idea when the Hundred Years War took place or why. General history teaching, complete with date learning is not in keeping with current thoughts on good teaching practice. However, I think that the way history is currently taught misses the point - a broad foundation immeasurably aids understanding of specific events. I know that parrot-fashion learning of dates is rather old-fashioned, but I'm not talking lists and lists here, and I think the benefits far outweigh the costs. GCSE history left me with huge gaps in my historical knowledge. Elizabethan England, Norman Castle Design, the origins of The First World War - that was about the extent of what I was taught about history at school. I've been meaning to fill these gaping holes in my knowledge for the last eleven years or so, but only got round to having a proper crack at it recently. Not wishing to go overboard, I thought I'd start with a single volume English History, and plumped for Christopher Lee's relatively friendly-looking paperback 'This Sceptred Isle, 55BC-1901'. This book is based on the BBC Radio 4 programme of the same name, and both draw heavily on Winston Churchill's monumental 'History of The English Speaking Peoples'. Churchill's work weighs in at four volumes, more than two thousand pages and at least £50 (depending on which edition you buy). Lee's £10, 630 page single volume looks positively flimsy in comparison, but the degree of detail is more than adequate for those with a casual interest in the history of the British Isles. Another title which tempted me was Christopher Lee's abridged edition of Churchill's 'English Speaki
ng Peoples', but Churchill's style seems extremely turgid when compared to Lee's sprightly narration - this book represents the most readable British History I've come across in various bookshop browses. As you might reasonably deduce from the title 'This Sceptred Isle' begins its tale in 55BC with the Roman Invasion of Britain, and ends in 1901 with the death of Queen Victoria. Christopher Lee has also written a 'sequel' covering the 20th Century to bring things up to date - I haven’t read it yet but expect a review here once I have. Prior to the Roman invasion, British history is very dull and highly speculative, wholly based on archaeological work, which makes 55BC a logical place to start. The dark ages (being dark) are given little coverage, and Christopher Lee gets to 1066, where things get interesting, by page 38. From here, the years absolutely fly by, with every page packed with information – longer sessions of reading might give you a bit of a headache as your brain fills up. One thing that is apparent straight away is the extent to which Christopher Lee has followed Churchill's work. Direct quotes from 'English Speaking Peoples' make up a good 20% or so of the text. Lee is clearly a big fan of Churchill, and justly so. Sometimes it does feel like you're reading a heavily annotated and abridged version of Churchill, but as far as I can see, there's no real harm in that. Lee's narrative really brings Churchill's writing to life - on its own it tends to be more than a little dry. While 'This Sceptred Isle' is a history of the British Isles, foreign affairs of relevance are covered in some detail, and there is a good deal of information on the colonisation and War of Independence in America and Imperial India. It is impossible to cover everything in detail in a book of this size, but Lee's effort is admirable. Some sections seem a little
brief, but after all, this is only intended as an introduction and those interested in further reading on a particular topic will find libraries full of suitable texts. Appropriately, 'This Sceptred Isle' begins at the beginning and ends at the end, the tale being told in strictly chronological order. However, Lee now and then refers to earlier events to clarify issues and highlight points of interest. As its main structure, the history examines the careers of the British Monarchs one at a time (the 'old school' political approach), but there is still plenty of room for social history. From time to time Lee drops in fascinating anecdotes relating to well-known artists, writers, scientists and famous social figures from the times, as well as detailing the way in which ordinary people of the day would have lived. Family trees of the royal houses are included in the front of the book, providing an invaluable reference tool, and there is an extensive index. I’d have liked to have seen a quick reference guide to the monarchs – just their dates and major achievements – as it’s quite hard to dig out individual facts from the text without reading a whole chapter. The most remarkable thing I found about reading this book was the impression it gave of continuity in history. As I said before, my previous knowledge was limited to discrete events and persons. Here however, the whole lot just flows together, and a very clear, complete picture of British history is created. This is only possible by omitting some minor details, sticking to the important facts and keeping things bold and simple. Academics might argue that this approach robs the history of one of its great attractions – its unending intricacies and details. However, I think that the level of detail here is perfect for the intended audience and the size of the work. There are of course ‘boring’ bits. Where you find
these bits depends very much on your personal tastes – British Imperial India never was my cup of tea, but others will of course find it fascinating. It’s not really possible to pick and choose which bits you read because of the continuity of the writing, but it’s never too much of a trial to wade through whichever parts you find uninspiring to the next good bit (usually a war with the French). Lee of course has to provide a balanced account of history, rather than a ‘most exciting bits of the last 2000 years’, but be warned – some parts aren’t very inspiring. Overall, I found this to be an absolutely fascinating read. Obviously the writing is constrained by a need to stick to the facts, and you can find all the information elsewhere (Churchill for example), but the presentation in ‘This Sceptred Isle’ is brilliant. I don’t think you’ll find a more readable, informative single volume history of this country – it’s absolutely invaluable to those with any interest at all in the political and social development of the nation.
This history of Britain begins with the Roman invasion in 55 BC and ends with Queen Victoria's death in 1901. Written to accompany the award-winning BBC Radio 4 series, the work brings to life the events and personalities that have shaped our nation. Weaving his text with accounts from contemporary chronicles and diaries, and extracts from Winston Churchill's A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, Christopher Lee describes the evolution of Britain's great institutions, the powers of its kings and queens, and charts its political and economic development.