A Short History of England, By Simon Jenkins

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Concision necessitates truncation. Tackling the same theme, Peter Ackroyd goes back 900,000 years, though he has the luxury of six projected volumes to tell the national story. Jenkins starts around 500 AD, when Angles arrived "from the 'angle' of Germany in Schleswig-Holstein, lending their name to East Anglia and eventually to England itself." Within 30 pages, he has raced through Augustine, Alfred, Cnut and William's surprisingly dicey invasion to the death of the Conqueror, where he inserts a spot of pungent colour from a contemporary source: "The swollen bowels burst and an intolerable stench assailed the nostrils of bystanders."

Told with Jenkins's customary verve, this is a traditional Kings-and-Queens history occasionally verging on 1066 and All That. We learn, for example, that Richard III depended on three councillors Ratcliffe, Catesby and Lovell known as "the rat, the cat and the dog". Occasionally, the pell-mell narrative ignores significant detail. Telling the familiar story of Guy Fawkes, Jenkins maintains, "There is little question that had [the 40 barrels of gunpowder] exploded, the king and ruling class of England would have been wiped out." Except, as Antonia Fraser pointed out in her book on the plot, the explosives would have been rendered useless by damp.

Tackling the day before yesterday, Jenkins unsheathes his columnist's claws. He sees Thatcher as "a ruler in Norman rather than Saxon style, a centralist and certainly no apostle of devolution or laissez-faire…Thatcher's state was a London-based governing machine… She was admired but rarely loved." Despite a few surprising omissions – Wilde should have included for his modern wit and medieval punishment, Spencer Perceval deserved a look-in as the only PM to be assassinated – this sweeping narrative delineates the enduring traits of English governance. James I sold baronetcies for £1,095 and knighthoods for £220. By the time of Lloyd George, the price had inflated to £15,000 for knighthoods and £50,000 for a peerage.

A Short History of England By Simon Jenkins Profile, £9.99