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All you’ll ever need to know about the history of England in one volume

A review of Robert Tombs’s history of the English salutes a stupendous achievement

13 December 2014

9:00 AM

13 December 2014

9:00 AM

The English and their History Robert Tombs

Allen Lane, pp.1012, £35, ISBN: 9781846140181

Here is a stupendous achievement: a narrative history of England which is both thorough and arresting. Very few writers could pull it off. Either they’d have an axe to grind, or they’d lose perspective, or they’d present a series of anecdotes, or they’d end up in a Casaubonish pursuit of other historians’ errors. In fact, to get it right, you’d ideally be a mature and accomplished author, steeped in the facts, who was nonetheless tackling English history for the first time.

Which is more or less what Robert Tombs, a professor of French history at Cambridge, is. ‘A writer of history ought, in his writings, to be a foreigner, without country, living under his own law only,’ claimed Thomas Hobbes, adapting Lucian. If you’ve read any modern French history in English, the chances are you’ll have come across Tombs. This book, though, will be remembered as his magnum opus.

The English and their History is about as long as a single volume can be; yet it couldn’t really be any shorter. To be honest, like many reviewers on a deadline, I had planned to skip bits of it; but found myself gripped by the narrative. Nothing important is omitted, there are no howlers, and yet plenty of myths are gently corrected — especially those surrounding the first world war. ‘A few lines of Wilfred Owen outweigh a shelf of monographs,’ as the author drily notes.

Tombs plays a straight bat. He isn’t trying to make his name with a clever-dick new thesis. Rather, he draws on the latest research to give us something close to a comprehensive picture. The civil war was neither a social revolution nor a Whig triumph, but an avoidable breakdown (an analysis which reflects the current scholarly consensus, and which is remarkably close to David Hume’s take in the 18th century). The American Revolution had more to do with the Quebec Act, which recognised the traditional rights of the Catholic church in Canada, than with the Stamp Act. High Tories in the 19th century were closer to modern sensibilities on many issues — notably welfare — than their Liberal opponents. Imperial expansion was more reluctant than we like to remember: plenty of conquered territories were immediately handed back, and ‘requests from the inhabitants of Ethiopia, Mexico, Uruguay, Sarawak, Katanga and Morocco to join the empire were firmly turned down’.


As for the declinism which dominated our post-war thinking, a few well-chosen economic statistics show how utterly misplaced it was. ‘It is commonly said that Britain joined the Common Market too late,’ writes Tombs perspicaciously. ‘Perhaps, on the contrary, it joined too early — just before the European economies entered a period of stagnation, and before it had faced up to its own economic shortcomings.’

This kind of history is sometimes called conservative, in the sense that it isn’t advancing any ideological agenda. In fact, though, it’s remarkably balanced. To give just one example, Tombs lays out in full the atrocious human cost of the RAF’s bombing raids on Germany, then astutely points out that the moral dilemma is all the more painful precisely because the raids were effective.

All of us, inevitably, will disagree with something or other. Tombs has fallen, as contemporaries did, for Charles II’s unaffected charm, and passes over that king’s stunning lack of patriotism. And he is far too kind to the lamentable Lord North.

But the power of this book is in its sweep, its ambition and its perspective. Lloyd George was the first plebeian to rise to the highest office since Thomas Cromwell. Margaret Thatcher divided the nation as no prime minister since Peel.

You sense the solidity of the subject matter: the English dealt as phlegmatically with the Black Death, avoiding the millenarian enthusiasms of contemporary Europeans, as they were later to deal with the Blitz. The distrust of central government is a constant, animating the Country Party of the 18th century as it animates Ukip.

There are beautiful passages about English literature — Tyndale, Shakespeare and Cranmer, obviously, but also a lot of Defoe — as well as on historiography. ‘Getting your history wrong is part of what makes a nation,’ observed the 19th-century French writer Ernest Renan — whom Tombs quotes frequently, although not that line.

Why England? Because, although it was a sovereign and separate state only very briefly — between Alfred and Cnut — it is the obvious historical unit. The logical approach, unless you’re trying to be over-clever, is to tell England’s story until the 17th century, and then introduce the wider British and imperial contexts — though Tombs correctly points out that the British empire loomed larger in foreign than in English minds.

What emerges is the story of a people we can’t fail to recognise: stoical, brave, drunken, bloody-minded, violent, undeferential, yet paradoxically law-abiding. It’s a fine and honest account, and you’ll feel more patriotic after reading it.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

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Show comments
  • Robert Basset

    I’m sold.

  • Mabel

    I want this book.

  • i’m 250 pages in and really enjoying it!

  • justejudexultionis

    Jolly good show.

  • Swanky

    The American Revolution had more to do with the Quebec Act, which recognised the traditional rights of the Catholic church in Canada, than with the Stamp Act.

    This will need considerable explaining. Not only because the non-existent country of Canada (at the time) was of no more concern than any other territory in the barroom brawl over who would win America, but also because religion was not everything to Americans. If you can’t account for freedom, you haven’t accounted right.

    ‘High Tories in the 19th century were closer to modern sensibilities on many issues — notably welfare — than their Liberal opponents’. Of course: it’s called paternalism. Only, in the past century paternalism was hijacked by socialism and it became the worst sort of authoritarianism, the knife in my heart which is statism. I think that’s enough isms to give anyone anti-Leftism.

    ‘What emerges is the story of a people we can’t fail to recognise: stoical, brave, drunken, bloody-minded, violent, undeferential, yet paradoxically law-abiding’.

    Oh, I think we’re much better than that. Try: enterprising, kind beyond most other nations to animals and fellow man, innovative and curious, gentle and playful, truly interested in virtue, self-restrained in the interest of reason, poetic, and keen for truth. Morally serious in a way that leaves room for compassion. Did the history include those things, too?

    Cough. Bombing raids on Germany. Remind me: who started that war, and who kept it going to the last desperate end? Oh yes, the Germans. And they did, whatever lies Hitler told them (which they were all too willing to believe).

    • Bruce Lewis

      This will need considerable explaining. Not only because the non-existent country of Canada (at the time) was of no more concern than any other territory in the barroom brawl over who would win America, but also because religion was not everything to Americans.

      You’d do well to research the cause of most of the riots in Boston in the 1770s; they had more to do with Catholic Toleration in Quebec Province than they had to do with stamps and tea. Also, religion was VERY important to the 18th century Puritans of New England, who were some of the most violently anti-Papists in the entire British Empire.

      • Swanky

        I didn’t say that religion wasn’t important. I’m saying that the impetus to form a new country was not a religious one.

        • colchar

          Without examining his arguments and the evidence he presents in support of those arguments, you cannot say that he is wrong.

          • Swanky

            Mmm. Beware the innovating historian, though. The temptation, when thousands have said the same things for two centuries, is to make a name for oneself or cut a dash by being different.

        • montague_stjohn

          The Puritans did not come to form a new country; they came to preserve their form of ultra-fundamentalism from being tainted by the increasing liberalism of English Calvinism.

          • Swanky

            But that’s not the point. The original settlers also had witch trials, which has nothing to do with why the men of 1775/1776 made their bid for independence.

    • Malcolm Stevas

      Re your closing para, well said. I am contemptuous of the equivocation, in recent decades, about Bomber Command’s campaign against German cities, and the long delay in recognising “Bomber” Harris’s achievements (not to mention his shabby treatment at the time) was shameful. I am not at all anti-German, but I have always taken pride in my country’s having constructed a huge fleet of some of WW2’s best heavy bombers with which to strike back at a tyrannical foe who threatened our very existence.

      • Bill_der_Berg

        Avoid reading Richard Overy’s recently published doorstopper, ‘The Bombing War’. You would find his conclusions unpalatable.

        • Malcolm Stevas

          I am not familiar with Mr Overy or his conclusions but the subject is sufficiently well covered, I believe, for my own view to be considered unexceptionable. I’ve probably read more about WW2 RAF activity than the great majority of people.

          • Bill_der_Berg

            Richard Overy has been writing about the bombing campaign for 30 years, and his books have been reviewed in the mainstream press. I’m surprised that you have not come across his work.

            Not that historians have arrived at a consensus. Controversy continues to rage about the subject.

          • Malcolm Stevas

            Controversy did not rage about it at the time: ask practically anyone who lived through WW2, or who was on active service in Bomber Command. I have, many times. Historical revisionism is often popular among writers and publishers, though – a new spin on something can flog books and make an academic’s reputation for being a bit of a lad. Overy has been writing for 30 years? WW2 finished nearly 70 years ago and the bombing campaign was pretty thoroughly covered before this gentleman happened upon it.

          • montague_stjohn

            My father was in the British army and saw Hamburg not long after it was captured. He certainly thought that the destruction he saw was controversial.

          • JimHHalpert

            Did he have the chance to visit Coventry as well? Or Warsaw? Or Stalingrad? Or Belsen?

          • Bill_der_Berg

            Perhaps even Katyn and other places were our great ally Stalin carried out his massacres.

          • Bill_der_Berg

            Historians will insist on carrying out research and the publishing their findings, even if their conclusions contradict what we want to believe. It is very tiresome of them. They should be content to repeat the work of their predecessors.

            Not even Churchill was immune to the revisionist virus, as a memo he drafted near the end of the war makes clear. He said that the destruction of Dresden raised serious questions about the conduct of the Allied bombing campaign.

          • montague_stjohn

            I doubt that is the case if you have never heard of Richard Overy.

      • Lady Magdalene

        Agreed. Let’s not forget that Germany had invented first the doodlebugs and then the V2 rockets. If they had continued to develop that technology, London and our other manufacturing cities could have been obliterated.

        We fought back with the heavy bombing raids, because we had no other choice.

    • Bill_der_Berg

      Oh, I think we’re much better than that. Try: enterprising, kind beyond most other nations to animals and fellow man, innovative and curious, gentle and playful, truly interested in virtue…”

      And extremely modest, too.

      • Swanky

        We’re the best. Why say otherwise?

        • Bill_der_Berg

          Vanity of vanities. All is vanity.

          • Swanky

            If you can’t properly value what you have, you won’t protect and defend it, and you’ll lose it. I have proper pride, no more.

          • Bill_der_Berg

            I am too conscious of the fact that we not only produced the Blair creature, but actually let him run the country. Then there were the really disgraceful scandals in Rotherham and elsewhere
            .
            There is a distinct whiff of corruption about the old country.

          • Swanky

            Perhaps: if you want to make constructive criticisms of our weak points, then go ahead. But considering that our weak points are other peoples’ virtues goes to show that our civilization is more just and happy than most.

          • Bill_der_Berg

            Nothing short of a Peasants’ Revolt will do.

    • jovan66102

      Sir, you say, ‘The American Revolution had more to do with the Quebec Act, which recognised the traditional rights of the Catholic church in Canada, than with the Stamp Act.

      ‘This will need considerable explaining. Not only because the non-existent country of Canada (at the time) was of no more concern than any other territory in the barroom brawl over who would win America, but also because religion was not everything to Americans.’

      Canada had existed, as ‘Canada’ from the 16th century under French rule as one of the provinces of New France. It was colloquially known as ‘Canada’ through the 28 year period from the Treaty of Paris, 1763, to the establishment of Upper and Lower Canada out of the Province of Quebec, in 1791. I’m sure that the rebellious Colonists thought of and referred to it as ‘Canada’.

      Further, have you read the Declaration of Independence, 1776? One of the ‘crimes’ for which King George is ‘indicted’ therein is that he had, (A)bolish(ed) the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these states,’

      That means that by the Quebec Act, 1774, the King removed references to Protestantism in the Oath of Allegiance as taken in Canada, guaranteed the free practice of the Catholic Faith, and the use of French civil and private law. This so enraged the Yanks that they sent a delegation, including Benjamin Franklin, into the province to try to persuade the Canadiens to join the rebellion. When they emphatically failed, they invaded Canada, with disastrous results, as they would again in the War of 1812, with equally disastrous results.

      • How very sweet that you begin with ‘Sir’, and as a fellow Canadian, I grant you much of what you say in its import. But I must still insist that the impulse to independence in these united states (I am currently a citizen and resident of your 51st state) was not religious purely but was primarily about self-government in the round — and that included religious freedom but was by no means restricted to it.

  • A World of Paine

    It is an epitaph ….

    This other Eden is a demi-paradise no more.
    We are an unhappy breed of men.
    This dear land is now leased out and
    hath made a shameful conquest of itself.

    …….unless you vote UKIP.

    • davidofkent

      John of Gaunt’s speech is magnificent. You have mismatched the lines and changed them unpardonably. There may be people reading this who do not know their Shakespeare. Shame on you. I doubt that UKIP would have saved us from Richard II.

      • A World of Paine

        I agree that Gaunt’s speech is magnificent, I cannot read or hear it without a tear in my eye for what we have carelessly given away – our right to control our laws and our borders.

        My point is that we have leased out our land and have to reclaim it. I think that LibLabCon are comparable to Richard II and we are in need of a Bolingbroke, before it is too late. Do you have any answers that do not involve voting for UKIP?

  • UncleTits

    “It’s a fine and honest account, and you’ll feel more patriotic after reading it.”

    Requiring a history book in order to feel “more patriotic” seems a tad inadequate. I’d much prefer that the hideous liar and traitor currently hogging the Downing Street couch is utterly decimated, at the next election, as a direct consequence of UKIP support. That would make me feel “more patriotic”.

    • davidofkent

      Which tenth part of poor old DC do you wish to see cut off? You may even think differently when we are faced with a Labour government kept in place by the SNP, of all people.

      • Chris Morriss

        His head? That must be about 10%

  • AJAX

    The terror bombing of the German cities in WW2 ranks alongside African slavery & hanging, drawing & quartering as one of the comparatively few dark passages of England’s story.

    • Malcolm Stevas

      Utter rubbish: your comparison would be ludicrous were it not such a grossly insulting travesty. Perhaps you should read a little about WW2, which was a national struggle for survival, before making such unthinking assertions.

      • montague_stjohn

        If there was evidence that the area bombing was effective in breaking German morale, you might have a point.

        • Peter Stroud

          No doubt those living under Nazi occupation were very happy when they learned about the bombing from the BBC covert broadcasts. It did their morale no end of a boost.

          • montague_stjohn

            The best evidence for the effectiveness of area bombing that you can think of is that it “no doubt” made people in German occupied countries happy? Good work!

      • AJAX

        I have thought about it, quite carefully, & it’s my considered judgement

        • Peter Stroud

          Perhaps had you lived through it, you might have more mature ideas.

          • AJAX

            What hanging, drawing & quartering? =/

        • DanV

          Well you obviously haven’t thought about slavery very much. The slave trade was, as many African heads of state have recently acknowledged, instigated and maintained by Africans for many years before Europeans got involved. We were then involved for a comparatively short period of time, before thinking better of it, renouncing it – and then investing time, money and the lives of our soldiers and sailors in stamping it out. So while I would agree that it is a source of sombre reflection and regret, the idea that African slavery is a unique historical stigma of ‘the English’ is farcical.

          • AJAX

            Mmm, that’s mostly nicely put & true, but whilst yr busily dressing me up in a farcical clown suit in your enthusiasm, …. did I actually say that ‘African slavery was uniquely an English stigma’ ….?

          • DanV

            Fair point – I guess I’ve just had to argue that point too many times. Please consider my snarky riposte retracted.

          • AJAX

            Spoken like a Blue – good man ; )

          • Factcheck

            All crimes involve more than one party and most get abolished sooner or later. So no one really is ever to blame. You may rest in peace. You made no profit after all.

          • Chris Morriss

            Maintained by Arabs, with the willing assistance of Africans anyway.

          • Bill_der_Berg

            The slave trade was ended after a long campaign which was fiercely resisted by the powerful and influential people who profited from it It may have lasted for a comparatively short time but it was extremely brutal, the number of victims was huge and there was a very heavy death toll.

  • kle4

    Poor title for this piece on the main page ‘The only history of England you will ever need’ – no matter how good a work, and this seems like my kind of book, it’s always good to keep on exploring new ones and new perspectives and interpretations

  • Gary Johnson

    Popped over to Amazon to check this out. Very excited to see a new paperback copy selling for £9.99 only to have my hopes dashed when it became apparent it was a pre order for release in June. Oh well, plenty to read until then and the slow drawn out anticipation will be a torturous pleasure in itself.

  • Too bad the country has gone the toilet hole thanks to Labour and new Tories

  • Factcheck

    History that is soothing for rich folk.

    • Chris Morriss

      I’ve worked with quite a few Indians who were brought up in Northern Rhodesia/Zambia. They seem to have had a pretty good education there.

  • jelliedeels

    ‘It is commonly said that Britain joined the Common Market too late,’

    ===========
    yet the title of the book is “the English and their history “

  • jelliedeels

    “The American Revolution had more to do with the Quebec Act, which
    recognised the traditional rights of the Catholic church in Canada, than
    with the Stamp Act.”

    ==========
    So were the writers of the US constitution only joking when they put in the bit about freedom of religion ?

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