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Tuesday, February 24, 2015

“The Oxford Illustrated History of Britain”, edited by Kenneth O. Morgan

646 pages, Oxford University Press, ISBN-13: 978-0198226840

There was a time when the importance of British history was self-evident: every British schoolroom map of the world glowed pink, the color inexplicably chosen to represent the King-Emperor’s dominions; on every continent and the high seas Britons brought order, good government, and, not least, high quality consumer goods to the world; in America, constitutional government was a British gift (George III notwithstanding). In a new century, however, these certainties have lost some of their power. The British Empire is no more, and many historians have become dubious about the benefits of British government and commerce. Britain’s current role in the world is that of a power of the second rank, whose future many believe lies within the European Union. And yet Britain’s current, reduced status should not blind us to the nation’s historical importance, which is immense. Kenneth O. Morgan and nine other distinguished historians provide a welcome reminder of this fact in The Oxford Illustrated History of Britain.

First published in 1984 (the edition I asked for a received for Christmas that year) and reissued several times since, The Oxford Illustrated History of Britain remains perhaps the best single-volume treatment of its subject available. Its ten chapters cover British history from before the Roman invasion to the rise of Margaret Thatcher, and each is written by one of the best scholars in the field. Most books written by committee suffer as successive re-writes squeeze individual prose styles into the most acceptable (that is, mostly bland) text. That is not the case here; individual styles remain, though they do not jar, and the whole is refreshingly readable (nor are the authors afraid to challenge old shibboleths, as when John Guy takes on the overblown reputation of Elizabeth I in his chapter). The book’s illustrations, including two dozen color plates, are well chosen and do much to enhance the text, as do its clearly-presented maps. This is a volume for scholars interested in the thinking of major historians as well as for the student or general reader who wants to read a fascinating, well-told story.

The history of a nation over the course of two millennia could easily become a jumble of random facts, overwhelming readers with characters as diverse as Boudicca (the female leader of a violent revolt against Roman occupation) to Bevin (the architect of the modern welfare state). But what holds the story together and makes it comprehensible are the broader themes connecting one generation to the next. An obvious one here is continuity: Britons’ preference for evolutionary, rather than revolutionary, change. Even the upheavals of the 17th Century, civil war, the execution of Charles I in 1649 and the overthrow of James II in 1688, seem by contrast to the titanic events of 1789 in France or 1917 in Russia hardly “revolutionary”. Some historians indeed have argued that there never was a revolution in Britain; John Morrill, in his chapter on the Stuarts, sympathizes with this view. The survival of the monarchy, not to mention the forms and procedures of the common law, add to the sense of Britain’s unique nature. The “pomp and circumstance” industry thrives in the United Kingdom today, but even in Roman times foreign visitors commented on the British obsession with ritual and tradition.

The Oxford Illustrated History of Britain is a superb book, and anyone interested in the impact that a single nation can have on the world will find this account a valuable one, describing the rise and fall of a hegemonic power. These chapters tell a compelling story very well and cannot but remind us of the enormous British contribution to Western Civilization. Some of the views it expounds appear dated at this remove (Morgan’s account of the popularity of the monarchy being one) and throughout the emphasis is emphatically English; the Celts remain firmly on the fringe. Nevertheless, readers looking for a concise, well-illustrated, one-volume history of Britain can do no better than this.

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