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Thursday, December 8, 2016

“The English and Their History”, by Robert Tombs


1040 pages, Alfred A. Knopf, ISBN-13: 978-1101874769

The English and Their History by Robert Tombs provides a narrative of the English, from the Dark Ages before the Norman Conquest, to when the English were unleashed in the Middle Ages, to the divided 16th and 17th Centuries, to the making of a New World from the 1660s, to the start of the 19th Century – or “The English Century”, as he calls it – to the two World Wars (a new Dark Age), right up to England’s place in the postwar world, probing whether it was really an Age of Decline (to even ask the question is to doubt it). This is, in short, the perfect book for any Anglophile: well written, impeccably researched, and at 1000+ pages a long read, but the author’s ability to turn a phrase keeps it from ever being boring.

According to Tombs there were three traumas that truly seared this nation, the First and greatest being the Norman Conquest. The pre-Conquest royal court had, alongside Ireland, been unique in using the language of the people, as Britain had been less Romanized than France or Spain. Neither did the English adopt Norman French; instead, after three centuries, English had become the governing language of all of their realms. What amounts to a linguistic rebirth accompanied England’s Second trauma, the Protestant Reformation, what Tombs calls the greatest revolution in English history. William Tyndale translated the Bible into English in a feat some historians see as England’s preeminent cultural contribution to the world: by making the Bible a native work in a relatively free translation using short vivid phrases and inventing new English words rather than borrowing Latin ones (scapegoat, castaway, granddaughter to name just a few), Tyndale caused the language of religion and the language of politics to be cast in an idiom designed for popular understanding. Tombs turns upside-down received interpretations of the English civil war, the nation’s Third trauma, a war about religion (not a proto-Marxist class war) which, far from securing liberty, almost destroyed it; the rule of the eleven Major Generals, appointed to oversee security and punish vice, was an English version of a Middle Eastern Caliphate, in which adultery was made a capital offense and “loose wenches” enslaved and shipped off to the Caribbean (popular resistance and the need to raise money to fight the Spanish led to their abolition). As Tombs says, “The possibility of a state and society based on enforced uniformity of belief and practice…turned out to have gone for good…Disunity was institutionalized, both in religion, the dominant cultural arena, and in ‘Whig’ and ‘Tory’ political identities.” Far from stable, English constitutional government was wrung from reactionary Tories by victorious Whigs and was a product of the tension between them.

When the former Prime Minister David Cameron decided to throw the weight of his office behind the effort to secure a Remain vote in the EU referendum, he was fighting the weight of English history, for if he had better understood his country (much less his own party), it is less likely that he would have fought a referendum to have England give its consent to being governed from Brussels. “The Tory party,” Disraeli declared, “is the national party; it is really the democratic party of England.” Even in the 1860s, the Tories had only two seats in Scotland (today the Conservatives have only one). Popular Toryism, according to Tombs, was “a loose alliance of gentry, tradesmen, and skilled artisans for whom ‘Church and king’ symbolized traditional communal solidarity, in contrast to grasping [Whig] individualism.” Tombs presents maps showing areas where the Church of England was strong in 1851 and Conservative seats at the 1997 election, when Tony Blair had reduced the party to a rump, that shows an astonishing continuity between religion in mid-Victorian England and voting patterns at the end of the 20th Century. “I grew up the daughter of a local vicar and the granddaughter of a regimental sergeant major,” Theresa May said in launching her bid to become Tory leader one week after the Brexit referendum. “Public service has been a part of who I am for as long as I can remember.” It is also the cloth from which traditional Toryism is cut.

Tombs has written a definitive account of the history of the English from the early chiefdoms to the present day. Reading this masterpiece was both an exhilarating and exhausting journey, akin to undertaking a marathon where each mile feels momentous. Likewise, each page of this book challenges one with the weight of its detail and precision, a view of different epochs and ages in England’s history with a lens that finds perfect resolution in either a wide-angle or a telescopic mode, and a gift for threading the people and events over the ages into a seamless tale. If you are unfamiliar with English history, I know of no better place to begin.


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