Monday, November 10, 2014

Foundation: The History of England From It's Earliest Beginnings to the Tudors by Peter Ackroyd (2011)

I love Peter Ackroyd’s writing style, and plan on reading EVERYTHING HE’S EVER WRITTEN.  I’m listening to his biography of William Shakespeare on audio and reading Foundation.  Here are some reasons why I think his writing is so colorful and brilliant and wonderful:

Regarding early British history:  “Tacitus reports that, at the time of the Roman colonization, the south-eastern English spoke a language not unlike that of the Baltic tribes.  But there can be no certainties in the matter.  All lies in mist and twilight.”  To make this even sweeter, the chapter is titled “Hymns of Stone.”  Lovely, vivid imagery.


“The ordinary routines of life are never chronicled by the historian, but they make up almost the whole of experience.”


Matilda, who fought with King Stephen over the throne of England, was an interesting character.  I'm surprised there aren't more books or films about her.  She was a woman fighting in what was essentially a man's world, which is interesting enough.  She also had two terrific escapes that would seem like fiction if they weren't real:  "On one occasion she retreated from the castle at Devizes in the guise of a corpse; she was wrapped in linen cerecloth, and tied by ropes to a bier.  Subsequently she was besieged in the castle at Oxford on a winter's night; she dressed in white, and was thus camouflaged against the snow as she made her way down the frozen Thames to Wallingford."  It's this last story I love the most, it paints a very romantic picture, almost a "white witch" sort of image.  That "white witch" may also explain why Matilda doesn't get the same air play as later queens - she was very unpopular, and the stink of unpopularity perhaps still haunts her a thousand years later.


"It is perhaps worth recording that in the years of 'the Anarchy', the umbrella was introduced into England.  It has outlived cathedrals and palaces."  


We think of the middle ages as stone drab and brown, but in richer households "the colours would by modern standards of taste be considered inharmonious, with strident yellows and purples and greens placed beside each other.  The intended effect was one of brilliancy and vivacity... in a similar spirit men often wore shoes of different colours."  I love it!


William the Conqueror brutally crushed northern rebellions in actions called "the harrowing of the north."  Men and animals were killed, and town and fields were burned.  "He left a trail of destruction across the surrounding lands" 800 years before Sherman's march to the sea.  Ackroyd writes:  "He had created a desert, and called it peace."


When the Wars of the Roses started in full, "there were fears  that this was becoming what was known as the "wide world."  A man who called himself 'Queen of the Faery' preached in the towns and villages of Kent."  Darling, who was this "Queen of the Faery?"  He sounds divine.  Why don't we know more about him?  He needs far more than one sentence.  


Ackroyd's book was a fascinating read.  He sums up the themes of his book at the end, which is "continuity" in the midst of change (for example, there is a village called Thatcham that essentially has been a village for 10,000 years), and the "endless variations upon the same principal theme or themes -- the uneasy balance between the sovereign and the more powerful nobles, the desire for war pitted against the overwhelming costs of conflict, the battel for mastery between Church and sovereign, the precarious unity of monarch and parliament..."  He also interesting postulates that English monarchs from the Normans on are all outsiders:  Angevins succeeded Normans, Welsh succeeded Angevins, Scots succeeded Welsh, and Hanoverians succeeded Scots.  "The English were a colonized people."  And going back through time, through Saxons and Romans and Celts, they were. 

Foundation (The History of England, #1)Foundation by Peter Ackroyd
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Ackroyd is deep and easy; he says great things, tells great stories, draws you in to great historical adventures, but in a handy, easy to reach kind of way.  If you are in want or need of some great history, then Ackroyd's your man.  There isn't any better place to start than Foundation, which tells a story of English history from what he poetically and wonderfully calls the times that "lie in mist and twilight" up to the first Tudor (which is a logical place to end, as the medieval switches to the Renaissance).  His history is strong and good, but its his writing style you should be reading him for; it's excellent.  And this isn't simply a list of kings and battles and Magna Carta; they are of course there, but interspersed are all sorts of tidbits of interest, written beautifully, like this:  "It is perhaps worth recording that in the years of 'the Anarchy'... (my note:  the time of war between King Stephen and the marvelous Matilda)the umbrella was introduced into England.  It has outlived cathedrals and palaces." It's writing like this that makes him such a pleasure.  He's not just regurgitating facts either; the last chapter sums up nicely not only the themes of the book, but also some of his views on history in general.  I highly recommend this (I liked Tudors as well).

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