I own a number of histories of Britain, and while I agree with most of the reviewers that this one is engaging, I am greatly disappointed in this book as a whole.
The tone is easy to read, but the book's substance has the consistency of belly-button lint. Light to the point of irrelevant in far too many places, this volume is a good read for anyone who wants a fast refresher of high school English history. It is weak on causal connections, explanations, and the intrigue that I think makes history so fascinating.
Worst of all, its subtitle is completely misleading.
I bought it primarily because it purported to cover pre-Roman Britain. It's subtitle, "A History of Britain at the Edge of the World 3500 B.C. - 1603 A.D." indicated to me that it would address that period. And so it does - for six and a half pages, three of which are completely take up by photographs of neolithic sites. This coverage hardly merits a subtitle touting the book as a history of Britain from 3500 B.C.
Only one paragraph is dedicated to Julius Caesar's disastrous invasion attempts that failed two years in succession, and only two paragraphs talk about the British resistance to Claudius' successful invasion. Within two more pages, Hadrian's wall has already been built. The remaining 20 pages of the first chapter are a very general overview of the next 700 years. That's right: it takes only twenty of this book's nearly 400 pages to cover over 4,000 years of history.
I expected to read about discoveries of neolithic sites (only those in the Orkneys are mentioned - even Stonehenge and Britain's fabulous barrows are conspicuously absent here); the settlement of the Britain and its islands by the Celts; the effect of the Roman conquest and later withdrawal; the pre-Roman religions and spread of Christianity; trade and inter-cultural exchange among the peoples of Britain and the rest of Europe and Scandanavia; invasions of the Angles, Saxons and Jutes, and the viking Danes and Norsemen; magnificent kings like Alfred the Great (the only pre-Conquest king given so much as a passing mention); important religious influences in the guise of men like Bede and Augustine. All of these are covered in so little time and space that I can honestly say I learned more about this era in my poor, Southern, rural, American elementary school.
Chapter 2 starts with the Norman Invasion. Only a few pages of that chapter address the political and other events that explain why William the Conqueror thought he had a valid claim to the throne in the first place. There is practically nothing of the lives of any people other than notable rulers.
I cannot fault the rest of the book's treatment of English history. It does not go into great detail about much of anything, but as a cursory review of the high points of the monarchy it does passably well. It glosses over the bloody, twenty-year civil war fought between Stephen and Matilda over the crown of Henry II, but gives fairly admirable treatment of Henry III and Eleanor of Acquitaine and their incompetent and vile offspring.
Very little is said of the War of the Roses. We are told virtually nothing about Richard III's usurpation of the throne or of his nefarious kidnapping and execution of two adolescent sons of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville, which ignited carnage among English nobility for a generation.
It is obvious that the Tudors are of much greater interest to the author than the Plantagenets (or Angevins), at least according to the detail with which he describes their reigns. The last 125 pages are devoted to the Tudors, who ruled England for 116 years. They were fascinating monarchs, indeed, but there is such a wealth of information about them I was still left feeling a bit cheated. I really wanted a readable history of early Britain.
Now, I suppose I could have been a more discerning buyer and read more in-depth reviews to find out whether this was the book I was looking for. I hope that this review provides someone else with that warning.
And although they are probably out of print, I highly recommend Thomas B. Costain's histories for great readability, more detail and better analysis of post-Conquest Britain. Start with The Conquering Family.