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A welcome addition to Ackroyd's series but perhaps a fraction weaker than the first volume
on 20 February 2013
Ackroyd's second volume of his History of England slackens the pace of the narrative significantly. The first volume described more than a millennium from the Brythonic tribes through Roman occupation and the Middle Ages to the settlement of the Wars of the Roses in 1485. This volume, in contrast, covers less than a century; the Tudor period running from the accession of Henry VIII in 1509 to the death of Elizabeth I in 1603.
This closer inspection reflects both the fame (infamy?) of the major figures of this period as well as the wealth of surviving sources and exhaustive historical studies. This is both a strength and a weakness. The tendency to superficially skim across major events and figures that occasionally afflicted the first volume is less evident, however, the fact that this period is so well known makes it easier to pick fault with some of Ackroyd's conclusions.
The author's decision to end the first volume with the death of Henry VII rather than include the first Tudor in this volume is illuminating. Many would argue that the shape and success of Tudor policy was set by Henry VII with the ensuing `golden' reigns of Henry VIII and Elizabeth built on his stable foundations. Thus he belongs alongside them in the titular Tudor volume. Ackroyd, however, has a narrative agenda that precludes this.
Not only did Henry VII's reign mark the end of the chaos of the Wars of the Roses but it also served as a period of stability in which the constancy of English society in the face of political upheaval could be illustrated - a major theme of Volume I. The narrative theme of Volume II is religion, a consideration only brought to the fore by Henry VIII's infamous marital difficulties. Religious policy is the bedrock of this volume with almost every event seen through that prism, therefore, Henry VII's uncontroversial, pre-Reformation Catholicism has no place here.
There are many historians who would criticise the focus on religion as the core feature of Tudor polity, preferring a more pragmatic reading of the Tudor reigns. Ackroyd's focus, however, allows him to continue one of his favourite themes in another guise; the relative continuity of the populace's day-today experience (as illustrated in volume 1) whatever the violent fluctuations amongst the elite. The central hypothesis of Ackroyd's work is that the sluggish pace of English cultural and social development was super-charged by the Tudor religious settlement, which was driven by political rather than spiritual concerns, ultimately breaking links to the past and disassembling the many social norms. It seems likely that he will argue the Anglican impulse made England uniquely prepared for empire and industry.
Thus, despite the apparent focus on those at the top of society, Ackroyd constantly counterbalances this with forays into the common experience of those living in the 16th Century. The relative depth with which subjects like the Pilgrimage of Grace are covered attests to this. One departure from the first volume is the incorporation of observations on society within the overall narrative rather than including them in specific chapters. This is a shame as it does skew the balance back toward the great and powerful with titbits of social history less evident. Nevertheless, Ackroyd's buccaneering prose drives the book forward and makes the account compelling, if less ambiguous than more academic works would suggest.
Despite this volume being a general synthesis of Tudor history, Ackroyd gives it a coherent spin with which purists may find fault but even those most familiar with the subject will glean moments of real insight.