on 4 March 2010
I've been moved to review this item mainly in response to the only other review on this site having awarded it one star, and seemingly holding against Simon Schama personally the misguided and belligerant conduct of kings.
Certainly this work is a whirlwind tour of history. A lack of detail may be a partial downfall but this is inevitable when faced with the task of fitting 4,600 years into 8 hours. Given the constraints, it's a well researched, eloquent and balanced assessment. It maintains an admirable moral distance and like all the best historical works, it reviews and reports rather than judging history, but never steps back from expressing an apt opinion - this is no simple list of dates and events.
In contrast to the other reviewer, I found great examples of social history here. Schama's analysis of the changes in societal structure caused by the plague are intriguing, as is his discussion of the shifting and uncertain balance of power between monarchy and other echlons of society.
So, flawed by the time available it may be, but it certainly provides much that the inquisitive amateur historian may be looking for in its review of the period. It is an intelligent study of causation rather than monotonous historical list-making.
I bought this book with a view to gaining a general outline of how Britain's destiny has been shaped. Having read a few in-depth history books on specific events and short periods, I felt that I would gain by understanding the wider context in which these events occurred. In the main, I feel that Schama's book has given me that, although, as ever, it means putting one's trust in the author's accuracy and judgement of what is relevant.
What I didn't expect, unlike some reviewers it seems, was a comprehensive account of every event of note. With a subject this broad, the content is necessarily selective. I'm guessing, of course, but I'd say Schama chose the events he thought were the most fundamental to the nation's destiny, rather than the juiciest ones. Every subject he covers has a bearing on what follows and generally involves significant change, while illuminating what it was like to live in the period under discussion.
I read the indignant reviews of those attacking what they see as anglo-centric bias with some amusement. Those with the greatest power have the most influence and if they happen to be English kings, what is Schama to do? By all means, seek out material on the history of Wales or Scotland to learn about their cultures, but are we to suppose that the likes of Llewellyn or Malcolm III shaped our destinies? Had Schama adopted a more provincial approach, the same people would doubtless have criticised him for portraying the Welsh and Scottish as greedy, backstabbing, bloodthirsty barbarians, as it's clear that most of the, mainly English, protagonists were just that. As it is, conquerors from Rome, Scandinavia and France are also given extensive room. Hardly anglo-centric.
As for the book itself, Schama is refreshingly readable, rather than academically arid, and has a talent for dry humour. As such, this is a good way to get into the subject before looking for more specialised material. There are a few turgid passages, such as the first few pages of the chapter on the Tudors which rambles on about the Church, before cutting to the more absorbing matter of what Henry VIII and co did to Catholicism. This is not then a book to consult for detailed history, but a helpful introduction. I look forward to reading the other volumes.
on 8 May 2015
If seeking a vigorous first exposure to the history of Britain or a lubrication of lessons once learned and long rusted, Simon Schama's "A History of Britain Volume 1" is the book you'll want by your side.
Though taking British history from 3000BC to AD1603 in this first volume, by its first 100 pages Schama provides the most robust coverage of pre-history to the crowning of William the Conqueror I've ever seen.
Where authors like Peter Ackroyd in "Foundation" and of recent note, Robert Tombs, in his massive "The English and their History" have attempted similar introductions, Schama pulls off what these others have failed. (Ackroyd offers no maps with scant context; Tombs believes he can meaningfully take readers from whoa to the Norman Conquest in just 20 pages - he can't.)
The novice to British history will want to ask: Who were the first British? How were they organised? Why did the Romans invade? Why the Anglo-Saxons? Why then the Vikings? Who was Alfred the Great? Who was Edward the Confessor? What made William finally cross the Normandy shore? And what then? For these underscore the "British" story thereafter.
So Schama takes the reader's hand, and replete with narrative, humour, opinion and chronological flow provides meaningful answers to each concern.
But there is a word of warning. To appreciate Schama's thoroughness, readers need to prepare for a solid read: the secret to Schama's story telling is his magnificent economy with words. Narrative twists and crescendos are at times found mid-paragraph - and Schama extrudes his paragraphs into elongated strings of thought. Blink and you may miss something. It takes a little time to adjust to this writing style - but once you do the pages flow, and you begin to appreciate a total absence of fluff, filler or repetition. It soon explains why the volumes in the series each run just 350 pages approximately - and why so much detail can be offered in such little space.
Further, many will also appreciate Schama's almost deliberate shying from nomenclature, and academic pretentiousness. His aim is to teach - and to me, he succeeds.
The beauty of history is in the detail. And once the basics are tucked away (and remember that no matter the source, history - especially that of Britain - is a tale of names, family trees and places), you will want to flesh out eras of interest: and when you do you may come across information omitted or treated pithily in this book. That is the game we play whenever "introductory" texts are studied.
The danger, however, is wasting money on books that cut their stories too fine. With Simon Schama's "A History of Britain volume 1", you'll not find this the case.
on 31 March 2001
This is a great book to read but I think it all the better for having Timothy West read it. He has the right voice to draw you into the story of Britain and want to keep listening. The best part about the whole story is how the book combines both elements of our history - continuity interspersed with shocks to the system - which the country deals with and incorporates into the fabric of what makes Britain. The other fascinating point is how the book deals with the successive influences on Britain and how we are the result of a continuing series of waves of immigration and war. I recommend this audio book because it tells a story and helps identify where we came from as a nation - something that is very relevant to today
on 12 April 2001
Despite considerable detail about the French component of the English nation in earlier chapters, along with the campaigns and consequences, the Hundred Years War only gets mentioned by name!
My main irritation however, and the complete spoiling of the book for me, is the fact that the first third is quite good, and the last third OK, but the middle third is completly missing!! He quite reasonably and perfectly legitimately divides the time period by the reigns of the monarchs, spending considerable time on the main events and ramifications of each reign, and then covers the events of the Wars of the Roses, the transition from the Plantagenets to the Tudors, the rapid succesion of monarchs (not even named!), the life & times of Richard III etc. all in one page! This is arguably one of the most action packed, interesting and important periods in our history, and not described at all!
This is all the more galling when you consider that the reign of Elizabeth I, important in it's own way, but - let's face it, pretty un-eventful (Mary Queen of Scots, and the non-invasion of the Spanish Armarda are considered by Scharma to be the most dramatic happenings) - gets the single most lengthy chapter! When you think about it, the most important part of Elizabeth's reign was her last breath, which ended the Tudor dynasty, and brought about the unification of Scotland and England, effectively creating the Britain that all the other reviewers are carping on about. Sorry, but Boswell Field and the period that preceeded it are probably more important, and certainly far more interesting than the peaceful flowering of the Elizabethan period.
You have been warned - it's disappointment.
This delightful romp through Britain's history from Roman to Elizabethan times is enchanting reading. Although mis-titled, since Schama dispenses with two millennia in but a few pages, his engrossing prose keeps your attention fixed through every page. He hasn't, of course, given us a "history of Britain" in any but a limited sense. The theme is the governance of a nation with expanding and contracting borders, rulers and those aspiring to rule drifting on and off the stage, and the politics of ruling such a land. The "life" of the country - the tillers, shepherds, artificers, fishermen, are pushed offstage unseen. Not intended as an academic study, it's an entertaining overview.
Schama's prose is often evocative. A prime example is his account of the preliminaries leading to the invasion at Hastings and the encounter itself. We witness, almost as participants, the victories and waning of Edward, king of Wessex. His successor, Harold, crosses the reach of England to defeat invading Vikings prior to the rush south to counter William of Normandy. At the battle site, Schama brings you onto the battle site, viewing the impending clash first from the English side, then from the Norman. You sweat and reflect, facing determined enemies prior to the onslaught. He moves you with the troops, thrusting, dodging, suffering as the battle rages. By the time you reach the pages of William's consolidating his victory, you are breathless. Schama is rarely detached from events throughout this book, and he has you at his side at every significant circumstance.
His discussions of the governance of Britain make compelling reading. Just as we thought the Domesday Book was little more than a tool of Norman oppression, Schama depicts William as "the first database king" bent on achieving equitable enforcement of justice. In later years, Henry II would continue that tradition, ruling medieval Europe's greatest empire. Without delving into tedious detail, Schama makes clear that ruling Britain at any level is a dynamic process. Although the successive monarchs may appear a continuum separated by some violent events, he demonstrates that whoever sat on the throne must perform the task of ruling. The methods may vary, sometimes harshly imposed, but tradition repeatedly impairs the march of change. Anyone failing to understand this will fail to understand Britain. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
on 24 October 2000
Well done Simon Schama. If only history teachers the length a breadth of the country had half the enthusiasm this guy has, we would all have benefitted greatly. One of the reviewers talked about the three lions and football fans, and then went on to say it was a book about England. It does say on the cover " A History of Britain". This is the sort of misguided patriotism that this book cuts through, because history is completely full of ironies and Simon Schama exposes them masterfully to bring it all to life.
on 1 April 2013
This is good book for a broad outline of british history. Well written and informative, with a good dose of dry humour - I would certainly recommend it - it starts with pre-Roman times and finishes at the end of Elizabeth I's reign.
However, as with many kindle books, there were several noticeable typographic errors, one in particular cropped repeatedly:
Henry III's being written Henry ILL's (with the LL in lower case (ll), which looks correct in certain typefaces, but not others)
This kind of thing is tolerable in cheap scanned copies of out of copyright material; but given the price being charged by the publisher for this book it should not have these kind of systematic errors.
on 4 March 2003
The importance of history was never really drilled home to me during my education, but as you get older you come to realise its sigificance. And you know, perhaps even more than the events themselves, it's the teaching of the lessons learned from those events that really shapes the nation today.
In that context, Simon Schama's book is an awesome piece of work. Don't expect to get a lightweight record of dates, names, battles, photographs of ruins, and maps of the world. This is an authorative interpretation of the events that shaped the British nation - the reading between the lines and appreciating the subtleties of the politics of rulers and their governments.
The style of prose is challenging at first, but ultimately it rewards the reader, delivering many times over that feeling of discovering something new.
I can't wait to get stuck into book II.
on 6 May 2011
This book works well as an audio book. Timothy West reads in a voice that is clear, and makes the narrative interesting and easy to follow. I enjoyed listening while commuting - my reason for choosing the audio book rather than the printed version - and feel this has made some aspects of British history clear to me for the first time. The description of events before and during the Battle of Hastings was a high point for me.
I'd recommend this to anyone who would like to hear British history read really well - I shall certainly be buying the other two volumes in the series.