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22 of 22 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Foundation for further reading
Reviews of this book seem split between the 'great overview' crowd and the 'not a serious history' bunch.

I'm definitely in the former camp and I really enjoyed this book. The author has a story he wants to tell and he gets on with it in an interesting and engaging way. I'm certain there are great arguments to be had on the nature of Englishness, the...
Published on 12 May 2012 by Phloebus

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars OK but Churchill is a better read
I had read Ackroyd on Thomas More and on Shakespeare and found both enlightening. This was a bit of a disappointment. Unlike Queen Elizabeth the first he seems to claim a window into his subjects conscience and continually assigns the lowest possible motives and discounts any idea that, for example, in setting up his system of justice Henry II might just possibly have...
Published 7 months ago by Forlornehope


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22 of 22 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Foundation for further reading, 12 May 2012
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Reviews of this book seem split between the 'great overview' crowd and the 'not a serious history' bunch.

I'm definitely in the former camp and I really enjoyed this book. The author has a story he wants to tell and he gets on with it in an interesting and engaging way. I'm certain there are great arguments to be had on the nature of Englishness, the characterisation of King John, the importance of varying dramatis personae, and so on. But that isn't the goal of this book. Within a single volume it is impossible to cover all angles and viewpoints.

To misrepresent the title, this is a foundation book. Read it to get a broad and broadly acceptable understanding of the period covered. ...and then perhaps be inspired to go out and read more about the nuances and controversies of the time that interested you the most.
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26 of 27 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Brisk, Colourful Read, 14 Dec. 2011
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It's difficult for a modern author to take on the history of a nation. Nineteenth century authors could typically begin from the national myth and just add detail and texture. Modern historiography is less romantic and has jettisoned the retelling of the political narrative in favour of closer inspection of cultural and social history. Writing a book that runs from the Brythonic tribes to the death of Henry VII, as this volume does, would be next to impossible under the terms of modern academic historiography, which is a shame because so much that is recounted here has largely fallen out of modern consciousness and benefits from the slick presentation for which Mr Ackroyd is famous.

The History of England: Foundation, retells the development of England from a disparate island of tribal nations, through multiple conquest and immigration (Roman, Angle, Saxon, Norse, Norman) as a national identity is forged. The first millennium AD is handled at a brisk trot: unsurprisingly given the dearth of information on the Brythonic tribes, the Roman 'occupation', the Danelaw and the Anglo Saxon kingdoms. Ackroyd alternates a political narrative with short chapters on cultural and social themes, providing a flavour of the country in addition to the movements of grandees and the ambitions of monarchs. This is more than a sop to current historical vogue as it is also a key element in his overarching thesis - that despite the prevailing political conditions and the actions of 'good' or 'bad' monarchs, the history of England is a history of continuity. Prevailing macro economic, climatic and natural factors have greater agency than kings but despite all of these things, places of worship remain holy whether the devotion is to pre-historic spirits, pagan Gods or the Christian God. Social structures remain largely static, whatever lord sits at their head. Day-to-day life in England remained, if not unchanging, recognisably similar whether it was in the Mercian Kingdom, the Danelaw or the England of Edward III.

It's an interesting approach that allows both Ackroyd's synthesis of existing secondary material whilst capturing the readers' natural desire for a narrative without reverting to the usual tropes of national myth (bad King John etc). Occasionally, Ackroyd's core theme does seem to skew the telling. For example, he suggests that Henry VII was the first English king with roots deep in the country, who was more English than foreign, having previously noted that he had spent most of his life on the continent in exile. There is also a tendency to challenge stereotypes that don't really need challenging (does bad King John resonate so powerfully that a defense of his justice system is needed? Is Richard III's legislative programme sufficient to counter-weigh his regicide?).

In order to keep his narrative moving forward, Ackroyd often simplifies and omits, particularly in the later chapters that benefit from a strong historical record. However, in earlier, pre-conquest chapters, despite a dearth of sound source material, he still finds interesting nuggets to hold the reader's attention. I did not know, for example, that the Roman Emperor Constantine was in York when first acclaimed.

Despite these (relatively minor) criticisms, which bring no more editorial bias than any history of England since Bede, the idea of solid historical retelling with the development a new and relevant national myth is very worthwhile. Principally, this is a good read that is both informative and entertaining. There may be questions over the historical art employed but as a retelling of much drier academic texts, this is an excellent addition to the story of England.
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60 of 63 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating and highly enjoyable, 18 Sept. 2011
An accessible and highly enjoyable introduction to England's history: Ackroyd vividly sets the scene, cleverly shifting the focus between the detail and the bigger picture. The pace is fast-moving and engaging pulling the narrative along with fluidity and ease, then pausing at times to illustrate key facts, or to delight in the colour and tone of the everyday, evoking a sense of time and place and a taste of how our ancestors lived.

Perhaps his brushstrokes are too broad and sweeping at times for historical puritans, but all history is a narrative, and a retelling, and this is just one interpretation and contribution to that broader narrative and should be appreciated as such; a rich and textured examination of England's origins and identity, which leaves me keen to follow Ackroyd's journey in the remaining five volumes.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars History that reads like a soap opera!, 10 July 2013
By 
 - See all my reviews
(VINE VOICE)   
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I love this series. History was never like this at school. I guess all the naughty bits got left out.

In this book we travel from pre-history to the dawn of the Tudors in an un-put-downable book. I have already read it twice and will continue to refer to it for as many years as I am allowed.

If you thought there was only one Civil War, read this. Our history consists of one long catalogue of people rising up against kings and queens and rulers, and they certainly get a rough ride in this book. From the constant rebellions against the Romans to the contempt against the Normans, then the mainly absent Plantagenets, we see time and time again that the people are struggling against their despotic rulers. In the end, things become so bad that kings no longer just bend the rules of succession, not that those were ever set in stone, they start fighting and killing one another, culminating in the death of Richard II, who was no better or worse than the other rascals. This presages the rein of an even more loathsome ruling family, the Tudors. But that is Volume 2!

If things go badly, of course, take it out on Scotland. Great Victories of Scots against English, and vice versa, abound, and it's never a good victory unless the fields and streams are running with blood. (Rarely an English King's blood, I might add, few were foolish enough to lead their men into battle.) Meanwhile, the realm gradually shrinks back from France (as it is now) into our isles, mainly because it is too expensive to fight battles over there. France and Britain gradually go their own ways, to carry on squabbling in the future.

Read this instead of historical novels and TV dramas to see what really happened in our past.
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55 of 60 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good If you just want an overview, 24 Sept. 2011
By 
Pam (Shropshire UK) - See all my reviews
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Having read both the previous customer reviews, especially the one that really slates the book, I felt obliged to add my two pennorth! I wanted an overview of English history to be able to get a chronological perspective on the history I can barely remember from school - this provided that perfectly. It is well written and readable, I have enjoyed the structure of the book which intersperses chapters on the royal succession with chapters on various aspects of life and if it is as factually incorrect as one of the reviews suggests then I neither noticed nor care. I am not going to sit a history exam, I wanted a readable, rough idea (what else could it be in one book)of English history (not bothered about when England became England)and that is exactly what I got.........horses for courses I suppose.
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22 of 24 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Cracking Read, 27 Sept. 2011
An accessible, easy reading and thoroughly enjoyable race through several thousand years of history. The author's origins as a writer of fiction rather than a historian gives him an eye for the little details that bring a story alive. Bring on the next 5 volumes!
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars an excellent and well written foundation to English history, 31 Oct. 2011
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an excellent and well written foundation to English history has plenty of 'colour' and is more than a simple chronology of England from pre Roman times, It could have been longer but it is a fair size book already, looking forward to the next one
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Evocative read., 17 Nov. 2011
This is a good book that brings the period to life without delving in to the boring minutiae. Ackroyd can write and he brings the period in question to life. The mix of evidence sources and records also is a real strength. A book to keep , not give away.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A History of England -Foundation, 5 Oct. 2011
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I hated history at school, so boring quoting dates by rote, but now, many years later and having found an interest in the Tudor period, decided I wanted to go right back to the beginning to find out how England evolved.This book has fulfilled my curiousity and is so easy to read; once started it is diffult to put down.I'm now looking for Vol 2.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An interesting general look at British history, 27 Jan. 2013
By 
David Roy (Vancouver, BC) - See all my reviews
History books that cover large spans of time can often seem superficial--or they can be huge, 1000-page tomes that are too bulky to hold and so dry that nobody wants to read them. Is it possible to write a comprehensive history of Britain from its beginnings to the infancy of the Tudor era in 450 pages? Peter Ackroyd gives it a try in Foundation, the first in a series. Remarkably enough, he succeeds for the most part. While it is somewhat cursory, it does provide a pretty good overview of the time period in question.

Ackroyd alternates between royal history (or just leaders in the times before the Romans and during Roman rule) and brief chapters on society as a whole. Thus, Foundation is a chronological tale in which the societal chapters cover more ground. There's even a small chapter on how names changed before William the Conqueror (the Norman invasion of 1066) and afterward, to name one example. These chapters provide a welcome break from the straight historical retelling of the political events of the various kings' reigns as time passes. They're also quite informative.

Otherwise, the book mostly covers each king, the fights with various nobles over taxation and rebellion, invasions from other European factions, the Hundred Years War with France, and the like. Ackroyd tells the story in an entertaining way, though the book desperately needs those societal interludes or it would be difficult to get through.

What makes this book really interesting are the little asides on things like where certain words come from, or how something (a building, for example, or even a code of law) still exists today. I had no idea that "peeping Tom" came from the Lady Godiva legend: one man named Tom disobeyed the royal edict of not looking at Godiva as she rode through the town naked. These are sprinkled throughout the chapters and add a bit of meat to what otherwise would be a rather bare history.

Besides the slightly cursory nature of the narrative, the only other real problem with Foundation is the lack of documentation, which I suppose indicates that the series is intended to be more of a popular history than a scholarly one. At the back of the book is a non-exhaustive list of "further reading" suggestions, books and other sources that Ackroyd "found helpful" while creating this book.

There are no notes tying anything that he says in the book to a specific source. I would be thrown out of the book occasionally when I encountered something like "Three hundred skulls, dating from the Neolithic to the Iron Age, have been found in the Thames." It would have been nice to see the source for that. At the beginning of the book, I found myself jokingly thinking "We're just supposed to believe your word on this?" before going with the flow and forgetting about it. I do not doubt Ackroyd, but it would have been nice to go read further on that kind of finding.

Foundation is a wonderful overview of British history with a lot to offer, even to those who have some knowledge of the subject but aren't necessarily experts. I learned quite a bit from it, though much of it was already familiar to me. A new interpretation was welcome, especially on kings and other areas of history that I have already read about (such as Richard III, the controversial king upon whom Ackroyd wisely avoids offering too heavy-handed an opinion).

The book is an enjoyable way to dip your toes into British history and see if it's something you would like to explore further.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book © Dave Roy, 2013
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