Top critical review
Better Studies than This
4 October 2017
This is the 3rd volume of Ackroyd’s History of England. Usually with multi-volume histories each epoch is allocated to a specialist author. There might be advantages to the whole project being undertaken by a general historian, but not in this instance.
Perhaps because the series covers more than a thousand years, the author chooses to focus those events and actors who are the most dramatic. This is clear from the chapter headings: 15 The Crack of Doom, 25 The Gates of Hell etc. In principle this could work well enough, but we still need the main structure of the times. Fifty chronological chapters whirl past like a pathe newsreel. There is less analysis of underlying causes or reflection on the meaning of events.
Liberal use is made of contemporary sources, cited verbatim. Again this might give a feel of the period, but some sections are almost stitched together from quotations, with a linking loop hooked in from the author. The significant and defining is mixed up with the trivial - thus Henrietta Maria’s duvets are in the wash with the Thirty Years’ War.
This felt to me like Peter Ackroyd was seeking to distance himself from the heavy studies of the 17th century, perhaps seeking to be entertaining or popular. Obviously it depends to a degree on what you want, but I am not sure who this will satisfy. If the reader really has very little knowledge of the period, Civil War will be difficult to follow. On the other hand, the more serious student will find it shallow and superficial. Also in recent years a number of excellent histories have appeared.