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4.4 out of 5 stars
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4.4 out of 5 stars
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on 22 June 1999
If you are the kind of person for whom the word history evokes memories of dusty old school rooms and dull-as-ditchwater lessons taught by equally dull and dusty old men, then "This Sceptred Isle" is just the antidote you need. Based on Churchill's Nobel prizewinning "History of the English-speaking People" and covering the period from the first Roman visit to these shores up until the death of Victoria, the longest reigning monarch, this book is the best introduction to British history imaginable. The style is light and conversational without being superficial and the liberal use of passages from the great man himself as well as contemporary sources lend the book added interest and authority. A slight criticism is that the geneological trees in the back of the book could have been a bit more extensive and a useful addition would have been a set of time lines or a year-by year summary such as that contained in "The Oxford History of Britain", however, these are minor quibbles. "This Sceptred Isle" is not the definitive text but is a superb primer that gives the reader a clear and detailed overview so that they can decide which period they can focus on next. The layout stresses the gradual nature and continuity of historical developments mixing politics with the social history, science and philosophies of the age. All the famous historical figures are here along with some you may not have heard of but who nevertheless made essential contributions to the development of the nation. Who first proposed the idea of cabinet government ? And in whose reign ? Where do we get the office of the Exchequer from and which monarch started it ? When did the sinking of the White Ship occur and why was it such a disaster for Henry I ? Why was Thomas Beckett murdered and was the king to blame ? What would Henry VIII have done for a living if his older brother Arthur hadn't predeceased him ? Learn about the reasons for the start of the Civil War and then surprise yourself but realising that there was not one Civil War but two. Find out the origin of such expressions as "to turn a blind eye" and "read the riot act". Better than that, indulge yourself and get the 10-volume BBC cassette collection of the original radio series - exquisitely narrated by Anna Massey and also available from Amazon - and use the two together. If you don't know your Williams from your Edwards, or think that the Glorious Revolution was a communist plot, then you need "This Sceptred Isle". Matthew Salter
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on 4 June 2012
To be fair this is not a bad book; but it could so easily be better. To begin with, it appears to have escaped the attention of a good proof reader, because it is littered with errors. For the most part these are grammatical and punctuation mistakes, which are irritating and interfere with the flow of the work, but some are factual and really inexcusable in a published work of this nature. On page 421, for example, there is a reference to the Battle of Trafalgar, where the date is given (inaccurately) as 21 September 1805, whilst on page 428, a further reference to the battle correctly gives the date as 21 October 1805. On page 412 there is a mention of the Irish lawyer and politician, Daniel O'Connell, who also appears on page 451, where he is called David O'Connell. It is quite clearly the same person, because on each of the pages the dates 1775-1847 appear immediately after the name. On page 566 it says: "...the important British political moment at the start of the 1920s was the appearance, for the first time, of the Labour Party as Her Majesty's Opposition...". The fact is that there was a king on the throne at this time and it was His Majesty's Opposition. A less egregious error perhaps than the two others quoted but something that ought to have been picked up before the presses were allowed to roll.

Leaving aside the sloppy editing, the other way in which this book could be improved, without too much effort, is by the inclusion of a few maps and diagrams. The six hundred pages of this volume contain not one illustration. This betrays its origins as a series of radio programmes, where pictures are admittedly superfluous. But it doesn't follow that in translating the work for publication as a book it is acceptable to take the same approach. Quite early on the author describes the extent of the various regions of Great Britain as they existed prior to the Norman Conquest (Mercia, Wessex, etcetera), but he does so without the aid of a map, which would be so helpful in this context. In a similar way so would a family tree showing how claimants to the throne were related to one another at the time of the Wars of the Roses, for example. In fact an appendix containing trees for the various royal families through the ages would be a worthwhile addition. A few illustrations would not add significantly to the size of the book, nor to its cost, but they would add to its value as a reference work.

The book is concerned with what it is to be British and how Britishness evolved, which objective it arguably achieves. It is also a one volume history of Britain, which is why I bought it. There are plenty of weightier tomes extending to several volumes but not many that seek to cover what is a complex subject within such a limited space. Of those I examined before choosing This Sceptred Isle, none seemed to offer the same depth. It was a huge disappointment therefore, to discover so many shortcomings that could so easily have been remedied. If the publisher acknowledges these shortcomings and seeks to rectify them in a later edition, I believe the book would benefit immensely. I think I should then be able to recommend it with less hesitation than I can now, for while it is a good book, as already stated, it could so easily be much better.
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on 30 December 2009
Having read the other reviews on this page I wonder if I perhaps listened to a different recdording to everyone else. I'm an avid student of British history, particularly the 18th and 19th centuries, and while I appreciate the weight of this work and the lively style of the recording, In see it more as a sequence of missed opportunities than anything else.

This is very much the old-fashioned style of history. If a fact isn't related to the royal family or the prime minister, then it seems it's not worth recounting. The first few volumes, before a real lineage of royalty and an enlightened age is established, are actually quite exciting, if a bit too focussed on battles. After that, the series rapidly devolves into a stuffy list of kings and queens. Who married whom, who bumped off whom, and so on. My medieval history is a bit vague, and I found it incredibly jarring when the narrators failed to talk about what language the people were speaking, what religion the people were outside of court, and when they mentioned great feats of architecture such as the parliament buildings, without ever mentioning when, how or why they were built, and who by. Similar occurences can be found throughout this work - lots of assumed knowledge.

There is absolutely nothiing notewworthy here on socio-economic history, philosophy or art. This is a massive history of Britian that does not mention Chaucer, Johnson or Dickens. This is an in-depth history of Britain that mentions Shakespeare only once - in direct reference to a plot to overthrow the king. The Georgian period skirts around the Napoleonic Wars, giving it two CDs when many other periods had three. The Victorian period is all about Victoria - nothing to be found here on the industrial revolution, the age of steam, Jack the Ripper, Conan Doyle, the invention of the Christmas tradition, the rise of the middle classes, Scotland Yard, poor laws, or anything else that might be of interest to the casual student of history beyond the royal researchers.

In short, this is a great effort, but won't be everyone's cup if tea, as it's more noteworthy for the things it omits rather than the things it discusses.
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on 24 May 2001
I have various volumes of British/English history. This one is one of my favourites. Many history books contain a great deal of padding - wordy prose and multiple footnotes - which you have to wade through to stay with the story. This one is different. It manages to pick out all the important people and events and weave them into a fast-moving coherent story. The quotations from Winston Churchill's books add a further dimension - personally I like his writing style and now I will buy his 'History of the English Speaking peoples (Hint Hint - I am buying the one-volume abridgement from you - what about making the four-volume original set available?). Highly recommended. Having read the book, I bought the tapes. Frankly, I find these a disappointment - far too formal. Not recommended.
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on 8 September 2016
I listened to this series when first broadcast on Radio 4 in the 1990's. Based upon Winston Churchill's history of the English Speaking People's, Christopher Lee and those involved with him have done a first-class job in bringing to life the early years of the history of our nation. This is the first in a collection covering the years 55BC-1702 which can only be described as being excellent and good value for money. I thoroughly recommend it.
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on 13 December 2000
No more snoozing in history classes!! This audio CD set walks you by the hand through British history and gives you so much more than the dry facts. The readings from diarys of the time and also from Churchill's 'History of Britain' bring everything to life - you actually WANT to know what happens next! The reading by Anna Massey is just right - informative but alive.
This is a definite must for everyone who says 'Hmmm, Alfred - he was the one who burnt the cakes, wasn't he?'
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on 25 August 2000
Not for History scholars but a must for anyone who just wants an overview of English/British history. It is more or less a transcript from the original radio show and therefore it reads like fiction and is a much easier read for the casual fan of history. Well worth the money!
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on 24 September 1999
The one thing we can never loose in Great Britain is our history. This book covers this enourmous subject in an informative and easy to read fashion. I have always been interested in our history, but the books I've tried to read have always been far to heavyweight and verbose. This book brings the story of our Islands to life. It also covers the various interactions with other countries (for example a quite detailed account of the American war of independance and some of their civil war), but does not stray from the main theme too far. Sure there are many omissions (for example there is no mention of the invention of the marine chronometer which enabled Britain the essentially rule the waves during the 18th Century) but clearly the book cannot afford to get bogged down if the entire story from 55BC to 1901 is to flow from page to page. I Listened to the radio series on which this book is based and it is an excellent companion. I think the coverage is a fair reflection "warts 'n' all" on the activities of the British, and therefore of interest to non-British readers who may shy away from a potential "rule britannia" union jack waving/back slapping tome. That said, I was pleased to see that some subjects were covered carefully and sensibly (such as Britain's relationships with Ireland and India) and perhaps the flack commonly aimed at the British (or perhaps more acurately at the English) for disasterous policies and the causing of misery to other nations should be considered more in context of the time and place, rather than with a modern critical eye.
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on 6 April 2008
This magnificent book covers British history from the Roman invasion up to the death of Queen Victoria. As the partner to a BBC series, the style is more conversational than lecturing, and certainly held me captured throughout the centuries of brutal wheeling and dealing that describes British leaders and history.

If I have one criticism, it is the excessive quoting from Churchill's History of the English Speaking Peoples and quotations from letters throughout. Perhaps as a BBC series, this added to the reconstruction of history, but in a book this appears to pad the writer's story with too many words from the mouths of others.

This criticism aside, I was completely held by the book to complete my way through a a description of the historical and political background to the British state. With reasoning of the British approach to church, state, empire and religion placed beside the mundane roots of words and phrases, this book maintains depth without becoming too high-brow and speeds at a relentless pace through the twists of fate, power and brokerage that brought the British state to its twentieth century position.

Having been bored by history at school, I found this a refreshing way to learn about subjects I had ignored for may years.
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on 23 January 2011
We have been enthralled to hear the history of our own country told in such an enthralling way. What a difference to the history I was taught at school!
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