Top positive review
Enjoyable, erudite if light scamper across 1,000 years - sparking rebellious thoughts
14 September 2016
Very readable, covering an astonishing 950 years in 394 pages. I hadn't realised quite how many minor revolts there were, especially during the Tudor, Stuart and Hanoverian years. The point is well made, that English history did not progress as a genteel, Whiggish handing down of power from above - but, rather, that political change always came about as a result of pressure from below, driven by self-interested and occasionally high-minded leaders. It is notable, as Horspool does not mention, that from the eighteenth century onwards it became increasingly difficult for rebels not to trumpet the good of the 'common people' as their main justification.
But I am mystified. So very many thousands of people, high and low, lost their lives or their liberty as a result of rebellion. Hardly any succeeded (Cromwell and co. being the main exception). Why did they risk so much? Horspool fails to bring to life the injustice, desperation and passion which must have driven these doomed rebels, time after time.
The author is particularly strong on the context in which Magna Carta (1215) was issued, and what it meant, and the early medieval period, when kingship was more or less the first prize in a bloody contest amongst a very small clique of Norman and Plantagenet barons - until Simon de Montfort (in 1265) and then Edward I (in the next four decades) sought game-changers by bringing representatives of the knightly and then the upper merchant (burgess) classes into Parliament, thereby accidentally starting England on the very long road towards democracy. However, it took until the late nineteenth century before middling and lower class men were enfranchised. Women, meanwhile, were beyond the pale, until various fascinating female leaders brought the issue to the boil with the rebellious suffragette movement of the early twentieth century, leading to female enfranchisement in 1918 (though women under 30 could not vote until 1928).
Horspool also sheds interesting light on the conservative and xenophobic 'rebel' power of the London mob, mainly in the eighteenth century - which acted as a significant brake upon democratic progress, since the mob's rampages terrified most of the non-enfranchised middle class into supporting the status quo. Property rights were always more important than voting rights.
What is not clear is the definition of English political rebellion, beyond the simple attempt of one lot to seize power from another. Horspool says in his introduction that rebels have to risk life or liberty, but another factor must be that they must arise predominantly from within the body politic. But what is 'within'? Would that rule out the Dutch William the Third and the 'Glorious Revolution' of 1688, which was not a revolution and was hardly 'glorious', except for the Anglican ruling class which was entrenched in power for the next 200 years. When does rebellion become true revolution? And why did England, or more accurately, Britain, not experience any authoritarian rule after Cromwell and certainly no bloody revolution - unlike virtually every other long-established country in the world (except various ex-British colonies)? Is this something to do with geography but also the much under-discussed history of British rebellions, at the end of which the losers were eventually reconciled or conciliated in some way?
What of the July 2007 Islamist bombers, and their like? (This latest and most horrific wave of terrorist-political violence is outside the scope of Hospool's historical coverage, no doubt deliberately.) Would they 'count' as 'English rebels'? If it had succeeded, the Catholic Gunpowder Plot of 1605 would have killed very many more people, all civilians. The extreme terrorist intent of the Gunpowder Plot provoked deep and very long-lasting revulsion throughout Britain. We now look on Robert Catesby, Guy Fawkes at al as incompetent fanatics, but nonetheless as rebels who are part of the island story. In two hundred years' time, might we look on the native-born Islamist terror-murderers in a similar way?
Horspool has some striking turns of phrase, and a masterful ability to cut to the chase. It is not surprising that there is little depth in a work of such breadth, though his clarity does spark rebellious thoughts.