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4.3 out of 5 stars
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on 12 May 2012
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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on 18 September 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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on 24 September 2011
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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on 14 December 2011
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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on 10 July 2013
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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on 27 September 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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on 31 October 2011
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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on 5 October 2011
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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on 9 September 2011
My initial inclination was to "award" this publication with one star but having read only as far as page 41, when both I and my corrective pencil gave up in despair, I suppose it would be a little harsh to judge the remainder of the book after having given up the will to live; so two stars it is. Based on what I did read, however, I am not sanguine.

To cite just a few of the egregious errors I found in those first forty pages:

* In his chapter on Roman Britain, Mr Ackroyd refers to 'England' and the 'English' throughout. Both terms would have been utterly meaningless to anyone living at the time, and remain totally nonsensical to anyone with a proper sense of our country's history in this period. I note that Mr Ackroyd himself 'confront(s) questions of nomenclature' on page 41 - the point at which, you will recall, I was confronted with the last straw - but his subsequent "explanation" for the use of the terms 'England' and 'English' is, by turns, spurious, contradictory, fallacious and, frankly, risible.

* The destruction of the Druids on Anglesey did not take place following Boudicca's Revolt, as is heavily implied on p29. The Governor, Suetonius Paulinus, was on Anglesey, mopping-up, when he first heard news of the Revolt taking place 300 miles away - hence the very real threat the Iceni uprising posed to the continued existence of Britain as a Roman province.

* Julius Agricola was a subsequent Roman Governor (by 17 years), not the 'next' one.

* Mr Ackroyd states that the Romans 'never had any intention' of conquering the whole of Britain. Well, under Agricola at least, they did: the Governor's invasion of Caledonia and subsequent victory over the Picts at Mons Graupius in 83 left him poised to gain control over the whole island. (For good measure, Agricola advised the Emperor Domitian that, in his opinion, Hibernia could also be invaded successfully and held subsequently with the deployment of a single legion.) It was only Domitian's short-sighted, though probably not spiteful, decision to withdraw a legion from Britain in 84 that prevented the conquest from being made total.

* 'The military zone ... required a standing force of 125,000 men.' This is a ludicrous statement. The maximum number of legionaries and auxiliaries stationed in Britain at any one time would have been about 40,000 - which was bad enough as far as the Roman military was concerned (and could have been substantially less but for Domitian's decision of 84).

* 'In AD 268, one governor of England (sic), Carausius, proclaimed himself Emperor.' The year was 286 and he did nothing of the sort: he proclaimed himself ruler of an independent Britain. He did not 'take his forces to the continent' as he already had forces in the extreme north of Gaul, he having been appointed originally, by the Emperor Maximian, to be naval commander of the Channel and North Sea waters, based in Boulogne.

*(Britain) was subdivided into four and then five provinces, emphasizing the fact that the country (sic) was being closely administered and exploited.' No, it emphasized the fact that the Emperor in Rome had no wish to grant to one, or even two governors control of all the military resources that Britain, by default, encompassed.

I could say more but you have the picture. Mr Ackroyd's reputation precedes him and I am bound to say that I was looking forward immensely to reading this first (of a projected total of six) volume of his history of England. Alas, no longer, and not least for the sake of my blood pressure. This book is both a profound disappointment and a source of astonishment that such a display of "historical" writing should ever have made it off the printing press.

ps Since writing this review, I have been asked by one commentator to suggest a book I WOULD recommend be read in order to gain a proper understanding of how England and the English came to be as they are. (I replied directly in the 'Comments' section - see below - but it occurred to me that I should make the same response here.) Without question this would be Paul Johnson's 'The Offshore Islanders'. Although nearly 40 years old it is still in the top rank of any proper history of England. (Copies are readily available from Amazon.) I retrieved my own 1972, first edition copy from my shelves, in blunt reaction to my brief acquaintance with Mr Ackroyd's book, and can say, unequivocally, there is no comparison. Quite frankly, if I were Paul Johnson's publisher, I would be rushing out a reprint.
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on 17 November 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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