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Customer Review

on 9 July 2013
I usually stop at the end of the Tudor period when reading history, finding the Stuarts and what came after boring. I picked up this book, which encompasses British history from 1485 to 1785, from medieval system of governance to first British Empire and the loss of America, and enjoyed it very much.

The Leviathan in the book's title represents the all-powerful state with cash and armies at its disposal. Readers of Tudor history will know that the emergence of the 'state' began under the Tudor's, who transferred power from ancient aristocracy to 'new men' drawn from (mostly) the law or mercantile class. The state/Leviathan grew rapidly under the kingship of the unsatisfactory Stuart's and proved more autocratic than say any Plantagenet king. Hence, taxes are collected whether the taxed will or no (horrifyingly, a poor woman had her tongue nailed to a tree for complaining about taxes) and an anointed king is bloodily and publicly put to death.

Yet still the British desire a king and a restoration is made of monarchy which proves (again) highly unsatisfactory. The British need a king who provides good governance and leads them over the channel at regular intervals to give the French a good drubbing! Charles II proves to be in the pay of the French and the next in line has more than a whiff of popery about him - unacceptable to parliament and the people. Once again the state/Leviathan determines the future of kingship in these isles.

It's interesting to see how the state/Leviathan develops imperial ambition. Any Plantagenet king would have been satisfied to resurrect from time to time the issue of 'just rights and inheritances' over land lost in France, and Henry VIII in his wildest dreams could not have encompassed how great empire would become. Both the Tudor and Plantagenet kings (like it or not) had limits to their power: both must parley with Parliament for subsidy to raise an army for instance. Leviathan has no such limitations.

It's also interesting to see, over the three centuries covered by the book, how kingship and personal leadership are eroded as Leviathan develops. The medieval lord/king living among his affinity as one household changes and walls - literally - are built to separate the household. Access to the king is through the Privy Chamber (Tudor) Bedchamber (Stuarts and William III) and Queen Anne has her Sarah Churchill. The Hanoverian kings were, frankly, plodders. Interestingly (or not) George II seems to have OCD tendencies and visits his mistress at the same time week in week out for the same amount of minutes! He is also fond of military display and lists ...

In the absence of a Plantagenet king militant Leviathan provides generals such as Marlborough to drub the French ... and the Spanish ... and the Dutch ... and the Portuguese.

So, Leviathan had its roots in the Tudor administration, civil war and rebellion grew its power and inadequate and un-British kings consolidated it - Empire rendered it absolutely necessary.

I'm not saying that I will follow through and read further on this subject, but I enjoyed what is written in this book very much - David Scott can really write. Also, the book reads like a long love letter to the English - England being the dominant state and Scotland, until unification, allied with the French 'the auld alliance'. Detailing our failings (no head for alcohol and a love of fighting) and our virtues (fearless in the face of much more powerful and populous nations), riding our luck and the seas in order to resist massively powerful land-based powers (although we went on to comprehensively drub Napoleon - the French again!); losing the first empire should have finished us off, but we went and built another one even greater. As one reviewer pointed out, very much Our Island Story - though not in the least jingoistic.

If you are between books and need one which entertains as well as informs, take a punt, buy this one.
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