The New History of England

Reform and Reformation: England 1509-1558

by G.R. Elton
Harvard University Press, 423 pp., $15.00

Thomas Cromwell
Thomas Cromwell; drawing by David Levine

Of series of histories of England there appears to be no end. We have the Oxford History of England, the Penguin History of England, the Fontana History of England, Nelson’s and Longman’s Histories—and I am sure many more. But publishers seem to think the market inexhaustible. The appearance of the first two volumes of a new series, Harvard’s The New History of England, gives occasion for considering the genre, and asking what objectives the new series has and how they differ from those of its predecessors.

Any set of textbooks on English history aimed at last-year schoolboys and girls and at first-year university students should have two aims at least. It must give a basic minimum of information; and it should try to interest and excite its readers. It is no good stimulating by scintillating generalizations unsupported by facts; it is even worse to churn out the well-worn narrative of events if the imagination of the youthful reader is not caught.

To judge by the first two volumes, the New History of England leans to the side of sobriety. These books deal with relatively short periods of history, and that perhaps in itself restricts the possibility of epigrams ringing down the centuries. Political narrative predominates. The presentation makes few concessions—no illustrations, no diagrams, no maps. The dedication of the reader to the subject is assumed. The publishers no doubt know what the market will bear.

In academic respects, the two authors are well chosen. Professor Elton has a secure place among the top half-dozen or so English historians. Dr. Speck is a younger man with a growing scholarly reputation. Both of them are “safe” and rather old-fashioned in their approach to history. Professor Elton is on record as disapproving of many modern fashions in historiography—sociological, anthropological, psychological: he is not much of a quantifier. Real history for him is political, constitutional, and administrative history. Its proper subject is the government rather than the people of a country. Dr. Speck makes more concessions to modern trends, but his main interest is also in political history. The two editors of the series are Professor Norman Gash and Professor A.G. Dickens. So far the series seems to lean toward the approach of the former rather than of the latter.

Professor Elton has transformed our understanding of a decade of English history, and this decade—the 1530s—is arguably among the three or four most important in the history of the country. Professor Elton has achieved his effects by unrivaled mastery of the archive material for the period on which he has concentrated. From his first published work he has remained true to the conviction that then inspired him—that Thomas Cromwell is a great and previously maligned figure whose consummate statecraft brought about administrative reforms that changed the nature of the English monarchy and the direction of English history. With the years, and with acceptance, Professor Elton’s…

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