Great Britain is a political entity consisting of (at least) four nations spread through an archipelago of two major and many smaller islands off the northwestern coast of Europe. Legislatively united in the English parliament at Westminster by Acts of Union in 1707 (Scotland) and 1800 (Ireland), its flag, the “Union Jack,” is an amalgam of the superimposed crosses of Saint George, Saint Andrew, and Saint Patrick, patron saints of England, Scotland, and Ireland. Wales, despite having made a better job of preserving its own national language than Scotland or Ireland, was subjugated earlier than either, and is not represented on the Union flag.
This political unit formed the base from which in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries one of the world’s most successful empires was launched, but that unit now seems to many in process of political breakdown. Within the last five years Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland have all achieved or revived their own legislative assemblies, of varying degrees of effectiveness and political reality, and anxious conservative voices have begun to warn against the progressive erosion of the Union. On this reading of things, a sense of “Britishness” is giving way to more assertive regionalisms or nationalisms within the archipelago. For Americans the most visible expression of this trend is probably Mel Gibson’s film Braveheart, which so successfully fictionalized the struggle of the medieval Scottish hero William Wallace against the imperialist claims of the Anglo-French King Edward I that the nineteenth-century Wallace monument in Glasgow is now referred to locally as “big Mel.”
The most ardent advocates of a distinctively “British” identity are now the Orangemen of Northern Ireland. Their brand of “Unionism” is a rejection of Irish nationalism, centered on symbols which were once the common currency of a wider British identity—swords, sashes, and banners, the Union flag, the monarchy, above all an ardent and anti-Catholic Protestantism fueled by annually renewed celebrations of the seventeenth-century triumph of the Protestant William of Orange over the Catholic King James II. On the larger island, however, these symbols seem increasingly and unendearingly alien, reminiscences of a past now infinitely remote, and a creed which fewer and fewer share.
How then do you do what Simon Schama has attempted, and write the history of “Britain”? What unifying principle can be found to structure a single story for the peoples of the British archipelago, from undocumented prehistory and Celtic settlement, through centuries of Roman, Germanic, and Norman-French invasions, and the complex processes of conflict, colonization, subjugation, and accommodation which produced the political unity of the last three centuries? Until recently, few historians found that question problematic, for the answer seemed self-evident. “Britishness” was essentially a looser form of Englishness, and the history of Britain was a history of “the English-speaking peoples,” indeed of England, a single “island race,” essentially Anglo-Saxon in culture and character. As Sir Lewis Namier (not himself a typical Anglo-Saxon) wrote, “A great deal of what is peculiar in English history is due to the obvious fact that Great Britain is an island.” The history of Britain, therefore, was an evolutionary story, of the progressive assimilation and unification of the inhabitants of the island (for “island” was persistently thought of in the singular) in a shared Englishness, the emergence of a single people sharing a single religion, a common law, united in loyalty to a constitutional monarchy and governing themselves through the parliamentary democracy which was their distinctive contribution to human liberty.
From at least the early nineteenth century that account of things has been contested by nationalist histories, most notably of Ireland, which provided the ideological underpinning for independence movements in what the English liked to think of as the Celtic fringe. More recently, it has come under fire also from academic historians reacting against such nationalist agendas, but conscious that the received version of British history was itself an expression of an English nationalism so pervasive as to be invisible to its exponents, and which itself falsified and flattened the craggy complexity of the shared pasts of the British islanders. Instead, they were anxious to emphasize the plurality of British histories, the complexity of what one such historian, Hugh Kearney, has called “the Britannic melting-pot.”
Historians of this sort reject the Anglocentricity which pervades British cultural, political, and historical discourse, and are correspondingly attentive to the difference of things. Hence Norman Davies, in a history of Britain significantly entitled The Isles, used the Irish, Welsh, or French forms of place and proper names, rather than the Anglicized versions current in most history textbooks. So the famous kings of the Middle Ages appear not as William and Henry, Stephen and John, but as Frenchmen—Guillaume and Henri, Étienne and Jean—unassimilated to what Davis considers a mythical and premature Englishness. Hugh Kearney retained the Anglicized forms of these names in his The British Isles: A History of Four Nations, but argued nevertheless that all the characteristic institutions of government in Angevin England—courts, castles, and cathedrals—were best understood not as native growths but as instruments of medieval French colonialism. Histories of Britain written under these convictions are intensely conscious of the play of tensions within the island, the interaction and struggle of different peoples, cultures, legal systems, social mores, economic interests. They are usually equally conscious of the role which the writing of history itself plays in shaping perceptions of identity. So the chrono-logical march of Davies’s book, for example, is constantly interrupted—and illuminated—by attention to the way in which later literary and historical presentation of the events of the remote and proximate pasts, from Shakespeare to Kipling, from Macaulay to Winston Churchill, have been harnessed to particular political and social agendas.
Simon Schama approaches the writing of his History of Britain with all this explicitly in mind. In an engaging autobiographical preface set in the transitional period between the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953 and the funeral of Winston Churchill in 1965, he recalls the heroic simplicities of the story of the island race he had once relished in the cozy John-Bullism of the writings of Sir Arthur Bryant or the dusty volumes of Churchill’s History of the English-Speaking Peoples, the latter a gift from his father which “first kindled my passion for history.” Under the influence of socialist politics and an increasingly serious reading of a new breed of professional historians like Ferdinand Braudel, E.P. Thompson, Marc Bloch, and Christopher Hill, however, Schama and his generation came to long for a history which set aside the conventional milestones in Churchill’s establishmentarian “chronicle of Britishness”—King John conceding Magna Carta at Runnymede, Queen Elizabeth defying the Spanish Armada at Tilbury, Nelson at Trafalgar—in favor of the tragic and hidden history of the people—the suppression of the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381, the Leveller debates on the equality of all men during the English Civil War, the fruitless Chartist demonstrations of the 1840s. And so, in place of the familiarity of the “bulldog breed” and the “consoling simplicity of the old story,” Schama proposes another sort of British history, “in which alteration, mutation and flux” are the norm, a history which does not lead inexorably to consummation in “the unitary state of Great Britain,” but sees that as “just one epoch among many in the evolution of these island nations.” This would be a history “in which the ragged frontiers of regions might count for a lot more than the fixed borders of countries,” alert to the “necessary impurity” of any realistic concept of Britishness.
This is a splendid agenda for popular history, and Schama’s history is meant to be popular: his book is an expanded version of a series of hour-long television programs commissioned by the BBC for prime-time showing to a mass audience. An account of the history of Britain written to this agenda would be calculated to mitigate racist or little-England understandings of national identity, and to offer a sense of the complexity and ambiguity of the past which should make for greater mutual tolerance and understanding in the present. And Schama is well qualified to write such history. He has behind him an inventive series of historical works which have escaped the academy, in the process exploding many of the accepted conventions of historical writing, to reach a large nonspecialist audience. His Citizens is probably the most widely read account of the French Revolution in English. His Embarrassment of Riches is a scintillating exploration of Dutch culture in the Golden Age, and his Landscape and Memory is an innovative and wide-ranging exploration of landscape and “nature” as cultural artifacts.
It is baffling therefore that this first installment of a two-volume history of Britain, taking us from prehistory to Good Queen Bess, should strike this reader at any rate as utterly conventional, calculated to challenge no preconceptions about the past, to propose no alternative series of historical milestones by which to chart the emergence of modern Britain. J.R. Green, the Victorian Whig historian, declared in the preface to his best-selling Short History of the English People that he would abandon “mere drum and trumpet history.” Schama’s book, packed with extended accounts of the doings of kings and barons, bloodshed and battles, comes perilously close at times to mere drum and trumpet. There is colorful incident, salty expression, and sometimes dramatic power here in plenty, but with a few notable exceptions you will look in vain in these pages for illumination on the evolution of economies, the making of livings, the codification of laws, the emergence of legislatures, the impact of terrain, soil, climate on the human past, in short, any of the deep structures which shape societies. You will look in vain, too, for any understanding of the evolution of politics and society in Ireland, Scotland, or Wales, except insofar as those places became the concerns of English kings. If geography is maps, history is, for Schama, chaps, and royal chaps at that. There are vivid set pieces here on the Black Death and the Peasants’ Revolt, but most of the book is devoted to the doings of kings and queens, and the key Schama offers to the history of Britain is the game of unhappy families played out by successive royal dynasties.
An entire chapter is devoted to the Norman Conquest of England in 1066: one third of its pages are concerned with the military aspects of the conquest, especially the Battle of Hastings, and most of the remainder focuses on the play of rivalries between the last Saxon king of England, Harald Godwineson, and the eventual victor, Duke William. A mere three and a half pages explore the social, legal, and economic consequences of the invasion, and there is not a word about one major instrument of change, the marginalization of the Saxon clergy and the filling of the English Church with Norman-French personnel after 1170 (Schama is rarely at his most perceptive when discussing religion). There is a nod in the direction of the history of ordinary men and women in the remark, at the beginning of the chapter, that for the bulk of the population “1066 was mostly a matter of exchanging lords.” For the serfs and the peasants, Schama writes, life went on much as before: they “plowed their fields, fed swill to their pigs…and watched the seasons roll round.” But they no longer lived in their own England: the Saxon ruling class vanished, to be replaced by foreigners who spoke no English, and the native peasantry became an underclass, an inferior race. This, we are told, was by any standards “a trauma.” The nature and depth of that trauma, however, what and how we know about it, and how if ever the gulf between colonist and colonized was healed, are never explored. Instead, we are given a blow-by-blow account of the Battle of Hastings, drums and trumpets, history as biffing and battles.