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.

The same approach and the same priorities inform Schama’s chapter on the Angevin monarchy, that extraordinary period in the twelfth century in which England was part of an empire that reached from the borders of Scotland to the French Pyrenees, ruled by largely absentee monarchs, none of whom spoke English, and most of whom are buried in central France, in the Angevin mausoleum of Fontevrault. Schama centers this chapter around the epic figure of Henry II, who ruled England from 1154 to 1189, best remembered now for having ordered the murder of Saint Thomas Becket, but whom Schama considers the greatest of England’s medieval kings, “the smasher of anarchy and the guardian of the common law.”

This is not an unreasonable claim, but it has a whiff of the nineteenth century about it all the same. Victorian historians by and large shared Schama’s high opinion of Henry II, and attributed to him the reform of the English legal system which is a notable feature of twelfth-century England, a shift from local feudal courts to a national system centered on the crown, administered by professional judges, and codified in a growing body of written law. Royal initiative and enforcement certainly had a part to play in this process, but the extent to which we can give the credit to Henry himself is less clear.

Schama notes that Henry made the channel crossing from France to England twenty-eight times during his thirty-five year reign:another way of considering the same fact is to note that Henry was hardly ever in England. The Plantagenet monarchs in general spent less than a third of their combined reigns in England, for their major political focus was elsewhere. Henry himself, tirelessly in circuit around his far-flung dominions, had a well-earned reputation for dilatoriness and delay in legal matters, and his English judicial appointments were vociferously complained about. The undoubted legal advances of his reign and those which succeeded it owe at least as much to the general growth of professionalism and intellectual coherence which was a feature of the “twelfth-century renaissance” all over Western Europe, to sustained activity by exceptionally able justiciars over several reigns, and to improved record-keeping.

This however, is all less entertaining than the idea of a heroic royal legislator. The story Schama wants to tell is the story of great men, the course of history shaped by the foibles and decisions of individual personalities. Twenty-three of the thirty-six pages allotted to the Angevin monarchy are devoted to the doings of Henry II, and the story as Schama tells it contains no surprises: indeed, in essence it would have seemed uncannily familiar to the Victorian readers of Charles Dickens’s A Child’s History of England, since Dickens’s account of Henry’s reign contains most of the same incidents and elements as Schama’s, down to the very lice infesting Becket’s hair shirt.

Schama is less scornful of the Church and of the Irish than Dickens, more alert to the French dimension of Henry’s rule. Yet he cannot quite resist an old-fashioned Anglocentric reading of the reign: thus Henry’s backing for the buccaneer activities of Norman-Welsh adventurers in Ireland, and his own conflicts with the king of Scotland, are seen not as the feudal extension of Angevin overlordship, but as true imperialism, “pushing English power, for the first time since the Conquest, across its old borders.” When Henry set out to form an alliance with Louis VII of France by marrying his son to the French king’s daughter, his chancellor Thomas Becket was sent on a lavish embassy to prepare the ground. Becket put on a spectacular display of conspicuous consumption, involving cartloads of beer and troops of singers, dogs, and monkeys; at the end of the embassy he gave away all his gold and silver plate. The object was to bolster Henry’s bargaining power with Louis by impressing the French king and people with the overflowing opulence he had at his command. Schama, however, interprets the whole incident in nationalistic terms, as “an immense, calculated display of Englishness.”


The Becket affair dominates Schama’s account of Henry, as Henry dominates his account of the twelfth century, and he devotes almost half the space allocated to Henry’s reign to the quarrel between king and archbishop and its culmination in the most famous murder of the Middle Ages. What was at issue between king and archbishop was the freedom of the Church, and the limits of royal authority over it. The issue transcended English politics and individual personalities. It had preoccupied churchmen since the rise of the reformed papacy in the late tenth century, and had brought previous archbishops, like Anselm of Canterbury, eyeball to eyeball with their monarchs. Schama acknowledges this wider dimension, but in practice his blow-by-blow account of Becket’s career, and his focus on the personal interplay between king and archbishop, obscures the larger significance of the murder in the cathedral. According to Becket’s one-time secretary, John of Salisbury, Henry was determined that in his own realm he himself would be “King, Apostolic Legate, Patriarch, Emperor, everything.”

In all probability Henry had no very coherent theory of kingship, but the “customs of the realm” he sought to impose on Becket’s Church would effectively have sealed England off from the rest of Christendom, by giving Henry absolute control over all appeals to Rome and even the right of bishops to leave the country. Kings had exercised such powers in Carolingian Europe, but the rise of the reformed papacy had asserted a larger vision of the Church as an international community of law and morality. In this newer vision the pope was the guardian of standards which transcended the will of local rulers, of universal rights against local custom. In twelfth-century terms, Becket, “infuriating, theatrical, arrogant,” as Schama rightly describes him, was the voice of modernity, of a larger Christendom against mere kingdoms. His death may, as Schama claims, have helped secure the triumph of that vision in England, but in fact it was winning out all over Europe, and it was to hold until the Reformation of the sixteenth century shattered it forever.

All the limitations of Schama’s method are on display in his account of the hasty burial of the murdered archbishop:

By chance, in the crypt, a tomb had been prepared for another person’s burial and was waiting. Down into its receiving coldness went Becket, arrayed in the full rig: the dalmatic and the pallium, the cope and the chasuble, the orb and the ring. He had always thought that kit mattered, had Thomas Becket.

This is what Kenneth Clark liked to call “woozy” prose: apart from the unintended bathos of Schama’s overingratiating descent into slang for the benefit of his television audience, what is going on here? Whether or not Becket had cared for “kit,” the way his monks dressed his body for his unseasonable burial can hardly offer us much in the way of insight into his life or death—all archbishops were dressed in pontificals for their burial. But as a matter of fact the details here are wrong. Becket was not buried holding an orb, which belongs to royal, not episcopal, insignia. Though archbishops do indeed sometimes wear copes and sometimes chasubles, they are in fact alternatives, both of them stylized versions of an ancient Roman overcoat. No self-respecting prelate would be seen dead wearing both simultaneously, and there was no cope on Becket’s corpse. Schama’s self-conscious word-painting here is based on imperfectly understood detail. The slip of course is trivial in itself, but there are many such minor errors scattered through the book, flagging the author’s lack of familiarity with much of his material.* More to the point, the triumph of manner over matter which it represents, an element of verbal randomness, erodes the reader’s confidence in larger issues of historical judgment.


In his preface Schama muses over the mysteriously large audiences for the BBC’s recent series of radio readings from This Sceptred Isle, an abbreviated version of Churchill’s History of the English-Speaking Peoples, and he dismisses it, accurately enough, as “part of the thriving yesteryear industry…, a heritage entertainment for senior citizens, like country-house tours and costume drama.” In the end, however, his own book and the programs around which it is based do not entirely escape the same indictment. Schama is a skillful writer, and some of his chapters have a persuasive coherence of their own. “King Death,” his account of the century from the outbreak of the Black Death to the end of the Wars of the Roses, is a good example, in which the devastating loss by plague of a third of the population of Britain, the disastrous monarchy of Richard II, the social upheaval of the Peasants’ Revolt, and the rise of the Norfolk yeoman family of the Pastons to gentry status are elegantly woven into a satisfying narrative.

The plague, Schama argues, shook the foundations of English society by giving the few remaining peasants more land and bargaining power for their precious labor for the first time. The greater social assertiveness of the peasantry fueled the Peasants’ Revolt (and explains the growing popularity of the Robin Hood legend). It also doomed the exalted vision of sacred monarchy aspired to by Richard II, for, in Schama’s phrase, kings must now be managers as well as messiahs, delivering prosperity and security as well as charisma. Death struck again in the premature demise of Henry V, and England plunged into two generations of political instability and civil war. The beneficiaries of all this were families like the Pastons, originally peasant small-holders who seized the opportunities presented by rural depopulation to accumulate land and consolidate their social position—“Out of the fires of pestilence and bloodshed had come, then, that most unlikely example of survival: the English country gent.”

Every element in this pattern, and all the connections between them, could be contested (not least the line Schama draws from demographic disaster in the mid-fourteenth to chronic instability in the fifteenth), but there is no denying the elegance of the argument, especially as presented on TV. The elegance is literary rather than historical, however, and Schama is constantly constrained by what can be contained in an hour of television. In this particular case, the Wars of the Roses, and most of the fifteenth century, are compressed into two cursory pages of text. And by the same token, can we really be content with an account of the conversion of early England to Christianity which barely mentions Pope Gregory the Great and Augustine of Canterbury, or with a version of Anglo-Saxon England which tells us the usual facts about Alfred the Great, but says nothing whatever about Charlemagne’s “dearest brother” Offa, king of Mercia, and the stupendous 150-mile-long earthwork which he constructed from sea to sea, facing and containing Celtic Wales, or with an account of the English Reformation which gives three times as much space to the admittedly colorful reign of Henry VIII as to the shorter but revolutionary and counterrevolutionary reigns of Edward and Mary combined? All such omissions and compressions are understandable in a television script. They pose more problems in a book which purports to offer a history of Britain.

There is a paradox too in the gap between Schama’s pluralist intentions and the actual form of his writing. Good history gives its reader a sense of the limitations as well as the scope of the evidence on which it is based. In dealing with the remote past, and above all with so complex and contested a field as the histories of the peoples of Britain, we need to feel the fragilities of evidence, the nature of the documents, a sense of debate, of conflicts of reading and interpretation, and of historical conviction as an outcome, a labor. Schama dispenses with all this. He strides through the programs, appearing out of doorways in castles and corridors in convents, unsmiling, omniscient, opinionated, eloquent. There are no other voices, no sense that anything he tells us is in doubt.

The same is true of the book. Schama has read the appropriate specialists, he occasionally reports a change in historical perception, but in contrast to his own practice in books like Landscape and Memory, he rarely allows the reader to share in the work of interpretation: practically everything here is predigested, cut and dried. This, we can be confident, is how it was. Readers who believe him will be led colorfully through the familiar landscape of English (not British) history: they will be often entertained, occasionally misinformed. But they will also miss something close to the heart of the practice of history: an awareness of the struggle involved in making sense out of sometimes intractable complexity, of piecing together coherence from the detritus of the past.

This Issue

December 21, 2000