Was There Always an England?

Alfred Morgan: An Omnibus Ride to Piccadilly Circus, Mr. Gladstone Travelling with Ordinary Passengers, 1885
Private Collection/Christie’s Images/Bridgeman Images
Alfred Morgan: An Omnibus Ride to Piccadilly Circus, Mr. Gladstone Travelling with Ordinary Passengers, 1885

At a time when the breakup of the United Kingdom seems ever more likely, any attempt at a history of England, separate from that of Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, is bound to seem a political statement. To dwell on English achievements and English distinctiveness is to supply fodder for the growing number of those who defiantly fly the cross of St. George—an emblem of English soldiers since the thirteenth century—in their back gardens and see no reason why Scottish and Northern Irish members of Parliament should vote on measures affecting England alone. To emphasize that the English way of doing things has often differed radically from that of its Continental neighbors risks adding ammunition to the currently vociferous campaign to bring Britain out of the European Union.

The publisher’s blurb for this new thousand-page survey of English history from circa 600 AD to the present day declares that “as ties within the United Kingdom loosen, the English are suddenly embarking on a new chapter.” But its author, Robert Tombs, disclaims any overt political intention. The idea of writing the book, he tells us, arose from a conversation with a distinguished scientific colleague of his at Cambridge, who revealed that he knew nothing about the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688, when the Catholic King James II was replaced by the Dutch ruler William of Orange, thereby securing the end of monarchical absolutism in England and the ascendancy of the Protestant religion.1 Tombs does, however, believe that when in 2014 the Scots were promised greater autonomy if they voted to stay within the UK, the probable consequence was more self-government for England, and with it greater English self-consciousness. His book will undoubtedly provide a charter for those who believe that there is such a thing as an English nation and that being English is not the same as being British.

Tombs is a respected authority on the history of France. His decision to attempt a large-scale history of England must have involved him in an impressively strenuous course of self-education. His generous list of acknowledgments reveals that he has picked the brains of nearly eighty other scholars and his endnotes testify to a vast amount of reading in the writings of other historians, even if he often fails to spell their names correctly. Inevitably, the book reflects its local origins. He draws heavily on the work of Cambridge historians; he makes conspicuous use of articles in the Cambridge-based Historical Journal, on whose editorial board he serves; and if a historical figure happens to have been an alumnus of his Cambridge college he likes to remind us of the fact.

These touches of local piety do not detract…

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