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 from the merits of The English and Their History. It is an intellectually bracing and consistently challenging account. Tombs writes with self-confident clarity and panache, encapsulating complex issues in tersely pregnant sentences and enlivening his story with crisp, aphoristic, and often provocative judgments. Politics and public affairs provide the frame of his narrative, but he also pays attention to economic, social, and cultural issues and makes particularly effective use of English literature.

He is excellent on Victorian England, on World War I, and on the eighteenth-century political system, which he mischievously compares to that of the modern United States. When discussing controversial topics like the Industrial Revolution or the effects of recent immigration, he can be relied upon for a balanced summary of expert opinion, peppered with shrewd insights of his own. The book is long, but its pace is admirably maintained throughout.

Readers may, however, be disappointed by its chronological imbalance. Tombs’s narrative covers more than fourteen hundred years of English history, but the first thousand years occupy only two hundred of its nine hundred pages of text, fewer than those devoted to the seventy-odd years since 1939, which are treated in disproportionately leisurely fashion. Tombs does not explain why he has chosen to slant his narrative so heavily toward the very modern period. In part, no doubt, the choice reflects his relative lack of expertise on the Middle Ages. But it also indicates a preoccupation with those aspects of history most relevant to understanding the contemporary scene.

Tombs is more concerned to identify the legacy of the past to the present than to evoke the past in its own terms. He also points out that what actually happened in the past mattered less to posterity than the way in which it was subsequently remembered and mythologized. Central events in English history, like the Norman Conquest or the Civil War, became the subject of conflicting narratives, each invoked in support of sharply opposed views on religion and politics. Tombs persuasively argues that the mythology of the past, whether created by historians or embodied in popular folklore, is an essential part of the story.


His central theme is the creation of an English sense of identity and its mutations over the centuries. Its early appearance is remarkable, given the confused ethnic and political geography of Anglo-Saxon England. The Angles, Saxons, Jutes, and other Germanic peoples who settled in Britain between the late fourth and early seventh centuries formed a number of separate kingdoms. The situation was further complicated by the Viking invaders of the late eighth and ninth centuries, who colonized East Anglia and the north. Yet though the people had no single ethnic origin and no single ruler, they all came to be called English.

Tombs stresses that this notion of Englishness preceded the existence of an English nation. When Pope Gregory the Great sent Augustine of Canterbury in 596 to convert the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity he thought of them as a single people (Angli). The outcome of the conversion was a single church of the gens Anglorum, with its two provinces of Canterbury and York. The Northumbrian monk Bede, whom some regard as the greatest of all English historians, consolidated this notion of an English identity in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People (circa 731). Yet it was not until the late ninth century that Alfred, king of Wessex, driven by the need to coordinate resistance to the Viking invaders, created what Tombs regards as an English nation by absorbing all the territory outside Danish control.

Had Tombs been able to read the recently published monograph by the Oxford historian George Molyneaux, he might have revised this judgment, for it seems that it was not the victories of Alfred but the administrative reforms of his mid-to-late-tenth-century successors that created the English kingdom.2 When Cnut the Dane acquired the throne by conquest in 1016, he found himself at the head of a powerful and united political unit occupying a defined territory. It had also acquired a name: “Englalond.”

The strength of the late Anglo-Saxon state and the long survival of its central institutions have been much emphasized by modern historians. The shires, or counties, on which its highly efficient administrative structure was based lasted without major change until 1974. The parishes into which the Anglo-Saxon Church began to divide the country remained the basic territorial unit of local government until modern times. Local courts and the occasional meetings of a national representative body, the “witan,” made it easier for rulers to raise taxation and manpower; and the establishment of a uniform silver coinage assisted the growth of the economy. In the dialect of Wessex, in the south of England, which became the standard written language, the Anglo-Saxon vernacular enjoyed a literary and courtly prestige unmatched by its European counterparts. Tombs rightly identifies the effective power of the royal government as a fundamental characteristic of subsequent English history.

The Norman Conquest of 1066 was a traumatic rupture, involving the annihilation of the English ruling class and the biggest transfer of property in English history. England was now owned and ruled by Frenchmen. But as Tombs stresses, the system of government remained: “England under the Normans was still recognizably England.” Unlike his predecessors, however, William the Conqueror insisted that all landholders held their property as if it were from him and he demanded their allegiance and service in return. The barons were given scattered possessions, rather than large continuous holdings, thus avoiding the risk of fragmentation. Subsequent kings of England were now in a much stronger position than Continental rulers like the kings of West Francia and the German emperors.

In the 1160s and 1170s under Henry II the primacy of royal justice was further secured by the introduction of traveling judges (the “assize” judges of modern times) and the establishment of permanent law courts at Westminster. By contrast with the fragmented jurisdictions of medieval Europe, administering either Roman law or local custom, the English common law, with its jury system and its abhorrence of torture, was the first national system of law in Europe. Centuries later it would, in the words of the legal historian Sir John Baker, become “the law by which a third of the people of the earth were governed and protected.”

It was also in the twelfth century that the historians William of Malmesbury and Henry of Huntingdon, resuming where Bede had left off, constructed a continuous narrative in which the Norman Conquest appeared not as a total rupture, but as merely an episode in the long history of the English people. Tombs sees their work as a fundamental contribution to the idea of national history as a single narrative of a place and its successive inhabitants, reaching far into the past and continuing into the future despite invasions, dynastic changes, and cultural transformations. It powerfully reinforced the sense of a distinct English identity.


An equally decisive medieval contribution to Englishness was the English language. The Old English of the Anglo-Saxons was rejected by the Normans, who spoke French to one another and relied on Latin as the language of religion, learning, and administration. They also introduced what are nowadays thought of as typically English personal names: William, John, Richard, Robert, Margaret, Mary, and Emma. But spoken English survived in everyday speech and made a spectacular revival in the fourteenth century, when, partly in response to patriotic sentiment aroused by the Hundred Years’ War with France, it was officially adopted by Parliament and the law courts, and put to memorable use by Chaucer, Langland, and Wyclif.

Tombs is warmly appreciative of the enormous influence on the English language of William Tyndale’s early-sixteenth-century translations of all the New Testament and much of the Old. They were subsequently employed as the basis of the King James Bible of 1611, though that marvelous work proved not to be to the taste of later generations. Tombs is silent about the banality of the New English Bible of 1961–1970, which T.S. Eliot described as astonishing “in its combination of the vulgar, the trivial and the pedantic.”

‘The Armada Portrait’ of Queen Elizabeth I; attributed to George Gower, circa 1588

Woburn Abbey, Bedfordshire/Bridgeman Images

‘The Armada Portrait’ of Queen Elizabeth I; attributed to George Gower, circa 1588

A shared language, a strong state with firmly demarcated boundaries, a distinctive legal system, and a common historical tradition are, for Tombs, the crucial ingredients of English identity; and all of them were firmly in place by the end of the Middle Ages. They were not the only respects in which England developed on distinctive lines. Tombs reminds us that villeinage—a form of serfdom—disappeared four centuries earlier than in most of Europe, thus generating the proud notion of “the freeborn Englishman.” He explains how the Tudors and early Stuarts lacked a police force and a standing army. Instead, the monarch ruled with the cooperation of the aristocracy and of Parliament, which met with increasing frequency at a time when representative institutions on the Continent were succumbing to royal absolutism. In the absence of a paid bureaucracy on the French model, the strength and initiative of local communities, organized by lord-lieutenants, justices of the peace, parsons, and parish officers, provided “the bedrock of English governance until the 1940s.”

Tombs also points to the enduring consequences of the two centuries of religious and political turmoil that followed the European Reformation. Most Continental countries moved toward the identification of a state and its people with a single religion, “confessionalization,” as it is called. But after some bitter struggles, the attempt to achieve religious uniformity in England was abandoned. Instead, in 1689 Protestant Nonconformists were allowed freedom of worship, though they were excluded from both public office and the universities until the nineteenth century.

This institutionalized division between church and dissent was reflected in long-persisting and sharply opposed political identities: Cavaliers and Roundheads, Tories and Whigs, Conservatives and Labour, pro-Thatcher and anti-Thatcher. Today’s party leaders, David Cameron and Jeremy Corbyn, fit easily into this ancient polarity. Tombs stresses that these “two antagonistic political sensibilities,” though passionately held, have long ceased to lead to physical violence. He singles out this combination of restraint with “visceral and unrelenting partisanship” as the essence of “a political culture strikingly different from that of other Western democracies.”

An eminently fair-minded writer, Tombs knows that the British Empire is less likely to be regarded these days as the disseminator to large parts of the globe of peace, representative government, and the rule of law than as an unwholesome amalgam of racism, greed, cruelty, and cultural arrogance. He obviously regards this as an unacceptably one-sided indictment, but he can see why its proponents make it and his own assessment of the Empire’s merits and demerits is admirably balanced.

For the most part, however, his sympathies are transparent. He writes of medieval Catholicism that “this familiar, beautiful, mysterious and yet accessible form of worship provided comfort and hope,” but he has hard words for the Puritans, particularly those who emigrated to North America to “establish a godly ‘city on a hill’ where they could persecute to their hearts’ content.” Unlike left-wing historians, always on the lookout for signs of class hostility, he tends to suggest that in most periods the lower classes were reasonably happy with their lot.

He denies that there was any “serious public discontent” with Charles I’s eleven years of nonparliamentary rule and describes the king’s parliamentary opponents as “more bloodthirsty, far more bigoted, and vastly more paranoid in their vision of the world.” Following the now rather outdated “revisionist” historians, he maintains that the Civil War had no long-term causes but was a political accident that, far from securing liberty, nearly destroyed it. He has little time for the radical thinkers of the Interregnum era, citing a contemporary description of the Diggers, the little group led by Gerrard Winstanley, one of the seventeenth century’s most original and eloquent writers, as a harmless “company of crack-brains.” He declares that eighteenth-century press gangs “were as likely to be victims…of violence” as its perpetrators, and he thinks the unreformed electoral system “worked not too badly.”

He concedes that the creation of the welfare state between 1946 and 1948 was an achievement for which the Labour government is rightly remembered. He also recognizes the growth of inequality in modern Britain, where the poorest classes are the fattest in Europe and the proportion of single mothers without jobs is four times the EU average. But he is wary of state intervention and dislikes the concentration of power in Whitehall, which, he says, has made today’s England “one of the biggest centralized administrative units in the world.”

He criticizes the current inadequacy of most state education and has mixed feelings about the National Health Service, which he regards as overfunded and inefficient by comparison with similar systems in New Zealand, Finland, and Spain. What he most admires in English political culture is its “suspicion of Utopias and zealots; trust in common sense and experience; respect for tradition; preference for gradual change; and the view that ‘compromise’ is victory, not betrayal.”

This is a distinctly conservative view of the political scene. It also implies a distinction between “English” culture and British culture. Yet Tombs concedes that England has been an autonomous nation for only two short periods in its long history—between Alfred and Cnut, and again between 1453 and 1603 (though it included Calais until 1558 and Wales from the 1530s). From the Norman Conquest of 1066 to the mid-fifteenth century, England was merely a portion of a greater political unit that included a large part of France, at its peak a very large part. Its kings were often more preoccupied with retaining and extending their Continental dominions than they were with governing England.

Even then, they sometimes drew upon the assistance of the Scots, the Welsh, and the Irish, as Shakespeare’s Henry V reminds us. With the union of the three crowns on the accession of James VI to the English throne in 1603 the affairs of England, Scotland, and Ireland became increasingly entangled: many modern historians refer to the English Civil War as the War of Three Kingdoms. In 1707 the Act of Union merged England and Scotland into the single Kingdom of Great Britain; and in 1800 Ireland was brought in to make up the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. The secession of the Irish Free State in 1922 meant a change of name to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. As an independent political unit England had long ceased to exist.

In these circumstances referring to the UK as “England,” though a common habit, and not just in the US, is at best inaccurate, at worst offensive. An egregious, not to say astonishing example is the tombstone in a Berkshire churchyard of the Liberal politician H.H. Asquith (1852–1928), which identifies him as a former “Prime Minister of England.” Revealingly, when in a fiery parliamentary session of September 1939 Labour’s deputy leader Arthur Greenwood was urged by the Tory Leo Amery to “speak for England,” he responded by declaring that “Britain, and all that Britain stands for,” was in peril.

Tombs is aware of this terminological problem, but he never satisfactorily solves it. His attempt to separate the history of modern England from that of modern Britain inevitably leads him into periodic confusion, as when he tells us in one paragraph that the Battle of Waterloo exhibited “British phlegm” and in another that it demonstrated “the English ideal of masculine courage.” In discussing World War I he refers to “the English and British people” as if they were two distinct entities; and to illustrate the worries in the 1970s about “England’s supposedly unique economic decadence,” he cites publications with titles like Is Britain Dying?

His argument is that after 1707 England retained particular social, economic, and cultural characteristics that made it a distinct nation within a multinational state. “British,” he tells us, became a political identity, especially in the international setting, but “English” remained a cultural one. In practice, however, his attempt to define the distinguishing features of English culture is disappointingly nebulous. Given the marked differences between the various regions of England, not least in the way they speak the English language, this is hardly surprising. Yorkshire and Sussex or Birmingham and the Lake District differ more from each other than does Herefordshire from mid-Wales or Northumberland from the Scottish Lowlands. The Georgian poets’ image of rural England with its thatched cottages, village cricket, and cream teas is as far removed from the life of present-day Liverpool or Bradford as is George Orwell’s picture of “old maids biking to Holy Communion through the mists of the autumn morning.”

In recent years these regional differences have been exacerbated by the uneven distribution of the new immigrants from Asia, Africa, and the EU. The industrial towns of the Midlands and the north contain large Muslim communities, and a third of London’s present population was born overseas. Small towns and rural England, by contrast, have been largely unaffected by the recent influx.

In this new multicultural and multiethnic world the very idea of Englishness, always protean, is harder than ever to pin down. The old notion of the English as phlegmatic, reserved, undemonstrative, and possessed of a stiff upper lip no longer convinces in an age of social kissing and hugging, rock concerts, tearful celebrities, and sportsmen punching the air in triumph.

In recent years public figures from Gordon Brown (from Scotland) to Prince Charles have attempted to define “British” values. Usually they list a commitment to such ideals as freedom, democracy, tolerance, fair play, and the rule of law. It is hard to see what room this leaves for distinctively English values, though a case can be made for cricket, the proverbial source of the notion of fair play, and within the British Isles a quintessentially English game. Even so the winner of the county championship has sometimes been Welsh—Glamorgan.

Tombs has a tendency to treat British attributes and achievements as if they were peculiarly English ones. He explains that “England had very large coal deposits, which were indispensable to the Industrial Revolution,” but he makes no mention of the South Wales coalfields, which by 1913 made the Welsh port of Barry the largest coal exporter in the world. His chapter on the British Empire is entitled “Imperial England,” although he admits that the Empire was a project in which the Scots and Irish were disproportionately involved. He regards the English as the dominant political partner in the United Kingdom—“the front legs of the pantomime horse”—setting the common direction in domestic matters, as well as in foreign and imperial ones. Yet of the three twenty-first-century British prime ministers so far, two have been Scots and the surname of the third reveals his Scottish ancestry. During World War I Britain’s main political leader was a Welshman, David Lloyd George.

“Our Constitution, Sir. We Englishmen are Very Proud of our Constitution. It was bestowed on us by Providence. No Other Country is so Favoured as this Country.” Thus Mr. Podsnap in Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend. Despite some justified reservations about the state of modern Britain, there is just a whiff of Podsnappery about Tombs’s view of English history. He reminds us that its island location has preserved the country from subjugation by a foreign invader since 1066 and that, since the Civil War, it has enjoyed an exceptionally low level of internal violence. The Elizabethan Poor Law was “the best system of poor relief in Europe”; “by the late eighteenth century it was unique in the world.” After the South Sea Bubble in 1720, English finance became “more honest” and “more efficient” than that of any European country.

The coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953, moreover, brought out what two contemporary sociologists described as “a degree of moral unity equalled by no other large national state”; and in 2014 an international poll rated her “the world’s most admired woman.” By comparison with the rest of the world, “the English have become one of the least racist and least xenophobic of peoples.” “As long as its present civilization lasts, England will not have a violent revolution, or a military coup, or a religious civil war.” Tombs admits that things might be even better in a few other countries, but he insists some of the credit for that is due to the English, their economic and technological achievements, and their pioneering of the rule of law, representative government, and religious toleration. His final assessment of England and English history is nothing if not indulgent:

By the standards of humanity as a whole, England over the centuries has been among the richest, safest and best governed places on earth…. We who have lived in England since 1945 have been among the luckiest people in the existence of Homo sapiens, rich, peaceful and healthy.

It is hard to disagree with any of these Panglossian propositions, though they will not reassure those many English citizens who are painfully aware of worrying racial inequalities, a growing gap between rich and poor, an inequitable electoral system, and an increasingly unimpressive political class. It is equally difficult not to feel uneasy about the future political purposes to which Tombs’s account might be put. What those who oppose the Balkanization of the UK most need now is a history that emphasizes the similarities among the British people rather than the differences.