Review: Foundation – The History of England (Volume 1)

Posted 4 April, 2014 by Lianne in Books / 0 Comments

Foundation: A History of England (Volume 1)
By: Peter Ackroyd
Format/Source: Hardback; my copy

In Foundation, the chronicler of London and of its river, the Thames, takes us from the primeval forests of England’s prehistory to the death, in 1509, of the first Tudor king, Henry VII. He guides us from the building of Stonehenge to the founding of the two great glories of medieval England: common law and the cathedrals. He shows us glimpses of the country’s most distant past—and Neolithic stirrup found in a grave, a Roman fort, a Saxon tomb, a medieval manor house—and describes in rich prose the successive waves of invaders who made England English, despite being themselves Roman, Viking, Saxon, or Norman French.

With his extraordinary skill for evoking time and place and his acute eye for the telling detail, Ackroyd recounts the story of warring kings, of civil strife, and foreign wars. But he also gives us a vivid sense of how England’s early people lived: the homes they built, the clothes the wore, the food they ate, even the jokes they told. All are brought vividly to life through the narrative mastery of one of Britain’s finest writers.

I actually read volume 2 of Peter Ackroyd’s history of England series first, Tudors (review), last year thanks to the publishers via NetGalley. I enjoyed Ackroyd’s approach to English history, it was both compact but also unique, focusing on interesting aspects as opposed to simply laying out a linear history of England. I came across volume one while browsing the bargain section of the bookstore and snatched it up immediately 🙂

The first volume of Ackroyd’s series focuses from the prehistoric beginnings of the isle up to the arrival of the Tudors to the throne at the end of the War of the Roses. Like Tudors, it’s pretty compact so that while it can be a whirlwind of names, families, and dates, Ackroyd skillfully focuses on the main events under the reign of that particular king so it’s not overwhelming. Like the second book (it’s weird to be comparing the first volume to the second volume, but anyway), the focus isn’t solely on the names and the dates and the battles but how these individuals helped created the monarchy and how their rule and the circumstances of the period impacted the way that England’s institutions developed, their rule of law, their customs and their institutions, the role of the Church during these periods.

What’s also really cool is the structure of the book. After a chapter on, let’s say, Edward II’s reign would be a chapter on something related to the period but focused more on social history or culture or economics. It serves as a sort of break from the heavier political elements of English history and provides a glimpse of what life was like for the average person during the period. Subjects such as the religious movements, bandits, farming techniques and toys are covered.

Foundation is a fantastic introduction to English history. It’s filled with anecdotes and provides a lot of interesting information both about the history of the budding nation and the way they lived their lives and conducted their business during these periods. Like Tudors though, I really wished there was an introduction at the beginning of the book to inform the readers how and why the book was approached the way it was. Nonetheless I really enjoyed reading this title and highly recommend it to readers of history and readers interested in learning more about English history.

Rating: ★★★★☆

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