A Short History of England

With two sure-fire bestsellers, Simon Jenkins and Peter Ackroyd show different ways of re-creating n

A Short History of England
Simon Jenkins
Profile Books, 384pp, £25

Foundation: the History of England (vol 1)
Peter Ackroyd
Macmillan, 352pp, £25

The BBC outside broadcasts of the Last Night of the Proms on 10 September lingered on jolly, flag-waving crowds in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. When it came to Blake's "Jerusalem", however, the camera resolutely stayed put in the Albert Hall and Hyde Park, as if anxious that not all in the Union shared what Kipling called "the England of our dreams".

The English are having a hard time of it these days. When the English Defence League features as a voice of reason on the Today programme you know there's trouble afoot. The BBC, we are told, even instructed its journalists to describe this summer's riots as English, not Welsh or Scottish. New bouts of English introspection appear in the press every week as the break-up of Britain seems to draw ever nearer - Simon Jenkins in his book assumes it will take place in the next generation. So the unions of 1536, 1603 and 1707 may turn out to be only temporary after all, as deeper allegiances re-emerge. We could have guessed it all along: our destinies are intertwined on this island, but our identities remain obstinately distinct.

So what is, or was, England? These books by two heavyweights of popular history set out to tell the tale. By any scale, England's achievements in history are remarkable, so it is good to take stock and produce a fresh view of the story of Britain's core state. Yet neither book, it must be said, sets out to do that. Though full of good writing and lively anecdote, both are conventional narratives marked by kings and queens and great events. Neither, for example, taps in to the vast store of material recently opened up on the social lives of medieval English people. Of the two, Peter Ackroyd is more concerned to weave in the smell and taste of ordinary life, though he would do well to remember that our proletarian ancestors thought, as well as toiled.

The first problem for any author is where to begin, what weight to give to various periods. Simon Jenkins gives the Anglo-Saxons only as much space as Margaret Thatcher and her children. To be sure, the Anglo-Saxons, with their "wars of kites and crows" (as Milton put it), can seem less appealing than the great characters: Becket, Cromwell, Churchill. Yet they are the roots of England; everything flows from them, and Alfred and Æthelstan are of far greater historical significance than Thatcher or Blair - or Churchill, for that matter. Bede's crucial idea of the English nation, the gens Anglorum (whatever its ethnic make-up), was made political reality as long ago as the 10th century, with towns, coinage, vernacular literature and strong royal law. The roots of parliament, too (as John Maddicott argued last year in his book The Origins of the English Parliament, which deserves a much wider public), can be traced to the national consultative gatherings of the different social ranks under Æthelstan.

These are fine ideas, from a defining period in English history, though it is harder to conjure its personalities, especially if one must race through in one volume as Jenkins does. Shadowy they may seem, but they were thinkers. They may have had an itinerant kingship that slept in draughty wooden halls - their kings must often have sat in council smelling of the hunt, or whatever the dogs brought in - but early England was an extraordinarily creative time. In the 10th century, rulers could even recall and restrike the coinage every few years, adjusting silver content for inflation. And it is their polity that continues today as the core state of the UK.

At its root was the idea of loyalty to the king and his law, cemented by oaths and mutual help in the tithings and the hundred courts. Out of this grew the notion of belonging to England. Thus, Englishness is not really about George Orwell's warm beer and cricket, perceptive as is his description in "The Lion and the Unicorn". The core is about allegiance. As long ago as 1055, armies refused to fight in a civil war because there were "too many good Englishmen on either side". England grew out of these deep-rooted ideas and customs.

Simon Jenkins's Short History of England, published in association with the National Trust, is a handsome book whose narrative gains strength as it goes through the Middle Ages and finds itself in the modern period. His account of the 20th century is full of the good judgements one might hope for from such a sensible and readable commentator, and they alone are worth perusing for pleasure and food for thought. Jenkins is especially good at analysing what he sees as the central idea - the balance between royal power and popular consent.

Never one to do things by halves, Peter Ackroyd presents his Foundation as the first of a projected six-part History of England. He is a formidable synthesiser: his technique is to venture down wide avenues of research, build up a pile of rich anecdote, and lay his narrative over the top in vigorous and sometimes purple prose. In 40 short chapters, this first volume covers everything from diet and clothes to the Great Famine and the Black Death, going all the way up to Henry VII; but it begins confusingly with Stonehenge, using the term England to describe lowland Britain that far back in time, as if the landscape were already imbued with the mystic soul of "Jerusalem". As England was the product of historical forces between the 8th and 10th centuries, clarity of terminology in these matters would have helped. Nor will many readers share Ackroyd's idea that England was more the product of convenience, of "continual movement and constant variation", than of conscious state-building. If he could see us today, Æthelstan, I dare say, would disagree.

A further big question is whether the history of England is about the rulers or the people. Though no one has done it recently, grand-sweep English social history has been attempted before; older readers of the New Statesman will recall A L Morton's still readable People's History of England (1938). To write such history, one must go to the original sources, though one no longer has to master medieval Latin. Among new online publications is the fabulous Henry III Fine Rolls Project, scrutinising documents from the 13th century, where hugely detailed social history shows that the English peasantry, often literate, were well aware of their circumstances and in constant confrontation and negotiation with their lords. Class warfare, as the Marxist historian Rodney Hilton used to say, was a condition of medieval life, and an intimate glance at what men and women were doing and saying in medieval England is an eye-opener. After all, it was the "foolish peasants" of Peatling Magna in 1265 who told the king's men to their faces that they were "against the welfare of the community of the realm".

Both of these books do what they do well, and will sell by the truckload as Christmas approaches. But England, its roots and its character, deserves a proper extended treatment. How and why, with only two and a half million people in 1550, did it have such an influence on the history of the world? And when Wales and Scotland go their separate ways, what will England be? As Kipling wrote:

If England was what England seems
An' not the England of our dreams,
But only putty, brass an' paint,
’Ow quick we'd drop 'er! But she ain't!

Michael Wood is the author of "The Story of England" (Viking, £20)

This article first appeared in the 26 September 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The fifty people who matter