Simon Schama is among the Western world’s most widely known historians. Born in Great Britain, Schama has taught history at Harvard, Cambridge, Oxford, and Columbia universities. Something of a universal scholar, he began his academic career by exploring the history of the Dutch Republic, and his The Embarrassment of Riches (1987), a discussion of that nation’s golden age, was highly praised. Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution (1989) is an exciting account of the early years of that conflict, and Dead Certainties (Unwarranted Speculations) (1991) is a historical mystery set in early America. Schama’s interest in art was noticeable in his earlier Dutch studies, as well as in the more recent Rembrandt’s Eyes (1999). He served as art critic for The New Yorker magazine for several years, and his discussion of the power of the perception of nature in Landscape and Memory (1995) is most challenging. He has also been a writer/presenter for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), and A History of Britain was written as the companion piece for a historical documentary that appeared on the BBC and in the United States on the History Channel.
In the preface to A History of Britain, Schama claims that his study is a departure from many previous histories of Britain in that it stresses flux and change rather than continuity and progress leading somehow to a preordained greatness. The reader, however, will find much that is familiar. The book is somewhat misleadingly titled, for in reality the work is largely the history of England, with only brief side excursions into the Scottish and the Welsh past. There are few references to Ireland, even though some of the roots of recent Irish conflicts are found within the chronological parameters of Schama’s study. In addition, although there are some discussions of rural peasants and urban artisans, the focus of the story is overwhelmingly upon the ruling elites, especially the monarchs, rather than the powerless—politically, economically, and socially—who made up the vast majority of the population during the many centuries covered in the work. Also, although the subtitle indicates that the chronology will encompass Britain’s past from 3500 b.c.e. to 1603 c.e., over four-fifths of the book relates the events from the eleventh century’s Norman Conquest to the death of Elizabeth in 1603, and almost a third of the volume’s pages are devoted to the events of a single century, the sixteenth. Finally, Schama teases readers with his rhetorical question—is Britain “at the Edge of the World?”—as if the British Isles and their history were generally perceived to be almost off the map of civilized awareness, when in reality the islands have played a central role in the drama of Western civilization since the days of late antiquity, if not before. A History of Britain delivers something less than and something different from what is promised by its title.
Still, with these caveats and limitations, Schama relates an often gripping, if sometimes well-known, story. However, the opening chapter does not begin with the perhaps predictable Stonehenge and its builders, but instead relates the story of Neolithic Britain through the archaeological remains of the small village of Skara Brae on the isle of Orkney, off Scotland’s northern coast, established in the mid-fourth millennium b.c.e., approximately one thousand years before the building of the Egyptian pyramids. From the Orkneys, Schama races ahead to Roman Britain, which he rightly argues was well known to the Mediterranean world long before Julius Caesar’s invasion in 55 b.c.e., and the often violent reactions of the Celtic tribes under leaders such as the Iceni queen Boudicca, now famously represented by her statue in London across from the tower of Big Ben. After telling of the construction of Hadrian’s famous wall, erected to separate Roman Britain from the northern Picts, Schama discusses the fall of Roman Britain, which he notes “died very slowly, with neither a bang nor a whimper, but with rather a long-drawn-out sigh.” Anglo-Saxon Britain did not appear overnight, but the tide of the Germanic invasions ultimately submerged Romano-Celtic society, at least in the Angleland of southern Britain, which eventually became known as England. Schama writes briefly of the accomplishments of Saint Patrick (who was not originally from Ireland) and the Venerable Bede, author of the Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum (c. 731; Ecclesiastical History of the English People, 1565), both of whom represent the Christian conversion of Britain. Schama has high praise for Alfred the Great as the very model of the kingly ideal and the creator of the English monarchy, both for halting the Viking advance and for his commitment to learning.
The events of Duke William of Normandy’s conquest of England in 1066 rate an entire chapter. Here Schama argues, against some recent interpreters, that the conquest was a significant break from the past, even though...
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