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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2079

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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 most of the general population would be only exchanging one lord who spoke Anglo-Saxon for another who spoke French. Not only was a new ruling class brought to power, but there was also, he claims, a new consciousness among the people that their country was no longer their own and they had become members of an inferior race—an interpretation regarding issues of nationalism and racial consciousness that is obviously difficult to validate historically. Schama makes the valuable point that it was the Church, in sanctioning William’s invasion, that transformed a personal and dynastic feud into a religious crusade that in its success brought the end to Anglo-Saxon England.

In a chapter titled “Sovereignty Unbound?” Schama uses the famous conflict between Henry II and Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury, to illuminate the divisive church-and-state issues that bedeviled the Middle Ages. Was the medieval Church a separate entity, or was it to be subject to the laws and customs of the kingdom? The rest of Henry’s royal family, something of a devil’s brood, come under discussion, including his able and ambitious queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and their sons and later kings, Richard the Lion-Hearted and John. Richard, much beloved, was the ideal medieval monarch, a chivalrous and crusading knight, though his endeavors left England near bankruptcy at the time of his death in 1199. John, the youngest son, lost the dynasty’s continental possessions, and his political ineptitude led to limitations being placed upon his royal authority when he grudgingly accepted the Great Charter (Magna Carta), a document that, as Schama rightly notes, had more to do with protecting the ruling classes from royal despotism than with later ideas of individual freedoms and rights.

“Aliens and Natives” discusses the emergence of Parliament through the struggles between John’s son, Henry III, and Simon de Montfort. Schama notes the continuing debate as to de Montfort’s motives—was he an idealistic reformer or a political adventurer?—and decides he was both. Whatever de Montfort’s aims, some of his reforms of the 1250’s took root even though he eventually lost the last battle and his life, rather gruesomely: His “hands, feet and testicles were cut off, the genitals hung around his nose.” Edward I, who became king in 1272 on the death of his father, Henry III, was known as the “Hammer of the Scots.” He also hammered the Welsh (his castles in north Wales are among the greatest examples of medieval castle architecture), and his heir became the first English Prince of Wales. He also hammered the Jews right out of the kingdom, expelling them in 1290, a measure that made Edward popular in the anti-Semitic Middle Ages. Schama argues that Edward’s Scottish invasions were attempts to become the feudal lord of Scotland rather than its king, and it was in that complex context that William Wallace (Hollywood’s “Braveheart”) and Robert the Bruce played their crucial roles, the latter profiting from the lesser abilities of Edward I’s son, Edward II, who lost the battle of Bannockburn in 1314. Robert the Bruce eventually came to grief in the bogs of Ireland, not, at least on that occasion, at the hands of an English king.

One chapter is centered not upon the monarchs but on another king, “King Death.” In the mid-fourteenth century the bubonic plague and its associated diseases struck Western civilization. Although no English kings died, the Black Death, as it was known, had a traumatic impact on medieval society, and Schama’s description and discussion of the causes and consequences of the plague are among the most riveting pages of A History of Britain. Not only did millions die, but by weakening the power of the ruling elite and giving new opportunities to the relatively powerless majority the Black Death had revolutionary implications for the future. The chapter narrates the story of the young Richard II and the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, including Richard’s later and tragic career which led to his abdication in 1399 and his death the following year. William Shakespeare’s historical plays accompany Schama through the fifteenth century and its monarchs, including Richard III, among the most controversial of England’s kings. Richard’s death at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485 saved England “not from a monster of corruption and depravity [as portrayed by Shakespeare] but from a puritan martinet.”

The last two chapters of A History of Britain relate the history of the Tudor monarchs, England’s most famous dynasty. “Burning Convictions” tells of the religious changes of the sixteenth century, culminating in the Protestant Reformation and the replacement of the Catholic Church in England with the gradually more Protestant Church of England. Schama gives an insightful and sympathetic account of the state of religion before the Reformation as well as the aims and hopes of the reformers, but the divorce from Rome is primarily the story of the divorce of Catherine of Aragon by Henry VIII, compulsive in his desire to gain a legitimate male heir and in his passion for Anne Boleyn as a new bedmate and queen. The old tale is well told by Schama, and Henry VIII comes across as an autocratic monster, but not without human qualities. His successor, Edward VI, only nine when he succeeded his father in 1547, was a precocious child, and Schama argues that he was not merely a figurehead for others but had personal responsibility for furthering Protestantism during his reign, which ended in 1553. Mary, Catherine of Aragon’s daughter, followed her younger brother to the throne. She attempted a Catholic restoration, but failed, dying in 1558. Inasmuch as history is generally written by the winners, Mary has been forever known as “Bloody Mary” for the martyrs she made, horrifically catalogued in John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments (1563), read by generations of English Protestants.

Schama concludes his history of Britain, or England, in a chapter on Elizabeth I:

She was vain, arrogant, spiteful, bloody-minded, frequently unjust and even more frequently maddeningly indecisive. . . . But she was also brave, intelligent, startlingly articulate, an eyeful to behold and, on occasions, genuinely wise.

Elizabeth was a ruling queen in an age when women rulers were generally considered to be a violation of God’s established order. She survived the ambitions and machinations of numerous men, including Robert Dudley and Philip II of Spain with his Armada, as well as the plots of two queens, her sister Mary Tudor and her cousin Mary Stuart of Scotland. Her death in 1603 brought to the throne James of Scotland, Mary Stuart’s son, and, Schama grandiosely notes, the idea of Britain as something greater than just England had been born from the womb of the Virgin Queen. Again, it is a familiar story but it is told with verve.

The strength of A History of Britain is the author’s accessible style, a style that is obviously important to the success of any television documentary. He has an ability to choose the apt phrase and the insightful example, a quality that has always been at the core of all of his historical works. Conversely, the weakness of the volume is that it is very much in the genre of books written to supplement or exploit a visually oriented medium. In many ways it is a relatively conservative and traditional telling of England’s past, but because of Schama’s particular strengths, A History of Britain, with its many excellent illustrations, makes for rewarding reading.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist 97 (September 15, 2000): 187.

The New York Times Book Review 106 (February 4, 2001): 24.

Publishers Weekly 247 (September 25, 2000): 96.

The Sunday Times Books, October 15, 2000, p. 3.

The Washington Post, November 10, 2000, A33.