A History of the English-Speaking Peoples

by Winston Churchill
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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1411

The coverage of Winston Churchill’s A History of the English-Speaking Peoples begins with the year 55 b.c.e., when the Roman emperor, Julius Caesar, marched his troops westward from Germany to present-day Calais and then set sail across the English Channel to the island then known as Britannia. Britons were subjugated by the Romans for the next century, and after the defeat of Boadicea, most were reconciled to Roman rule. Rome ruled Britannia until the end of the fourth century, with the invasions of the Picts, the Scots, and Saxons. In 410, Emperor Flavius Honorius had urged the Britons to defend themselves against new invaders as the Romans withdrew.

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Although Britons had already been Christianized by the second and third centuries, the faith was brought to Ireland and Scotland by Saint Patrick in the fifth century. Saint Augustine reestablished Christianity at Canterbury at the end of the sixth century. Parts of England were ruled during this period by a series of tribal leaders, including Rædwald, king of the East Angles; Edwin of Northumbria; and the Mercian kings, Æthelbald and Offa. During the eighth and ninth centuries, England was beset by Scandinavian invasions. Beginning in 865, the Danes succeeded in establishing military settlements in east and central England, occupying London for a short time.

In 871, Alfred the Great’s troops defeated the Danes in the Battle of Ashdown. This battle was followed by others in which Alfred was victorious. Instead of slaughtering his foe, however, Alfred converted them to Christianity and divided the land with them. He established a rule of law and began compiling the Saxon Chronicles. After Alfred’s death in 899, England was ruled by Saxons kings for approximately eighty years, but beginning in 980, the Danes renewed their raids. In 1016, the Danish prince, Canute, claimed the throne of England for two decades before the Saxon kings returned to rule.

In 1066, the last Saxon king, Edward the Confessor, died. The throne of England was contested by the Danes, led by Harold II, and the French, led by William the Conqueror. William defeated Harold in the Battle of Hastings and established a Norman Dynasty. The Norman kings were succeeded by the Plantagenet line, beginning with Henry II and his queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine. Henry was succeeded by his son, Richard the Lionhearted, and Richard designated his brother, John, as his heir. John’s harsh rule led to baronial revolt and the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215, binding the king to the rule of law. John’s heir, Henry III, ruled for fifty-six years and was succeeded by his son, Edward I. Edward defeated the Scottish rebel, William Wallace, and greatly influenced English common law, but, his son, Edward II, was defeated by the Scottish leader, Robert Bruce. Edward III, however, not only routed the Scots but refused to pay homage to France, thus starting the Hundred Years’ War and extending England’s conquests.

In 1377, Edward III died and was succeeded by his grandson, Richard II. During Richard II’s reign, English peasants rose in revolt and Parliament withdrew most civil liberties cherished by the people. Richard surrendered his throne to his cousin Henry of Bolingbroke, who became King Henry IV when Richard’s death was announced in 1400. Henry IV died after ten years of rule and was succeeded by his son Henry V in 1413.

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Henry V extended his empire into France, winning a major battle at Agincourt, making him Europe’s supreme ruler. The English were driven out of France in 1453. Henry V’s heir, a somewhat feeble-minded Henry VI, representing the House of Lancaster, was consumed by the War of the Roses. Although he fought long and hard, he was eventually murdered and supplanted by Edward IV of the House of York. Edward was succeeded by his brother Richard III in 1483, the ruthless sovereign who most likely murdered his two nephews in the Tower of London. After the death of Richard’s son, Henry Tudor became claimant to the throne, defeating Richard at Bosworth Field and taking the crown as Henry VII.

Henry Tudor ruled from 1485-1509, and his son, Henry VIII, inherited the throne at the high tide of the Renaissance and the Reformation. Henry VIII married his brother’s widow, Catherine of Aragon, then divorced her and broke with the Roman Catholic Church. He had six wives, two of whom were executed for treason in the Tower of London. Upon Henry VIII’s death in 1547, his sickly fifteen-year old son, Edward VI, became king. Edward lived only six years, and upon his death, his sister Mary, daughter of Catherine of Aragon, became queen. Mary sought unsuccessfully to reestablish Catholic rule, as her death in 1558 brought her sister, Elizabeth I, a Protestant, to the throne. Elizabeth’s long reign until 1603 saw the flowering of English culture, and the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1558 established England as a world power. James I succeeded Elizabeth during a period of English colonization and expansion. His successor, Charles I, established a reign of personal rule that ended with his beheading.

After the death of Charles I, England experimented with a republic under the rule of Oliver Cromwell. Cromwell became little more than a dictator, and England restored the monarchy under Charles II in 1660. A great fire destroyed much of London in 1666. In 1685, Charles II died and was succeeded by the Catholic king James II. James II persecuted Protestants, and as the nation neared civil war, William of Orange invaded the island, forcing James II to take refuge abroad. William was succeeded by his wife, Queen Anne, who ruled from 1701 to 1714. After the death of William and Anne’s only son, the English parliament in 1700 designated a successor from the German House of Hanover.

King George I arrived in Greenwich in 1714. He could not speak English, and he did not care for English culture. Beginning in 1714, the sovereign no longer presided over his cabinet, and influential power passed to Sir Robert Walpole, the first prime minister. Under George I and his son, George II, England fought a series of wars on the Continent and in North America. When George II died in 1760, his son George III came to the throne. Under George III, the English colonies in America revolted, soon creating the United States. Meanwhile, under Robert Clive, the British Empire began its expansion in India. In the closing years of the eighteenth century, the British Empire confronted the ambition and military might of Napoleon Bonaparte (later Emperor Napoleon I), defeating him and sending him into exile twice.

George III lived until 1820, but as his mental abilities became severely impaired, his son was declared regent in the last decade of his life. His son succeeded him as George IV in 1821. Robert Peel, as prime minister, reformed the penal code and established the London police force. George IV died in 1830 and was succeeded by his brother William IV. Suffrage was extended in the 1830’s by the Reform Act, although most of the inhabitants of England remained disenfranchised. In 1837, William IV died, and his eighteen-year-old daughter, Victoria, succeeded him. Queen Victoria married her cousin, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, in 1939, and together they established cultural standards and mores that named a century, the Victorian era.

The fourth volume of Churchill’s epic work includes examinations of progressive prime ministers William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli, the American Civil War, Irish Home Rule, and finally, the end of the Victorian era. Victoria, one of the longest-lived and most successful English sovereigns, ruled for sixty-four years until her death in 1901.

In the early 1930’s, Walter Newman Flower, owner of the publishing company Cassell, agreed to pay Churchill a large sum to write what would become A History of the English-Speaking Peoples. Churchill relied on well-known researchers and scholars for help with the manuscript. During World War II, Churchill put his writing aside to lead England through its greatest crisis. He returned to A History of the English-Speaking Peoples after the war, completing it in 1955; it was published in four volumes between 1956 and 1958.

Although not his best work, Churchill’s A History of the English-Speaking Peoples sold more than one hundred thousand copies and was published in numerous editions. It is mainly a political and military history with little social, economic, or demographic information to balance it. Moreover, it is self-congratulatory, steeped in racial myth and patriotic faith, and contains stories of unverified historicity. However, it remained a popular history through the remaining decades of the twentieth century.

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