Monday 30th January 2017
British History: an Illustrated Guide, by Hugh Williams
This is an engaging book about British history, and a very lavishly illustrated one, too. It begins by noting that for such a small place Britain is crammed with historical sites and memories. It then moves through the country’s history in a chronological way, starting with the pre-Roman period, and with a focus on the Celts.
Williams discusses some of the theories as to the origins of the British people, which are naturally rather difficult to untangle at a distance in time of 3,000 years. There is a tendency to dismiss the traditional history of Britain before the Romans, which has been transmitted to us by the 12th-century monk Geoffrey of Monmouth, as fanciful, but such traditions have quite often turned out to be true.
The author discusses claims that Joseph of Arimathea came to Britain – and particularly Glastonbury – soon after the crucifixion of Christ, and concludes that there may well be something in this. In any event, he outlines the Roman period in Britain, and then the fall of the Roman Empire and the arrival of the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes.
The book then moves through subsequent historical periods to include the Norman conquest, Plantagenet history, and the time of the Houses of Lancaster and York. He likewise deals with the Tudor, Stuart, and Hanoverian periods before concluding with the events which have taken place more recently, during the time of the House of Windsor.
The book is full of interesting snippets such as that Alfred the Great – apart from famously burning cakes – also founded the Royal Navy. Or that in 1300AD, only 60,000 people lived in London, whereas it is something like 7 million today. Or that the Bank of England was actually founded, in 1694, as a private company by William of Orange’s backers, and was meant to finance the nation’s affairs after the Glorious Revolution.
On a lighter note, we learn that the modern bicycle, with pedals and brakes, was invented by Kirkpatrick Macmillan, from Scotland, in 1839. And the first telegraph service began in England in 1843; this was followed in the United States the following year with the invention and implementation of the Morse Code.
Apart from pure history, the book also deals with castles, towns, important battles and churches, as well as artefacts such as the Bayeux Tapestry and the Domesday book. It also pauses from time to time to review some of the historical periods, and point out the significance of, for example, the influence of the Church on society – which was naturally at its highest before the Reformation.
The fact is that British history and culture have very largely been determined by Christianity, whose beliefs and morality have profoundly influenced the formation of the country. And given Britain’s subsequent role in world history and in the formation of the United States, there is much here that ought to be of interest to American readers, too.
And as the author points out, the influence of the Church was not limited to purely religious matters; it also extended to education, through the founding of universities and of schools more generally; to improved agriculture, through the work of the monks; to health care, through hospitals; and also to the arts. About the latter Williams comments: “Religious works of art and architecture from this time were without equal, and indeed still are.”
The country was Catholic in religion during the Middle Ages, and this had a huge influence on everyday life, everything from people going on crusade to going on pilgrimage, to the way trade was conducted – via crafts and guilds – to the huge number of religious houses which had been established.
British History: an Illustrated Guide also deals with events such as the signing of Magna Carta at Runnymede in 1215 – which marks the beginning of the English judicial system – with its main principles of “no taxation without representation,” and “Habeas Corpus,” – that no one should be imprisoned without a fair trial. The first English Parliament was convened soon after.
The book also charts the great changes that took place in both Britain and the world following the Reformation and the discovery of the New World at the end of the 15th century. It likewise looks at how Britain gradually developed its empire and became a world power. In particular, it deals with military matters such as the rise of Napoleon and the First and Second World Wars.
The book also has some references to American history in passing, including the discovery of the Americas by Columbus, the Boston Tea Party, and the reasons for, and course of the American War of Independence.
In sum, British History: an Illustrated Guide is a fascinating but easy-to-read work which covers the main points and controversies of British history. It has a series of appendices dealing with kings, queens, and prime ministers, and a detailed index. The majority of the book is devoted to the post-Reformation period.
This is a timely book given the furore that has erupted over Brexit, and American readers may find it useful as a way of brushing up their knowledge of British history, and so perhaps coming to a better understanding of just why Brexit happened.
Donal Anthony Foley
(Donal Anthony Foley is the author of a number of books on Marian Apparitions, and maintains a related website at www.theotokos.org.uk. He has also a written two time-travel/adventure books for young people – details can be found at www.glaston-chronicles.co.uk)