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The latest volume in the replacement Oxford History of England series raises in acute form the questions: how important is a high-level, multi-volume national history, and what should be its structure? The answer to the first question is: very important indeed, and to the second, it should be fundamentally narrative, with a strong element of chronology. In medieval times, seers rightly believed history was "the school of princes", and in a democratic age it is vital that the parliamentary elites, at least, should have a firm grasp of history. History is by far the most significant subject taught at university and the quality of the textbooks provided at undergraduate level is a key factor.

I count myself fortunate that, when I read history at Oxford, in 1946-49, the original Oxford History of England was largely complete. Although my tutoring (by Bruce McFarlane, Beryl Smalley, A. J. P. Taylor and others) was first-class and the lecturing often superlative (I attended Richard Southern's original course, later published as The Making of the Middle Ages), the Oxford Series, by its scope and quality, was indispensable. One took it for granted, but it is only when a comparable series does not exist, as in the US, that its necessity becomes obvious, as I discovered when I was writing my History of the American People.

The Series was planned in the 1920s by the Oxford faculty, and entrusted to the capable hands of G. N. Clark as general editor, who produced the first volume himself, on the Later Stuarts, in 1934, thus setting an example of industry and deadline-keeping, and providing a model-specimen. The centrality of narratives plus reflective sections on "Intellectual and Economic Tendencies" and "Literature and Thought" etc tended to be followed by Clark's colleagues, though he gave a loose and wide rein to his contributors. The series eventually comprised 17 volumes, concluding with A. J. P. Taylor's vigorous summation of near-contemporary events, English History 1914-45, published in 1965. It included one undoubted masterpiece, F. M. Stenton's Anglo-Saxon England, whose research and synoptic skills made comprehensible for the first time the most difficult period in English history. It also originally included a remarkable work on Roman Britain, by the philosopher-historian R. G. Collingwood (though this was eventually replaced with a more straightforward account by Peter Salway), and a splendid effort by a non-academic, R. C. K. Ensor, England 1870-1914, which could, and can, be read straight through, with delight and profit. Most volumes were reprinted many times and some went to second editions also. Altogether it was among the most successful works ever produced by the OUP and an eminently practical monument of historiography.

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Keiron Curtis
April 1st, 2011
9:04 PM
Nice archived piece from Paul Johnson, a writer and historian whose once weekly column (now occasional) in the Spectator, a magazine, whatever your political views, is no less synonymous with superb writers and writing (I hope soon to read the film reviews penned by one time critic, Grahame Greene) must rank throughout its over centuries long history, among the finest. Can't be many other examples of when a mere 1000 words, so eloquently and elegantly and on such a breathtakingly sage scale, manages to both so delight and inspire the reader.

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