The Stuff of Legend

Robert Tombs’s monumental history of the English is strengthened by how he tracks the wider developments on the Continent

Books History
The closest thing to an English founding myth: "The Last Sleep Of Arthur In Avalon" (1881-98) by Edward Burne-Jones

Much of history is about epic myths. If there is an English founding myth it is probably the legend of King Arthur. The real Arthur was a shadowy, possibly even fictitious Romanised Briton called Ambrosius Aurelianus who won a great, if temporary, victory over Saxon invaders around the year 500, probably near Cadbury Castle in Dorset

These prosaic facts did nothing to diminish the impact and cultural legacy of King Arthur, or Guinevere and Sir Lancelot; nor did it detract from the allure of Camelot and all the paraphernalia associated with this story. Arthur’s body and that of Queen Guinevere were “discovered” in 1191 at Glastonbury Abbey. According to Geoffrey of Monmoth, “The fame of Arthur’s generosity and bravery spread to the very ends of the earth.” Across Europe, Arthur and his knights captured the imagination of people for centuries. The great saga was dramatised by the likes of Thomas Malory in the 15th century, and by Tennyson and Wagner in the 19th century. Even J.R.R. Tolkien in the 20th century and others have reworked and endlessly brooded on Arthurian legends. Arthur himself was a symbol of the mystique of royalty. He became an ideal figure as a husband, a king, a leader of men.

The discussion of the legend of Arthur, and its ramifying success across Europe over the centuries, is one of the strengths of Robert Tombs’s monumental book, The English and their History. A Cambridge-based historian, Tombs has made his reputation in the study of the French past. This background helps considerably in his own history of the English, as he always links developments within England itself to wider patterns on the Continent.

It is true that much British, and particular, English, history writing has been insular and parochial. Tombs does not make this mistake. He always casts an eye on France, or even sometimes Germany. One of the book’s many virtues is that it places English history within a wider context of European developments.

Tombs is to be commended for his clarity, readability and engaging manner. His easy and self-assured style offers a digestible and entertaining account of many of the landmarks of British history, based on meticulous research, although  it is difficult to point to anything new or particularly revelatory.

He makes passing reference to the British Empire, and makes the almost obligatory point these days that the Empire also affected England, with immigration from the former colonies changing much of the British scene since 1945.

The nod to Empire reveals a potential weakness of the book. Any work attempting to describe the history of the English over 1,500 years is going to be a sprawling and diffuse affair. Inevitably, given the vast canvas of  the book, one or two slips occur. There was no general election in January 1911, but there was one in January 1910. There are, however, remarkably few obvious inaccuracies given the book’s heroic proportions.

“Englishness” is almost impossible to define and Tombs never really gets to the heart of this rather nebulous concept. The history of the English trips along at quite a leisurely pace, full of facts and interesting details knitted together by political developments which were probably slightly better known 50 years ago than today. The trauma and impact of the Battle of Hastings are well described, and Tombs points out that the Normans had been pretty dominant in England even before 1066, since the English king between 1042 and 1066, Edward the Confessor, had spent most of his life in Normandy and was related to its ruling house.

But there is also a slightly smug and unquestioning air about the book. There is the quiet assumption of English exceptionalism. The old cliché about cricket retaining “cross-class participation and appeal, making it the real national game and fostering virtues claimed to be quintessentially English” is offered without irony or embarrassment.

No fresh insights are gleaned from learning that “organised sport was the great cultural invention of late Victorian England, carrying a characteristic whiff of moralism, tempered with hypocrisy”. This is the stuff of the old Oxford general paper, which one of Alan Bennett’s history boys might have written 40 years ago when sitting a scholarship examination.

There is a lot about the English language and how it evolved and reflected the different peoples who shaped Britain. There isn’t as much as might be expected on the cultural life of the country. The politics, if any such can be discerned, are best characterised as establishment liberal. Tombs’s book reminds one of an 18th-century broad churchman, full of convivial bonhomie and common sense, without any spiritual anguish or deep spirit of inquiry.

Its publication has clearly been timed with an eye for the Christmas market, and in this context it is successful. Older readers will probably feel that they learnt most of this stuff at school, but at least Tombs gives them the opportunity to refresh half-remembered vignettes. It is the kind of book that should be enjoyed before a roaring fire on a cold winter’s day. It is unlikely, however, to alter any pre-existing ideas one might have had about the history of England.