The Isles: A History

The Isles: A History

The Isles: A History

The Isles: A History


Written by one of the most brilliant and provocative historians at work today,The Isles is a revolutionary narrative history that takes a new perspective on the development of Britain and Ireland, looking at them not as self-contained islands, but as an inextricable part of Europe.

At every stage,The Islesconnects offshore development with parallel events on the Continent. This richly layered history begins with the Celtic Supremacy in the last centuries BC, which is presented in the light of a Celtic world stretching all the way from Iberia to Asia Minor. Roman Britain is seen not as a unique phenomenon but as similar to the other frontier regions of the Roman Empire, such as Germany. The Viking Age is viewed not only through the eyes of the invaded but from the standpoint of the invaders themselves--Norse, Danes, and Normans. Plantagenet England is perceived, like the Kingdom of Jerusalem, as an extension of medieval France. In the later chapters, Davies follows the growth of the United Kingdom and charts the rise and fall of the main pillars of 'Britishness'--the Royal Navy, the Westminster Parliament, the Constitutional Monarchy, the Aristocracy, the Protestant Supremacy, the British Empire, the imperial economy and sterling area, and the English Language.

The book ends with the crisis confronting Britain now--the emergence of the European Union. As the elements that make up the historic Britishness dissolve, Davies shows how public confusion is one of the most potent factors in this process of disintegration. As the Republic of Ireland prospers, and power in the United Kingdom is devolved, he predicts that the coming crisis in the British State may well be its last.

This holistic approach challenges the traditional nationalist picture of a thousand years of "eternal England"--a unique country formed at an early date by Anglo-Saxon kings which evolved in isolation and, except for the Norman Conquest, was only marginally affected by continental affairs. The result is a new picture of the Isles, one of four continents--England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales--constantly buffeted by continental storms and repeatedly transformed by them. Illuminated by the same clarity and piercing originality that distinguished Europe: A History, The Isles will become an agenda-setting book, one that will encourage a reassessment of what it means to be British while sparking debate about ideas of national identity and sovereignty.


To write a comprehensive history of one's own country is a forbidding task. The subject matter is copious and complex. The emotional overtones emanating from one's own life and family can be intrusive. And one could easily quake at the thought of all the historical giants who have travelled the same road. They and their books fill the shelves at every turn – from Hume to Trevelyan.

Fortunately, I was never sufficiently aware of such considerations to be bothered by them. As chance would have it, I found lodgings for one summer in a house that had once belonged to G. M. Trevelyan. There was a commemorative plaque over the front door; and two or three pictures of the grand old man still hung in the hallway. I particularly remember one which showed a maid serving the tea as he sat in the garden with his books. Historywriting must be a good life, I mused. I was a postgraduate enrolled in the Cambridge Intensive Russian Course. Trevelyan, in his time, was 'the most influential and the most widely read historian of his generation.' It never struck me for one moment that I might someday be writing history myself, still less that I might tackle a subject of which Trevelyan was the last great exponent.

Yet in that very same year an idea was planted that is only now bearing fruit more than thirty years later. In 1965, my former Oxford tutor, A. J. P. Taylor, published the fifteenth and final volume of the Oxford History of England, on the period 1914–45. In his usual mischievous way, Taylor explained in the preface that, given the 'assignment of English history' his book would not be dealing directly with 'the Welsh, the Scotch [sic], the Irish, or the British overseas'. It was a typical Taylorian shaft. But it led me to reflect. Evidently, none of Taylor's eminent editors had ever clarified some . . .

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