'Revolution: A History of England, Volume IV', by Peter Ackroyd - Review

By Heffer, Simon | The Spectator, November 19, 2016 | Go to article overview

'Revolution: A History of England, Volume IV', by Peter Ackroyd - Review


Heffer, Simon, The Spectator


To write, and indeed to read, a history of considerable range, both in terms of chronology and of subject matter, is a profound challenge. The fourth volume in Peter Ackroyd's History of England starts with the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and ends with Waterloo in 1815. It was a period that laid the foundations of the modern British state and created the basis of its prosperity, and of its status as the world's greatest power later in the 19th century.

During the 130 years Ackroyd covers there were revolutions in attitudes too: though when he writes of the coarse humour of cartoonists such as Gillray, and the aggressive expressions of public opinion in incidents such as the Gordon Riots, one wonders whether the temper of the English people is so very different today. Indeed, one of the pleasures of reading this history is the occasional, subtle indication that Ackroyd gives, when he writes of the importance of coffee houses, the influence of the press, the decline of the Anglican church and the need to improve the road network, that the England he writes about is not a foreign country at all, however far in the past.

Ackroyd ensures he covers all the main political trends and events of the period, though he cannot do so in any depth, given the need to cram 13 decades into 370 pages. He is adept at pen-portraits of the main players -- conveying the moral repellency of Harley, the geniality and guile of Walpole, the ugliness (and loyalty) of North, the etiolation of Pitt the Younger and the uprightness of poor old Spencer Perceval, the only one of our prime ministers to be assassinated.

But this is also a period in which political power seeps from the monarch towards the House of Commons -- even though, as Ackroyd also notes, Pitt the Younger was the only member of his own cabinet to sit in the lower house. After the revolution of 1688 it is monarchical power that holds the country together -- the dual monarchy of William of Orange and Mary Stuart -- and it is a period in which important and enduring changes occur: such as the establishment of the Bank of England in 1694 and the removal of censorship of the press the following year. Parliament also passed the Act of Settlement (1701), which ensured that no Roman Catholic could sit on the throne, and made Sophia of Hanover, a grand-daughter of James I, the heir presumptive.

Queen Anne's reign saw the union of Scotland and England, to which the union with Ireland was added nearly a century later. None of her numerous children survived her, which brought Sophia's son, George, the Elector of Hanover, to the throne of England: Sophia had died just two months before Queen Anne. Ackroyd depicts the gradual detachment of the Hanoverians from the centre of the political process, and the growing reliance on their first ministers, from Walpole onwards, to manage the domestic and foreign policy of the country. …

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