Hay on “The English and Their History”

For the Wall Street Journal, JMC Fellow William Anthony Hay reviews The English and Their History, by Robert Tombs.

The review is posted below in its entirety.


Identity, with the implied question “who are we?,” underlies all sorts of heated debates, from immigration policy to foreign relations. But what exactly defines identity, especially national identity? In “The English and Their History,” Robert Tombs argues that England has played a major role in creating the idea of the nation-state as a collective effort at self-definition: “a sizeable political community with some sense of kinship, cultural similarity, participation in government and some representative institutions.” England, he implies, forged the template for modernity.

Mr. Tombs, a professor of history at Cambridge University, offers more than an update to the many works that have celebrated England’s past as a kind of ratification of the present. Thomas Babington Macaulay famously wrote England’s history as the story of progress—a teleological unfolding toward parliamentary democracy. Other chronicles echoed Macaulay’s triumphalism, prompting a dissent in Herbert Butterfield’s “The Whig Interpretation of History” (1931) and, in less elevated form, in the historical parody “1066 and All That” (1930).

For his part, Mr. Tombs describes England’s history from its beginnings “without assuming any inevitability in what occurred.” Along the way, he tracks continuities even in the midst of upheaval and disruption, documenting the emergence of a collective identity. His narrative is deeply researched, analytically rigorous and rich in detail, yet readably engaging and accessible to nonspecialists.

England, Mr. Tombs reminds us, began as a people, the gens Anglorum. Anglo-Saxons who shared a language and a culture lived under different kings and political arrangements but broadly embraced Christianity within a single English church. The part of Britain they inhabited—largely its fertile lowlands—presented a favorable environment as well. Productive farmland, a wealth of mineral resources and access to the sea brought prosperity and allowed an early form of nationhood to take root. Even briefly under Danish kings, England retained its character and ways.

William the Conqueror, of course, displaced England’s ruling elite after his conquest in 1066 and redistributed its land among his followers. Norman French became the language of government, and Anglo-Saxons became foreigners in their own country. While traumatic, Mr. Tombs argues, the rupture was incomplete. Even the Normans’ strong monarchy was built on England’s established institutions, creating a kind of political synthesis. English survived as a language and returned to literary and administrative use, now as a hybrid influenced by French and Latin. The conquered absorbed their conquerors.

Victorians liked to contrast the cruel Norman yoke with Anglo-Saxon ideas of liberty, but the relation was more symbiotic than conflicting. The rise of Common Law—the cumulative judicial rulings made from, as Mr. Tombs puts it, “a hybrid of Anglo-Saxon and Norman customs and Roman theories”—helped to check royal power, as did the kings’ constant need of their subjects’ cooperation. Because Common Law weakened separate jurisdictions by covering “all times, the whole realm, all men,” it undermined feudalism, a Norman imposition that ended sooner in England than in the rest of Europe. Mr. Tombs describes medieval England as a loose hierarchy of self-governing communities with royal authority ensuring the functioning of the whole. Localism had deep roots, but the system needed a king to work.

Wars with France and Scotland in the 1300s united, for a time, the elite and the populace against their shared foes. Political upheaval after England lost the Hundred Years’ War with France (1337-1453) showed the danger of a weak king failing to control ambitious nobles. Even so, the turmoil did not curtail a steadily growing economy, now enriched by the export of woolen cloth and other goods.

England’s break with Roman Catholicism under Henry VIII hardly needs recounting, so notorious is that monarch’s reign. Whatever the particular origins of his quarrel with Rome, Mr. Tombs reminds us of its broad and long-lasting effects. A Catholic realm became Protestant over a few lifetimes. The King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer gave the English people core texts of remarkable eloquence and power.

A split over exactly what kind of Protestantism England would profess sparked civil war in the 1640s. The Stuarts, a family that Mr. Tombs calls England’s most hapless dynasty, sought to preserve a hierarchical church with ceremony and ritual. Contrastingly, the Puritans—adherents to a rigorous brand of Calvinist doctrine—sought to recover the ancient simplicity of religion. Their emphasis on godliness and divine election left scant room for compromise. The Puritan rebellion led to war and regicide and, after the death of Oliver Cromwell, the general who ruled during the brief Puritan ascendancy, the restoration of the Stuart line. To Mr. Tombs, the 17th century’s strife separated the English in ways that profoundly shaped their destiny.

Mr. Tombs stresses that the battle between Cavalier and Roundhead—the two sides of the civil war—divided the English over the extent and nature of royal authority, a division from which the Tory and Whig parties would emerge. Separate cultures also developed at a popular level, “one festive, communal and royalist; the other puritanical, capitalistic and parliamentarian.” A compromise following James II’s deposition in 1688 strengthened liberty by rejecting royal absolutism. The Act of Toleration legally recognized the tension between the Church of England and the dissenting or nonconformist Protestant churches. The dissenters gained freedom of worship and legal status despite their exclusion from political office. It became clear at this point, Mr. Tombs suggests, that an organic cultural unity would be nearly impossible to achieve. Of necessity, political compromise became institutionalized—one reason why England inclined more to reform than revolution.

William Blackstone, the eminent jurist, aptly described the English as a polite and, no less, a commercial people. In the 18th century, commercial wealth and high wages enabled an industrial revolution that transformed an economy powered by wood, wind and muscle into a mineral economy fueled by coal. If living standards fell over the short term, productivity rose, with consumption later matching it. New pleasures, including tea and coffee, changed everyday life. Wealth also facilitated a victory over Napoleon in 1815 that made England dominant in Europe over nearly a century of peace. The result of this hegemony, Mr. Tombs suggests, was a pride and self-confidence that allowed the English to see their country as “the forefront of modernity, the fulcrum of global power, and the exemplar of free and honest government.” Like the empire itself, such feelings were not to last.

Even before what Mr. Tombs calls “the new dark age” from 1914 to 1945, Britain’s relative loss of wealth and power led to fears of decline, but the world wars had a defining impact. The British state during World War I proved adept at managing a war economy, Mr. Tombs shows, but the massive expense and death toll cast a long shadow. As for World War II, Mr. Tombs argues that Britain’s problem lay in waging total war with a smaller population and resource base than its allies or rivals. In any case, the bloody global struggle brought exhaustion by 1945. Wartime restructuring also made England one of the most centralized and bureaucratic European countries, a break from its localized and voluntary past.

Decline challenged the old triumphalist assumptions, contributing to a public crisis of confidence that became acute by the 1970s. It also prompted academic critiques that tried to deconstruct English identity by arguing that it was invented by elites, especially in recent centuries, to promote their interests or ambitions. Mr. Tombs is having none of it. He finds much to celebrate in England’s history and in the legacy it has bequeathed, both political and cultural. The English past, Mr. Tombs shows in this fine work, is not really even past and still less a mere invention of the present.

—Mr. Hay, a historian at Mississippi State University, has recently completed a biography of Lord Liverpool, Britain’s prime minister in the early 19th century.

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