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The English and Their History
The English and Their History
Robert Tombs
Knopf, 2015
1040 pp., 62.76

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Alister Chapman

Out-Whigging the Whigs

A robustly counter-revisionist history of England.

How do you write the history of your country? According to Thomas Hobbes, "A writer of history ought, in his writings, to be a foreigner, without a country, living under his own law only." That advice has proved hard to follow. Many date the emergence of the modern discipline of history to Leopold von Ranke, who taught at the University of Berlin in the 19th century. Scholars remember him as a champion of primary source analysis, but as Royal Historiographer to the Prussian Court his contemporary fame rested in large part on the patriotic nature of his work. The first major historian of the United States, George Bancroft, studied with Ranke in Germany, and his work furthered ideas of American exceptionalism. In Victorian England, Whig historians such as Thomas Babington Macaulay stroked English self-approval.

By contrast, historians in the 20th century were more likely to cut their countries down to size. Charles Beard of Columbia University made the Founding Fathers look grimy. The leading advocate of German responsibility for World War I was a German historian, Fritz Fischer. British historians excoriated imperialism.

Tombs maintains that England's longstanding commitment to the rule of law and to parliamentary government has been good for the country and the world it helped shape.

There have always been exceptions. If you wish to reach a wider audience, you probably need to be one of them. David McCullough, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and Stephen Ambrose have sold hundreds of thousands of copies of books that are more Bancroft than Beard. Britain's Niall Ferguson has made money applauding empire. Academia's doyens usually frown—whether out of envy, politics, or concern for the integrity of the guild is hard to say.

Those who believe that God made humanity in his image and that this image is now defaced will expect to find good and bad in any country they study. The best histories make us want to cheer and weep. On this measure, Robert Tombs' new history of England is a success.

Given that Tombs is professor of history at Cambridge, what is surprising is that his book is as positive about England as it is. English academic historians have long been wary of the idea of English exceptionalism. That Tombs would write a book that calls on his compatriots to take more pride in their country thus requires explanation.

One reason may be that Tombs has made his living as a historian of France. This helps him to see aspects of his country's story that scholars who focus primarily on England often miss. For example, he remarks that the English state has not suffered a major collapse for a thousand years. There have been no major improvements brought about through violence for more than eight hundred. Tombs has written two books on the Paris Commune of 1871, and he is relieved to find no parallels at home.

The bullishness of Tombs' account can also be explained by when he wrote it. It's a good time to celebrate England. For longer than anyone can remember, the English have often referred to Britain simply as England, much to the annoyance of the Scottish and Welsh. In response, historians have tried harder to tell the history of Britain as a whole. Against that background, Tombs' decision to write the story of England reflects a particular moment in the island's history. As Westminster has devolved power to national assemblies in Edinburgh and Cardiff, Britain now has the anomalies of parliaments for everyone except the English while representatives from Scotland and Wales continue to vote on legislation for England. English lips have begun to tremble in mild indignation. The assertion that the English have their own history and that it is a good one is therefore appealing.

The most important reason why Tombs decided to write an apologia for England, however, is that for decades many English people have been convinced that their country is in decline. They still like their country, but it seems a shadow of its former self. Tombs sets out to address this concern by organizing his narrative around the ways in which the English have told their history over the past thousand years. He chooses four themes in particular: the aftermath of the Norman Conquest; the Whig history of progress; the history of empire; and the widespread belief since 1945 that England is a nation in decline. To understand his book, it helps to take these in reverse order.

Most English people know that their country, along with their neighbors in the United Kingdom, used to rule the waves and no longer does. European competitors experienced faster economic growth after World War II and caught up with England. The empire disappeared. Commentators lamented the change and assigned blame. Some suggested that Britain was becoming a shabby, third-rate country.

Tombs has no time for this hand-wringing. Little England was always going to suffer relative decline once larger countries industrialized, but economically the country stands where one would expect in the ranks of its European neighbors. He scarcely laments the decline of manufacturing, buying the idea that England's move to a service economy is a healthy sign (although he notes that when in 1945 Germany offered England the design for the Volkswagen Beetle as war reparations, industrialists turned it down as inferior to the English-built Morris Minor). Life expectancy has increased along with income. Those who have lived in England since 1945 "have been among the luckiest people in the existence of Homo sapiens, rich, peaceful and healthy." Tombs wants his compatriots to cheer up.

This desire explains why he is less critical of empire than most historians. He recognizes evils, such as the violent suppression of the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya in the 1950s, but he also cites counter-examples. Many leading politicians were unenthusiastic about imperial ventures. The government turned down requests from people in Ethiopia, Uruguay, Sarawak, and Morocco to join the empire. There was a domestic humanitarian lobby (which included many evangelicals) that campaigned for England to use its power for good in the world—as when, in 1850, the Royal Navy forcibly entered Brazilian ports to destroy slave ships. For all the crimes (Tombs' word), English hegemony also fostered global communication, trade, travel, parliamentary government, and the rule of law.

Moving on to the third of Tombs' themes: even if you haven't heard of the Whig interpretation of history, you probably know it. It is the story of progress and of freedom, and of how the English-speaking peoples have led the world toward political liberty and happiness. Initially, it told the tale of English defense of its representative government against threats from absolutist France and from those Tory kings, Charles I and II. In its English version, it celebrated the powers of the English parliament and provided justification for England's growing global influence in the 19th century. Transported to the United States, it made its way into textbooks that featured America as the 20th-century standard bearer for liberty and hope in the world. On both sides of the Atlantic, it was a good story but too simple, and the resulting histories and self-perceptions were warped. But Tombs still maintains that England's longstanding commitment to the rule of law and to parliamentary government has been good for the country and the world it helped shape.

For Tombs, these two principles lie at the heart of English identity. He traces them back to the centuries before the Norman victory of 1066—the most traumatic event in English history. Four thousand English nobles died in the Battle of Hastings or shortly after. Norman soldiers pulled down Anglo-Saxon buildings and built forts. English, which at the time had more copyists than Italian did during the Renaissance, was suppressed. As late as the 18th century, Tom Paine understood the island's history as an ongoing fight by the English people to rid themselves of the "Norman yoke."

For all the changes, however, England and English survived. They did so because they had a long, distinct identity that dated back to the Venerable Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People in 731 and beyond. Magna Carta was not new in 1215: it was a restatement of what the English had long believed and practiced, namely that people should participate in politics through courts, tithes, juries, and parliaments. Continuity transcended rupture after 1066. And inasmuch as most would agree that what continued was good, that, for Tombs, is cause for thanksgiving, if not pride.

Tombs provides not only narrative and reflection on how the English have understood their story but also delightful detail. Hippos once swam in what we now call the Thames. The Duke of Norfolk at the time of the Reformation declared that "he had never read the Scriptures, nor ever would, and it was merry in England before this New Learning came up." Queen Anne frustrated her bishops by losing the paperwork they needed to prosecute heretics. London sociability in the 18th century included a club for the ugly. Taxation in England in the 1770s was twenty-six times higher than in its colonies in North America. During the French Revolution, one English radical was hauled to the local pub and forced to buy 329 gallons of beer. During the Blitz, respondents to a Gallup poll said the weather depressed them more than the bombing. And, because he brings his history right up to the very recent past: after the financial crisis of September 2008, 734 second-hand Ferraris went on sale in the City of London in a week.

For Tombs, there is little question that England's history and its contribution to history have been positive. He wonders why his compatriots appear reluctant to boast even about the vital part they played in the defeat of Nazism, especially in 1940-41. In the end, Tombs outdoes the Whig historians: his story is not so much one of progress but one of an ancient system of rights, justice, and political participation that endured (despite many follies, domestic and foreign, along the way) and that has been a great gift to the world.

Do the English really need Tombs' encouragement as much as he supposes? Are they as down on their country as he claims? The recent Brexit decision suggests an enduring national pride. Those who campaigned to leave the European Union argued that Britain was a great country that could be even greater if it stood alone, and millions of voters agreed. (Interestingly, the English seem much less enthusiastic about breaking up with Scotland.) Or perhaps the vote to leave fits with Tombs' narrative, reflecting a desire to address a prevalent sense of national malaise. Either way, Tombs' book and this year's elections in both the UK and the US raise the question of how teachers, politicians, and others can nurture just the right amount of national loyalty—enough to foster gratitude and civic-mindedness but not chauvinism and its almost-always offspring, war.

"We owe respect to the past," Tombs concludes, "as we do to other societies today, not for the sake of our predecessors, who are beyond caring, but for our own sake. Treating the past as grotesque and inferior is the attitude of the tourist who can see nothing 'Abroad' but dirt and bad plumbing. Recognizing the qualities of past societies with resources a fraction of ours may at least deflate our own complacency, and remind us that we have little excuse for our present social and political failings." A little preachy, perhaps. But given that historians often use the past to advocate for aspects of contemporary righteousness, a sermon on respect makes for a nice change.

Alister Chapman teaches at Westmont College in Santa Barbara. He is a British/English expat.

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