Academics have dismissed the field of national histories as parochial. But, argues Dominic Sandbrook, three new accounts of England show that myths of national identity remain strong
Is there such a thing as an enduring national character? Most academic historians would probably scoff at the idea of a nation having a distinct personality, surviving down the centuries beneath the changing tides of fashion and technology. Many academics now frown upon national histories, preferring to talk of “trans-national” developments and dismissing what they see as the parochial concerns of their predecessors. So when Norman Davies published a massive history of his native land, The Isles, in 1999, he went to great efforts to ditch the timeworn conventions of national history. For Davies, England had never stood alone and had never been a jewel set in a silver sea. His England had always been part of a multicultural archipelago, its face turned to the continent. For much of its history it was part of the “isles of Outremer,” a kind of French colonial possession, run by people called Henri Plantagenêt and Le Roi Jean (King John to you and me). He even ended with the prediction that one day the English Republic would cheerfully take its place within a booming EU— a forecast that only 12 years later feels like ancient history.
Entertaining and provocative as Davies’s book was, his new coinages completely failed to catch on. Academics might produce a thousand articles pointing out that England’s medieval kings usually spoke French, but if the phrase “Le Roi Jean” survives, it will be only as what Kingsley Amis used to call a “wanker detector.” The old conventions, like the garbled legends of Canute and the waves, Alfred and the cakes and Cromwell banning Christmas, seem indestructible. Indeed, a glance at publishers’ catalogues suggests that, by and large, academic historians have retreated from the field, abandoning it to popular writers who have no compunction about dusting down the familiar stories. Thanks to the gradual semi-detachment of Scotland and Wales, and perhaps to a quiet reaction against globalisation, England’s past has become trendy again. Like Cath Kidston designs, austerity cookbooks and recipes for cupcakes, books about England are everywhere. But none of them has been written by an academic.
1066 and all that: in his new book Simon Jenkins contrasts “Anglo-Saxon” localism with “Norman” love of big government
A Short History of England
by Simon Jenkins (Profile, £25)
Foundation: A History of England Volume 1
by Peter Ackroyd (Macmillan, £25)
Visions of England
by Roy Strong (Bodley Head, £17.99)