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A Short History of England, by Simon Jenkins

January 10, 2013
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I picked up this book as a souvenir of a particularly charming Waterstones in Portsmouth. It would’ve been wrong to leave empty-handed. Well, that, or I have something of an addiction.

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A Short History of England is a brisk sojourn through the last two thousand years of English history. Simon Jenkins makes it clear in the introduction that he is concerned solely with the history of the English nation. He admits that Scotland, Wales and Ireland have all influenced, and been influenced by, England over the years. However, since their histories develop alongside England’s, he keeps the blinkers on, to focus on perfidious Albion.

The book rattles along at an incredible pace. Chapters cover centuries of English rule in a few dozen pages. This does slow down as Jenkins catches up with the present as the recent past cannot be painted in the same broad brush strokes as its more distant relations. The author explains that he is interested in the power and governance in England through the ages; this explains a shift in focus as the book progresses. The first thousand years or so are described as a hurried scrum of battles and alliances, while the next few centuries look at the hereditary dispositions of the Plantagenets, Tudors and Stuarts. The last three hundred years then sees a switch as government replaces monarchy as the seat of power. From Walpole through to Cameron, this last section devotes itself to politics and prime ministers.

Though described as a short history, even that word feels too long for this book. Combined with a highly readable prose, Jenkins’ brief treatment means this book makes for very fast reading. Though a very good introduction, and including the major persona and soundbites of each age, I couldn’t help but feel that the pace is too fast at times. The book was well into the Norman conquest while I still grappled with the saxons.

With speed, comes brevity. This is by no means a comprehensive book to submerge yourself in, more of a pamphlet for dipping your toes. While Jenkins does include the major powers and people at play in history, his explanations of the events are much simplified and brief. If the reader is left wondering, they must go consult a more measured text, while Jenkins races on to the next era.

I was quite disappointed at the lack of a map, genealogy or plain lists of monarchs and prime ministers as I am convinced that these would have helped clarify the book in places, especially when Jenkins gabbles over a series of quick succesions or a flurry of battles. As a concession, at the end of the book, there is a list of major events but its not quite the same.

For someone who feels their knowledge of English history is dangerously lacking (i.e. myself), this is a good, if brief, introduction to the past. It would serve as an equally good refresher for those who have since forgotten their history. For those with a real interest in the subject, however, it is merely a stepping stone to more detailed work.

Essentially, its Sparknotes for History.

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