The Story of Britain
by Roy Strong, Weidenfeld, 608pp, £30
Sir Roy Strong is known for his reigns at the Victoria and Albert Museum and the National Portrait Gallery. His flamboyant clothes and outspoken opinions also get a lot of press.
His talent as a writer of clear, unflashy, deeply well-informed prose takes a back seat. This history of Britain, an updated version of his 1996 book, is a perfect example of it. No meretricious opinions; no show-off expressions. Just a considered explanation of British history, from the Celts to the present day. Every history-starved schoolchild in the country should be given a copy.
Strong’s coverage varies according to the strength of the sources. So the Celtic and Roman chapters are necessarily brief – if effective. The meat of the narrative thickens as he moves into the Middle Ages, with their richer stock of primary sources.
At first sight, this is a conventional kings and queens history of our island, told from the top down. Nothing wrong in that. But Strong deepens the story with the apposite anecdote or fact.
How gripping to know that the Plantagenets got their name from the Latin for the sprig of broom Henry II’s father, Geoffrey of Anjou, wore in his hat: “planta genista”. What a pleasure to learn that Henry VI opened Parliament aged six, when he “shrieked and cried and sprang” – not unlike the current Speaker of the House of Commons, and about the same height. And did you know that Richard II invented the handkerchief – when some Blackadder figure handed him special pieces of material to blow the royal nose on?
Strong has too broad a mind to stick just to kings and queens and dates. He makes diversions into Norman land law: the lands William the Conqueror gave to his knights were called honours, and each honour consisted of smaller units called manors – thus manor houses.
Strong is now 82 and can, at will, dip into a lifetime full of accumulated facts and anecdotes. As High Bailiff and Searcher of the Sanctuary of Westminster Abbey, he picked up an intimate knowledge of the greatest royal, religious shrine in the country. And so he is able to tell us that the Cosmati Pavement in the abbey, laid out by Henry III before the high altar, took the form of the universe in diagram. In Henry III’s view, God ruled over the cosmos just as he, His representative on earth, ruled over England.
I knew that William Caxton set up his printing press next to the abbey’s chapter house. But I hadn’t worked out, as Strong has, that it was therefore right next to the path linking the abbey to the Palace of Westminster. And so Caxton ended up with the perfect clientele, of aristocrats, lawyers, churchmen and government officials.
It is only through having a deep understanding of the great sweep of British history that you can spot its anomalies: like the delicious fact that Edward I was, astonishingly for the time, given an English name not favoured by the Anglo-Norman aristocracy. A conscious throwback to Edward the Confessor, the name restored an Anglo-Saxon flavour to the monarchy.
In a delightful contrast, when Edward III assumed the title of King of France in 1340, he quartered on to his coat of arms the lilies of France, which remained part of the royal arms for more than 400 years.
Only through reading a big, chronological history of Britain like this do you get a proper feel for the ever-thickening palimpsest of history. What an understanding you get of the changing nature of monarchy when you learn that Henry VII was the first monarch to be called “His Grace”. How telling that his son, Henry VIII, was the first to be called “His Majesty”. Quite a promotion.
Slowly, gradually, Strong builds up a picture of quite how exceptional our island history has been – it is extraordinary that the British have lost only one war since 1707: the American War of Independence.
This is far from being a conventional history with predictable views. Strong thinks the suffragette movement, now celebrated in the centenary year of the women’s vote, did more harm than good. But he is rarely angry, except in his sadness at the decline of literacy and numeracy in the 1970s educational revolution; and in his attack on the woeful New Year’s Eve at the Millennium Dome in 1999, when the poor Queen had to hold hands with Tony Blair and sing Auld Lang Syne – “The unease that [the Queen and the Archbishop of Canterbury] felt as the evening unfolded was palpable.”
Without giving away how he voted in the EU referendum, Strong isn’t too optimistic about our future. He’s worried that we’ve lost our ancient, brilliant ability to self-reform to match the changing times. But he still paints an utterly enthralling picture of a country that remains as exceptional as it was when Virgil first mentioned Britain in literature in his First Eclogue: “penitus toto divisos orbe Britannos” – “the Britons, utterly separated from the whole world”.
Harry Mount is author of How England Made the English (Penguin)
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