The History of England: Revolution

by Peter Ackroyd, Macmillan, £25

The fourth volume of Peter Ackroyd’s History of England lands with a 400-page thud and a narrative stretching from the crowning of William III to the Battle of Waterloo.

To some extent, this is the tale of the Glorious Revolution and its discontents. Ackroyd is not an outright tarnisher of 1668 and all that, but neither is he averse to scratching away some of the gilt. Loyalty to William was “distinctly muted” in many parts of the country where he was seen as a foreign king imposed by force: “Yet what could be done? The crown was on his head. Indifference, or resignation, was the inevitable response.”

William drew the country into fresh conflict with France and the “prolonged culture of war changed the social, political and fiscal aspects of English life. Larger and larger armies were brought into operation. Taxes increased exponentially.” A new elite, composed of an aristocracy and oligarchy bolstered by the landed gentry, would retain power for 200 years.

Ackroyd mixes narrative momentum with several bracing plunges into the spirit, or rather spirits, of the age: the gambling and speculation exemplified by the South Sea Bubble, the caustic wit, the violence and vice. He singles out the forces that shaped the life of the whole nation: industry, for instance, which “could not exist without misery”, and urbanisation.

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