Westminster: A biography, from earliest times to the present by Robert Shepherd

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Westminster: A biography, from earliest times to the present by Robert Shepherd

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Category: History
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A detailed, thoroughly researched 'biography' of Westminster, the royal capital that became the birthplace of parliamentary government and the centre of a world power, and the monarchs, politicians and others who shaped its history at the heart of the nation
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 415 Date: September 2012
Publisher: Bloomsbury
ISBN: 9780826423801

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There seems to be no shortage of ways in which the history of London can be told, and as befitting an experienced historical and political biographer, Shepherd has found another interesting variation on the theme. In this superbly detailed and exhaustively researched volume, he brings us the story of Westminster, the royal capital that became the birthplace of parliamentary government and the centre of a world power. Over 1500 years ago it was Thorney Island, a secluded area on the banks of the Thames. It then became a village, yet a very grand one comprising a spiritual centre, a royal ceremonial stage and later a political capital, encompassing buildings such as the Abbey, the Houses of Parliament, and 10 Downing Street. Against this stage has been enacted the history of a nation, of the monarchs and politicians who for better and worse shaped the events of the last thousand years.

Ironically, in view of its associations with parliament and the actions of its members in recent years, the earliest written historical reference to the place is mired in spin. A charter apparently dated AD 785 refers to that terrible place which is known as Westminster. It has subsequently been proved that this document is a forgery sanctioned nearly four centuries later by a prior at the Abbey. Whether by 'terrible' he meant desolate, inhospitable, or was referring to its long-established reputation for holy terror, is debatable.

The history begins with its origins as an island in the Bronze Age 3,500 years ago, when it was partly cleared for cultivation and farmed. There are references to the founding of a town in Roman times, the founding of the first church in Anglo-Saxon times, and of a small wooden church, or minster, being located to the west of Lundenwic, or the 'west minster' – hence the name. From these grew up the secluded suburb during the early years of the reign of Edward the Confessor, the first monarch to make it his main residence. It was from that stage onwards that the history of the once-secluded suburb became to some extent the history of London, if indeed not the nation itself. In 1066 it was at the centre of the leadership crisis into which the King’s death plunged the country, resolved at the end of the year when William of Normandy had himself symbolically crowned King in the Abbey on a spot directly above the Confessor’s grave. Within less than a century, it was established as the royal capital and the seat of government. It was also a place of sanctuary, especially during the turbulent era from the Peasants’ Revolt to the Wars of the Roses, and with the advent of Caxton’s printing press the seat of learning. This latter was cemented with the publication of the King James Bible in 1611, partly the result of the work of scholars who translated the scriptures working in the Abbey’s Jerusalem chamber.

Later in the seventeenth century it was the scene of virtual anarchy. Until the 1640s, nobody was famous for being in parliament – until members were transformed into national heroes for their resistance to the government of Charles I, who ruled without them for eleven years. Whitehall came into its own in Stuart times, through the building of the Banqueting House and then the execution of the King there. From the Hanoverian era onwards, Westminster, or more specifically the maze of offices and corridors lying behind the front doors of 10 Downing Street and the Cabinet Office on nearby Whitehall, became the cockpit of power in Britain. As such it witnessed further anarchy and efforts at the same, from the Gordon riots in 1780 to the assassination of the Prime Minister, Spencer Perceval, in 1812, Irish republican bombs in 1885 and the suffragette protests before the First World War.

The history of Westminster in the twentieth century is largely the history of the nation’s political life, from Lloyd George and Baldwin to Blair and Cameron. There are occasional moments of royal pageantry, and the author reminds us that there are comparisons to be made, albeit in very different times, between the grief felt at the funerals of three young women taken long before their time, namely Queen Mary in 1694, Princess Charlotte, daughter of the Prince Regent, in 1817, and Princess Diana in 1997. Also brought home to us is the fact that in the early years of the new millennium the monarchy adapted to change better than Westminster’s political class, with the deepest divide in British politics being not between Labour and the Tories, but between the nation’s whole political class and the great majority of the people. Scepticism, cynicism and contempt were exacerbated by the scandal of MPs’ expenses in 2009, followed by an election which led to the first coalition government for over a generation.

Ten street maps and building plans at the front of the book, from 1560 to the present days, illustrate in graphic form the development from Tudor times onwards.

Although this is aimed largely at the committed student or historian rather than the casual reader, it is a very thorough survey which certainly left me well-informed. The story of the place and people over the last thousand years is told very readably and with great skill, crammed with facts and with judicious analysis where relevant. To anybody who needs to know more about the history of London, this will be an essential addition to the shelves.

If this book appeals then we can also recommend:

London: The Illustrated History by Cathy Ross and John Clark
London: The Concise Biography by Peter Ackroyd

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Buy Westminster: A biography, from earliest times to the present by Robert Shepherd at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Westminster: A biography, from earliest times to the present by Robert Shepherd at Amazon.com.

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