A History of England in 100 Places: From Stonehenge to the Gherkin by John Julius Norwich

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A History of England in 100 Places: From Stonehenge to the Gherkin by John Julius Norwich

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Category: History
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A fascinating look at a hundred different English places, mainly buildings and memorials, and the events of people associated with them, which form in effect a history of the nation since Stonehenge and the prehistoric era.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 512 Date: October 2011
Publisher: John Murray
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1848546066

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There are many different ways of telling the history of England (indeed just England, not Wales and Scotland, as the author makes clear). This takes a very simple and very effective approach to the matter, by focusing on a hundred specific places which somehow illustrate the nation's progress from prehistoric times to today, in chronological order.

Each chapter, about four pages long, describes a specific location, and then tells the story of the person or event associated with it. For instance, a reference to a slightly battered stone obelisk close to the village of Towton, Yorkshire, marks the site of the bloodiest battle ever fought on English soil – a good opening to a concise account of the Wars of the Roses, while a visit to Bodiam Castle leads into a few crisp paragraphs on the Hundred Years War, fought mostly in the previous century. Likewise, John Milton's little cottage at Chalfont St Giles is the prelude to a useful summary of 17th century literature.

The author's fund of interesting facts is seemingly inexhaustible. Where facts are lacking, he asks all the pertinent questions. How, for example, did the stones which comprise Stonehenge get there in the first place? In the days before roads, the only way was to put them on huge rafts and float them down the river – but the nearest river was nearly two miles away. Were they, as some geologists have suggested, glacial erratics which were transported there by nature? And how ironic was it that a statue was erected in East Budleigh to Sir Walter Raleigh, the man who introduced tobacco into England, the week that new anti-smoking laws came into effect in England and Wales?

On some controversial issues he does not shrink from putting forward his own opinion. He qualifies his statement that the Norman conquest was like being invaded by Nazi Germany, though it is a sweeping remark with which some readers might well take issue. A chapter on Fort Belvedere, briefly the residence of King Edward VIII, suggests that in view of the former monarch's readiness to liaise with the Germans in occupied France, his persistent anti-Semitism, and the Duchess of Windsor's laughter on hearing of the first British air raids by the Luftwaffe, the abdication may have seemed a disaster at the time but in retrospect was the best thing that could have happened. (We also learn that Lloyd George was an ardent supporter of the King and Mrs Simpson, but could do nothing to add his voice to others at the time of the crisis because he was on holiday in Jamaica with his mistress). CND, he argues, failed to convince the country at large of its arguments, and he suggests that the movement had its way and if the nuclear power industry was closed down it would plunge one household in five into total darkness.

Some previously little-known characters are given their rightful due, and it is enlightening to read about a plaque erected to the memory of Mary Seacole, in a chapter which takes her out of the shadows in which an arguably racist War Office and the ineffably superior Florence Nightingale had deliberately placed her when she so unselfishly devoted herself to the soldiers' welfare during the Crimean War. At the same time, it is sad to note that the jockey who was thrown from his horse when the suffragette Emily Davison threw herself in front of them on Derby Day in 1913 remained haunted by the incident and her face for 38 years until he died by his own hand, and that Alan Turing, the 'Father of Computer Science', largely responsible for the code-breaking successes during the Second World War at Bletchley Park, was prosecuted after the war for his homosexuality and went the same way.

John Julius Norwich himself has his own small place in history. King William IV may have been little more than a footnote at the end of the Hanoverian dynasty, and left no legitimate heirs, but prior to his marriage he and his mistress Dorothea Jordan had ten children, whose descendants include the author and also David Cameron. He also observes some changing tides in fashion, noting that when he was a boy everyone used to laugh at the Albert Memorial as the height of Victorian kitsch, but now painstakingly restored, gilded, and taken to the hearts of the English who perhaps regard it as a worthy monument to its era in the same way that Albert's husband Queen Victoria always did.

Each section is preceded by a short introduction on the relevant era, be it Anglo-Saxon, Tudor or Georgian England. There are six sections of well-captioned colour photographs, in addition to woodcut designs integrated with the text throughout. Apart from a questionable reference to Taunton Castle being in my home county of Devon, instead of Somerset, it is hard to find fault with this extremely enjoyable, very well-written and informative book.

Our thanks to John Murray for sending Bookbag a review copy.

For a complementary read on the same subject, you might also like to read A Short History of England by Simon Jenkins.

Buy A History of England in 100 Places: From Stonehenge to the Gherkin by John Julius Norwich at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy A History of England in 100 Places: From Stonehenge to the Gherkin by John Julius Norwich at Amazon.co.uk


Buy A History of England in 100 Places: From Stonehenge to the Gherkin by John Julius Norwich at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy A History of England in 100 Places: From Stonehenge to the Gherkin by John Julius Norwich at Amazon.com.

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