Book Review: ‘Foundation’

This article appeared in The New York Times on January 18, 2013.
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Foundation: The History of England From Its Earliest Beginnings to the Tudors
By: Peter Ackroyd
Thomas Dunne Books/​St. Martin’s Press, hardcover; $29.99, 486 pages

After Richard III, last of the Plantagenets, was slain at Bosworth Field in 1485, his body was said to have been taken to the church of Grey­friars in Leicester, but after that nothing reliable is heard about what became of it. “He is the only English king, after the time of the Normans, who has never been placed within a royal tomb,” Peter Ackroyd writes in “Foundation,” his rambling, affectionate new history of the remote English past. In September, archaeologists from the University of Leicester dug up a parking lot at the long‐​razed Grey­friars site and found, well preserved as if by a carefully wrapped shroud, the bones of a man whose skull had been hacked open and whose spine was curved, as Richard’s was said to have been. Sensation ensued among ordinary Britons, who flocked to comment on online forums and thronged the excavation site.

The parking‐​lot episode, though too recent to be included in this work, hints at why Ackroyd has drawn a large, loyal readership in his native land. Over some 50 books, he has seldom strayed far from the subject of the past and the traces it has left in the present. And the history that interests him most is the kind touching on national memory and a sense of place, “about longing and belonging,” in his memorable phrase. Why wasn’t one of the nation’s most famous kings given a proper and fitting burial? An academic historian might not think of it that way, but a Briton in the street might.

Ackroyd’s book, billed as the first in a six‐​volume history of England, carries the story to the beginning of the Tudor era. In a narrative that is relaxed, unpretentious and accessible, if at times somewhat hasty, he skillfully digests the work of others without cutting very deep with his own analysis. The early chapters, on the times before William the Conqueror, play especially to his strengths, as he draws on the findings of modern archaeologists who have advanced our understanding of how ancient Britons lived and how the various migrations and invasions changed the nation: “It was from one band of these settlers, the Angles, that the name of England itself first emerged. ‘Engla land’ was the Viking description. It is characteristic of a country that, from the first century to the 13th century, was subject to almost continual foreign occupation. The ‘empire race’ was once a colonized and exploited people.”

In sprawling English histories, it’s usually the first volume that poses the heaviest sledding: Hume complained that the skirmishes of crows merited as much particular narrative as the quarrels of the Saxon kings, while Macaulay famously skipped past centuries’ worth of reigns in a few pages, eager to get to what interested him. Between Canute and Richard III, almost two dozen monarchs march by, many untalented, odious or both, and if the story is to keep moving, even the occasional Piers Gaveston or Thomas Becket must be hustled quickly on and off stage. Yes, a few political gains were made, notably in the defense of Magna Carta, on the road that would lead toward the restraint of despotism. Still, beneath the romantic name, Ackroyd reminds us, the Wars of the Roses amounted to little more than gangland carnage: “These were all —vicious and ruthless men.”

The book is most engaging when not attending to matters of state. The minting of coins, the establishment of laws governing ancient forests, the maintenance of local roads, the development of cursive script all interest Ackroyd, as do the dining habits of lords and peasants and the travels of the mendicant friars who “turned English preaching into a folk art.” He is also drawn to tales of crime and sensation, especially those about impostors who pose as royal heirs. As York and Lancaster prepare to clash, he notes reports from various districts of a rain of blood and the overflowing of holy wells, along with the appearance of a sea monster bearing “a great crest” on its head and a “great red beard.” Hume would have scoffed, but Ackroyd gives it straight. When the head of Owen Tudor, grandfather of the future Henry VII, is lopped off, Ackroyd lingers to note that “a madwoman combed his hair and washed the blood from his face.”

Asked by an interviewer from the BBC what he found time to do aside from write his many books, Ackroyd replied, “I drink … That’s about it.” To paraphrase Lincoln on General Grant, some other writers could use a barrel of whatever Ackroyd is drinking.