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Under the flag of St George

06 February 2015

The English and their History
Robert Toombs
Allen Lane £35
Church Times Bookshop £31.50 (Use code CT478 )

IT TAKES more than 1000 printed pages, including extensive endnotes, to tell the story of the English and their history from the beginnings up to 2014, in the first single-volume study of the subject on this scale for more than 50 years. But readers should not be daunted, as Robert Toombs is the most likeable as well as sensible of companions, who has produced a tour de force that is accessible and difficult to put down.

How and why did this professor of French history at Cambridge pull off this extraordinary feat, in many ways a miracle of compression? Had he been a specialist in English history, he explains, he wouldn't have had the nerve to take it on. As an Englishman with Irish connections who has spent most of his life studying France, he is both a foreigner and at home. (In the 1720s, he cannily points out in the section on the Civil War, it was a French Protestant soldier, Paul Rapin de Thoyras, who wrote the first continuous account of English history for centuries.)

Some of Toombs's most compelling writing covers the years through which he has lived himself, where a balanced view of recent political events is as much the product of good sense as it is of professional skill. Balance is, in fact, the book's greatest strength, particularly on contentious subjects such as Empire and the First World War, both treated with strong Leftist spin in the 1960s and both now under review by a generation of historians who are more willing to live with complexity and undecidability.

Toombs has benefited not only from the advice of long-suffering colleagues in Cambridge, but also the most recent academic research in each phase of English national history. As something of an outsider, however, he stands slightly to one side of the often bitter disputes that divide more specialised historians of England and of Britain - a distinction largely ignored by foreign leaders, including Adolf Hitler and successive American Presidents.

The two main meanings of "history" - past events and the interpretation of past events - are less easily separated than might at first appear, simply because each generation understands its present in relation to its idea of the past. Toombs sets out to "tell the history of England, first as an idea, and then as a kingdom, as a country, a people and a culture", and to "explore what is proper to England, and what is shared with its various neighbours".

His second theme is memory: "The history of England is not simply what happened, or what historians believe they can demonstrate, but what a vast range of people, for a great variety of purposes, have recorded, asserted and believed about the past."

So history-making is part of history, and the story becomes richer and deserving of fuller treatment as the centuries pass.

"Whig history", which can be dated from the Whig-Tory divide created by the Civil War, is a modern construction grounded in the idea of progress. Often challenged in the 19th and 20th centuries, it is, nevertheless, still alive and well in some quarters. (Hence the shock currently being registered by liberal secular Westerners confronted by Islamist extremists who want to turn the clock back.)

The story of events in the earlier periods, and the stories told about the past in those periods, have a strongly religious slant. Toombs pays as much attention in his early sections to the part played by the English Church as to that played by the Court. From the 18th century onwards, he has much less to say about religion, and much more about politics. His most vivid writing deals with warfare, from the Hundred Years War through to Afghanistan. Here, the complex relationship between an island race and the rest of the world takes a dramatic turn, and the national myth takes shape most powerfully. (St George and the dragon feature on the cover.) Readers who seek a refresher course on, say, the French wars of Jane Austen's generation would be well advised to turn to Toombs.

And the same could be said of the reader who wants to understand the state that we are in today. The last part of the book considers the question of "Declinism".

Comparisons with other nations, supported by statistical illustrations that are easy to read, indicate how far a sense of decline is more a state of mind than a matter of the gross national product.

As England reviews its own identity against a background of nationalist clamour in other parts of the UK, the publication of this bookis timely. Illustrated and in hardback, the book is also a bargain. 

Dr Wheeler is a Visiting Professor at the University of Southampton, and is writing the official bicentenary history of the Athenæum Club.

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