I have an odd relationship with Peter Ackroyd’s books. I have read a few of his novels and like his use of history, he clearly has knowledge about and passion for the periods he chooses. I generally enjoy his style of writing (though parts of Hawksmoor were trying). Unfortunately I find the books a bit light on anything actually happening, any particularly compelling characters or occasionally any point. That sounds harsh, he’s not far off but it generally just doesn’t click for me.
However, that intimate knowledge of history – particularly in England and particularly in London – makes him a very good writer for popular history. He builds scenes and atmospheres well. He brings the world to life. He throws in odd little facts and stories that add colour and depth to the narrative. He is currently in the middle of writing a history of England, with the first book Foundation taking things up to Henry VII and the third covering the Civil War.
First off, there are two things to note. This is Peter Ackroyd’s second part, but it is not mine. I picked up volume two in a second hand shop without the previous book. I was recently inspired to skip straight to it, after finishing Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (an excellent book which may be mentioned a few times later in this post).
From that work of fiction, one saw Thomas Cromwell, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, Thomas More, Thomas Cramner and a few people who may not have been called Thomas battling for their political supremacy and their religious beliefs in the court of King Henry VIII. They’re interesting characters. With my background knowledge of Horrible Histories to go on, I was surprised that Wolsey seemed fairly dead on and shocked at how nasty More could be. Perhaps Cromwell was simply a dodgy judge of character? I needed to find out more.*
Secondly, although this is part of an epic History of England, the book is actually incredibly focused on the English Reformation and the Tudor royal family. This has both positive and negative effects – the tightly knit story allows the book to succeed in covering the twists and turns of the religious and political change, and one comes away with a good appreciation of the personalities, quirks and ideas that made up Henry VIII and his children Edward, Mary and Elizabeth (as well as a host of supporting characters).
Unfortunately there are times where a little diversion may have been interesting. I would have liked to find out more about the development of art, of theatre, of science – but the likes of Holbein, Shakespeare and Bacon only appear in passing. We’re well covered for politics and religion but Ackroyd stays tightly to the main story.
On the whole, it’s a very good book. It does represent the court intrigues and religious arguments of the era well. It gave me the information hit I was looking for after Wolf Hall, as well as shedding light on the often overlooked reigns of Mary and Edward, and giving a detailed picture of Elizabeth I.
On the downside, I’m not quite sure how it fits in with the rest of his histories – the religious focus was never really introduced properly (it wasn’t made explicit until near the end of the book) and could be jarring next to books with different themes. Despite this, I’d be happy to read his other volumes and kind of just wish he had a Volume 2b to cover all the bits and pieces that he left by the wayside.
*Actually, after reading this work, these don’t seem too unrealistic. Though I perhaps had too high expectations of More and too low of Wolsey.