Rebellion by Peter Ackroyd

Rebellion Rebellion, subtitled The History of England from James I to the Glorious Revolution, is the third volume in Peter Ackroyd’s History of England series. I haven’t read the first one, but I did read the second – which covered the Tudor period – and enjoyed it, so I was looking forward to seeing how Ackroyd would tackle the Stuarts in this latest volume. Before I go any further I should point out that Rebellion is the US title, which I’m using here as this is the edition I received for review via NetGalley; the UK title is Civil War.

The book opens with the reign of the first Stuart king of England, James I, who acceded to the throne after the death of Queen Elizabeth I in 1603. He was, of course, also James VI of Scotland and united the two countries under one crown. James was followed by his son, Charles I, and most of the book is devoted to discussing the Civil War which ended in Charles’ execution. After several years of rule by the Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell, the Stuart monarchy was restored under Charles II and the Restoration period is also covered in this volume. Finally, Ackroyd looks at the reign of James II and finishes with the Glorious Revolution which marked the arrival of William of Orange and his wife, Mary.

I have condensed eighty-five years of history into one paragraph here, but the book itself goes into a huge amount of detail, describing the life of each Stuart monarch and the key events of their reign. It’s a fascinating read, especially if you have a particular interest in this period of English history, and like the previous volume, Tudors, it’s written in a style that is factual without being too academic for the general reader. While the lives of kings and queens are interesting to read about, I also like to know how ordinary people lived, so I was pleased to find that Ackroyd gives some attention to the social history of the period and includes some chapters on literature, science, music and drama.

The only problem I had with this book was that I felt too much time was spent on the Civil War while the reigns of Charles II and James II had been squeezed in at the end. The chapters describing the events leading to the Civil War and the religious and political reasons for it seemed to go on forever, and although I can certainly understand why Ackroyd chose to make this the focus of the book I did start to get bored and found myself looking forward to moving on to the Restoration period.

While I didn’t enjoy this book as much as Tudors, I do feel that I’ve learned a lot from it. I am definitely not an expert on seventeenth century history but having finished this book, I now know much more than I did before I started. I haven’t heard anything about the fourth book in this series yet, but I expect it will continue to move forward chronologically into the eighteenth century. While I’m waiting maybe I should find a copy of the first volume, Foundation, which I still haven’t read…or I could try one of Peter Ackroyd’s other books. He has written more than thirty non-fiction books and a large number of novels too, so there would be plenty to choose from!

Tudors by Peter Ackroyd

Tudors Peter Ackroyd has written over thirty non-fiction books, but Tudors is the first one I have read. I read a lot of historical fiction set in the Tudor period, so I thought it would be a good idea to read some factual information about the period and fill in some gaps in my knowledge. Tudors is the second volume in Ackroyd’s new The History of England series and while I would have liked to have started at the beginning with the first book, Foundation, the fact that I started with this one wasn’t a problem.

I was surprised to find that this book does not begin with the life of the first Tudor king, Henry VII. Instead, it starts with his death and the accession to the throne of his son, Henry VIII in 1509. Ackroyd then takes us through the reigns of Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I, ending with Elizabeth’s death in 1603 – a whole century of history. Throughout the book, his focus is on the subjects of religious change and reform and once I knew that this was the main theme of the book, the decision to include Henry VII in the previous volume rather than this one made more sense as the reformation of the English church only really began with Henry VIII’s break away from Rome.

As this was my first experience of Peter Ackroyd’s work and I wasn’t sure what to expect, I was pleased to find that Tudors was both well written and well researched, while not being too academic, which makes it a good choice for the general reader with an interest in English history. With so much history to cover, I thought Ackroyd did a good job of selecting which historical events to concentrate on and how long to spend discussing each one. He keeps everything in chronological order, rather than jumping around in time, which makes the book easy to follow and if you’re left wanting to know more about a particular person or topic, an extensive list of further reading is included at the end of the book.

My only problem with this book was that I don’t personally find the subject of religious reform particularly interesting so, for me, some sections were slightly dry and boring. Obviously the English Reformation was of huge importance and I can understand why Ackroyd chose to give it so much attention, but I would have preferred more detail on how these religious changes affected the daily lives of the English people as well as those of the monarchs and nobility. I would also have liked to delve deeper into the characters of some of the fascinating historical figures who lived during the Tudor period, but I felt that Ackroyd was more concerned with chronicling the events of the period rather than looking at character.

Six volumes are planned in this series and Tudors is only the second, so there’s a lot of history still to come!

I received a copy of this book for review from Netgalley.