“The English and Their History,” by Robert Tombs

I picked up Robert Tombs’ The English and Their History after I read David Frum’s review. (MR also had nice things to say.) Professor Tombs is a historian at Cambridge who’s spent most of his career writing about France. The book consists of 900 pages of British history, focusing especially on the English people; it’s dense and comprehensive, covering every issue of historical importance, and usually quite briefly.

The book is tremendously satisfying to read. I enjoyed it at every moment, and wished that it would go on further as I approached the end. Here are some impressions, with a focus on things I’ve learned:

1. To my regret, I’ve never taken formal coursework in European history. Although I’ve lived briefly on the continent, I don’t have much solid knowledge of what was important in various epochs. This book corrects at least a bit of my ignorance around the history of Britain.

For example: I never really knew who the Normans were or when the Conquest took place. As it turns out, the Norman Conquest was an 11th century invasion of England by a French nobleman, William II of Normandy. He raised a fleet and an army to depose the Anglo-Saxon king, Harold Godwinson. After William secured England under his rule, major parts of state and society tilted towards French sensibilities. His status as the new English king combined with his possessions in France were major factors for centuries of warfare between the two countries.

The list of these illuminations goes on and on. Who were the Jacobites? Who fought whom in the English Civil War? How did the British get everywhere? Who are the eight Henrys and which of them were significant? Who ruled the Admiralty? Knowing a bit more about these questions is a nice confidence to have.

2. The English and Their History isn’t just a textbook. It gets beyond the dry recitation of facts by presenting various contrarianisms.

Frum’s review discusses three: 1. The English were enthusiastic participants in the slave trade, but reformers also took the moral lead in abolishing it throughout the empire. (A fact I found impressive: “The Royal Navy placed a permanent squadron from 1808 to 1870, at times equal to a sixth of its ships, to try to intercept slavers off West Africa.”) 2. English workers lived relatively well, usually better than their counterparts on the continent; the Dickensian depictions of squalor were the exceptions, not the rule. 3. The post-WWII obsessions with decline was quite a cultural exaggeration; the English misremember the past for being greater than than it was, and they understate how well off they had become.

And here are a few more quick ones I thought to present:

  • Contra Keynes, Tombs makes the case that Germany could have paid war reparations after all. For Germany, reparations were a greater political problem than an economic one.
  • In general, Britain’s island status made it easier, not harder to be invaded. For a long time, it was impossible for the state to defend every part of the coast; a fleet can sail up a bit further to a less guarded spot if it intended to invade. Before Britain could protect most parts of the island, it could only pray that poor sea conditions turn away foes. William the Conqueror and William of Orange were lucky; Philip II and Napoleon were not.
  • As often as not, Britain was a reluctant imperialist. Expansion was usually driven by local problems. Tombs lists a few reasons: “to control settlers; to restrain them from attacking natives; to defend them from reprisals when they did; to secure frontiers by pushing outwards, thus replacing existing problems with new ones; to fight wars against neighboring entities seen as a threat,” etc.

3. British foreign policy appears to have been consistent over the course of centuries: When a European country became too powerful, Britain financed its rivals. If Britain had to go to war, it used its overwhelming sea power to raid and blockade, rather than deploy its usually lackluster standing army to meet a threat head-on.

That strategy was well-implemented by the time of the Napoleonic Wars. Britain was the paymaster of the coalition that set Dutch, Prussian, Austrian, Russian, and troops from other countries against the French. (To finance these efforts, it relied on an income tax, trade with its colonies, and selling bonds abroad.) Its troops did fight and win, but it was really the fleet that put the most pressure on Napoleon and made a mockery of his Continental System.

Of WWII, here’s Tombs: “This was the last great imperial struggle, the fourth great war in which Britain was victorious by being able to mobilize global resources against a European hegemon.”

4. The formidable sea power resulted from centuries of investments in the Royal Navy:

“Trafalgar was in reality a one-sided battle, as was now invariably the case when the totally dominant Royal Navy got to grips with its enemies, inferior in training, morale, and physical health.”

“From 1793 to 1815, (the Royal Navy) lost only one line-of-battle ship to enemy action, but captured or destroyed 139… (the navy) was the most important and expensive project ever undertaken by the British state and society, and left few aspects of national life unaffected.”

“Blockades of French ports were progressively tightened as the navy learned how to spend long periods on station without its crews quickly falling sick—Admiral Collingwood, commander of the Mediterranean Fleet, had not set foot on shore for eight years before he died on board in 1810… British sailors spent far more time at sea, giving the Royal Navy the advantage of tough and well-trained crews. They were led by a meritocratic and experienced officer corps… Food and drink were good and plentiful—about 5000 calories a day, including a pound of bread, a pound of meat, and a gallon of beer.”

Certain warships cost as much as the annual budgets of small states.

5. The book is comprehensive and readable. It covered all the things you ought to know about in sufficient depth, and the writing is always bright and clear.

Of course, being comprehensive entails the usual complaint: You wish that certain topics were covered in greater detail. The War of the Roses, for example, is discussed in a mere seven pages. As a casual Game of Thrones fan, I’d have cared to read much more.

6. In roughly the first half of the book, nearly all discussions focused on political and royal issues. Who was the reigning monarch? What was his/her relationship to Parliament? Which war did his death and succession cause?

And then in the latter half, the focus shifts almost entirely. After Victoria, the monarch is rarely brought up. Instead of offering an evaluation of the king or queen, Tombs doesn’t write about many at all. I’d have liked some acknowledgment of that. Did the sovereign start to matter less as Parliament took on more power? Was there too little materialistic and economic development to be written about? Did domestic issues and foreign policy become more important as England stabilized? Was it a matter of record keeping, in which economic developments were hard to track, but court machinations well-recorded?

The earlier focus on royal personalities made certain paragraphs bewildering. At some point there were too many Edwards, Henrys, and later on Georges, for me to keep track of. I gave up on certain sentences because I didn’t want to browse back to see which Charles/Edward/Henry was being referred to after all.

7. And here’s a slightly different form of the complaint above: Though there are many great discussions of culture, there’s still too much focus on kings and wars.

I wish that there were more discussions on economically interesting things. Enough on the personalities of queens and prime ministers. How did people adapt to the steam engine and the railroad? How did elites deal with the rise of German and American industry? How complementary were the colonies to the home economy? What was the social and economic impact of all of its scientific innovations?

8. Monarchy was in general not a stabilizing force for the country. Tombs mentioned that about the only succession to go well in a 100-year time span was that of Henry VII to Henry VIII. (The latter managed to provoke massive instability all on his own, without the assistance of succession problems.) Before George I, nearly every succession led to some lengthy war.

These succession issues made me think of Scott Alexander’s Neoreactionary FAQ. Strong monarchs may produce stable kingdoms, but their succession usually provoked political upheaval. The weeks after a monarch’s death were terribly fraught for all factions. There were always questions about the best claim; or people would be upset that the wrong religion now controls the throne; or foreign actors decide to take advantage of chaos to launch military action. I don’t much read neoreactionaries, and I hope that they acknowledge the fact that succession issues were the source for some of the worst wars.

9. To wrap up, here’s a gentle plea from Tombs to remember Britain’s contributions in WWII: “Had (Britain) made peace with Germany in 1940, Nazi dominance of Europe for the foreseeable future would have been unchallengeable, and American isolationism confirmed… Germany would have held the global initiative, with free access to oil, food, and raw materials. The subsequent defeat of an isolated USSR, simultaneously assailed by Japan, would have been inevitable, accompanied by a planned genocidal depopulation of much of eastern Europe.”

“In a nutshell: the defeat of Japan was overwhelmingly American; the evisceration of the German army was mainly due to the Russians; but the strategic defeat of Germany as a whole and that of Italy were primarily due to Britain.”


I’ll reiterate that I really like this book: It’s a comprehensive, readable account of the political and cultural history of a major power.

Another history quite excites me at the moment: Jürgen Osterhammel’s The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Century. I flipped it open in a bookstore, to land on a section describing the varieties of monarchies in Southeast Asia. How can one resist?

Now a question: Every country deserves to have its history written up like this, but right now I’m most interested in finding two; what’s the equivalent for France and Germany? In other words, which German/French history substitutes for a textbook, but is more gracefully written and viewpoint-driven? I’ve asked a few people, none of whom have offered pointers. I’ll appreciate any suggestions: danwyd@gmail.com.

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