Sir Winston Churchill’s four-volume set “A History of the English Speaking Peoples” is available in Kindle. This is Volume 2, The New World. I previously reviewed The Birth of Britain. It is Churchill’s tale of the formation of the English nation from the imagined time thousands of years ago when people living in the region must have noticed the rising seas beginning to separate the British Isles from the European mainland. The tale continues to relate the multiple population invasions that shaped the English language, culture, and genome. It details the succession of primitive and brutal English kings succeeded by less primitive but no less brutal rulers. It ends with the death of Richard III, the last English king to die on the battlefield.
The second volume gets its title from the settlement of the American continents during this time, but other than that, there is scant detail of foreign colonization. In this work distant shores only form a backdrop on the coming and departure of the Tudor and Stuart dynasties.
One thing that marks the events of the first volume is my ancestors’ proclivity to spill each other’s blood. The first Tudor king, Henry VII was succeeded by Henry VIII. We give Henry VIII credit for transforming England from a nation ruled by monarchical whim to one ruled by law. How that came about was no fault of Henry’s, rather in spite of him:
Henry’s first task was to induce magnates, Church, and gentry to accept the decision of Bosworth and to establish himself upon the throne. He was careful to be crowned before facing the representatives of the nation, thus resting his title first upon conquest, and only secondly on the approbation of Parliament. At any rate, Parliament was committed to the experiment of his rule. Then he married, as had long been planned, the heiress of the rival house, Elizabeth of York.
Churchill, Winston S. (2013-04-29). A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, Vol 2: The New World (Kindle Locations 229-232). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.
Henry found it necessary to keep coming back to Parliament to obtain funding he needed to retain his rule. He eventually came to the people’s body to sustain his legacy. Despite having six wives, Henry had only three children eligible to succeed him, and Parliament was his tool to rid England of the stranglehold of the Roman Church. His second wife, Anne Boleyn, failed to give him a male heir, and his recourse was her head:
“Pray for me,” she said, and knelt down while one of the ladies-in-waiting bandaged her eyes. Before there was time to say a Paternoster she bowed her head, murmuring in a low voice, “God have pity on my soul.” “God have mercy on my soul” she repeated, as the executioner stepped forward and slowly took his aim. Then the great blade hissed through the air, and with a single stroke his work was done.
Churchill, Winston S. (2013-04-29). A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, Vol 2: The New World (Kindle Locations 936-939). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.
Getting a male heir became an obsession with Henry, and he went through wives in the process. Obtaining annulments and divorces encountered interference from Rome and became a sore spot with him. The Parliament proved useful.
Cranmer’s idea of an appeal to the universities about Henry’s marriage to Catherine had proved a great success, and the young lecturer was rewarded with an appointment as Ambassador to the Emperor. Even the University of Bologna, in the Papal States, declared that the King was right and that the Pope could not set aside so fundamental a law. Many others concurred: Paris, Toulouse, Orleans, Padua, Ferrara, Pavia, Oxford, and Cambridge. The King had known all along that he was right, and here, it seemed, was final proof. He determined to mark his displeasure with the Pope by some striking measure against the power of the Church of England. Why, he asked, was the right of sanctuary allowed to obstruct the King’s justice? Why were parsons permitted to live far away from their parishes and hold more than one living while underpaid substitutes did the work for the absentees? Why did Italians enjoy the revenues of English bishoprics? Why were the clergy demanding fees for probate on wills and gifts on the death of every parishioner? The King would ask his learned Commons to propose reforms.
Churchill, Winston S. (2013-04-29). A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, Vol 2: The New World (Kindle Locations 707-715). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.
On Henry’s death his, male heir, Edward VI, was puny and expired before maturity. Henry’s daughter Elizabeth became the first woman to rule England, and her rein was marked by a solidification of England as a sovereign power, independent of threats from France and Spain. Elizabeth never married, holding out prospects of an trans national bed as a means of keeping various foreign interests at bay. She also built up England’s navy, and the defeat of the Spanish Armada established England as a sea power of the first order. English colonialism of the North American Continent for the first time became interesting and also feasible.
The succession of the Tudors by the Stuarts marked a continuation of England’s noble blood letting and also a nasty civil war, whose echoes stain the British fabric to this day. It ended with the beheading of the first Stuart, Charles I. An experiment with republican government also ended in disaster, with Oliver Cromwell becoming a military dictator at ease with killing of all who opposed him. Cromwell’s campaigns against the Irish during the civil war were a forecast of what was to come:
Having unsuccessfully summoned the garrison to surrender, he breached the ramparts with his cannon, and at the third assault, which he led himself, stormed the town. There followed a massacre so all-effacing as to startle even the opinion of those fierce times. All were put to the sword. None escaped; every priest and friar was butchered. The corpses were carefully ransacked for valuables. The Governor, Sir Arthur Ashton, had an artificial leg, which the Ironsides believed to be made of gold; however it was only in his belt that they found his private fortune. The ferreting out and slaughter of those in hiding lasted till the third day.
Churchill, Winston S. (2013-04-29). A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, Vol 2: The New World (Kindle Locations 3746-3750). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.
Oliver’s son Richard succeeded him only briefly, and then England had Charles II, a Protestant. The Stuart dynasty ended with the overthrow of Catholic James II in what is called The Revolution of 1688:
James in his flight had actually got on board a ship, but, missing the tide, was caught and dragged ashore by the fishermen and townsfolk. He was brought back to London, and after some days of painful suspense was allowed to escape again. This time he succeeded and left English soil for ever. But though the downfall and flight of this impolitic monarch were at the time ignominious, his dignity has been restored to him by history. His sacrifice for religion gained for him the lasting respect of the Catholic Church, and he carried with him into lifelong exile an air of royalty and honour.
Churchill, Winston S. (2013-04-29). A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, Vol 2: The New World (Kindle Locations 5374-5378). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.
It is in this episode the Churchill family name begins to be recorded:
The brunt fell upon James, Duke of York. The King had already asked him not to attend the Privy Council, and now advised him to leave the country. The Duke retired to the Low Countries, carrying with him on his staff the very young captain in the British and colonel in the French Army, John Churchill, his trusted aide-decamp and man of business.
Churchill, Winston S. (2013-04-29). A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, Vol 2: The New World (Kindle Locations 4746-4748). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.
And the rest is history.
There is the tale of an English school child who was tasked with reading a Churchill work. Inquired of what request he might make of Sir Winston, the child’s response was that he not write any more books. There ate two things notable about Churchill’s works. For one, they tend to be long, and for another Sir Winston’s command of the English language frequently sends readers reaching for the dictionary. For example:
Yeah, my vocabulary has benefited from reading Churchill. Churchill may also be the king of the breathless sentence. For someone reading with the idea of doing a review, highlighting a sentence for later reference sometimes requires digesting ten or more lines of text, also locating on the page the beginning and the end.
In his writing Churchill shines through as a journalist, though real historians do not claim him as one of theirs. While researched context and consequence are the purview of the professional historian, Churchill appears at time to write from a personal perspective. It is always good to keep this in mind when reading this work.
Volumes 3 and 4 are The Age of Revolution and The Great Democracies. I will be reviewing them later this year. I have previously reviewed Churchill’s The Second World War.