This is a history of England from the Battle of Bosworth which ended the Wars of the Roses and inaugurated the Tudor dynasty in 1485 to the Peace of Paris which ended the American War of Independence in 1783. It therefore charts the rise of Britain from a state riven with internal dissension to the pre-eminent world power. Scott's case seems to be that this was largely the product of luck. England happened to go Protestant because Henry VIII wanted a male heir. The delicate bloom of Protestantism managed to survive because Mary Tudor died young and Elizabeth survived and the Armada failed. Nevertheless, England tore itself apart again in the Stuart Civil Wars and still somehow managed to survive.
And this is where I found Scott's arguments rather weak. It seems to me that Britain had a significant underlying strength, a resilience, which enabled it repeatedly to bounce back. Fundamentally, despite the fact that the monarch was always strapped for cash (except for Henry VIII who extravagantly wasted not only the secure finances bequeathed to him by his father but also the windfall from the Dissolution of the Monasteries), the country seems to have kept wealthy.
The Dutch Republic was the model: it too was wealthy because of trade and because of innovative financial systems such as Banks and joint-stock companies and its wealth enabled it to survive the seventy year rebellion against the much more powerful Spanish and Hapsburgs combined.
Whilst England and Holland were prospering, Spain with all the wealth it looted from the Americas was lurching from bankruptcy to bankruptcy and the dominant militarism of Louis XIV's France bequeathed an equally debt-ridden crown to his successors. But England, although never being a land power, bankrolled troops across the continent, paid for a Navy and (crucially) the on-shore infrastructure to support it, and still made increasing profits from trade.
In summary, despite Scott's apparent attempt to debunk the Whig view of history, he left me thinking that it cannot have been solely luck that saw Britain's rise. Instead, I would suggest, the clearing out of old orders inherent in both the Monastic reforms of Henry VIII and the Cromwellian Republic, and the growth of Protestantism hand-in-hand with literacy led to a social structure in England that was able to innovate, progress and prosper.
This book never really surmounted its essential problem which was that as a history of nearly three hundred years it was spread too thinly. At the same time it was often slow. I found it mostly heavy going.
June 2014; 465 pages
- I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57