Crown & Country: A History of England Through the Monarchy

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The Crown and Country: A History of England Through the Monarchy By David StarkeyCrown & Country: A History of England Through the Monarchy by David Starkey is a book which attracted my interest as it was a different-than-usual premise. Normally, history books focus on one period of time, or one person/dynasty, or even in some cases one event. Here was a book which said it would teach me the history of England, but would do so by telling me the history of the monarchy. As I have a keen interest in royal history in particular, I was eager to see if David Starkey would deliver.

David Starkey is, as many will know, a prominent TV historian. However, despite my interests in history, I’ve never seen one of his programmes – I prefer to read about medieval monarchs than be shown random pictures of them which someone talks. However, I assumed he was a respected and authoritative historian – he’s on the telly after all. The first three people I told about Crown & Country, which I was about to start reading, didn’t seem to think so. As well as a general opinion of disliking Starkey, I was also informed that he is anti-Scottish, -Irish and –Welsh. As a Scot, this did not bode well for my enjoyment of Crown & Country.

The book starts in Roman times, before England had what we would recognize as a monarchy. This is important to set the scene for the events which followed in the development of the monarchy. It then progresses through Anglo-Saxon times, the Norman Conquest, the Plantagenets, the Houses of York, Lancaster and Tudor, the Union of the Crowns with the Stuarts, the Civil War and the resulting short-lived republic, and then onwards into more recent history with the Hanoverians and the House of Windsor. It is a breathtaking amount of history in a fairly short book; I say short as it is possible to hold the book without supporting it on a table.

The main aim of Crown & Country must surely be to provide an overview, or an introduction, to the history of England and the British monarchy. This is certainly what is achieved, and Starkey achieves it very well. I feel very knowledgeable about almost 2000 years of English history now. Best not question me on the Anglo-Saxons though, they all had very similar and strange names…

That said, I feel knowledgeable, but I know that Crown & Country barely scraped the surface of an incredibly complex history. I know this because the periods of history which I do have a good knowledge of were obviously pared down. The section on Henry VIII focussed on his break with Rome, and as result his divorce from Catherine of Aragon and his marriage to Anne Boleyn, and also his desire for an heir and the succession he laid out to follow his death. His second tree wives (Anne of Cleves, Katherine Howard and Katherine Parr) were barely acknowledged. Starkey focussed on the important points of Henry VIII’s reign, and those which left the biggest legacy – his break with Rome and the succession. This leads me to assume that he did the same with every other monarch, so although the stories of the monarchs I know nothing about read as complete histories, I know they are not.

“I would recommend Crown & Country to those interested in royal history, whether you are a newcomer to the subject or not…”

David Starkey writes differently to most other historians whose work I have read, and I’m not sure I like his style. He can be quite informal, and as predicted before I started reading, he is not overly fond of the Scots, Irish or Welsh. In one of the opening pages he explains that he will start before England had a monarchy, “before the beginning, if you will pardon me being Irish”. To make a joke about the Irish in this sense (that is the common joke that they don’t make sense) in a history work which should be of a high calibre is, to me, not really acceptable. Later, when discussing Mary Queen of Scots (who crops up due to her relationship with Elizabeth I of England), he rarely refers to her without calling her a seductress, or other names along those lines. Historians frequently have their own opinions of the figures they study, but she is called this by Starkey without any explanation as to why. Another mild irritation was that even once he had passed the Union of the Crowns, and later of the Parliaments, on occasion he continued to refer to England when Britain would be more appropriate (in some cases England was correct, but not always).

He also has moments of informality, which in some cases works well and suits the text. Some stick out like sore thumbs however – when explaining what the word “cocks” meant in the seventeenth century, he states it “meant taps or, well, what it means today…” This explanation is necessary, as is putting across that it has the same meaning today, but the chatty style in which he gives this does not sit well with the historical subject of .

In terms of research, I have to assume it is very well done. Certainly the times periods I had prior knowledge of were accurate. In the earlier sections, when details are not always available and assumptions have to be made, he always stated when the history was not completely verified.

So, for the million-dollar question – has Crown & Country taught me the history of England through the monarchy? Having contemplated this before I began, I was unsure it could; but despite my wide historical reading on the British monarchy, I was still thinking in modern terms. You could not tell the twentieth century history of Britain through the monarchy, but that is because monarchy is different now. In centuries gone by, the king or queen had a much more active role in government and war, therefore the history of the monarchy is very often tied closely to the history of the country as a whole. The separation only becomes really apparent in the nineteenth century.

I found that I thoroughly enjoyed Crown & Country: A History of England Through the Monarchy, despite my quibbles about David Starkey’s writing style and some opinions. I was able to rise above those issues, and enjoy what is, on the whole, a very good introduction to the royal history of England, and subsequently of Britain. I have found that I now have a list of time periods which I wish to read more about, and also time periods which I think I’ve read enough about (those Anglo-Saxons again). I would recommend Crown & Country to those interested in royal history, whether you are a newcomer to the subject or not – even if you have read widely, there will still be something new in here for you. 2000 years is a lot of history after all.

Crown & Country: A History of England Through the Monarchy
by David Starkey
Published by Harper Press, September 2010
Many thanks to Harper Press for providing a review copy of Crown & Country.

Buy book online
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Crown & Country: A History of England Through the Monarchy
by David Starkey

One Comment on "Crown & Country: A History of England Through the Monarchy"

  1. Lucy Beaumont
    11/11/2010 at 17:01 Permalink

    Sounds great! We’re looking forward to seeing David talk us through his book on November 29th at Hampton Boys School, as part of Richmond upon Thames Literature

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Written by eilidhcatriona

A Scottish lass in her late twenties living in London. A prolific reader always interested in something new.

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