‘The History of England. Volume IV: Revolution’ by Peter Ackroyd

Issue TwoReviews

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Reviewed by Professor Josie Arnold


I read this as a biography of the William, Anne and Hanoverian years in England that saw the growth of Great Britain as a colonial and commercial world centre. Ackroyd shows an incredible knowledge of the everyday, the quirky and the historical to build a portrait of the final rout of the Stuarts and the decline of the last of the Jacobites with their long and divisive influence. He shows how modern capitalist society begins to dominate politics and keeps alive the reader’s interest even when the most boring details of Whigs and Tories are addressed. His knowledge of their permutations made them able to be understood: something I had long found impossible.

The influence of the City of London and the growth of modern parliament is traced starting with a house under King William wherein ‘the permutations of individual members were endless’ (13). Similarly, Ackroyd makes the growth of modern banking and commercial practices interesting: quite a coup for this reader.

Throughout, Ackroyd’s deep scholarship, thinking and reading is shown through his references, quotes and bringing together what might be seen as disparate elements of history. The section heads show Ackroyd’s capacity to organise the details of the through line of the history of this period in an accessible and interesting way.

London itself is a character that Ackroyd describes in detail following both literature (Humphrey Clinker), journalism (Addison) and art (Hogarth) to show that ‘crime and violence belonged to its streets as much as flints and stones’ (147). At the same time he asserts that ‘London was power and money’. As the largest industrial city in the world it transformed what it was to live by trade and under the influence of gin.

Ackroyd captures the temper of the times with wonderful yet relentless detail. Commerce, politics, power and social change are brought before us. Above all, he brings the reasons for war to the fore. In this regard, he shows the machinations of Pitt the elder’s ‘vision, of global supremacy’ (169) on the continent as well as in the colonies. This involves also insights into slavery and commercialisation of people as well as success in Canada and the Indies.

Nor does he ignore throughout the influence of religion; not only the Catholicism of the Jacobites nor the Anglican establishment, but also the importance of dissenters such as John Wesley. He is described as ‘a man whose optimism was matched only by his energy’ (165).

Ackroyd’s depth and breadth of knowledge ranges throughout from trade to literature, art and music and to the scientific establishment. He also covers this period in which whilst the French revolution overturned their monarchy, England began its long period of constitutional democracy under the crown. In this, he succeeds in showing the English as ‘a practical and pragmatic race’ (319).

Social changes are central of course in this fourth volume subtitled ‘Revolution’. Under Queen Anne, the nobility are beginning to give way to trade, and the middle class is developing strength and influence although ‘wealth was essential but not necessarily enough. Blood lineage was equally, if not more important’ (19). The conservative Church of England is also under fire from ‘dissenters and non-conformists’ (21). As ever, the poor labour and are held in disdain as only just above ‘the miserable, the abject, the worthless’ of the massed unemployed (23).

Ackroyd pays attention to the importance of harvests and the cost of bread. He shows how the land enclosures made the rich even richer and the poor of course even poorer. These clear insights into social conditions and the pursuit of power clarify how the face of England changed as modern capitalist imperatives began to develop.

Perhaps the most significant social change Ackroyd identifies is the growth of the media that so dominates today’s affairs. He records how the ‘fourth estate’ emerged and participated in the growth of what today we know as capitalism (25). Under Queen Anne London became dominated as ‘a world of news’(37)  in the coffee houses and publications of political journalism. Much of this, Ackroyd shows, is based upon satire.

Social order changes under King William and then Queen Anne are shown to prepare society for the Hanoverians. William, says Ackroyd, ‘had been, for many, the least bad alternative’ (31), and the unprepossessing Queen Anne is described well as not only a ‘woman without an heir’ (having suffered 12 miscarriages) but also as both shy, cautious and ‘addicted to protocol’ (33).

Of course, the poor suffered as England marched triumphantly towards world power. These changes were brought about by experimentation and progress: it was a history of continual, almost inexorable, development’ (46). Ackroyd provides fascinating details of this from sheep breeding to mining, from machinery then to interesting comparisons to present day computerization. All show how the poor are exploited and powerless.

It is under Walpole that the Jacobite influence finally wanes and stutters to a halt. The Hanoverians resist war as George 1 is ‘assisted by Walpole who above all else hated war. It was bad for business and wrecked the economy’ (93). It is now that trade comes to dominate England. Ackroyd describes England’s premier position as built on trade and colonies. When Walpole falters under George 2, Ackroyd summarises again pithily: ‘Walpole had miscalculated. His native optimism had triumphed over his natural caution’ (135).

Whilst provincial English towns emulated the trade of London, the poor remain largely ignored. Ackroyd notes how the popular ‘low’ play ‘The Beggar’s Opera’ made political and social comment on this. It was set in Newgate Prison ‘filled with pimps, thieves, whores and all the other inhabitants of contemporary low life’ (127).

Society was changing and one aspect of this was the development of commercial enterprises indicated in each village and hamlet by the establishment of the local shop, and the idea of a customer/consumer. As George II took the throne, Ackroyd shows how trade encouraged equality as money dominated acceptance and class: the market dominated society. He notes how at the same time parliament itself became more party driven and controlled.

As George III was the first of the Hanoverian kings to be born and educated in England, change is bound to occur with his accession in 1760. Ackroyd is on to this of course. He develops our knowledge of trade as power when he shows how ‘England took its place at the centre of what was rapidly becoming a vast trading network from Canada to Bengal’ (185). He shows how trade, tax and mechanisation continued to place England as the most developed nation in the world. At the same time he shows the terrible injustices and imbalances of actual slavery and economic slavery that supported this dominance.

This book begins with a deceptively laconic style that sets a tone of interest and involvement rather than didactic factual analysis. He is a master of the contrapuntal as in this description of the Duke of Marlborough early in the book: ‘He was inclined to support whatever and whoever indulged his interests, whether for power, money, or further honours, while all the time remaining tactful, modest and obliging’ (11). Throughout too he makes use of contemporary literary references such as ‘Gulliver’s Travels’, Macauley’s ‘History of England’, and Defoe’s ‘Robinson Crusoe’.

This contrapuntal style continues to contribute to his insights into apparent contradictions as he acknowledges: ‘Walpole had his own share of luck, an indispensable requirement for a successful politician’ (91). Ackroyd has a sharp eye and an even sharper pen with short sentences that are quite pert as when he speaks of the death of King William’s wife Queen Mary: ‘She was widely, and perhaps sincerely, mourned’ (23).

There is, too, his appealing and stylish vocabulary as in his description of Marlborough’s acquisitiveness: ‘Blenheim Palace and Marlborough House were only two of the stone baubles he had collected’ (52). He also said to suffer from ‘vertiginous ambiguity’ (65) in his dealings with the Hanoverians and the Jacobites in the matter of succession after Queen Annes’ death.

The single often short and always pointed sentence is used to great impact: ‘It was better to trade with the Americans than to attempt to rule them’ (247); and ‘trade could not be separated from power’ (248). Or, in detailing Pitt the younger’s persona: ‘Pitt relied upon tranquillity at home and abroad’ (252).

Character insights abound in this book. From the first Ackroyd builds a lively portrait of the historical figures with a few words from himself and quotes from the period. His wry character assessment of King William shows his insightfulness and also his capacity to make a pen portrait with a few restrained strokes: ‘He had a low opinion of human nature’ (12). In a similar vein he brings down to earth such historical heroes as Marlborough.

He also illustrates the character of the times. Under George ‘the gambler was king’ as ‘gaming affected all classes’ (85). This is shown to be based on a society where avarice, panics and money bubbles were in control: much like today? Ackroyd’s humorous description of Robert Walpole illustrates his stabilising character influencing England after the crash of the South Sea Bubble. He shows again his capacity to introduce splendid quotes and to elucidate historical data with pointed comments. Walpole: ‘knew the price of every man’ and thus he ‘held the state in his hands’ (88.). In all ways he demonstrates the qualities of modern politicians and politics, and Ackroyd devotes useful time to him and his ability to stabilise the complex social impact of political power.

When describing William Pitt, Ackroyd again triumphs with his insights into historical characters’ actions and interactions, particularly in regard to war. It is  in this period that Bonny Prince Charlie makes a final inevitably unsuccessful thrust to take the throne. His loss led to ‘a deliberate policy of cultural genocide’ in the Scottish highlands. Butcher Cumberland was allowed to destroy the Highlanders.

The delicious descriptions and character assassinations continue with Ackroyd’s description of George III as: ‘He seems to have inherited  a strain of obstinate self-righteousness from his Hanoverian predecessors; he  had the  deficiencies of a closed mind, including overweening self-confidence combined with long spells of resentment and sullenness’ (179). He is allowed some better attributes as a worker and a King who loved the land: ‘farmer George’ who was strongly against Pitt’s war policy and for peace.

Invention, mechanization, science and the use of coal for machinery become strong indicators of the changing nature of industry. It is the inventiveness of this change that he captures as he details the influences of the theatre, art, literature and above all the fourth estate and emphasises the importance of the spread of literacy in the development of power. In showing that the 18th century was ‘a great age for political excitement’ (209), he indicates the historical importance of the American Revolution.

George III’s reign seemed peaceful and hopeful: but as French revolutionaries were storming the Bastille and Europe was in chaos, something as happening to the King. England escaped revolution, but George III could not escape madness.

At the same time wars with France continued and the revolution there was terrifying to the constitutional monarchy. Emerging on to this scene was the future emperor Napoleon Buonaparte. The Napoleonic wars were beginning and King George 3 was mad! He was replaced by his son as Prince Regent. The stability of England was under threat.

Throughout Ackroyd succeeds in making the information flow into a narrative that is non-didactic. At no time does he seem to push a particular point of view. Rather he introduces ideas and looks at them from multiple angles. Interestingly this included perceptive insights into the working and lowest classes. His retrospective analyses demonstrates the role of the historian: a novelist would use his data in a different narrative style. His is a broad view whereas the narrative could also be micro-told with more specificity. There are so many stories in this history. Sometimes he stirs this with his discussion of the American colonies that fought for freedom: ‘for the first time a group of people had advanced the cause of a nation without a king, without an aristocracy and without a national church’ (243).

The social control that is made available through industrialisation is considered alongside the growth of workers’ combinations or unions. Working conditions are shown in all of their commercialised savagery. Poor children are seen as subject to industrialized slavery. Women are employed as cheaper labour than men. Progress was the catchcry. While ‘employees were obliged to work in conditions that were compared to those of Hades’ (275) employees were setting up price and wage fixing rings and people were drifting to where this grinding labour existed.

In this volume IV, Ackroyd demonstrates the great change that occurred as ‘England was no longer predominately an agricultural society, a state in which it had remained for approximately 10,000 years’ (290). He describes this as an apocalypse driven by science and industry. At the same time he shows the threats to the worker and the resultant anti-machinery Luddites.

Whilst in many ways a typical political history dominated by rulers, their ministers and their generals, this book also has many interesting nuances about the periods of British History it covers. These include the arts, business and the lives of ordinary citizens as well as insights into active and class-based slavery. It provides multiple points of interest to the reader and multiple narratives that could be expanded for the historical novelist too. I enjoyed reading it.


The History of England. Volume IV: Revolution’ by Peter Ackroyd is published by Macmillan, 2016.