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By Winston Churchill
New York: Bantam Books, 1963
388 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
November 2012

This volume I of Winston Churchill’s History of England is engaging, informative, beautifully written; an overall delight. He follows the history of England from the earliest days of settlement until what he names as the end of the Middle Ages, the end of the War of the Roses and the establishment of the Tudor rule in 1485.

Below I have simply recorded my own notes as I read which I put down more as a shorter reminder for myself so that, in the future, were I to wish I could more quickly remind myself of various periods whose details may have faded away.

Perhaps my sole complaint of the volume is what comes at the very beginning. I just didn’t get the sense that Churchill ever gave me clear and fairly precise explanation of who the settlers were and exactly where they came from. Perhaps some of those things are just second nature to British readers, but I’m not sure of the details of where I begin.

As best I can tell the very early settlements include the following groups:

These grouping seem to represent the primary peoples living in England from the earliest times until the end of the Middle Ages.

With that sort of unsure basis, I will then just comment along the way of my reading.

Book 1: Chapter 1: Britannia -- pp. 1-12

In 55 BC before the Imperial age Julius Caesar had become interested in Britain.

  1. The people were related to Germany, Gaul and Spain where Rome was already involved.
  2. They were of Celtic stock and the Druidical religion was widespread.
  3. They had useful lands
  4. The whole notion just excited Caesar since he thought the people exotic.

The late bronze age existed in Britain from about 1000 BC to about 400 BC, then the iron age entered their history.

Caesar eventually invaded Britain and within three years scored significant victories but still didn’t control the land.

Book 1: Chapter 2: Subjugation -- pp. 12-25

In the next 100 years, until 41 AD there were no further invasions from abroad, but a growth of trade.

Claudius sent 3 separate forces to invade; mainly this was to enhance his standing.

The defeated Caractacus convinced Claudius to free him so they could work together. The emperor did so.

Suetonius led the British forces and eventually the British rose up but were defeated in a major and bloody battle and surrendered.

Rome decided to move back toward pacification and Suetonius was replaced.

In 79 AD Agricola was the governor of Britannia and brought about significant peace.

“Britannia became one of the forty-five provinces of the Roman Empire.”

Book 1: Chapter 3: The Roman Provinces -- pp. 25-33

For the next 300 years the Romans were accepted and there was a prosperous occupation.

“From the year 400 till the year 1900 no one had central heating and very few had hot baths.”

But order, pride and a decent life were had by many.

“To be a citizen of Rome was to be a citizen of the world, raised upon a pedestal of unquestioned superiority above barbarians or slaves.”

Churchill sums up the gains:

“The gift which Roman civilization had to bestow was civic and political. Towns were planned in chessboard squares for communities dwelling under orderly government. The buildings rose in accordance with the pattern standardized throughout the Roman world. Each was complete with its forum, temples, courts of justice, gaols, baths, markets, and main drains. During the first century the builders evidently took a sanguine view of the resources and future of Britannia, and all their towns were projected to meet increasing population. It was a period of hope.”

However, in the first two centuries of Roman Rule there was almost no increase in the population. The Roman system did not motivate the greater economic development that could support more people.

In 122 Hadrian established the famous wall. Nearly 20,000 soldiers policed it.

There also had been an excellent road system, but by the year 350 it was falling into decline. In general Roman power was in decline. Both barbarians and the rise of Christianity threatened Roman rule.

Churchill is quite funny in insisting that the greatest advances from pre-stone age, stone-age, bronze age and iron age all were primarily of figuring out better ways to kill more enemies. He also comments on the pace of change as historians catalogue it in comparison to how we ordinary humans experience time.

“. . . nearly all change were far less perceptible to those who lived through the from day to day.”

Being just a bit older than most folks I now know, I see this more and more every day. Things which the younger folks take for granted as everyday items or knowledge were often unknown even in my own youth!

Book 1: Chapter 4: THE LOST ISLAND pp. 34-51

The decline of Roman Britain took a few centuries and was caused by many factors including:

By 429 there was almost no DIRECT Roman control. St. Germanus from France came to fight the Pelagian heresy and not only did that, but organized forces against northern invaders.

After 442 the Saxons were invading and settling. The Dark Ages set in for the next 4 centuries and only four meager source documents exist concerning British history.

Slowly life in the dark ages reflected the Germanic social system and was dominated by the translation of crimes into monetary solutions and fines which defined social values.

Power was rooted in titles and land development and by the 7th century a landed aristocracy emerged. However, early on these “kings” were local, not national.

As Roman power declined there was a rise in local British power.

Book 1: Chapter 5: England -- pp. 51-65

Slowly Britannia died and England arose “. . . humble, poor, barbarous, degraded and divided, but alive.”

Upon St. Patrick’s return to Ireland in 432 Christianity was again precluded in the British Isle, but Columba finally returned Christianity to Britian after 596. Ethelbert, King of Kent, was established in Cantebury, converted and welcomed Columba.

On Churchill’s account St. Augustine failed in his arrogance to achieve an alliance with Roman and British Christians and set back Christianity in England a full generation.

By 625 Kind Edwin was uniting much of Britain, but in 633 he was killed in battle with northern Britons.

The island was united in that it was Christian not pagan, but there was a clash as to whether Roman or Celtic Christianity would be its form. In the Synod of Whitby in 664 British Christianity generally was following the Celtic northern notion of Christianity which was under the control of the monastic orders, not Roman authority.

However, by 690 Rome had consolidated the Roman Catholic nature of England with opposition only from some of the monastic communities of the north and from Ireland.

The Honorable Bede was the sole chronicler of the “heptarchy” – the 7 kingdoms of Britain in the 100 years 731-829 period.

King Offa had an alliance with Charlemagne and protected trade with the continent.

Book 1: Chapter 6: The Vikings -- pp. 65-76

After the fall of Imperial Rome, the victorious barbarians embraced Christianity. Christian churches were the sole sanctuaries of learning and knowledge, small as that sanctuary was.

2 external forces challenged this central control:

1. From 622 Europe faced Mohomet’s rising Islam.

2. There was a second invasion of Britain from Scandinavian Vikings.

It took until the 11th century for until the Vikings themselves converted to Christianity and limited the Arab advances.

The major tool of Viking warfare was the long-boat. It was excellent both for ocean use and sailing the rivers and even some creeks. It was a shallow draught boat and carried as many as 50 men.

About 789 they first arrived in England and for the next 250 years they were the scourge of the English. From about 794 until 865 they acted more as raiders of small settlements, especially monasteries. However, after about 870 the Danes began to bring families and to settle in England.

Book 1 – chapter 7: Alfred the Great -- pp. 76-95

Alfred was Ethelred’s brother and Alfred was the primary leader in defeating the heathens. But it wasn’t only religion that he used, but policy and arms.

He finally retook London (not yet the central city of Britain) in 886. In 894-895 he fought his final battle against the Danes and then died in 899. By 910 there was another war with the Danes and once again, by 918 the English prevailed.

Book 1: Chapter 8: The Saxon Dusk -- pp. 96-110

Athelstan was the 3rd West Saxon king. In 926 he tried for peace in his area. Eventually there was all out war. By 937 the Saxons won and Alfred, the next king, was billed as “Rex totius Britannine.”

The year 954 is sort of an agreed date of the end of the first great episode in Viking history in England.

However the Dane Canute arose and was a decent and powerful leader who created law, order and respect.

From 1028-1035 England’s rulers were Viking descendants who actually came from Normandy where they had taken power.

The people very much desired stability:

This desire came from the Saxon monarchy which for five or six generations had provided the spearhead of resistance to the Danes. The West Saxon line was the oldest in Europe.

There was a desire for order.

This could only be found in monarchy and the illustrious line of Alfred the Great possessed unequal claims and titles.

Nonetheless Saxon England was weak:

“The condition of England at the close of the reign of Edward the Confessor was one of widespread political weakness. Illuminated manuscripts, sculpture, metalwork and architecture of much artistic merit were still produced, religious life flourished, and a basis of sound law and administration remained, but the virtues and vigour of Alfred’s posterity were exhausted and the Saxon monarchy itself was in decline.”

Book 2: chapter 9: The Making of the Nation -- pp. 112-121

William the Conqueror born 1027

The Bayeaux tapestry tells Williams’ side of his ambitions, his justifications and actions.

Harold became king of England in 1066, but trouble was signaled by the arrival of Halley’s Comet on the day of his inauguration.

Trouble was brewing:

1. Canute’s Scandanavian descendants were preparing to return.

2. Within Britain itself Tostig returned from exile to challenge Harold.

Harold seemed to have achieved two victories over those enemies in 1066, then William arrived from Normandy and all changed.

Ivo Taillefer led the main first attack. This is not of much importance to Churchill or the book, however, I found it fascinating since I am supposedly descendant from him, though I have never been able to trace the relationship to earlier than the Taliaferros of the 1600s.

Book 2: Chapter 10: William the Conqueror -- pp. 121-120

“The very disunity which had made assault successful made subjugation lengthy.”

The tactic was:

“ . . . mass terrorisim through the spectacle of bloody and merciless examples.”

On Christmas Day the Archbishop of York crowned William the King of England.

William died in 1087 succeeded by his son, William. His son Robert, in Normandy was said to one day rule over a united Anglo-Norman nation.

“The Normal achievement in England was not merely military in character. Although knight-service governed the holding of property and produced a new aristocracy, much was preserved of Saxon England. The Normans were administrators and lawyers rather than legislators. Their center of government was the Curia, the final court of appeal and the instrument of supervision; here were preserved and developed the financial and secretarial methods of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom. The whole system of Saxon local government, also of immense usefulness for the future – the counties, the sheriffs, and the courts, -- survived, and through this the King maintained his widespread contacts with the country.”

There was a revived spirit of the Roman Empire:

  1. Europe retreated to rule of the martial class.
  2. The monarch was at the head of the state.
  3. The Catholic Church dominated with its mix of

    Book 2: Chapter 11: Growth Amid Turmoil -- pp. 130-145

    In the midst of William II’s rule, and his attempt to consolidate and hold power, came the crusades. His brother, Robert, in Normandy went to the crusade. In 1095 Pope Urban II called for crusaders against the Muslims, and especially the Turks in the east.

    Henry, the third son of William, consolidated rule and made peace with the Saxons by marriage. He awaited his brother Robert’s return from the crusades since Robert still held Normandy.

    Between 1100 and 1105 Henry:

    1. Defeated Robert
    2. Took control of Normandy
    3. Brought the Saxons into government and the fold of the crown.

    Henry consolidated his power and became “defender” to the people against older practices.

    After Henry died there was great turmoil and several years of civil war.

    Henry’s daughter, Maud fought for the crown, and her son, Henry Plantagenet married Eleanor of Acquitaine. Thus Henry had ½ of France as well as all of England.

    I might note that my own family history goes back to the time when Maud was briefly Queen of England. Her “caterer” (which I presume means main cook) was a directl line grandfather of mine some 30+ generations removed.

    Book 2: Chapter 12: Henry Plantagenet -- pp. 146-157

    Henry II’s regime was an important era:

    1. He united England, Scotland and Ireland.
    2. There was consolidation of royal power.
    3. He developed a central royal power to replace the feudal system.
    4. He established English common law to replace Roman law.
    5. He limited the Church’s civil power, but it remained a Catholic land.

    Thomas Becket was Henry’s most trusted friend and counselor. The church and state each had an area of power and Henry appointed Becket as Archbishop of Canterbury.

    However, as archbishop Becket challenged Henry and was driven abroad. Henry advanced his own son as king and seeming made peace with Becket who returned to England, but revised the coronation. Henry was furious and had some of his minions kill Becket.

    This ultimately brought Henry down. He finally made peace with Rome, but Rome kept an independent religious authority all the way until the Reformation.

    Eventually Henry died in 1189 at the hands of his rebelling sons.

    Book 2: Chapter 13: The English Common Law – pp. 158-165

    Henry II’s most important contribution was the English Constitution and development of English Common Law.

    This was a slow change over 35 years of rule. Slowly he replaced trial by battle and other means to trial by jury. Early on these juries were not the modern sort where the jurors didn’t know the case or people, but the opposite. It was a jury of people who actually knew the people and the case itself. Slowly the custom of royal courts became institutionalized. Out of the period a law of the land developed.

    Book 2: Chapter 14: Coeur de Lion – pp. 166-177.

    In 1187 Salidin’s Moslem army took Jerusalem. Henry II died and his son, Richard I took over. He ruled for 10 years but only visited England twice and that only for a few months. He was a warrior.

    In 1190 he went on crusade. His mother, Eleanor of Aquitane oversaw England.

    In 1193 Richard finally set out for home but was captured and held in Germany. William Longchamp, a bishop, cared for Richard’s England. Prince John, Richard’s brother, was opposed to his brother Richard.

    In March 1194 Richard arrived back in London, but soon returned to France to hold his lands there and died of a wound in 1199.

    Book 2 – Chapter 15. Magna Carta. – pp. 177-189

    After Richard died John became King of England. He had quite contradictory qualities:

    1. Ruthless
    2. Crafty
    3. Capable
    4. At times even generous

    Churchill argues:

    “Moreover, when the long tally is added it will be seen that the British nation and the English-speaking world owe far more to the vices of John than to the labours of virtuous sovereigns; for it was through the union of many forces against him that the most famous milestone of our rights and freedom was in fact set up.”

    By 1204 John had lost all his French lands and retired to England.

    In 1205 John faced a crisis:

    1. He lost Normandy and now only held England.
    2. His mother, Eleanor, died and many in England only respected her and not John.
    3. Hubert Walter died. He was a popular governor for the Plantagenets for the past 10 years.
    4. There were serious problems with the church.

    John faced several years of battle with Rome and the rising power of a French alliance with the Vatican which brought John to a desperate situation.

    In what Churchill describes as a brilliant stroke of government John capitulated to the Pope and England became part of the Holy Roman with the Pope making John his vassal in charge of England. John got everything he wanted, and even the French armies could not invade.

    In 1215 John and the Archbishop solved their problems of his revolt with the “Articles of Barons: setting out a real law not dependent upon the king’s fiat. This was the basis of the later Magna Carta.

    John wanted out of the agreement, but soon died. It continued in effect, but not formally recognized for another 200 years. Later Stuarts made it official. While it wasn’t a detailed list of rules, it does limit the king’s power.

    Book 2: Chapter 16: On the Anvil pp. 189-200

    1216 brought about the “boy” king, Henry II. He began his 56 years of rule when just a young boy. There was a great deal of trouble in Henry’s middle years caused by his own love of foreigners, especially the French, and his giving power and wealth to them.

    Book 2: Chapter 17: Mother of Parliaments -- pp. 200-208

    There was a commission of reform in 1258-59. This formed a “parliament” to work with the king. It had two roles:

    1. Establish policy.
    2. Handle legislation and administration.

    Simon de Montfort rose to power leading a “Community of Bachelors of England”, a group of middle class folks. Further a Parliament was established.

    Eventually this resulted in Civil War which de Montfort’s forces won in 1264. In 1265 de Montfort himself was killed but the movement lived on.

    Book 2: – Chapter 18: King Edward I – pp 208-227.

    Edward came to power at age 33. He was a capable ruler and a general. He tried to balance the powers of:

    1. Church
    2. Barons
    3. King
    4. People
    “We must find out what is ours and due to us, and others what is theirs and due to them.”

    There was a consolidation – the main term used for this new development:

    “The framework and policies of the nation, which we have seen shaping themselves with many fluctuations now set and hardened into a form which, surviving the tragedies of the Black Death, The Hundred Years War with France, and the War of the Roses, endured for the remainder of the Middle Ages, and some of them longer.”

    Edward did oversee an opposition to Jews, mainly moneylenders, which lead to a four century ban of Jews in England.

    At the same time the development of the long-bow in Wales led to the most powerful weapon of the time.

    Before he died Edward did finally defeat the Scots and bring them into the union. His tomb at Westminster reads: “Here lies Edward I, the Hammer of the Scots. Keep troth.”

    Book 2: Chapter 19: Bannockburn -- pp. 227-234

    Scotchman Robert Bruce beat back Edward II’s forces at Bannockburn. A stunning defeat.

    More and more power was in the hands of government officials and less decided by martial power.

    Edward’s wife, Isabella, went back to France and with Prince Edward (only 14) she raised a coup against Edward II and took over.

    Book 2: Chapter 20: Scotland and Ireland -- pp. 234-243

    Robert Bruce’s son was a weak king. His rule terminated in establishing the Stuart line, but not all of Scotland accepted them.

    “Hatred of the English was the mark of a good Scot. Though discontented nobles might accept English help and English pay, the common people were resolute in their refusal to bow to English rule in any form. The memory of Bannockburn kept a series of notable defeats at the hand of the English from breeding despair or thought of surrender.”

    The Stuarts, James I, II, III couldn’t secure Scotland.

    From late 1100s Anglo-Normans tried to subdue Ireland to England.

    1. Ireland had many individual “kings” (more like tribal leaders) and no central power.
    2. Ireland’s long anti-Vatican Catholic Church centered in monasteries and restricted Rome and England.

    But Ireland had no central power to successfully resist Anglo-Norman incursions, most led by Welsh who then settle in Ireland permanently.

    The old “Irish” people and later Norman-Irish were like two totally different people.

    “Two races dwelt in uneasy balance, and the division between them was sharpened when a Parliament of Ireland evolved towards the end of the thirteenth century. Form this body the native Irish were excluded; it was a Parliament in Ireland of the English only.”

    While this battle continued to rage the new Anglo-Irish became intermarried with native Irish and saw themselves as more “Irish” than English.

    By Tudor times, especially Henry VIII’s Reformation, Ireland was open to reconquest. It was totally “un-English.”

    BOOK 2: CHAPTER 21: THE LONG-BOW, pp. 243-258

    At this time the nature of war was changed by the long-bow:

    “The power of the long-bow and the skill of the bowmen had developed to a point where even the finest mail was no certain protection. At two hundred and fifty yards the arrow hail produced effects never reached again by infantry missiles at such a range until the American civil war.”

    This brought commoners, especially archers, importantly into war.

    In 1337 the 100 Years War began. For England it was first rooted in the wool trade in Flanders. There were great early victories for the English.

    Book 2: Chapter 22 – The Black Death pp. 258-266.

    “The plague entered Europe though the Crimea, and in the course of twenty years destroyed at least one-third the entire population.”

    After the plague the arrival of gunpowder changed warfare in Europe, especially in the early 15th century.

    The Hundred Years War came to a sort of standstill since neither side could win decisively. However, as a matter of expediency great concessions were made during this period that affected Parliaments, especially the House of Commons.

    “The concession made by Edward III to the Commons mark a decisive stage. He consented that all aids should be granted only in Parliament. He accepted the formal drafts of the Commons’ collective petitions as the parliamentary bases for suture statues, and by the time of his death it was recognized that the Commons had assumed a leading part in the granting of taxes and the presentation of petitions.”

    In the late 1370s Wyclif led a movement against Rome and its power in England

    Book Three: The End of the Feudal Age

    Book 3: Chapter 23: King Richard II and the Social Revolt -- pp. 268-285.

    Wyclif, an Oxford preacher opposed oppression of the underclass especially concerning church-held lands. He failed in his day, but set in motion much of what later developed in the Reformation.

    By 1388 Richard II was beaten and broken but not deposed. But, by 1389, at age 23 he took back full control of the crown.

    Richard was working toward full control of England for the crown.

    1. He fostered and led the Irish expedition
    2. He established peace with France so there was no war.

    However, by July 1399 with Richard in Ireland Henry returned from exile to challenge him. Richard soon was forced to submit and Henry IV became king.

    Book 3: Chapter 24: The Usurpation of Henry Bolingbroke -- pp. 286-292.

    Henry’s claim to the throne was denied by France. He himself leaned strongly toward a constitutional monarch. Pressed by everyone on all sides, but especially Scotland and Wales, Henry ceded much power to Parliament.

    He died in 1413. His 13 year rule was quite mixed.

    Book 3: Chapter 25: The Empire of Henry V – pp. 292-301.

    Henry V was king at age 26. In 1415 he led his army into France on the side of the king of Burgundy. Then, in 1420 French King Charles VI recognized Henry as heir to France and Regent as long as Charles lived.

    Henry was of the house of Lancaster, and his claim to the throne was a bit “iffy.”

    “He was more deeply loved by his subjects than any King has been in England. Under him the English armies gained an ascendancy which for centuries was never seen again.”

    But Churchill believes he greatly erred with his ambitions in France and his brutal response to the Lollards in England of whom Churchill says:

    “We can see that the Lollards were regarded not only as heretics but as what we should now call Christian Communists."

    Book 3: Chapter 26: Joan of Arc – pp. 302-309.

    In 1429 Orleans was under siege by the English. Joan of Arc rose to help Orleans. With her appeal that she was singled out by God to lead the French several great victories occurred, but she ran into trouble:

    “It became clear that she served God rather than the Church, and France rather than the Orleans party."

    She was put to death in 1431 and the war then went very much against the English.

    Book 3: Chapter 27: York and Lancaster – pp. 310-322.

    In 1431 Henry VI was just 10. He wasn’t very bright and the nobles were in ascendency in relation to the king. When he finally wanted to marry at the age of 23 the House of York challenged his right to the throne, claiming they had a better claim. Churchill sees the better strength of the argument was actually on the side of York:

    “In these conditions the character of Richard of York deserves close study. He was a virtuous law-respecting, slow-moving, and highly competent prince. Every office entrusted to him by the Lancastrian regime had been ably and faithfully discharged. He had given good service. He would have been content with the government of Calais and what was left of France, but being deprived of this for the sake of Somerset he accepted the government of Ireland. Not only did he subdue part of that island, but in the very process he won the goodwill of the Irish people. Thus we see on the one side a weak King with a defective title in the hands of personages discredited by national disaster, and now with blood-guilt upon them, and on the other an upright and wise administrator supported by a nation-wide party and with some superior title to crown.”

    In 1450 the Duke of York came home from Ireland to Wales. By 1452 he marched into London.

    However, by1454 Henry had both recovered from his metal illness and had a son who could claim the throne by blood-right.

    Book 3: Chapter 28: The War of the Roses – pp. 322-335.

    The red rose was the Lancaster family, ironically center in the city of York!

    The white rose was the York family.

    From 1456-1459 there was an uneasy truce among the various families which disputed the legitimate line toward the crown. However by March 1461 King Edward IV, of the York family, was proclaimed king. By 1464 there was war between the two families, the famous War of the Roses.

    Book Three: Chapter 29: The Adventures of Edward IV – pp. 335-351.

    Edward was a 22 year old warrior when he took over. He tended to allow others to rule and he played and partied:

    “Let Warwick and Northumberland and other anxious lords carry the burden of State, and let the King be merry. For a while this suited all parties. The victors divided the spoils; the king had his amusements, and his lords their power and policy.”

    In 1464 the king married Elizabeth Woodville who was much below his station in life. Troubles followed since there were again worries about legitimate claims to the throne, so the King sought union with Burgundy, but not France. The war flamed up.

    In 1471 there was a seemingly decisive and crushing victory for the whites, the York line. Edward IV was then supreme. In 1478, to further insure his claim to the crown he had his brother, Clarence, killed, but the king himself died in 1483.

    Book 3: Chapter 30: Richard III – pp. 351-368 – end of this volume.

    Edward died leaving a queen, but she was not accepted by many. Thus the old war between the Lancasters and York flamed up again. Most of the Yorks who could possibly claim the throne were dead. However, the queen did have two sons, and the queen was currently ruling.

    Thus there were really no serious York candidates, but the Lancaster family also had no strong male candidate for king, so they went to the Tudor family which also had claim to the throne. Richard III became king.

    “Though risings and conspiracies continued throughout the next reign the strife of the Red and the White Rose had in the main come to an end. Neither won. A solution was reached in which the survivors of both causes could be reconciled. The marriage of Richmond with the adaptable princess Elizabeth produced a Tudor line, in which both Yorkists and Lancastrians had a share. The revengeful ghosts of two mangled generations were laid for ever. Richard’s death also ended the Plantagenet line."

    Churchill closes this section of his history by situating the future and summing up the past. He claims this section of England’s history coincides with the end of the Middle Ages:

    “The stir of the Renaissance, the storm of the Reformation, hurled their new problems on the bewildered but also reinspired mortals of the new age up which England entered under the guidance of the wise, sad, careful monarch who inaugurated the Tudor dictatorship as King Henry VII.”

    Bob Corbett


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