😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂
The time of the doomed Stuart dynasty (in England) has always been one of those periods where I felt I knew the basics but didn’t really understand the ins-and-outs of it all. Peter Ackroyd’s history takes us from the accession of James I (VI of Scotland) to the throne of England on the death of Elizabeth in 1603, through to the flight of James II (VII) to France and the arrival of William of Orange and Mary in 1688. Since this is the third book in what I understand is to be a six-book series, Ackroyd doesn’t delve much into the pre-Stuart era, nor does he say much about what happened after the events he is describing, but that doesn’t present problems because he thoroughly explains the main players and factions as he goes along.
And what a bunch they were! I don’t think I’ve ever read about a war where I so emphatically felt that I didn’t want to support either side. While the Stuarts seem to have been a particularly inept, corrupt and often depraved crowd of absolutist monarchs, the Parliamentarians come across as a bunch of deeply unpleasant, power-hungry, money-grubbing, squabbling incompetents (the start of a proud Parliamentary tradition we carry on to this day). When Cromwell’s military dictatorship begins to look like the good times, then it gives an indication of the awfulness of the alternatives. What a pity M. Guillotin hadn’t been born yet…
Ackroyd’s style is very accessible and he incorporates quotes from many contemporaneous sources – not just the people in power, but many fairly ordinary onlookers who give a flavour of the despair that must have been felt by the pawns in this bloody chess-game. Of course, we still can’t hear the voices of the illiterate poor, but Ackroyd shows the impact on them of the various machinations of both sides, and the manipulation of them, usually via the various religious factions. Ackroyd also looks at the plays and writings that were produced at the time, showing how they were influenced by events, and how they would have been understood by the audiences of the day. And he discusses the impact of plague and fire, both as physical events and as how they would have been perceived symbolically.
As well as this clear picture of events in England, Ackroyd also sets the story well into the international context. He manages to keep the reader on top of all the shifting treaties and loyalties, showing how dependant international affairs were on personal relationships at that time. We get a feel for the beginnings of the various European empires and how important that was becoming in determining alliances and enmities. And he reminds the reader that both Scotland and Ireland, now linked to England by a shared monarchy, played important roles in providing support or distraction to the English factions.
Overall, this is a very readable and interesting account of the period, written in a way that makes it easy for the non-academic reader to follow. It’s certainly left me feeling much clearer about the reasons behind the events and the personalities of the people involved. I appreciated that he didn’t romanticise either side – his treatment felt very even-handed to me. But I’m afraid the question of whether I’d have wanted to be a Roundhead or a Cavalier remains unresolved – Cavalier probably, but only on the grounds that their hairdos were more fun…
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, St Martin’s Press.