Peter Ackroyd’s History of Britain series traces the history of modern Britain from the Norman conquest to, in the latest volume, the Victorian Era. When he begins, England is essentially the fiefdom of a foreign king, the Normans, Stephen de Blois, and the early Plantagenets all considered Normandy and Avignon more important than that strange Celt infested land to the north. Eventually, we see the kings of England evolve from foreign overlords to London-based landlords to nearly dictatorial monarchs. By Dominion, however, which begins with Napoleon’s defeat and ends on the eve of World War I, power has shifted from the throne to Parliament, from elite land holders and the Church to an ever-broadening electorate. While Victoria is the symbol of this age of transformation, she’s largely a figurehead and ultimately detached from her people.
Ackroyd’s earlier volumes are defined by the kinds (and occasional queens). Dominion divides its section of British history by prime ministers, from Wellington to Disreali to Gladstone and Primrose. This began in Revolution, which began, oddly enough, with the Glorious Revolution, in which Parliament effected a bloodless coup against Charles II. His successors found themselves beholden to Parliament, but the Georges, all Hanovers, found their power siphoned off by the new role of prime minister, though early PMs served at the King’s pleasure. In Dominion, even the PMs become somewhat superfluous. Ackroyd focuses on the lives of the common people, particularly factory workers. In some cases, he suggests Dickens may have pulled punches in describing how bad things were in Britain’s factories.
One wonders what Ackroyd’s depiction of Britiain during World Wars I and II or Elizabeth’s reign will look like.