The Isles: A History by Norman Davies (1999) 1078 p.

A couple of years ago I read The Fatal Shore, Robert Hughes’ brilliant account of Australia’s history as a British penal colony. After moving to Britain this year I became well aware that my own knowledge of British history is pretty hazy – it was only last year that I found out the British actually once executed their king and had a republic for twenty years. I’d heard of Oliver Cromwell and the “Commonwealth” and the “Restoration” and the English Civil War, but didn’t really know what those words entailed – I had no idea of the fascinating story of the king’s overthrow, and his nephew’s straight-from-a-fantasy-novel flight to safety in France. This happens to all of us, of course; we’re vaguely aware of thousands of concepts and phrases from history, society, science and the arts without really knowing the details.

So I wanted a British history book which pretty much tells the story of the nation from beginning to end – obviously a more daunting task than an Australian history book – and also, ideally, one which was well-regarded, entertainingly written and which didn’t make apologies for the horrors of the past. (More on that later.) There are plenty of gargantuan works out there, but I ended up going with Norman Davies’ single-issue The Isles: A History, which covers pretty much everything from prehistoric times to New Labour. Compared to the classic Oxford multi-volume saga, this is a “short” book, although it’s still a 1000-page brick that I’ve been reading on and off since August.

The Isles was specifically written by Davies to tackle what he saw as a confused approach to British history, to wit, the confusion between what’s English and what’s British, and the overlap between them. The title itself is derived from the least contentious terminology for the British Isles and throughout the book Davies makes a point of referring to each island and nation as it was called by its inhabitants – not the Anglicised version that came thereafter.

Another aspect of English history I was foggy on until recently was the Normans. I knew the word derived from Normandy in France, and that in the Middle Ages England had fought a series of protracted wars in France, but I assumed it was a case of England invading and claiming Normandy. It was quite the opposite: the Normans were French, and for a good three centuries after the Norman invasion, England’s king and nobles and knights all spoke French. (And even a thousand years later, those descended from the Normans are more likely to be well-off than those who aren’t.) Davies refers to William the Conqueror as “Guillaime,” as his people would have.

The second reason Davies wrote The Isles was to challenge the politicised view of British history taught in schools for much of the 20th century, a mindset Michael Gove attempted to return to in the 21st – a nationalistic perception which attempts to shore up the idea that there was always something fundamentally British uniting the peoples of the Isles. Davies regularly reminds the reader that the nation-state is mostly a modern invention, and that in feudal times people were far more likely to consider themselves as “belonging” to their local baron or to the pope than they were to the king of England. He acknowledges the British Empire as the product of unrestrained capitalism and exploitation, although – like many British scholars – still seems to consider it a “gentler” empire, as though just because Britain wasn’t as brutal as King Leopold in the Congo, or just because it left India with a pretty good railway system, all the crimes and horrors of the Empire can be summarily dismissed.

The Isles: A History is doubtless an important book and a critical addition to a historical canon which generally elevates the English to the most important strata while marginalising the Irish, Welsh, Scottish, Celts, Picts, Norseman and thousand other peoples who contributed to the long story of these islands. But for obvious reasons it wasn’t the best book for me to read. It’s a book which challenges historical assumptions amongst the British, or those well-versed in British history. For those people I can certainly recommend it. Outsiders like myself would be better off beginning elsewhere. You need to have your prejudices built before they can be challenged.