Peter Ackroyd has been praised as one of the greatest living chroniclers of Britain and its people. In Rebellion, he continues his dazzling account of the history of England, beginning the progress south of the Scottish king, James VI, who on the death of Elizabeth I became the first Stuart king of England, and ending with the deposition and flight into exile of his grandson, James II.
The Stuart monarchy brought together the two nations of England and Scotland into one realm, albeit a realm still marked by political divisions that echo to this day. More importantly, perhaps, the Stuart era was marked by the cruel depredations of civil war, and the killing of a king. Shrewd and opinionated, James I was eloquent on matters as diverse as theology, witchcraft, and the abuses of tobacco, but his attitude to the English parliament sowed the seeds of the division that would split the country during the reign of his hapless heir, Charles I. Ackroyd offers a brilliant, warts-and-all portrayal of Charles’s nemesis, Oliver Cromwell, Parliament’s great military leader and England’s only dictator, who began his career as a political liberator but ended it as much of a despot as “that man of blood,” the king he executed.
England’s turbulent seventeenth century is vividly laid out before us, but so too is the cultural and social life of the period, notable for its extraordinarily rich literature, including Shakespeare’s late masterpieces, Jacobean tragedy, the poetry of John Donne and Milton and Thomas Hobbes’s great philosophical treatise, Leviathan. In addition to its account of England’s royalty, Rebellion also gives us a very real sense of the lives of ordinary English men and women, lived out against a backdrop of constant disruption and uncertainty.
(I got an ARC of this book courtesy of the publisher through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.)
I like to say that you can’t really go wrong with Peter Ackroyd, and it seems to be once again the case. Even though what I read of him years ago feels pretty far by now, I still stand by this opinion. The man has a knack to present historical elements in such a way that one just can’t help but come back to his books no matter what—at least, I can’t. I stopped counting how many times I put my tablet in Sleep mode, thinking “I should do something else/read all the other books that I should have reviewed long before this one”, yet kept opening the file again after half an hour or so.
Of course, I’ll also confess to a complete lack of impartiality when a book deals with the Civil Wars, since it’s one of my favourite periods of British history (the other one being the Victorian era, but let’s not go there for now).
What you won’t find here, obviously, is a very detailed account of every little event of the 17th century: there’s just not enough room for that, and I’m well aware of it. Rebellion is the third volume of “The History of England”, and as such, it deals with the period as a whole. (If I wanted to know how exactly the battle of Naseby went, I… Actually, I would open another book I own, detailing precisely that, down to the bullets found years later on the battlefield.)
What you’ll get here, however, is a solid account that can be read even if you’re not a History major. In a compelling style, the author manages to convey causes and consequences with definite clarity, and even some humour. Because, let’s be honest, this is a gem:
“At the end of the discussion Cromwell, in one of those fits of boisterousness or hysteria that punctuated his career, threw a cushion at one of the protagonists, Edmund Ludlow, before running downstairs; Ludlow pursued him, and in turn pummelled him with a cushion.”
“Cromwell now always carried a gun. In a riding accident, later in the year, the pistol fired in his pocket and the wound kept him in bed for three weeks.”
It gets to show that the historical figures we take for granted in terms of seriousness aren’t always so. But then, there’s no way now to forget about those assassination plots, right, since they pushed Cromwell to carry that gun?
The narrative (it reads like a narrative, not like something arid, for sure) is interspersed with such little anecdotes, as well as chapters about literature (Hobbes’ Leviathan, Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress…), science (Isaac Newton…), and other daily life happenings, reflecting how people lived in the period.
In short, heartily recommended by yours truly.