Read The Story of Britain: From the Romans to the Present Online

Authors: Rebecca Fraser

Tags: #History, #Europe, #Great Britain

The Story of Britain: From the Romans to the Present


From the Romans to the Present: A Narrative History


W. W. Norton & Company


Copyright © 2003 by Rebecca Fraser

Originally published in Great Britain under the title
A People’s History of Britain

All rights reserved

For information about permission to reproduce selections from this book,
write to Permissions, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.,
500 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10110

Production manager: Amanda Morrison

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Fraser, Rebecca.
[People's history of Britain]
The story of Britain : from the Romans to the present : a narrative history / Rebecca Fraser.—1st American ed.
p. cm.
“Originally published in Great Britain under the title A People’s history of Britain”—
T.p. verso.
Includes bibliographical references.
1. Great Britain—History—Anecdotes. I. Title.
DA32.8.F73 2005

ISBN: 978-0-393-07249-5

W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.
500 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10110

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Castle House, 75/76 Wells Street, London W1T 3QT


When I was young there were various histories of Britain which seemed to provide a clear route through our long and immensely complicated past. They were heavily biographical, extremely colourful and full of adventures which made them easy to remember. The most famous of them,
Our Island Story
, was written in 1905 by a New Zealand lady named Henrietta Marshall at the height of empire when Britain was, in the immortal words of
1066 and All That
, ‘Top Nation’. Needless to say, the world has moved on and so has the point of view of Clio, the muse of history. What might seem heroic to an earlier generation appears in a different guise today.

But it seemed to me, when I embarked on this book with three young daughters in mind, that some kind of easy framework was still needed to guide the average person through the confusing shoals of disputed facts, to give a broad-brush picture of the past to those not in the van of historical research. The national curriculum today enables many young people to grow up used to handling esoteric historical documents yet without any real chronological sense of the years between, say, the Stuarts and the Victorians. Many children might be forgiven for believing that the Egyptians and the Aztecs once lived on these islands too. The aim of this history is to attempt to return to those old rules of ‘who, when, what, how’.

Furthermore, if I may strike a patriotic note, there is a great deal to celebrate about Britain that is owed to the dead Britons of the past. The impact of some gifted individuals was so great that Britain would have been a different place without them. Their actions produced turning points in history. William Wilberforce was the driving force behind the abolition of the slave trade; Florence Nightingale saved the lives of British soldiers condemned to death by the inertia of the army bureaucracy. Despite the cruelty of the Normans or the Tudors, one of the glories of Britain’s history is the essentially free-spirited, not to say bloody-minded, nature of her natives. From Boudicca onwards a heady something in the air makes Britons resist their rulers if they go too far. That tradition of defending the rule of law and the rights of ordinary people against despots gave the world Parliamentary democracy.

In my view the history of a people must include the anecdotes which have become embedded in the national psyche, because they reflect the values of that people. I therefore make no apology for re-telling some of the nation’s best-loved stories, though the facts on which they rest may be dubious to say the least. The important thing is that they have stood the test of time and continue to be related after hundreds of years. It is surely illustrative of the British people that our favourite anecdotes concern the mighty being willing to stand corrected by the ordinary man or (in Alfred’s case) woman in the street.

Ironic, kindly, democratic, humorous, energetic, tolerant and brave, surely these are the best qualities of the British people. If the British over the centuries have thrown up a number of harsh rulers and policies, there seems to have been no shortage of British men and women ready to confront them, from John Hampden to the British missionaries who tried to stop Cecil Rhodes seizing the lands of the Ndebele people and creating Rhodesia. Along with Joe Chamberlain’s municipal socialism, the creation of the National Health Service is the greatest testimonial to the best British humanitarian ideals.

Despite considering myself a Scot with Irish roots, and being very conscious of those nations’ and Wales’ independent histories, most of this narrative has been driven by the story of the English kingdom. Since the Parliament at Westminster remains the chief law-making body for all four countries, and while the United Kingdom remains intact, I believe this is still a valid approach.

Although the errors in this volume are all my own, this book owes more than I can adequately describe to the generous help of the historian Alan Palmer, whose profound and encyclopaedic knowledge of British history has been inspiring. My editor Penelope Hoare has been extremely patient in waiting for this book, as has my inestimable agent Ed Victor. My children Blanche, Atalanta and Honor have put up with historical expeditions during their school holidays, such as tramping across the bitterly cold battlefields of Culloden at Easter, with relative good humour. I want to thank Helen Fraser (no relation), who commissioned this book, Alison Samuel, the publisher of Chatto and Windus, for her encouragement, and my mother Antonia Fraser who has not only read the manuscript at all stages but remained intensely interested in the project. I also want to thank my stepfather Harold Pinter for reading the manuscript in its early stages, as did my late grandfather and grandmother Frank and Elizabeth Longford. I am also very grateful to Patrick Seale for sharing his immense knowledge of the Middle East and to the extraordinarily learned Daniel Johnson for many gifts of books which he thought would be of use. Laura Lindsay of Christie’s used her command of British pictures to point me in the right direction with the visual images. I would like to thank the late Dr Gerald Brodribb, who took me round the Roman bathhouse he had unearthed at Beauport Park in East Sussex. Thanks also to Philip Flower for permission to reproduce a part of his grandfather’s unique photographic records of the Boer War, to Robert Silver for the inspiration provided by his childhood copy of
The Pictorial History of England
, and to my brother-in-law the artist Coleman Saunders, Lily Richards and Poppy Hampson, in particular, for their picture research. I am also most grateful to Christopher Woodhead for his continued encouragement, to Edward Barker for the views of a teenage history buff, and to Laure de Gramont for a French view of Albion. I am indebted to Dr Munro Price for his help and to Professor Ralph Griffiths for reading the proofs. The book would not be in the shape it is without the brilliant work of Peter James on the manuscript.

Lastly, the greatest thanks of all must go to my husband Edward Fitzgerald who has lived with this book and whose passion for history remains undiminished.

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