Authors: David Starkey
Crown and Country
A History of England through the Monarchy
To all those who worked with me on the Channel 4
series for helping me understand history
better and write it more clearly
THIS BOOK IS THE STORY
of the crown of England and of those who wore it, intrigued for it and died for it. They include some of the most notable figures of English and British history: Alfred the Great and William the Conqueror, who shaped and reshaped England; the great Henrys and Edwards of the Middle Ages, who made England the centre of a vast European empire; Henry VIII, whose mere presence could strike men dumb with fear; Elizabeth I, who remains as much a seductive enigma to us as she was to her contemporaries; and Charles I, who redeemed a disastrous reign with a noble, sacrificial death as he humbled himself, Christ-like and self-consciously so, to the executioner’s axe.
Such figures leap from the page of mere history into myth and romance. I have painted these great royal characters – and the dozens of other monarchs, who, rightly or wrongly, have left less of a memory behind – with as much skill as I could.
But this is not a history of Kings and Queens. And its approach is not simply biographical either. Instead, it is the history of an institution: the Monarchy. Institutions – and monarchy most of all – are built of memory and inherited traditions, of heirlooms, historic buildings and rituals that are age-old (or at least pretend to be). All these are here, and, since I have devoted much of my academic career to what are now called Court Studies, they are treated in some detail.
But the institution of monarchy – and I think this fact has been too little appreciated – is also about ideas. Indeed, it is on ideas that I have primarily depended to shape the structure of the book and to drive its narrative. These are not the disembodied, abstract ideas of old-fashioned history. Instead, I present them through lives of those who formulated them. Sometimes these were monarchs; more usually they were advisers and publicists. Such men – at least as much as soldiers and sailors – were the shock-troops of monarchy. They shaped its reaction to events; even, at times, enabled it to seize the initiative. When they were talented and imaginative, monarchy flourished; when they were not, the crown lost its sheen and the throne tottered.
So monarchy depends on its servants: its advisers and ideologues; its painters, sculptors and architects, and – not least – its historians. And these, too, are given voice, sometimes as chorus to the swelling scene, occasionally as actors themselves.
The result is a task completed. It began in 2004 with the publication of
The Monarchy of England: The Beginnings
. That book covered the period from the fall of Roman Britain to the Norman Conquest and its aftermath, and was intended to be the first of three volumes to accompany a Channel 4 series of the same name. A further volume,
Monarchy: From the Middle Ages to Modernity
, appeared in 2006. But the Middle Ages themselves remained untreated. This book brings together the two previously published volumes. And it fills in the missing centuries in the same style and with similar emphases.
I have also changed the book’s title.
was chosen because of the fashion at the time for portentous one-word titles for major television series. And it did the job well enough. But
Crown and Country
does it better. The crown is the oldest English institution and the most glittering. But its story, as I tell it, is finally the means to an end: the history of England herself.
The Red House
SOMETIMES, EVEN WHEN
you are a case-hardened professional, you see history differently. I had one such moment when I first visited the Great Hall of the National Archives in Washington. I was faintly shocked by the way in which the Constitution and the Bill of Rights were displayed, like Arks of the Covenant, on a dimly lit altar and between American flags and impossibly upright American marines.