You are here:   Civilisation >  Books > The Stuff of Legend

The closest thing to an English founding myth: "The Last Sleep Of Arthur In Avalon" (1881-98) by Edward Burne-Jones

Much of history is about epic myths. If there is an English founding myth it is probably the legend of King Arthur. The real Arthur was a shadowy, possibly even fictitious Romanised Briton called Ambrosius Aurelianus who won a great, if temporary, victory over Saxon invaders around the year 500, probably near Cadbury Castle in Dorset

These prosaic facts did nothing to diminish the impact and cultural legacy of King Arthur, or Guinevere and Sir Lancelot; nor did it detract from the allure of Camelot and all the paraphernalia associated with this story. Arthur's body and that of Queen Guinevere were "discovered" in 1191 at Glastonbury Abbey. According to Geoffrey of Monmoth, "The fame of Arthur's generosity and bravery spread to the very ends of the earth." Across Europe, Arthur and his knights captured the imagination of people for centuries. The great saga was dramatised by the likes of Thomas Malory in the 15th century, and by Tennyson and Wagner in the 19th century. Even J.R.R. Tolkien in the 20th century and others have reworked and endlessly brooded on Arthurian legends. Arthur himself was a symbol of the mystique of royalty. He became an ideal figure as a husband, a king, a leader of men.

The discussion of the legend of Arthur, and its ramifying success across Europe over the centuries, is one of the strengths of Robert Tombs's monumental book, The English and their History. A Cambridge-based historian, Tombs has made his reputation in the study of the French past. This background helps considerably in his own history of the English, as he always links developments within England itself to wider patterns on the Continent.

It is true that much British, and particular, English, history writing has been insular and parochial. Tombs does not make this mistake. He always casts an eye on France, or even sometimes Germany. One of the book's many virtues is that it places English history within a wider context of European developments.

Tombs is to be commended for his clarity, readability and engaging manner. His easy and self-assured style offers a digestible and entertaining account of many of the landmarks of British history, based on meticulous research, although  it is difficult to point to anything new or particularly revelatory.

He makes passing reference to the British Empire, and makes the almost obligatory point these days that the Empire also affected England, with immigration from the former colonies changing much of the British scene since 1945.

View Full Article

Post your comment

This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.