Foundation: The History of England from Its Earliest Beginnings to the Tudors

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Overview

“An extraordinary book . . . Peter Ackroyd is arguably the most talented and prolific writer working in Britain today.” —Daily Express (UK)

In Foundation, acclaimed historian Peter Ackroyd tells the epic story of England itself. He takes us from the primeval forests of England’s prehistory to the death, in 1509, of the first Tudor king, Henry VII. He guides us from the building of Stonehenge to the founding of the two great glories of medieval England: common law and the ...

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Foundation: The History of England from Its Earliest Beginnings to the Tudors

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Overview

“An extraordinary book . . . Peter Ackroyd is arguably the most talented and prolific writer working in Britain today.” —Daily Express (UK)

In Foundation, acclaimed historian Peter Ackroyd tells the epic story of England itself. He takes us from the primeval forests of England’s prehistory to the death, in 1509, of the first Tudor king, Henry VII. He guides us from the building of Stonehenge to the founding of the two great glories of medieval England: common law and the cathedrals. He describes the successive waves of invaders who made England English, despite being themselves Roman, Viking, Saxon, or Norman French.

            With his extraordinary skill for evoking time and place and his acute eye for the telling detail, Ackroyd recounts the story of warring kings, of civil strife, and foreign wars. But he also gives us a vivid sense of how England’s early people lived: the homes they built, the clothes they wore, the food they ate, even the jokes they told. All are brought to life through the narrative mastery of one of Britain’s finest writers.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Praise for Foundation:

"Ackroyd's trademark insight and wit, and the glorious interconnectedness of all things, permeate each page." —The Observer (UK)

"Ackroyd brings delightful but revealing details of the lives of the people from the past into the present." —Sunday Express (UK)

"With Foundation, Ackroyd makes a compelling case to be the country's next great chronicler."

Time Out (London)

“Given his eye for detail and the near-mythic writing in books like Thames: Sacred River, [Foundation]not surprisingly, a huge best seller in England—promises to be an original read.”

Library Journal

“The hugely popular Ackroyd’s ease of erudition ought not to be missed.” —Booklist (starred review)

“Once again, Ackroyd exhibits his magic touch with the written word, this time with the first in a six-volume history of England.” —Kirkus Reviews

"An extraordinary book...Peter Ackroyd is arguably the most talented and prolific writer working in Britain today." —Daily Express (UK)

“Ackroyd paints a portrait of early England that is both historically rich and compellingly human.”

Shelf Awareness

“[Ackroyd] is a natural storyteller and a passionate historian, but his true skill lies in his acute eye for revealing interesting details.” —San Francisco Book Review

Praise for Peter Ackroyd:

"Marvelously erudite and staggeringly industrious." —Los Angeles Times

"For Ackroyd, the past isn't merely past; it's alive." —The Boston Globe

"Ackroyd is a medium through which the obscured voices of the past are channeled." —Newsday

"His best work is in his marvelous cultual visions...because they convey a comprehensive and frequently dark sense of the English character and its vagaries."

—Harold Bloom, The New York Times Book Review

The New York Times Book Review - Walter Olson
In a narrative that is relaxed, unpretentious and accessible, if at times somewhat hasty, [Ackroyd] skillfully digests the work of others…The book is most engaging when not attending to matters of state. The minting of coins, the establishment of laws governing ancient forests, the maintenance of local roads, the development of cursive script all interest Ackroyd, as do the dining habits of lords and peasants and the travels of the mendicant friars…
Publishers Weekly
This first in a projected six-volume history by über-prolific novelist and literary biographer Ackroyd (London: The Biography) starts with the Stone Age, devotes most of its pages to the Middle Ages, and ends with the death of the first Tudor king, Henry VII, in 1509. Beginning with the earliest archeological remains dating to 900,000 years ago, Ackroyd continues from the first to the 13th centuries. when England was continually colonized and exploited by foreigners, including various Germanic tribes such as the Angles and Saxons, Vikings, and Normans. Ackroyd’s parade of monarchs includes mostly ruthless abusers of England’s resources, while the author also outlines gradual steps toward democracy. The first Plantagenet king, Henry II, imposed a system of national justice and destroyed Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas à Becket; King John was forced to guarantee his barons’ rights through the Magna Carta; and Edward I established the Parliament, but brutalized Scots and Jews. Although the storytelling is witty, provocative, and highly readable, the history is flawed—too many years are stuffed into one volume to be truly satisfying, and Ackroyd’s repeated claims about deep continuity often feel forced, such as linking the Kentish uprising against Richard III to a modern-day Kentish miners’ strike as a sign of the people’s fierce independence. 51 illus. (Oct.)
Library Journal
The award-winning Ackroyd offers the first in a six-volume history of England, moving from primeval forests and the appearance of Stonehenge through the Roman, Viking, Saxon, and Norman conquests to the start of the Tudor dynasty in 1509. Given his eye for detail and the near-mythic writing in books like Thames: Sacred River, Ackroyd's latest promises to be an original read. For all those Anglophiles.
Library Journal
This popular history of England from prehistoric times through the reign of Henry VII, the first in a projected six-volume set, isn't a new story but it's a good one. The bulk of the book is a narrative about the kings, but the prolific Ackroyd (London: The Biography) discusses other kinds of history as well: there are chapters on how the English seasons passed, lost villages, crime and punishment, diet and health, etc. Occasionally, Ackroyd is tempted into anachronism. It may be suggested that the Iliad "adverts to events in England," but it's decidedly a minority view. And it's a stretch calling Simon de Montfort, de facto ruler of England from May 1264 to August 1265, "the first ever leader of an English political party." VERDICT For the most part, though, Ackroyd's judgments are unexceptionable. The bibliography is unadventurous and the absence of citations or references frustrates, but neither is unusual in a book written for popular consumption. Academics will have little use for this work, but some beginning history enthusiasts looking for the basics may like it. [See Prepub Alert, 4/9/12.]—David Keymer, Modesto, CA
Kirkus Reviews
Once again, Ackroyd (London Under: The Secret History Beneath the Streets, 2011) exhibits his magic touch with the written word, this time with the first in a six-volume history of England. The first few thousand years of English history is understandably sparse. Written records amount to a few carvings, physical evidence is found in barrows or other burials, and myths passed down over the years tend to become adulterated. The author spends little time in the years of Roman rule, other than to point out that the pilgrims' paths and the great Roman roads are on prehistoric pathways to shrines and holy wells. Ackroyd's genius is in his focus on individual kings and on England alone, without Scotland, Ireland and Wales. He explains some myths, debunks others and brings England's kings to life. Change was slow but inexorable. From even the earliest times, England had central, organized administrations, an aristocratic society and social stratification. However it came to pass, the country has always held a sense of community. Alfred the Great set the foundations for civil service, the judiciary and Parliament; most of today's villages in England were formed before the 12th century; King John's reign increased the use of written records; and it wasn't until the 14th century, with the arrival of the Franciscans and Dominicans, that sermons were first delivered. Curiously, invaders occupied the land from the first through the 13th centuries, and England's monarchs have all had non-English origins, from the Normans through to the Hanoverians (e.g., French, Welsh, Scots). Delightfully, with each king, Ackroyd summarizes their good and bad attributes along with delightful non sequiturs, such as the first use of the handkerchief. A true history of England tightly focused on the building blocks that made her.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781250037558
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • Publication date: 9/10/2013
  • Series: History of England Series , #1
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 496
  • Sales rank: 236,651
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Meet the Author

PETER ACKROYD is an award-winning novelist, as well as a broadcaster, biographer, poet, and historian. He is the author of the acclaimed Thames: Sacred River and London: The Biography. He holds a CBE for services to literature and lives in London.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 16: Crime and punishment

A ‘scotale’ or drinking party took place at Ashley, near Cirencester, on 7 September 1208; it was in honour of the birthday of Our Lady, and the local officer of the forest sold drinks at his alehouse to celebrate the occasion. It was essentially a form of local tax, because the inhabitants felt obliged to attend in fear of incurring his displeasure. John Scot was riding back from the alehouse when he invited Richard of Crudwell to sit behind him on his horse. Richard thought that he was offering him a lift, but John took up a knife and stabbed him in the shoulder; the wound was 41⁄2 inches (10.12 centimetres) deep. Richard fell from the horse, and John dismounted. He stabbed Richard once more, and proceeded to rob his purse of forty-three shillings. Somehow Richard crawled home, on all fours, and on the next day informed the king’s sergeant. This seems to have provoked John Scot who, five nights later, broke into the house of Richard’s mother and beat her so badly that it was believed she would not live.

At a convent, near Watton in the East Riding of Yorkshire, in the 1160s, one nun had lost her virginity to a young priest; when her condition became obvious, the nuns interrogated her about the offending man. When she revealed his identity, the nuns captured him. They took him to the cell of the pregnant nun. She was given a knife and forced to castrate her lover; whereupon the nuns stuffed his genitals into her mouth. She was then flogged, and bound with chains in a prison cell. In an age when the call of heaven was direct and unequivocal – and when the spiritual world was preeminent – a general indifference was maintained to the fate or the sufferings of the physical body. When one English king was asked if he regretted the thousands of soldiers he sent into slaughter, he remarked that they would thank him when they were in heaven. The chronicler, after telling the story of the savage nuns, exclaimed, ‘What zeal was burning in these champions of chastity, these persecutors of uncleanness, who loved Christ above all things!’

These stories of physical cruelty would have been familiar to all the people of England in a period when violence was tolerated to a surprising degree. Village justice could be savage and peremptory, largely going unreported. The violence of lord against villein does not often appear in the historical record. In this society men and women took weapons with them; even small children possessed knives. William Palfrey, aged eleven, stabbed and killed the nine year-old William Geyser outside the village of Whittlesford in Cambridgeshire. There was in any case what would now be called a culture of violence. Children were educated with severe physical discipline. Corporal punishment was familiar and usual in all elements of society. Public whipping, for a variety of offences from adultery to slander, was commonplace.

A genuine pleasure was also derived from bitter disputation, denunciation and vilification. This was a culture of rhetoric and the spoken word. A wide vocabulary of scatological abuse could be employed, while sexual misdemeanours were commonly and loudly publicized. In a society of intense hierarchy, a preoccupation with good name and standing is only to be expected. Disputes were sometimes settled by ritualized fights in the churchyard. Slights and insults were the occasion of bloody disputes. The smallest incident could provoke a violent fracas. One man came into a hostelry, where strangers were drinking. ‘Who are these people?’ he enquired, for which question he was stabbed to death. An element of gratuitous cruelty could also be introduced, as in the case of one man who was dragged to a local tavern and there obliged to drink a cocktail of beer and his own blood.

So the incidence of criminality was great. The justices who travelled to Lincoln in 1202 were confronted with 114 cases of murder and 49 of rape; this is not to mention the scores of incidents of theft and assault. When the body of a murdered man was found the men of the neighbourhood were summoned, while the corpse was raised upon a wooden hurdle and exhibited for seven days with logs burning around it to provide recognition at night. All males over the age of twelve, from the four nearest villages, were summoned to an inquest.

There was a popular phrase for a felon – ‘to become a wolf ’s head that anyone may cut down’. He could be killed on sight by anyone who encountered him. Real wolves did in fact still inhabit thirteenth-century England. They were not exterminated until 1290. In that year Richard de Loveraz was noted as holding land by the service of hunting the wolf in Hampshire ‘if one can be found’. The wolf was deemed to be vermin, fit for nothing except death. So his fate was transferred to the unfortunate offender.

If the life of the nation was harsh, so was the system of punishment and death. The stocks, and the gibbet, were the common properties of English life. ‘Let him see a priest’ were the last words of the judge in a hanging matter. If you were convicted in Wakefield, you would be hanged; if you were found guilty in Halifax, your head would be cut off. Thieves, apprehended in Dover, were thrown over the cliffs. At Sandwich they were buried alive, in a place known as Thiefdown at Sandown. At Winchelsea they were hanged in the salt marsh there. At Halifax the axe would be drawn up on a pulley, and then fastened with a pin to the side of the scaffold. If the prisoner had been caught in false possession of a horse or an ox, the animal was led to the scaffold with him; the beast was then tied to a cord that held the pin and, at the moment of judgment, the beast was whipped and the pin came out. The proceedings were accompanied by the plaint of a bagpipe. It was a very ancient practice, perhaps pre-dating even the time of the Saxons. The ancient privilege of the private gallows was also in demand; by the old law of infangtheof, a lord had the right to string up a thief caught on his property. In the early thirteenth century sixty-five private gallows were set up in Devon alone.

But thieves were not always put to death. A young offender was often blinded and castrated instead. When in 1221 Thomas of Eldersfield, of Worcester, was accused of malicious wounding he was sentenced to the same punishment; the judges decreed that the relatives of the victim could perform the blinding and castration. They threw the eyeballs to the ground, and used the testicles as little footballs. The apparent severity of the penalties was necessary in a violent society where relatively few offenders were caught. In the absence of a police force or a standing army, condign punishment was one of the few ways of upholding social obligations. That is why the local people were generally compelled to witness the performance of the sentence. The objective was to maintain order.

The trial by water and the trial by ordeal were also considered to be acceptable punishments in criminal cases. Trial by ordeal was conducted under the auspices of the Church. The accused spent three days in fasting and in prayer. On the third day, in a secluded part of the church, a cauldron of water was brought to boiling point by fire; a stone or piece of iron was then placed in the water. The accuser and the accused, each one accompanied by twelve friends, were arranged in two lines opposite one other, with the cauldron in the middle. The participants were sprinkled with holy water by the priest. Some litanies were recited, and the water was once more checked to see that it was at boiling point; the accused then plunged his hand and arm into the water, and took out the weight. The scalded flesh was then wrapped in a linen cloth; if the flesh had healed after the third day the accused was pronounced to be innocent. If the flesh was burned or ulcerous, the prisoner suffered the penalty for his offence.

Another form of divination by water was practised. A man or woman was bound and then lowered into a pit of cold water; the pit was 20 feet (6 metres) wide, and 12 feet (3.6 metres) deep. The priest blessed the water and then called upon God ‘to judge what is just and your right judgment’. If the man began to sink, he was deemed to be innocent; if he was guilty, he floated. The blessed water had rejected him.

The trial by fire was slightly more ingenious. The ceremony once more took place in a church. At the beginning of Mass a fire was made, and a bar of iron placed upon it. At the end of the Mass, the red-hot metal was taken to a small stone pillar. The accused then had to pick up the glowing metal and walk with it for three steps before throwing it down. The treatment was then the same as that of the trial by boiling water.

A strange mode of punishment, known as the ordeal of the morsel, was reserved for priests. A piece of cheese, 1 ounce (28 grams) in weight, was placed on a consecrated host; it was then given to the accused cleric on the solemn understanding that it would stick in his throat if he were guilty. The angel Gabriel was supposed to come down and stop the man’s throat. It is not clear how this worked in practice.

The concept of sanctuary was clearer. A felon who fled to one of a number of specified churches might remain inviolate for forty days; no person might hinder anyone bringing food and drink to him. The church was watched closely during this period, in case the man tried secretly to escape. After forty days the thief or murderer could formally be expelled by the archdeacon, but he could be permitted to stay. He could choose to abjure the realm, however, in which case he was taken to the church porch and assigned a port from which to sail. He was obliged to walk along the king’s highway, deviating neither to the left nor the right, carrying a cross in his hand. When he reached the port he would seek passage within the time of one tide and one ebb; if that were not possible he was to walk every day into the sea, up to his knees, until he found a ship.

Violent crime was of course closely associated with the incidence of drunkenness. The English were well known throughout Europe for their addiction to ale and wine and cider. The French were proud, the Germans were obscene, and the English were drunkards. In English monasteries the daily allowance was a gallon (4.5 litres) of strong ale and a gallon (4.5 litres) of weak ale. Every village had its alehouse. Twelfth-century London was castigated by the chronicler William Fitzstephen for ‘the immoderate drinking of fools’. There was private, as well as public, drinking. The most flourishing trade among the women of an English village was that of brewing. It is one of the essential continuities of national life. ‘The whole land’, Roger of Hoveden wrote, ‘is filled with drink and drinkers.’

The court rolls contain many stories of people who fell out of windows, slipped into cauldrons, tumbled from horses, or plunged into rivers, as a consequence of drink. In 1250 Benedict Lithere had been drinking in a tavern in Henstead in Suffolk, and by the end of the session ‘he could neither walk nor ride, nor barely even stand up’. His brother, Roger, put him on his horse; he fell off. Roger hauled him up a second time, and again Benedict fell off. Then Roger decided on a more drastic measure. He put him back on the horse, and tied him onto the animal. Benedict slipped and fell off once more, killing himself in the process.

John de Markeby, goldsmith, ‘was drunk and leaping about’ in the house of a friend when he wounded himself fatally with his own knife. Alice Quernbetere, extremely drunk, called two workmen by the insulting name of ‘tredekeiles’; she was then murdered by them. Richard le Brewer, carrying a bag of malt home while drunk, stumbled and ruptured himself. William Bonefaunte, skinner, stood ‘drunk, naked and alone at the top of a stair . . . for the purpose of relieving nature, when by accident he fell head-down to the ground and died’.

The records of madness evince some of the general qualities of the medieval mind. Robert de Bramwyk took his sister, deformed and hunchbacked from the time of her birth, and plunged her into a cauldron of hot water; then he took her out and began stamping on her limbs in order to straighten them. When Agnes Fuller refused to have sex with Geoffrey Riche, he cut off her head with a sword; he informed his neighbours that he was a pig, and hid beneath a trough. Eventually he went home, found a needle and thread, and tried to sew Agnes’s severed head back to the body.

FOUNDATION. Copyright © 2011 by Peter Ackroyd. All rights reserved.

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Table of Contents

1. Hymns of stone

2. The Roman way

3. Climate change

4. Spear points

5. The blood eagle

6. The measure of the king

7. The coming of the conquerors

8. The house

9. Devils and wicked men

10. The road

11. The law is lost

12. The names

13. The turbulent priest

14. The lost village

15. The great charter

16. Crime and punishment

17. A simple king

18. The seasonal year

19. The emperor of Britain

20. The hammer

21. The favourites of a king

22. Birth and death

23. The sense of a nation

24. The night schools

25. The commotion

26. Into the woods

27. The suffering king

28. Old habits

29. The warrior

30. How others saw us

31. A simple man

32. Meet the family

33. The divided realm

34. The world at play

35. The lion and the lamb

36. The staple of life

37. The king of spring

38. Come to town

39. The zealot king

40. The king of suspicions

41. A conclusion

 

Further reading

Index

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 11 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 20, 2012

    Interesting

    This book does move at a fast pace but it is easy to read and with concentration can be followed. Most importantly it is filled with interesting information about the nitty gritty of life in old England and how our world today came to be.

    11 out of 12 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 18, 2014

    S'alright

    Okay popular history of England. Nice details of everyday life, but sooo much focus on the monarchy. Prehistory to Henry VIII.

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  • Posted January 17, 2014

    Highly Recommended

    Extremely interesting reading. My family comes from England and from my Mother's side were Knights at Corfu Castle in Dorset, andother castles. My fathers side were Irish and Knights at Rathfarnham Castle during the time of the book and helped enlighten me on my family history. I took a lot of notes and researched further getting a good insight on the times and the people. Excellent reading.

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