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A Short History of England

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England's history is the most exciting of any nation on Earth. Its triumphs and disasters are instantly familiar, from the Norman Conquest to the two world wars, but to fully understand their significance we need to know the whole story.
A Short History of England sheds light on all the key individuals and events, bringing them together in an enlightening and engaging account of the country's birth, rise to global prominence and then partial eclipse.

319 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 2011

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About the author

Simon Jenkins

85 books81 followers
Sir Simon David Jenkins, FSA, FRSL is the author of the international bestsellers England’s Thousand Best Churches and England’s Thousand Best Houses, the former editor of The Times and Evening Standard and a columnist for the Guardian. He is chairman of the National Trust.

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5 stars
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Displaying 1 - 30 of 329 reviews
Profile Image for Mike Clarke.
419 reviews9 followers
September 1, 2013
Simon Jenkins rattles through the history of England in a brisk, no-nonsense fashion, summarising, precising, determining for all he's worth. A writer of a certain generation, this was no doubt how he was taught history at his presumably rather good school - short, sharp and with no room for ambiguity or doubt. The style has an utterly familiar ring to it for this is Tory history in essence: my country right or wrong, the forward march of progress, the glorious destiny of the English people, all for the best in the best all possible worlds.

This is massively nostalgic for me as it's very much the way I was taught history - chronologically as though there was an inexorable forward momentum to it, and with a focus on the great and not so great kings and other personages through whose lives the story of our nation was told. When someone started introducing nambypamby social stuff into the curriculum (brilliantly parodied by Craig Brown in 1966 And All That) I yawned inexorably. I realise of course now I was terribly wrong - for all the life of a Victorian scullery maid lacks the excitement of Henry VIII's insatiable shagging around, what happened to ordinary people, and not just those at the bottom of the heap but near the bottom and a little bit further up from it too, make a much bigger contribution than you'd imagine when focusing on the pageant and drama of monarchy.

Setting that aside though, this is a solid and readable trot through the kings and queens and later prime ministers and other politicians who have steered and shaped our country for better or worse. As a child I ate up L Du Garden Peach's Ladybird history series, most notably the two-volume Kings and Queens (to the point I can still name each monarch and dates of reigns from William the Conqueror [1066-87] to Elizabeth II [1952 - ] and no it's not nerdy thank you, but has won the day in more than one pub quiz I can tell you). Someone then gave me Lady Antonia Fraser's Kings and Queens of England, a whopping paperback volume that was more of the same but since published by Sceptre it had a lot more sex in it. Both works essentially boiled the monarchs and reigns down to their most basic constituent parts and like most Tory history provided simple judgements of each - William the Conq (stern but effective), William Rufus (shady, possibly homosexual), Henry I (just and fair but tragic), Edward I (hammer of the Scots and therefore a good egg who'd have done well at Eton), Edward II (weak and sexually deviant), Henry VI (fat and mad) etc.

Given each monarch/prime minister can only be given a handful of pages Jenkins adopts the same approach and it's very much in keeping with its National Trust origins (Jenkins is the current chair) - history presented in an attractively Laura Ashley style, with no failings or errors but lots of the messier and more inconvenient stuff left out.

A good read, but anyone with more than a passing acquaintance with the country's history may want something more substantial. Perhaps a good event for someone you know who is thinking of immigrating and will face a Home Office citizenship test anytime soon.
Profile Image for Ryan Lally.
25 reviews4 followers
July 5, 2019
Could easily be renamed, "A short history of English Monarchy and Politics". I am reluctant to be too harsh on Jenkins for 'missing' certain elements here as any attempt to give a concise account of a nation's history (especially one as elaborate as England) is destined to be a truncated one. However this seemed to be explicitly England through the lens of politics, monarchy and and the ruling class. Little to nothing is made of social movements, culture, art, (though architecture is touched upon) and the thoughts of the people.. Another curse of the, 'A short history of...' genre, especially one which centers itself around 100's of years of monarchy and parliament, is it too easily slips into being a dizzying spate of dates, names, decrees and titles, in parts reading almost like history exam notes. In general though, for his chosen domain, Jenkins gives a very clear distilled account of some of England's defining moments and figures and, much like England's history, despite intermittent periods of tedium and drudgery, there are moments of brilliance and clarity.
Profile Image for Fergie.
387 reviews34 followers
January 15, 2015
Having minored in history in college, it still surprises me upon reflection that I did not take any courses that focused squarely on England (being the self-proclaimed Anglophile that I am). Most of the books I read at that time and many of the courses I took were about Russian history -- from Peter & Catherine the Great, to the last Tsars of Russia. I'm the first to admit that American schools fall woefully short when it comes to teaching its students anything outside of the bounds of American history, and even then, Americans are known to have only a cursory interest and even less of an understanding of the subject. My insatiable need to understand world history often makes it a challenge to find a book deserving of my level of interest. If written by the wrong hand, many nonfiction history books can come across as dry. I'm glad to say that Simon Jenkin's Short History of England is just the kind of book to spark any history lover's interest. Having already read Rebecca Fraser's "The Story of Britain", I had a basic understanding of England's vast history, but the mere scope of Fraser's "Story" was daunting as she chose to research and report on deeper, more intricate history of the British Isles. For most of Jenkin's book, he discusses the unique history of England, separate from Scotland, Wales, and Ireland (and the British Empire as a whole). "A Short History of England" really begins by overviewing the Roman occupation and continues to the present day. The reader will understand the progression from fractious, regional rulers right through to Parliament and constitutional monarchy whose roots could be found in King John's acquiescence to the history-changing Magna Carta in the thirteenth century. In reading England's history, the reader will see how England was unique in its ability to conform, transform, and ultimately transcend risks that faltered other kingdoms.

Simon Jenkins "A Short History of England" will satisfy the curiosity of any one interested in learning more about one of the greatest nations on earth. Despite it appearing at times to lack in objectivity (in fact, the book sometimes comes across as a love story to England), the reader will forgive the author. The pace of the book will keep the reader engaged and reading. England's story is a page turner. History provided Simon Jenkins with a richly interesting tale, and yet, his ability to write in such a way as to sustain the reader's interest should be commended. He wisely chose not to get bogged down in all the intricate details that sometimes slowed down Rebecca Fraser's "The Story of Britain". I'm glad I read both books, but if a reader is interested in reading both, I'd suggest starting with Jenkin's before moving onto the more detailed history written by Fraser.
Profile Image for Natalie.
392 reviews14 followers
March 25, 2018
I enjoyed this book as it gave me insight into historical events that I didn’t know much about (Before 1066) but there was a little too much historical and political bias at times and this made me cringe at the author’s refusal to see both sides of the argument.
16 reviews31 followers
October 25, 2014
Not the best history book I've read. The problem with Jenkins' text is that it functions mostly as a list of names and dates. Unlike more interesting history books which detail the social, political, and especially the economic climates that lead to various events, this book simply lists the names of kings, the dates of battles, and occasionally makes a comment on the culture or economy of the time. However, this is the first book on English history that I've read, and while I would have preferred more depth, this Yankee can appreciate the fascinating history of a country like England through a basic introductory text like this. Not recommended for people with familiarity with English history, but if you're a complete newbie, it's worth a shot.
Profile Image for Fred Forbes.
964 reviews49 followers
November 25, 2017
Wandering the UK on my first ever visit, I came across this in a local bookstore. Given that I was visiting historical places this seemed a good way to get up to speed with the mother country. As the title implies, the book is short and sweet. But well told. Not much left out from a British perspective, but from the U.S. definitely. No war of 1812,for example but plenty of battles of ancient kings. One thing that did drive me bonkers was the lack of a map. Events were taking place all over the UK and a map would have made things a lot easier to understand. (It does have an insert section of 16 pages of color photos and illustrations.) Still, got the job done. I ended up better informed and have been given a path to follow should I wish to inquire for more details on specific incidents.

On a personal note, my Mom's folks go back to Edward III son John of Gaunt, my Dad's to his brother Lionel of Clarence. Makes me my own cousin, Dad my uncle, etc. but what I did not know was the these two were the ones who started the famous "War of the Roses" and here I had family on both sides and was not aware of it. Worth picking the book up just for that!
Profile Image for Victor Sonkin.
Author 18 books310 followers
June 16, 2015
It's a concise illustrated brief history of England (not Britain) since the beginning of times (after the Romans left) to the present, quite up-to-date, considering. Some might think it partisan, and I'm sure many English people have and will; for a foreigner, it's a very solid introduction that imposes some kind of narrative structure and unity on all those scattered snippets of Henry VIII's wives and Churchill's blood and sweat. Especially touching is the fact that this is exactly what the author was trying to make clear for himself; I'm sure most nonfiction books are written with this motivation in mind. An excellent entry-level book.
Profile Image for Andrew Robins.
112 reviews11 followers
March 8, 2013
When a book advertises itself as a "short" history of England, and has 280 odd pages to fit everything in, one obvious upshot is that certain periods are covered in a brief blizzard of names and places. I found this highly confusing and hard to follow in the parts of our history i had absolutely no idea about (ie everything pre 1066), and to be honest, having only just finished the book, I still can't remember that much about that period.

Where I enjoyed the book much more was in covering periods in which I had a rough idea of events, or subjects i had a sketchy knowledge of. If you are looking to improve your knowledge of our history in that way, to fill in the gaps between the bits you did at school, then this book is really excellent.

Simon Jenkins is a good writer, and - subject to the point above re the torrent of names and places, which is pretty much unavoidable - does an excellent job of conveying a huge amount of information in an informative, witty and memorable style.

I now know that in the 1730s there was 1 gin house for every 11 dwellings in London. That fact alone makes the book worth reading.
Profile Image for Richard Thomas.
590 reviews34 followers
December 15, 2014
If you wish for a concise, well written and learned history of England, this will do as well as anything. Simon Jenkins does what he says on the packet and writes a short history. There are rivals in Peter Ackroyd and Simon Schama but their books are in several volumes and to my mind, although good to have (and I do) rather fall between the stall that Simon Jenkins is in, a good single volume history, and that occupied by the Oxford histories which cover the same ground in ten or so volumes. I might quarrel with some his views but that is what I read a history book to do - to have my own ideas and views challenged to make me think through the basis of my memories of what I had learned.
Profile Image for Simon.
1,002 reviews4 followers
December 7, 2018
We have a peculiar habit as a nation of buying history books written by journalists rather than historians. They tend to suffer from the same faults that make newspapers unreliable sources for research; a conflation of fact and opinion, a one-eyed outlook and a strange romantification of the entire genre.

Jenkins is essentially a good journalist. It isn't a bad book. But is there really a need for a reasonably accurate and very selective history. It perpetuates the way history was taught in grammar schools and as parodied by Sellar and Yeatman and Craig Brown.
Profile Image for Barnaby Thieme.
516 reviews233 followers
April 9, 2016
Jenkins presents us with a serviceable and opinionated historical sketch of England from the Anglo-Saxon invasion through the present day. By necessity, this brief book leaps and bounds at full speed through its course. It would be dangerous to read this book in isolation, but it provides a useful big picture view, and I found it a useful framework for pursuing areas of interest for further study.
Profile Image for Angel Serrano.
1,374 reviews7 followers
October 18, 2013
Este libro de historia de Inglaterra se lee como una novela. Su principal limitación es que se centra en la historia política con gran atención al parlamentarismo. La economía, la cultura y la demografía son prácticamente ignoradas.
Profile Image for Vasco Simões.
196 reviews24 followers
August 10, 2021
Um livro estilo resumos da Europa América com o essencial de séculos de história, reis, rainhas, batalhas, casamentos, traições, intrigas do que conhecemos hoje como Inglaterra. Leitura acessível e interessante sem ser enfadonha e sem trezentas mil notas de rodapé que permitem estar atento.
Profile Image for Jacob Stelling.
360 reviews3 followers
December 29, 2019
A brilliant book which uses narrative history to make links between previously isolated periods of history. Themes are analysed throughout, making it easier to understand social and political change from Roman Britain to the country we see today; to understand how we went from an absolute monarchy to a pluralistic democracy; and to understand what has caused the country to change so much over two thousand years.
22 reviews
February 2, 2023
‘Posthumous’? Update - interesting book one that I wish I could just burn the facts into my head rather than reading cuz doesn’t read like a book. One fact I always remember was in 1252 king Henry III imported a polar bear to live in london and it used to swim in the Thames I think . U could imagine the suprise of a punter on their way home from a night at the tavern
Profile Image for Roy-James.
75 reviews1 follower
December 22, 2013
I'll fully admit I knew very little of English history before reading this book; apart from the key dates learned in school and names of the 'important' monarchs that I couldn't place in order - be thankful for roman numerals - and to be honest I'm still a little sketchy on that. But at least now I can place them, why these dates were important and how everything that happened from the romans has shaped where I live, and me.

This book is an overview so if you're like me and are intrigued then it's a great jumping off point. Written in manageable chunks you can get through it rather speedily and written so well there wasn't one period of history that wasn't fascinating. To me it took the shape of a fabulous novel, the characters varied and numerous, the battles bloody and heartbreaking, the treachery, romance and fight for power and perhaps most importantly the open ending waiting to be filled by anyone of us... okay, that sounds a bit corny I admit, but there is something inspiring about reading about your history.

I don't want this to sound like it's a sentimental glimpse of England of old or a fairytale, as it most definitely is not. Parts of this book show you the atrocities that power can bring and do and it's not a celebration of nationalism either; it's simply an on going tale of a land.
Profile Image for Lynda.
283 reviews9 followers
April 14, 2015
Very well written book covering all of English history from the Romans to 2011. Having to cover so much scope means that the author didn't get to do in depth on some things that might have been pet interests to me, but it gave a great understanding of how this nation came to be. I loved those "aha" moments when something I'd seen or a place I'd walked by was suddenly brought into context by reading it's place in history or how it came to be. An example would be how the three feathers came to be on the crest of the Prince of Wales, something we'd see on the side of a truck delivering goods for a company that had a royal warrant from the Queen and the Prince of Wales.
229 reviews5 followers
April 2, 2016
Not a bad history of England, but exactly what it says: Short. The rush to feed you dates and facts leaves out a lot of context, and sometimes even meaning, but if you already have a solid knowledge of the country's history and want a quick refresher, it does the job. It's biggest problem is in balance. The first thousand years of English history is packed into the first half of the book, while the second half carries just one hundred years. And it has to be said that the telling gets more interesting the more words Jenkins has to tell it in.
Profile Image for Simon Adams.
95 reviews1 follower
August 23, 2019
A rapid race through the entire history of England as we know it. Bite size chapters. I was never interested in History yet this book kept my interest. If I were rating it as a history book I’d probably give 5 stars because it’s one of the very few I have ever wanted to read and have stuck with. I learned loads too that I didn’t know or realise before. I can only give three stars as it was exceptionally readable but mainly due to subject matter I would never enjoy it as much as my four and five star reads. Worth a look though.
Profile Image for Dan Patmore.
98 reviews3 followers
January 9, 2020
As other reviewers have said. A brisk view of dates and names of monarchs and politicians. It's not the method of learning history I particularly enjoy as it lacks intrigue and human understanding, but I got enough from it and I'm pleased I did it as an audiobook rather than read as I never would have got through it.
Profile Image for Beatie Kirkby.
1 review16 followers
October 29, 2020
Should be called history of Kings & Queens of England. Maybe the most boring book I've ever read.
Profile Image for Book-Social.
404 reviews8 followers
January 30, 2020
A Short History of England sheds light on all the key individuals and events, bringing them together in an enlightening and engaging account of the country’s birth, rise to global prominence and then partial eclipse. There have been long synoptic histories of England but until now there has been no standard short work covering all significant events, themes and individuals. A Short History changes that.

I’d like to think I know a fair bit about England’s history, being an avid reader and having worked my way through a fair few history books. Yet I found myself more times than I care to mention thinking ‘I didn’t know him’, ‘I didn’t know that’ as I turned the pages of A Short History.

Jenkins provides a brilliant introduction, pointing out the differences between Britain and England. Why exactly is it that to refer to England and the English is often treated as being hostile, even racist?

Jenkins explores this point and more by starting in the year 410 and the dawn of the Saxons. At the beginning of the book it is a little name heavy and you may think this isn’t for me, but stick with it. The Ethelreds soon make way for the Edwards and the Hardradas for Hastings.

As the blurb points out, there are umpteen books that painstakingly go over certain events in history. But this book is very much an overview of everything. You get no more than a paragraph here, or a chapter there. Yet it was full of interesting little nuggets, nearly all of which I relayed to my children over the dinner table. Cue much eye rolling over Sunday dinner. Did you know how the pub name ‘The Royal Oak’ came about?

It was also interesting how up to date the book was. The book was published in 2011 and Jenkins leaves England with a coalition government and David Cameron. This pushes home the idea that the book isn’t a stuffy history book about things that happened forever ago. It’s about us, it’s about now and how we got here. All in a very neat 295 pages.

A very useful ‘100 key dates’ section (the hundred year war started in 1337 and ended in 1453), together with a list of Kings and Queens and Prime Ministers is also included. The book is definitely a keeper as I know there will be times when I need to refer to it. And being A Short History, I will be able to find the thing I need quickly and explain it in an instant.
Profile Image for Lauren.
1,447 reviews66 followers
June 29, 2017
This is one of those books that’s been on my to-read list for years. My knowledge of English history is spotty and lacks the sort of connections that transform history from a bunch of factoids into a narrative. A Short History of England seemed the perfect counterpart to that, but it wasn’t until I made a New Year’s Resolution to finally read all of Shakespeare’s history plays that I sat down with A Short History of England.

Pun not intended, but A Short History is longer than I expected. It’s short given the amount of chronological ground it covers – and there are areas where more detail would be welcome as the explanations are a bit too simplistic – but it’s more of a commitment than I expected.

Which isn’t to say the commitment or simplifying isn’t worth a read: It absolutely is!

Mr. Jenkins's writing style is accessible, and the book is an excellent introduction to English history (note that it’s English and not British). While it does feel like it was intended for an English audience who wants to brush up on their history lessons from primary school, I still found it accessible. The book is so useful that, after returning the library’s copy, I hunted down a decent hardcover edition to keep on my shelf as a reference. In other words: now I really don’t have an excuse to skip the history plays. Recommended.
Profile Image for Kosta Dalageorgas.
19 reviews1 follower
September 12, 2022
A beautifully illustrated volume summarizing nearly 2000 years of history. I did not know the largely chaotic period of the early Middle Ages with a myriad of names and battles fought (obviously an inspiration and influence on Game of Thrones). Jenkins is a talented writer who makes the complex twists and turns of English history largely digestible. As head of the National Trust, he also utilizes his book as a welcoming travel guide into exploring the natural beauty of a small country full of history. His epilogue ends with the warning that English people need to force charges on government from below and that political power needs to be decentralized in order to become more accountable and transparent. Ultimately the future of England is in its people’s hands. What will they decide to do with it?
Profile Image for James Warwood.
Author 29 books38 followers
April 19, 2022
So . . . much . . . information!!!

I have brain overload from reading this book. Don't get me wrong, it's all good stuff. But if you were to answer me what I remember I would be able to tell you three things:

1) Henry VIII was a bad-ass, and actually had a 'bad ass'!
2) Cromwell was both a brilliant politician and an annoying human being
3) Thomas Beckett tried to take on the monachy and had his brains spilled on the floor of Canterbury Cathedral (which is kinda similar to how reading this book fills like).

If I was allowed to do a re-write, I'd focus in on one or two stories from each period. Turning this book into a story instead of a history lesson. But, I still enjoyed the whirlwind of English Kings and Queens and radicals and politicians.
46 reviews2 followers
February 9, 2021
I can't really comment on how good this book actually was because it's a proper history, and I don't feel qualified to do so. What I can say is that this wasn't what I was after when I bought it. I thought it was going to have a more oversimplified narrative, and be more fun and less wordy. So of course I didn't enjoy this as much as I hoped to.

However, I can now say that I am more briefed in the long story that is English history. It was good to learn about the slow journey towards consensual government and the welfare state, particularly from the perspective of my degree.

Overall, it wasn't very fun to read, but it was definitely still worth my time.
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