Rebellion: a beautifully written, compellingly organized tale of a century that would shape much of England’s history to come.
The 17th century laid the foundations for much of the English history that followed. Agricultural and Industrial revolutions were driven by Francis Bacon and Newton’s devotion to empirical science, as well as the study of greats like Christopher Wren, Halley, and Robert Hooke; religion was fundamentally shaped by the civil war in England as well as the release of the King James Bible; the seeds of empire were sown with the establishment of colonies in North America and the West Indies, while merchants visited ports in Africa, Asia, and America; Cromwell would score some of England’s greatest military victories, including conquering Scotland, which no English king had managed, as well as disabling Spain’s naval power and assuring English dominance of the high seas; and writers would shape English literature, including Milton (private secretary to Cromwell), John Bunyan, Pepys, and Hobbes. Even national holidays would be given a kickstart with Fawkes’ attempt to blow up parliament, odd as the English national fetish about that is.
It was a busy century. Peter Ackroyd tells its story, one focused around the civil and religious war that would end in the beheading of Charles I and the elevation of Oliver Cromwell, and the Restoration that would bring back Charles II as king. The book’s greatest strength is that Ackroyd truly does tell its story: he presents a narrative that is as interesting as any novel. Much of the book focuses on the lives of kings, but chapters do also examine things like the role of women in society, literature, and other topics, giving the book a breadth it would not otherwise have.
The book is the third of six planned volumes on English history. Its fault, perhaps, is that it ends not with a bang but a whimper: having covered the glories of Restoration, the book can drag a bit as it ends with the politicking of Charles II that would lead to the Glorious Revolution. That aside, Ackroyd is a fascinating writer of history, and for quality of writing as well as depth of knowledge, Rebellion appeals. Newcomers looking for an introduction to an important but under-known period of history and experts should be equally delighted.
Disclosure: I read Rebellion as an advance reader copy. It is released October 21st.