History of the English-Speaking Peoples: The Age of Revolution
© 1955 Sir Winston Churchill
The third volume in Winston Churchill’s “History of the English Speaking Peoples” begins with the most dramatic assumption of power in modern English history. In the age of religious warfare, the Protestant-majority Parliament deposed its Catholic king, James II, and invited William of Orange and his wife Anne (an English princess) to take the throne. The ‘glorious revolution’ opens The Age of Revolution, an age which ended the long epoch of history-as-made-by-the-king and ushered in the modern dominance of parliaments, congresses, and diets.
The revolutions which felled kings in England, America, and France anchor the book, with countless European wars occupying the chapters between. Although the wars of religion are fading, state politics causes conflicts aplenty on its own, like the wars of French and Spanish succession, and the seemingly near-constant Anglo-French wars in the Netherlands. The wars leapt continents, as the Seven Years War in Europe became the French and Indian War in North America. The greatest conflict, of course, was the series of Napoelonic wars, which end the book. Throughout this long century (the book spans 127 years), the English king plays an increasingly smaller role; the ‘glorious revolution’ isn’t the last time Parliament simply chooses to appoint its next king, and the Hanoverian succession of Georges that continues today demonstrated that de facto sovereignty lay with Parliament, not the king.
Churchhill is a moderate historian, and its coverage of the American War of Independence is as genteel and even-sided as one might expect from a half-American author shared the rigors of World War II at the side of Franklin D. Roosevelt, of whom he said, “It’s fun to be in the same decade with you.” The conservative Churchhill is likewise careful when recording the bitter battles between Tories and Whigs, the then-dominant political parties; neither side is favored. (The long view of history aides objectivity; I doubt Churchill is so fair in his narrative of World War 2!) This is narrative history, a grand story driven by personalities like the the handsome, brilliant, dashing, gallant, honorable, endlessly clever Duke of Marlborough. Also known as John Churchill, or Sir Winston’s great-great(etc)-grandfather, the attention given to him shows that this isn’t quite ‘objective’ history, but what’s the point of having famous ancestors if you can’t brag about their exploits defending the Netherlands against dictators from the east? Given his own history in World War 2, little wonder he identified with the Duke’s so strongly. The French revolution gives us a villain in Napoleon, and towering heroes in the form of the Duke of Wellington and Lord Nelson to slay the Corsican dragon.
All told, The Age of Revolution is quite an enjoyable survey of this period’s history, of medieval kingdoms maturing into modern states, despite being largely about the wills of titanic characters and the wars they fought.