Churchill’s History of the English-Speaking Peoples, abridged by Henry Steele Commager

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I guess my good streak of wonderful reads had to end. I did not love reading Churchill’s History of the English-Speaking Peoples, although I don’t know whose fault that is: Churchill’s or the abridger’s. I do know I’m glad I didn’t attempt the 2000+ page version; 470 pages of Churchill’s assessment of military strategies and medieval politics from 1939’s perspective was enough.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m glad I read it. However, I wouldn’t call Churchill’s tome a scholarly history. Even after finishing, I’m still not all that comfortable with English history.

Although I tend to avoid abridgements, I picked up this book after I read a selection of Churchill’s speeches back in October 2008. I wanted to read more Churchill. After all that time sitting on my shelf, I’m glad I got to it.

First some negatives: It reminded me of Charles Dickens’ History of England which I read last year. In places it simply felt like stories and traditions from the history, told in an interesting way and with plenty of opinion. There were few footnotes. Churchill’s writing is more detailed, informative, and overarching than Dickens’s was (Churchill made connections between kings, patterns, and eras). But I felt academic heft was missing. Despite that, I still got rather bogged down in the explanation of military strategies: I don’t care to know the details of each battle, but rather the outcomes and the effects of the battles.

And then the positive: I did really enjoy the first half, which was about the settlement of England and the kings of England. I feel so very ignorant! I am looking forward to reading Shakeapeare’s histories of England. Although those are fictionalized, Churchill mentioned some of them in passing.

I was really looking forward to the section on Victorian England, since I’ve been enjoying Victorian reads in the past month. Unfortunately, Churchill was a bit over the top with the politics and not so much about life, but it tells me where my interests lie for my next read! I have a number of Victorian English history books on my TBR list.

As for the abridgement, I can’t really compare it to the original (which I obviously haven’t read) but this abridgement, which was stated to be geared toward American audiences, had too much about America in it. Obviously, Churchill wanted to capture more than the history of Great Britain: he called it History of English-Speaking Peoples, after all. And since Churchill’s mother was American, he was just as interested in the U.S. history as the British. But I really wished Churchill would talk a little bit more about the other settlements. Surprisingly, Australia and New Zealand, in particular, had only about five pages total in this entire abridged volume. In contrast, the U.S. Civil War had a long section of about 80 pages. In a book that is less than 500 pages, that seemed a bit skewed.

In the end, I’m glad I finally got around to reading this. Churchill certainly has an interesting political perspective. But this wasn’t the best for a first look at English history.

Can anyone recommend a good nonfiction book about the history of Great Britain and its territories? I’d love to keep learning, and while I have some on my TBR, I’d always love more.

Which should be my first Shakespeare history play?

Reviewed on February 6, 2010

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • I like A Traveller’s History of England as a good overview book and British Kings and Queens, which goes through all of the kings and queens of England, Wales, and Scotland and therefore provides an overview of British history in that since. I used those two books to then find times and people I wanted to read more about.
    For Shakespeare’s history plays, Henry V is my favorite, and is actually my favorite Shakespeare play period. You could start with Henry IV Part 1 since the three parts of that lead up to Henry V. I actually like the history plays best in general.

  • Which should be my first Shakespeare history play?

    What a good question. There are a lot of good options, actually.

    I will suggest some “do nots”: The three “Henry VI” plays, are very early Shakespeare, and large parts may not even be his. They have their moments, but are, frankly, not very good overall. So not those.

    “Henry VIII” is late Shakespeare, and large parts may not be his. It has its moments, but seems to have been written for a specialized audience.

    The sequence of “Richard II,” “Henry IV, Pt. 1,” “Henry IV, Pt. 2,” and “Henry V” is really amazing. The four parts are all quite different from each other. Lindsey is right, there is no reason not to start with the excellent “Henry V.”

    “Richard III” comes at the end of the sequence historically, but does not really need the other plays. It is uneven but contains some of Shakespeare’s finest scenes, and a great title character.
    .-= Amateur Reader´s last post on blog ..I see it, I deduce it – in which I am more complimentary to Doyle and Holmes =-.

  • I recommend Henry IV as a good place to start, too, with the Shakespeare histories. But I don’t really know a good overviewy sort of book about English history. Simon Schama’s done a television history of England, which exists on DVD, if you can bear with all the blurry battle scenes.
    .-= Jenny´s last post on blog ..Writing swear words in the margins =-.

  • The book does sound disappointing; I can see why one might be glad to have read the Churchill, but it sounds like it could have been so much better, and it would be frustrating to know that might be the fault of the abridgers.

  • I would recommend Henry V. It’s short but throughly excellent. If you really enjoy it I would suggest checking out the Branagh film version of the play.
    .-= theduckthief´s last post on blog ..Ex Libris – Anne Fadiman =-.

  • I think the 1930s through 50s is still too early to really expect the kind of academic rigor found in modern histories (all the footnotes, the attempt at an unbiased tone, etc.). I’m always surprised – sometimes charmed, sometimes disappointed – at the sort of amateurish, conversational, essay-like tone of a lot of 19th- and early 20th-century history I’ve read. Often there’s a feeling that the author is writing for a very limited audience of men who went to the same small group of schools and studied the same things, and because of that he doesn’t really need to “prove” things to his readers. I don’t know if that was true of Churchill or not, but it’s the experience I’ve had with older history. That said, it sounds like this abridgment adds some oddness to what was there to begin with. At least you’re done! 🙂

    I love Henry IV (Part 1 especially), Richard II and Richard III.

    • Professional historians are still writing for the choir. While popular historians seem to lack academic rigorousness, they provide essential understanding to non-academic readerships with the narrative style of writing. Professional historians are hung up on proving an argument with copious amounts of footnotes. I know. I took my training in the department of history at a public university. Story telling is the original and yet most effective way to impart history. Remember, from oral traditions came the narrative. Then, from rhetoric, came the argument.

  • Lindsey, thanks for the recs. I’m so glad to hear that you like the history plays best! I’ve enjoyed all the Shakespeare I’ve read thus far, but haven’t tried the histories yet.

    Amateur Reader, wow. Thanks for the comprehensive thoughts on this. I’ll be coming back to that comment of yours as I make my way through the histories!

    Jenny, WATCHING the history — why didn’t I think of that?

    Dorothy W., I really loved Churchill’s writing in his speeches, so yes, this was disappointing…

    Suzanne, Henry VIII was the only king who’s story was already familiar to me! I guess he’s easy to write movies about….

    Ladytink, I’ll read that one eventually, I’m sure!

    theduckthief, I’m looking forward to reading them so I can see the movies. Glad to hear that one is well done!

    Emily, I haven’t previously read histories from that time period. So I guess I was just pretty suprised overall by this book. To consider it academic at all is completely out of line. Interesting perspective on why he wrote it like that.

    And yes, I am done! Must try those favorite plays of yours too.

  • Maybe the abridgement for Americans means that it has all the stuff about America in it which might explain why there wasn’t much about Australia and New Zealand? Either way, I don’t think I would have taken on the whole 2,000+ pages so I think you made a good choice 🙂 As for Shakespeare the Henry IV plays followe by Henry V are fantastic. I like Richard III a lot too – My kingdom for a horse!
    .-= Stefanie´s last post on blog ..School and Reading Update =-.

  • Emily – name some names, please! So the rest of us can avoid them.

    Surely the list will not include Edward Gibbon, Thomas Carlyle, Jacob Burckhardt, Johan Huizinga, or Francis Parkman? These historians were all great writers – real stylists. To the extent that we still read old historians, it’s because of their style, their qualities as writers. I wouldn’t want to call any of these historians amateurish, either.

    And if earlier historians were writing for a small group who all went to the same schools, who on Earth are academic historians writing for now?

    Rebecca – does your library have any DVD volumes of the Simon Schama hosted A History of Britain? There’s a book that goes with the series, too, although I can’t vouch for it.
    .-= Amateur Reader´s last post on blog ..This one hour, now spun and gone – a lawn ornament saddens the Italian clowns =-.

  • I’m having second thoughts, and third. First, I feel like an idiot for reading Jenny’s recommendation of Simon Schama, immediately forgetting it, and then saying, “Hey, maybe take a look at Schama!” Set that aside.

    More importantly, if you want “academic heft,” Schama’s English history is exactly the wrong place to go. He explicitly stated that he was not trying to produce academic history (like his own studies of Holland), but a broader, more subjective picture, much like Churchill’s, although from a quite different perspective. No footnotes at all, just a short list of recommended reading.

    Having said that, I was just leafing through Schama at the library – they’re great looking books. Clearly written and wonderfully illustrated.
    .-= Amateur Reader´s last post on blog ..This one hour, now spun and gone – a lawn ornament saddens the Italian clowns =-.

  • Amateur Reader, I was going to come and respond and you responded before I could! I put a request in for the first of the Schama DVDs so I hope I enjoy it.

    You got me thinking: when I say “academic” do I really mean that? I’m not sure I want something dense or textbook like, but I was interested in a little more than stories and political analysis, which is how Churchill wrote his book. I guess I just want something a little more modern/pop academic if that makes sense, so the books you describe sound a bit more up my alley. I’ll see how the DVDs are and maybe I’ll look up the books too.

  • I read this a few years ago, and found it fascinating and enormously enlightening. Being a huge fan of Sir Winston, it was refreshing to view history from HIS perspective, with his opinions and observations. His grasp of not only the subject but of the English language made it compelling and engrossing. As I mentioned before, being an admirer going in and an avid political scholar as well as spending my youth under arms, I found his treatise of the American War of Independence and Civil War particularly succinct. But, that’s just me.

    • Tracy, I did read the abridgment, too, I wonder how that affected my reading; it sounds like you read the full volumes? And yes, it definitely was interesting coming from his perspective. It just left me cold, for some reason.

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