Adventures in Bookland: Civil War by Peter Ackroyd

Civil War
Civil War

Which was the worst century in Britain’s history? The absolute worst to have to live through? There are plenty of candidates. The 14th century, when the Black Death arrived on these shores and killed a third of the population, has a pretty strong claim to the title. Then there’s the fifth century, after the collapse of the Roman Empire, when everything collapsed and the native Britons were driven, by sword and spear, into the margins of west and north by bands of marauding Anglo-Saxons. Mind you, having done that to the Britons, and become the English, the ninth century has strong title to the worst century, as the Vikings returned the favour and destroyed three quarters of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.

Or what about after the Norman Conquest? Pretty much the entire local aristocracy either killed or displaced by the Normans and, according to Paul Kingsnorth, the biggest land grab in history, as everything became the property of the king. Then there’s the sixteenth century: Reformation, revolt, Henry executing people left right and centre, and the ever present terror of the Tudor spy network, informing and betraying. A single sentence spoken out of place and heard by the wrong ear could be enough to have you executed.

Then there’s the destruction of the Wars of the Roses, the poverty of 19th-century industrial slums, or not one but two World Wars and a Depression packed into the first half of the 20th century. All good candidates for worst time to be born. But, having read Ackroyd’s Civil War, I will now plump for the 17th century: of all the ills that can befall a country, none exceeds civil war, and, although exact death tolls are hard to come by, the casualty rate likely exceeded that of the Great War. Even when the war was over, political uncertainty persisted, plus this was the century of enclosures, when the poor were forced from the land. So, come on down, 17th century! You have taken the prize: the worst century in British history!


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