THE BIRTH OF BRITAIN IS THE FIRST VOLUME OF A HISTORY OF THE English-Speaking Peoples, the immensely popular and eminently readable four-volume work of history by Winston Churchill. Written by one of the masters of the English language, it is a grand and sweeping story that captures the drama of history. A rousing account of the early history of Britain, the work describes the great men and women of the past and their impact on the development of the legal and political institutions of the English. Indeed, Churchill celebrates the creation of the constitutional monarchy and parliamentary system and the kings, queens, and leading nobles who helped create English democracy in The Birth of Britain, which was first written at a time when that great achievement faced its darkest hour.
One of the greatest figures of the twentieth century, Winston Churchill is best known for his leadership of Britain during the Second World War. After a period of political exile that was part of a storied career in public life that included great successes and dramatic failures, Churchill was called to power and led Britain during its finest hour. As prime minister, Churchill joined with Franklin D. Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin to defeat Hitler and the Axis powers of Italy and Japan. Although voted out of office following the end of World War II, Churchill helped shape the post-war world and returned to the prime minister’s office in 1951. His famed “Iron Curtain” speech offered the best description of the world order following the defeat of the Nazis and the subsequent spread of communism. But Churchill was not simply one of the most important political leaders of his time. He was also the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953, and his many works include fiction, biography, and history as well as collections of essays and speeches. His memoirs, speeches, and other works during his long career remain essential documents for the history of his time. More popular with non-scholars than with academic historians, Churchill’s works of history, nonetheless, reveal the keen grasp of history by an author who not only witnessed history but made it himself.
The Birth of Britain was not Churchill’s only written work, but was one of the last of many works of fiction and nonfiction. Despite his role as one of the great political leaders of his county throughout the first half of the twentieth century—he was a member of Parliament, first lord of the admiralty on two occasions, and prime minister in World War II and again from 1951 to 1955—Churchill compiled a large literary corpus. While still a young man, Churchill was a newspaper correspondent and prior to that served a tour of duty in the military, which formed the core of his first book, The Story of the Malakand Field Force. In 1900, he published his only work of fiction, the novel Savrola, a modern political drama in which Churchill reveals his political philosophy. Churchill’s true talents, however, rested in the writing of nonfiction, and many of his works proclaimed his devotion to democratic principles and praised figures of the past who embodied the virtues of honour and decency or who provided a political education for Churchill and others. His interest in political biography was most clearly demonstrated in his biography of his father, Lord Randolph Churchill (1906). This work defended his father’s legacy and also provided Churchill a model for his own political beliefs and practices. A second biography, which also served to vindicate one of his ancestors and to provide a model of statesmanship, was Marlborough: His Life and Times(1933-38). The biography examines the life of John Churchill, duke of Marlborough, whose place in government and leadership against the absolute monarch Louis XIV may be seen to prefigure his descendant’s career in the twentieth century. A talented biographer, Churchill’s greatest literary achievement came in the field of history, particularly his The Second World War (6 vols., 1948-54). In this history, Churchill, like a twentieth-century Thucydides, presents his personal memoir of the war effort. It was in recognition of this work of history that Churchill was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953.
Churchill began The Birth of Britain and his history of the English peoples more than two decades before its final publication. He accepted the commission to write the history in 1932, at a time when he needed the money and was lost in the middle of what he called his “political wilderness”; he was a member of the opposition to the policies and leadership of his own party. Although he had no illusions about writing a history that would compete with those of the professional historians, Churchill proposed a work that would demonstrate the importance to world history of the shared heritage of the British and American peoples. He defined the English-speaking peoples as those who lived in the British Isles and all the peoples throughout the world whose institutions derived from those of England, and in the first volume of the work focused on England itself from the time of Julius Caesar’s invasion of the island to the triumph of Henry VII, the first Tudor king. He planned to deliver some half million words to the publisher in 1939 and nearly completed his task when he was interrupted by events on the continent. The rise of Hitler and his threat to world peace brought Churchill back into the government, ultimately to the prime minister’s office, and away from his writing. His work would be completed only after the war and after he wrote his personal history of World War II. After all that had been completed, he turned once again to his history of the English-speaking peoples in the early 1950s, finishing it after revising it in light of his own experiences and changes in scholarship since the 1930s. And once it appeared, the work was a best seller that has gone through numerous printings and even received warm reviews from professional scholars such as A. J. P. Taylor.
Churchill recognised that his was not the work of a professional historian, but that did not prevent him from turning to the same sources that scholars used and employing the best contemporary scholars as research assistants. Along with the advice of his researchers, Churchill drew from the most important works of his day and from his own broad reading. One of the most important influences on Churchill in the writing of his history was the monumental work by Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which Churchill admired and sought to emulate. Among the contemporary historians Churchill cites are G. M. Trevelyan, one of the leading social historians whose literary style matched that of Churchill’s, and Leopold von Ranke, the founder of modern historiography. He also cites the English Roman historian and philosopher of history, R. G. Collingwood, and the eminent historian of the English constitution, William Stubbs. Although he was not a professional historian himself, Churchill’s use of the works of the leading scholars of his day allowed The Birth of Britain to reflect the main scholarly currents of his time.
More important, perhaps, than the modern works that Churchill used in his history are the primary documents he cites throughout The Birth of Britain. Churchill’s skillful use of primary sources, the essential building blocks of any work of history, adds colour to his narrative. At many places throughout the work, Churchill quotes directly from a wide variety of ancient and medieval documents to great dramatic effect. These quotations reveal important insights from contemporaries on the character of many of the figures under consideration or of the great events Churchill recorded. He quotes from biographies of kings Stephen and Henry V as well as the great ancient historians Tacitus and Dio Cassius. He refers to Gildas, Bede, and Nennius for the history of early medieval Britain and for the shadowy figure of England’s greatest hero King Arthur, whose existence is now doubted but which Churchill confirmed, although not the Arthur of later legends. Churchill also cites the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a letter from King Alfred, and the sagas of Snorre Sturlason, and thereby reveals his command of a broad range of historical sources. For events in later medieval Britain, Churchill again turns to the most important contemporary documents to provide insights and firsthand evidence of the people and events of the time. Churchill turns to the Paston letters for evidence concerning social change from the perspective of a noble family, and he uses Jean Froissart’s chronicle to depict the events of the 100 Years’ War. And, with a healthy dose of skepticism, he quotes from the biography of Richard III by the Tudor historian Thomas More. Although not a work to which most historians turn, The Birth of Britain is based on the type of historical research, in both primary and secondary sources, admired by most professional scholars.
Churchill not only revealed great command of the historical literature but mastery of the English language. It is his brilliance as a literary stylist that gives the book, at least in part, its enduring value. This is no dry as dust academic history or a work of names and dates and events but a literary tour de force in which the passions of the figures involved are clearly captured in Churchill’s stunning prose. Better than most, Churchill expresses the drama and pathos of history throughout The Birth of Britain. His sense that history is one grand narrative makes reading his work an exhilarating experience and places Churchill’s work among the ranks of the great English literary historians Thomas Babington Macaulay and G. M. Trevelyan as well as the greatest of all English historians, Edward Gibbon. In one of many notable passages, which comments on the career of King Arthur but offers a statement on both the past and Churchill’s own age, he notes that “wherever men are fighting against barbarism, tyranny, and massacre, for freedom, law, and honour, let them remember that the fame of their deeds, even though they themselves be exterminated, may perhaps be celebrated as long as the world rolls round.” His brilliant prose echoes throughout The Birth of Britain and perhaps no place better than in his discussion of the many battles and wars fought during England’s medieval history. His treatment of the battle of Hastings, the crusade of Richard I, the great English victories in the one hundred Years’ War, and the tragedy of the Wars of the Roses reveals Churchill’s appreciation for the military arts and brings the reader into the heart of the battle.
Although it no longer reflects the major trends in historiography, Churchill’s The Birth of Britain is unabashedly political, focusing on the leaders of English political society and the formation of the constitution. Even though the published version of the work toned down the emphasis on individual kings, which is most evident in new chapter headings such as Magna Carta, the work focuses primarily on the leading figures of ancient and medieval Britain. Churchill, however, recognised that it was not only the successful kings who shaped the institutions and history of Britain but also the failed or incompetent kings who left a mark on English history. In fact, he notes that “the English-speaking people owe far more to the vices of John than to the labours of the virtuous sovereigns,” because it was during the reign of King John that the barons joined together to impose limits on the monarchy, one of the signal achievements of the English, and forced him to sign the Magna Carta. The deeds of far worse kings fill the pages of The Birth of Britain, and perhaps the most notorious was Richard III. Churchill recognised Richard was not the monster depicted in the works of the Tudor historians but also argued that Richard’s seizure of the crown alienated his allies and opened the way for the triumph of Henry VII and the Tudor dictatorship. Aware that the malevolent and incompetent left an important legacy, Churchill nonetheless filled the pages of The Birth of Britain with the actions in war and peace of the truly great kings and nobles of England. He charts the development of English institutions through the activities of Alfred the Great, William the Conqueror, Henry II, Henry V, and others. Churchill also turned to great leaders outside England, such as William Wallace, who helped forge the kingdom of the Scots.
Although much of The Birth of Britain focuses on the deeds of great men, Churchill does recognise the importance of the average person in history and does address the impact of the deeds of the great on them. He also recognises the role of the great women of history, even though few mentions of them are made in the work and most of the women who are discussed are done so in relation to their husbands or fathers. He does, of course, describe the accomplishments of Queen Maud, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and Joan of Arc as well as those of the heroine of the opposition to Rome’s invasion, Boadicea. And in all cases, men or women, Churchill cast his own judgment on their political and personal actions.
The central theme of The Birth of Britain, however, is the evolution of the English constitutional system and its democratic principles, in which Churchill took obvious pride as prime minister. Indeed, the creation of the constitutional monarchy and the concept of limited government is rightly identified as Britain’s lasting legacy to the world, and writing the history of that development offered Churchill the opportunity to defend freedom at a time when tyranny seemed on the verge of triumph. The struggles of the great figures of ancient and, especially, medieval Britain invariably shaped the political system that Churchill himself headed twice. Although The Birth of Britain ends with the establishment of what Churchill termed the Tudor dictatorship, the work charts the evolution of the central institutions of English government, which would guarantee the freedom and well being of the English people. It was during the formative period of English history, explored in The Birth of Britain, that the main outlines of the English system were set and institutions such as Parliament, jury trials, and the structures of local government appeared. Both the virtuous and the flawed figures that fill the pages of this volume all contributed in some fashion to the development of democratic principles and a limited constitutional monarchy. Even the tyrannical John and the tragic Richard II, albeit unintentionally, furthered the development of the English legal and constitutional system. Churchill’s narrative in The Birth of Britain thus traces the triumphs and tragedies of the English people as they laid the foundation for one of the greatest political systems in world history.
Michael Frassetto is religion editor at Encyclopaedia Britannica. He holds a Ph.D. in history from the University of Delaware and has taught at several colleges and written extensively on European religious and cultural history.