Thursday, 23 April 2015

A Child's History of England by Charles Dickens.

A Child's History of England is a history book by Charles Dickens which was published in both book and serial form (within Household Words) between 1851 - 1853. In book form there were three volumes:

  • Volume I - England from the Ancient Times, to the Death of King John 
  • Volume II - England from the Reign of Henry the Third, to the Reign of Richard the Third 
  • Volume III - England from the Reign of Henry the Seventh to the Revolution of 1688 
This book (which was written after David Copperfield, 1850), it is suggested, may have been written for his son Charles Dickens Jr. (Charles Culliford Boz Dickens) who would have just turned fourteen when the first part appeared in Household Words). Dickens was no great historian; this work owed a debt to History of England by Thomas Keightley (1837-39) and History of Great Britain by David Hume (1754-61). Nevertheless he presents a fascinating (if inaccurate at times) history of England from 50 B.C. to 1837 (though the events from James II to Victoria are radically condensed into a small chapter). And I thought a history of England written by one of England's greatest authors might be a good way to celebrate St. George's Day!

I'll start with a list: these are the Kings and Queens (and indeed Oliver Cromwell) of England from Alfred the Great to James II in the order and with the dates that Dickens states:

Alfred the Great
871 - 901.
Edward the Elder
901 - 925
925 - 941
'Six Boy Kings'
941 - 1016
Canute (Cnut)
1016 - 1035
Harold Harefoot
1035 - 1040
1040 - 1042
Edward the Confessor
1042 - 1066
Harold II
William I (the Conqueror)
1066 - 1087
William II (Rufus)
1087 - 1100
Henry I
1100 - 1135
King Stephen
1135 - 1154
Henry II
1154 - 1189
Richard I (the Lionheart)
1189 - 1199
King John
1199 - 1216
Henry III
1216 - 1272
Edward I
1272 - 1307
Edward II
1307 - 1327
Edward III
1327 - 1377
Richard II
1377 - 1399
Henry IV
1399 - 1413
Henry V
1413 - 1422
Henry VI
1422 - 1461
Edward IV
1461 - 1483
Edward V
Richard III
1483 - 1485
Henry VII
1485 - 1509
Henry VIII
1509 - 1547
Edward VI
1547 - 1553
1553 - 1558
Elizabeth I
1558 - 1603
James I
1603 - 1625
Charles I
1625 - 1649
Oliver Cromwell
1649 - 1660
Charles II
1660 - 1685
James II
1685 - 1688

1830 Pigot Pocket Map of England and Wales.
Dickens begins,
If you look at a Map of the World, you will see, in the left-hand upper corner of the Eastern Hemisphere, two Islands lying in the sea. They are England and Scotland, and Ireland. England and Scotland form the greater part of these Islands. Ireland is the next in size. The little neighbouring islands, which are so small upon the Map as to be mere dots, are chiefly little bits of Scotland,—broken off, I dare say, in the course of a great length of time, by the power of the restless water.
Its tone throughout is gentle and there is the definite sense of an adult talking to a small child. And Dickens is not afraid to make judgements, providing guidance and a certain kind of humour. On Henry VIII for example, he writes,
We now come to King Henry the Eighth, whom it has been too much the fashion to call ‘Bluff King Hal,’ and ‘Burly King Harry,’ and other fine names; but whom I shall take the liberty to call, plainly, one of the most detestable villains that ever drew breath. You will be able to judge, long before we come to the end of his life, whether he deserves the character. 
He was just eighteen years of age when he came to the throne. People said he was handsome then; but I don’t believe it. He was a big, burly, noisy, small-eyed, large-faced, double-chinned, swinish-looking fellow in later life (as we know from the likenesses of him, painted by the famous Hans Holbein), and it is not easy to believe that so bad a character can ever have been veiled under a prepossessing appearance.
The accuracy of Dickens' book is dubious. He writes of Richard III the "usurper and murderer" which now is doubtful, but of course Dickens was presenting an "accepted" history, as I said he was not a historian. He tones things down to make suitable the rather unsavoury events in  English history for a child, writing that Henry VIII accused Anne Boleyn "of dreadful crimes which she had never committed, and implicating in them her own brother and certain gentlemen in her service". Also, referring I believe to the Menai massacre (the Roman slaughter of the Druids of Anglesey), he simply wrote,
Above all, it was in the Roman time, and by means of Roman ships, that the Christian Religion was first brought into Britain, and its people first taught the great lesson that, to be good in the sight of God, they must love their neighbours as themselves, and do unto others as they would be done by. The Druids declared that it was very wicked to believe in any such thing, and cursed all the people who did believe it, very heartily.
Yet, despite this lack of objectivity (which now in a way is one of its strengths) it remains an excellent read if we remember that this is A Victorian Child's History of England. It's a guide to English history, and not a definitive one, but I think it provides a good base on which to build. It has the wit and characterisation I associate with Dickens - sharp and keen, and I think writing it provided him with his own base to create some memorable characters out of historical persons, making them come alive not only for children but adults. There is too a sense of his pride in England.

He concludes with a word on Queen Victoria,
She is very good, and much beloved. So I end, like the crier, with
Gᴏᴅ sᴀᴠᴇ ᴛʜᴇ Qᴜᴇᴇɴ!
It is, in a word, charming; a most charming book, sometimes inaccurate, often judgemental, and occasionally a touch hazy, but useful nonetheless and greatly entertaining.

Queen Victoria by Franz Xaver Winterhalter (1842).


  1. I'm planning on reading A Child's History of England this year. I'm intrigued by it and your review intrigues me more! :)

    1. Well I look forward to your thoughts! It was so interesting and fun to read. Dickens is a master in this, it's one of his best. Looking forward to reading more non fiction by him :)

  2. I have a nice old copy of this book and have been planning to read it for eons. I like how you mention its lack of subjectivity may be its greatest strength. I still wonder how we, coming along hundreds (and sometimes thousands) of years after, think we know better about what happened than people who lived closer to those times. I should finish my England In the Times of Richard III FutureLearn course to find out more about this particular period. Where does the time in the day go..........?

    1. That sounds like an interesting book. So much has been said about Richard III this year, I must try and learn more..

      And yes, the lack of subjectivity - it gives a more personal picture, which drew me in more, rather than a cold attempt to assimilate facts. It made it more enjoyable, and also quite funny at times! Dickens was very harsh on several kings (deservedly, though, for most!).

  3. I want to read this one. Eventually. :)

    1. I hope you, it really is worth it! :)

  4. I have a copy of this, but I've never had the patience to read the whole thing--though the poem on Danegeld is well worth memorizing and quoting often. When my older daughter couldn't sleep, I used to give her this to read. :D

    1. Danegeld - I don't think that was in my book... Hm, perhaps I read an edited version. It was hard to tell, I had an old copy that also included The Old Curiosity Shop. I'll look it up :)

    2. In my copy, every chapter ends with a poem about the material therein. Do you not have the poems?? That would be terrible! Most of them are pretty forgettable but the Danegeld one is a poem for all time--if not in poetic beauty, at least in a pointed lesson about human nature.

    3. No, I don't have the poems :( I think my edition is perhaps a bit older than Kipling's poem and I'm not sure who else is in there. But thanks for the link, I'll have a read.

      I wish I had the poems! :)

  5. I wonder how this book compares to The Story of Mankind by Hendrik Willem van Loon. Both were written for children and are accepted accounts of history. I have always loved Dickens' sense of humor. Even in his bleakest novels, there is a a dash of humor.

    1. Yes, that's one of the reasons I like Dickens as well. Not heard of The Story of Mankind - another book for me to check out! :)

  6. Reading this now. Not for SMALL children surely. About 14 sounds about right. And you must have meant "lack of objectivity"?

    1. Lack of objectivity - yes! Thanks for pointing that out :)

      Are you enjoying it?


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