Most history books are written to correct other history books. Chesterton’s A Short History of England is no exception. In every other sense, however, it is exceptional to every other history book. Chesterton wanted to write a popular history, that is, “a history from the standpoint of a member of the public.” Most historical accounts of England, he said, were extremely “anti-popular,” that is, they ignored all the large and obvious things, “like the size of Gothic churches” and the fact that the squires in large country houses are not called abbots but their houses are called abbeys. The difference between a popular history and a scholarly history “is not about the facts but about the importance of the facts.” Chesterton maintained that legend is usually more important than history, because legend is what everyone in a village knows is important, whereas history is only what one person – usually a crank – thinks is important.
The other problem with the scholarly approach is the pretence of impartiality. Chesterton, on the other hand, starts off by frankly confessing where his sympathies lie: “I do not, in my personal capacity, believe that a baby gets his best physical food by sucking his thumb; nor that a man gets his best moral food by sucking his soul, and denying its dependence on God or other good things. I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought; and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.” Not a passage you’d find in most history books. His point is that his faith does not prevent him from seeing the facts and respecting their truth. On the contrary, it helps him put them all together. And the book he writes is indeed a complete and cohesive story of England.
Chesterton starts with Britain’s barbarian beginnings, then he introduces the civilizing order of the Romans and the Saints, then he takes us through the Crusades and the Middle Ages (lingering a bit in the long light of this era), and then through the rocky Renaissance (which he calls “The Rebellion of the Rich”), the eras of the Puritans, the Whigs, the Revolution that never happened, and finally the Return of the Barbarian. At the time he writes, England is at war with a country whose fractured philosophies it has unwittingly embraced. It has forgotten what it once was and therefore what it is really defending. All it sees is the most recent past, which, like a trick of perspective, makes closer things seem large and distant things seem small. Chesterton tries to restore the proper proportion to history, especially to that giant thing called the Middle Ages. He of course paints a big picture with a broad brush, yet he does not neglect the charming details, as, for instance, when he points out that Henry VIII “was almost as unlucky in his wives as they were in their husband.”
Most of the critics did not take too kindly to having their cherished institutions trashed by Chesterton, or worse, having their trashed institutions cherished by him. A critic in the Times Literary Supplement intoned that the book was not to be trusted as a history of England but was only Chesterton’s slanted vision. “To Mr. Chesterton the distortion is the reality.”
George Bernard Shaw, however, praised the book, and in his review said he was encouraged that the next generation might actually learn the history of its own country because he would be able to refer them to Chesterton’s book: “For Mr. Chesterton knows his epochs, and can tell you when the temple became a den of thieves, though he leaves out half the kings and gives never a date at all. Far from being discursive, as the critics are saying, he is at once the most concise and the fullest historian this distressful country has yet found.”
Many have mentioned the unusual fact that Chesterton wrote a whole book on history without any dates in it. But it is not an unusual fact…because it is not a fact at all. There are, in fact, four dates in Chesterton’s A Short History of England. The first is 878, the year of Alfred the Great’s battle with the Danes at Ethandune (a story stirringly recounted in his Ballad of the White Horse). The next date is the year Richard II took the throne, which Chesterton gives as 1397. Okay, so this one’s wrong-it should be 1377-but who knows, it might have been a printer’s error since it occurs on the same line as the next date, 1399, when Richard was deposed by Henry IV. Chesterton would have certainly known that Richard II reigned more than two years. The last date is 1832, as in The Great Reform Bill of 1832, which Chesterton says did not reform anything. “The date, however, is important, not at all because it was the beginning of democracy, but because it was the beginning of the best way ever discovered of evading and postponing democracy.” This confirms his earlier observation in the book that Parliament was the one medieval invention that betrayed the others and consented to destroy them.
Another reason this book is “popular” history is that Chesterton defends popular things: things like self-rule and self-sufficiency and that thing which was very popular throughout most of English history: Christianity. Religion, he says, “ran like a rich thread through the tapestry” of the whole culture. But that culture was destroyed when that religious thread was torn out of the tapestry. The aristocrats seized the physical domain of the Church. The heretics seized the intellectual domain. “They swept away the priests but they condescended to the philosophers.”
“It is at once the tragedy and paradox of England,” concludes Chesterton, “that it was the eternal passion that passed, and the transient or terrestrial passion that remained.” In other words, England managed to kill St. George and keep the dragon.