Ackroyd’s second volume in his The History of England series recounts, in wonderfully vivid prose, the transformation of England from a settled Catholic country to a Protestant superpower. It is the story of Henry VIII’s cataclysmic break with Rome, and his relentless pursuit of both the perfect wife and the perfect heir; of how the brief reign of the teenage king, Edward VI, gave way to the violent reimposition of Catholicism and the stench of bonfires under ‘Bloody Mary’. It tells, too, of the long reign of Elizabeth I which – though marked by civil strife, plots against the queen and even an invasion force – finally brought stability.
But it is the story of the English Reformation that provides the backdrop to Peter Ackroyd’s masterful narrative. During the sixteenth century, England developed from a largely feudal country, which looked to Rome for direction, to a country where good governance was the duty of the state, not the church. Now men and women began to look to themselves for answers, rather than to those who ruled them.
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