Stretching from the Stone Age to the year 2000, Simon Schama's Complete History of Britain does not pretend to be a definitive chronicle of the turbulent events which buffeted and shaped the British Isles.
What Schama does do, however, is tell the story in vivid and gripping narrative terms, free of the fustiness of traditional academe, personalizing key historical events by examining the major characters at the center of them.
Not all historians would approve of the history depicted here as shaped principally by the actions of great men and women rather than by more abstract developments, but Schama's way of telling it is a good deal more enthralling as a result.
A study of the history of the British Isles, each of the 15 episodes allows Schama to examine a particular period and tell of its events in his own style.
1. Beginnings: 3100 BC – 1000 AD. Simon Schama starts his story in the stone age village of Skara Brae, Orkney. Over the next four thousand years Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, Danes, and Christian missionaries arrive, fight, settle and leave their mark on what will become the nations of Britain.
2. Conquest: 1000–1087. 1066 is not the best remembered date in British history for nothing. In the space of nine hours whilst the Battle of Hastings raged, everything changed. Anglo-Saxon England became Norman and, for the next 300 years, its fate was decided by dynasties of Norman rulers.
3. Dynasty: 1087–1216. There is no saga more powerful than that of the warring dynasty – domineering father, beautiful, scheming mother and squabbling, murderous sons and daughters, (particularly the nieces). In the years that followed the Norman Conquest, this was the drama played out on the stage of British history.
4. Nations: 1216–1348, this is the epic account of how the nations of Britain emerged from under the hammer of England's "Longshanks" King Edward I, with a sense of who and what they were, which endures to this day.
5. King death: 1348–1500. It took only six years for the plague to ravage the British Isles. Its impact was to last for generations. But from the ashes of this trauma an unexpected and unique class of Englishmen emerged.
6. Burning convictions: 1500–1558. Here Simon Schama charts the upheaval caused as a country renowned for its piety, whose king styled himself Defender of the Faith, turns into one of the most aggressive proponents of the new Protestant faith.
7. The body of the Queen: 1558–1603. This is the story of two queens: Elizabeth I of England, the consummate politician, and Mary I, Queen of Scots, the Catholic mother. It is also the story of the birth of a nation.
8. The British wars: 1603–1649. The turbulent civil wars of the early seventeenth century would culminate in two events unique to British history; the public execution of a king and the creation of a republic. Schama tells of the brutal war that tore the country in half and created a new Britain – divided by politics and religion and dominated by the first truly modern army, fighting for ideology, not individual leaders.
9. Revolutions: 1649–1689. Political and religious revolutions racked Britain after Charles I's execution, when Britain was a joyless, kingless republic led by Oliver Cromwell. His rule became so unpopular that for many it was a relief when the monarchy was restored after his death, but Cromwell was also a man of vision who brought about significant reforms.
10. Britannia incorporated: 1690–1750. As the new century dawned, relations between Scotland and England had never been worse. Yet half a century later the two countries would be making a future together based on profit and interest. The new Britain was based on money, not God.
11. The wrong empire: 1750–1800. The series is the exhilarating and terrible story of how the British Empire came into being through its early settlements—the Caribbean through the sugar plantations (and helped by slavery), the land that later became the United States and India through the British East India Company - and how it eventually came to dominate the world. A story of exploration and daring, but also one of exploitation, conflict, and loss.
12. Forces of nature: 1780–1832. Britain never had the kind of revolution experienced by France in 1789, but it did come close. In the mid-1770s the country was intoxicated by a great surge of political energy. Re-discovering England's wildernesses, the intellectuals of the "romantic generation" also discovered the plight of the common man, turning nature into a revolutionary force.
13. Victoria and her sisters: 1830–1910. As the Victorian era began, the massive advance of technology and industrialisation was rapidly reshaping both the landscape and the social structure of the whole country. To a much greater extent than ever before women would take a center-stage role in shaping society.
14. The empire of good intentions: 1830–1925. This episode charts the chequered life of the liberal empire from Ireland to India – the promise of civilisation and material betterment and the delivery of coercion and famine.
15. The two Winstons": 1910–1965. In the final episode, Schama examines the overwhelming presence of the past in the British twentieth century and the struggle of leaders to find a way to make a different national future. As towering figures of the twentieth century, Churchill and Orwell (through his 1984 character Winston Smith) in their different ways exemplify lives spent brooding and acting on that imperial past, and most movingly for us, writing and shaping its history.