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Four takes on British history

Queen Elizabeth I, A Victorian slum and a World War I trench

Poor history teachers. Rarely a week goes by without a debate on how schoolchildren should be learning about the past. Here, historian Margaret Macmillan shows how subjective history can be, by presenting four versions of the past 450 years.

History is the past so therefore it cannot change.

Wrong, quite wrong. History has changed, is changing now, and will continue to change. We find out new things all the time.

Archaeologists are sifting through gardens and rubbish dumps to find out what people who are long dead grew and ate; archivists turn up bundles of long forgotten papers or families root through their attics.

We start with facts and solid objects, of course, but in writing history we move beyond them very quickly.

Looking at the events of our own time, we do so through a variety of lenses - liberal, conservative, radical, religious, feminist. We do the same with the past.

So let's take one important period in British history and see how historians might tell the story in different ways without, of course, getting the facts wrong. See if you can guess what the viewpoints are in each version.


The golden age of the Tudors brought unity to a divided England and peace with Scotland. The arts flourished - Shakespeare, Holbein, Purcell - and reflected the vigour and pride of a bold and brave people.

Henry VIII stood up to Rome and his glorious daughter Elizabeth saw off the might of the Spanish empire. English seafarers roamed the world, discovering new routes and laying the foundations for the British Empire.

King Charles II
Monarchy was restored by Charles II

While the 17th Century brought civil war, peace came again with Charles II who wisely decided to compromise with Parliament. In the 18th and 19th Centuries Britain, safe behind its navy, grew powerful and prosperous.

Its manufactures flooded the world, its money built railways and ports across the globe, and its empire brought peace and prosperity to millions of Asians and Africans.

In the 20th Century, though, Britain exhausted itself standing up to the threats from the Continent, first from the Kaiser in the 1914-1918 war and then in the even more deadly struggle against the dictators.

Its empire crumbled and by the end of the century Britain was again a small power. Yet its institutions, even its fashions, remain models for much of the world.

That was the standard viewpoint, seeing history as a glorious story. Next is...


History is driven by economic forces not made by individuals. At the start of our period, England was dominated by a feudal aristocracy whose wealth and power rested on ownership of land. The Tudors gradually brought the great lords under control and allowed a merchant class to grow.

The Elizabethan explorers were driven by their search for profits and that was to remain the guiding motive for the creation of the Empire. Even Henry VIII's break with Rome was about wealth, not religion: he and his supporters wanted to get their hands on the Church's enormous wealth.

The world wars of the 20th Century were largely about economic mastery of the globe

By the 17th Century, the growing middle-class was chafing under monarchical and aristocratic rule: that's what the Civil War was about. The triumph of Parliament was a victory for the middle classes which took support from the farmers and workers and then turned around and betrayed them.

Although the 18th Century saw the renewed dominance of the landed aristocracy, by the 19th Century Britain was changing fast. The great growth of industry produced hugely powerful industrialists and a large middle class who mercilessly exploited the working classes.

Although the workers reacted by organizing themselves and might one day have seized power in a revolution, they were bought off by increased wages and benefits, largely financed by Britain's ruthless exploitation of its Empire.

The world wars of the 20th Century were largely about economic mastery of the globe. Britain may have defeated Germany but in the end it could not withstand the challenge from the new capitalist superpower, the United States.

That was according to the Marxists, who put economics at the centre of the story. Now who's speaking?


Life for the ordinary English man and woman for the past centuries was miserable and short. Until the middle of the 19th Century, life expectancy for the lower classes, most of them peasants but also artisans and small shopkeepers, was about 30 years.

Their children had little education and few chances to rise out of the class into which they were born. They could not vote or hold office. The courts existed to protect the propertied classes and punishments for even minor crimes were savage. The Reformation was a mixed blessing for them.

On the one hand Protestantism brought the notion that every man - note not every woman - had the right to interpret the scriptures in his own way; on other it brought the dissolution of the monasteries which, for all their faults, had provided a minimum of charity for the poor.

The industrial revolution spread from Britain to elsewhere

The results of the Industrial Revolution of the 19th Century were equally mixed. Yes, it provided jobs in the new industries but at a terrible human cost.

Think of the descriptions in Dickens' novels of the factories and slums of Victorian England. Eventually a strong trade union movement brought political and social reforms but class still matters today when it comes to living standards and opportunities.

Yet we should not write off the lives of the lower classes as impoverished in all senses; they had rich traditions and culture, folk wisdom, and strong social institutions which have helped them to survive.

That was a social interpretation of the period, that looks at what happened to the poor and the powerless. Next...


Women's voices from the past are sometimes hard to hear because they were part of a patriarchal society in which power and property and authority were the preserve of men. We know something about elite women in the Tudor period. It was possible, as it had always been, for such women to gain power and influence through men.

The Renaissance also brought with it the idea that education, at least some education, was desirable in a woman. Elizabeth I or Lady Jane Grey knew the Latin and Greek classics that had been rediscovered.

For women lower down the social ladder, we must read between the lines, in wills for example or by looking at illustrations, to discover that women often shared in the work of their husbands in the small crafts or in the fields.

It was not until the Enlightenment of the 18th Century that women started to claim their share of the human rights that were being talked about. The great changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution opened up new jobs for lower-class women as they did for men but women of the middle and upper classes largely remained confined to their roles as wives and mothers.

The pill finally gave women control over their own bodies

A few pioneering women such as Florence Nightingale forced their way into the professions and the universities. By the 20th Century, women were organizing themselves to demand their independence from social and legal restrictions.

The two World Wars, when women's contributions to the struggle were essential, helped to bring change to a male-dominated society.

After 1945, the development of new methods of contraception, most notably the pill, finally gave women control over their own bodies and liberated them from the fear of unwanted pregnancies.

Guess what? That was the feminist view.


It would be easy to write other perspectives: a history of beliefs as Britain moved from a religious age to a secular one; of the gradual triumph of Parliamentary democracy (actually these days perhaps not so easy); or from a scientific perspective showing the change from the time when we believed that the sun went around the earth to the decoding of the genome.

We could even focus on something like food, and show the roast beef and beer of "Merrie England" evolving into the hummus and chardonnay of today.

None of these perspectives is wrong, but on their own they give only a limited view of a much more complicated past.

You can legitimately write histories of a particular aspect of the past as long as you are clear that that is what you are doing. Where I have trouble is with mono-causal overviews of the past or single explanations for a period or for change.

I think you can write good general histories of, say, 20th Century Britain, in which you try and give as complete a picture of it, from high politics to fashion. Such histories have been written and written well by, for example, Peter Clark in Hope and Glory. You get the portrait of an age in the round.

History is always changing its shape and that is why it is endlessly fascinating.

Margaret Macmillan is a professor of history at the University of Oxford. She is also author of The Uses and Abuses of History, published by Profile Books.

Below is a selection of your comments.

The "spin" on history depends on who wins. If the Battle of Bosworth had gone the other way, schoolchildren would now be reading about the kind, handsome, straight backed Richard Third. Even Winston Churchill said "history will be kind to me, for I will write the history books."
Bill Walker, Portsmouth

It's very true, we learnt a narrow version of history at school, all those years ago, it's so much more realistic to see history from lots of points of view. We're always learning, hopefully.
Rosy in Oz, Kempsey Australia

A very good article that for me reinforces the virtue and value of teaching history as more than a catalogue of mere dates, battles, and so called "important persons." There is no richer subject for human learning than history. Using it as a foundation, all other disciplines may be taught with greater effect, for is it not so that all disciplines have a history and a record of there development which constitutes the body of their knowledge? In addition, history, no matter what your point of view about it, is also the ideal medium to teach writing and good communication. It is no wonder the Greeks and Romans held it in high regard. Would that we could do that same.
George Ewert, Desert Hot Springs, California, USA

History changes in that history is our understanding of the past. Also, Margaret Macmillan is trying to show four viewpoints that some people hold. Nowhere does she claim that these are the only viewpoints that exist or, regarding the anglo-centric-ness, that any of them are her own.
Natalie, Michigan, USA

'History', as many percieve it, does not exist, what most of us regard as history is rather the fragments of the past that still exist. There is no definitive truth, there is no 'historical fact', every piece of evidence we base our understanding on is subject to the bias of its author and our own understanding. These different 'viewpoints' simply choose to focus on certain aspects of the past as we know it, often ignoring evidence which is contrary to their own opinion. History by definition, is a perception. As a Professor of History at Oxford I am sure that Margaret is fully aware of all of this. Of course Margaret writes from an English perspective, she is (I assume) English, how could she write from any other viewpoint?
Dave, Canterbury

Fascinating reading. I was taught the standard viewpoint at school and am reminded of why I dropped history as soon as possible. I have since gone on to discover real history - i.e. history written by individuals rather than brainwash created by state committees. I sincerely hope history teaching in the UK has diversified and moved on from the drivel I was the recipient of in the 70s and early 80s.
J Bro, Bangkok, Thailand

"The peril is in the absolute banning of a version" (thanks Bruce), but also in offering to students one monolothic version. Probably the most important thing about history is for students to understand how it is constructed. This does not entail, as some misguided people think, that just any history will do. Not at all. The construction has to pass many "tests" regarding the amount, kind and weight of evidence in its favour, in order for the historical community to pay any real attention to it. In this sense, its just as if not more important for students to understand history as historiography as it is for them to know what it is that happened in the past.
Mimi Bick, Santiago, Chile

As a social studies teacher, I've always stressed that you cannot get a balanced view of any subject simply by referring to one source. I encourage my students to find different viewpoints on any subject they're looking at-any individual work will always have its inherent biases. The same holds true not just of history, but of everything in life - a case in point is the history currently being written in the Middle East, or any modern political crisis. You cannot get a clear view of the real world if you are shackled to viewing it through only one commentator's viewpoint. It's like the old axiom "question everything". If someone tells you that one view is the truth, find out what others have to say about the same subject.
Tom, Christchurch, NZ

History has always been written by the winners. What is the difference between the French Resistance in WW2 and the Insurgents in Iraq? they are/were both fighting the foreigners who invaded their country.
Mike, Carleton Place, Ontario, Canada

This underlines the value of history: teaching invaluable skills of interpretation/ analysis. As far as I am aware, history teachers don't teach any prescribed version of history in schools today. Children use sources and are encouraged to draw their own conclusions. History is a matter of individual perspective.
Suhayl, London

Couldn't one argue that as there is no way of proving any historical truth outside of 'text' that all of these viewpoints are nothing more than narratives? Isn't it fascinating how all points of 'proof' in this article are taken as historical truths without question? If anything, surely historians must remember to question not only their viewpoint on the past, but also their basis for proving it.
Mark Hurst, Leicester

I may be old-fashioned but only the first version gives a narrative of events which provides a context allows the remaining aspects of history to be understood. I learned history in the late 50's/Early 60's but even though our history was closest to the first version we studied events as diverse as the Elizabethan Poor Law of 1601 (still the foundation of the law relating to Charities today) and the great Chartist movement, Peterloo, the foundation of the Co-operatives. It is too easy and glib to write off the traditionalist approach to history as our glorious past - it may been true in Victorian times but in the living memory of any person reading this story, yet it is used as a pretext to teach history empathetically so that a generation is growing up who have no clear idea of how we got to where we are today - and we should all be aware of what happens to those who ignore the lessons of history...
Paul Soper, London, UK

Margaret started off in great style and I thought; now we're going to get it 'as it was'. Not so! She fell into the trap that most writers of history do do - she named the piece ' Four takes on British History then completely ignored the contributions or otherwise made by the other partners in the 'United Kingdoms' and we ended-up with 'Britain from the view-point of the English'. Good, but not good enough!
Jim Currie, Funchal, Portugal

Interesting article - but the "social interpretation" makes a blunder, repeating the idea that life expectancy in earlier times was only 30 years or so. Technically true - but numbers like this come about only because the very high infant and childhood mortality rate brings down the average. If you survived your first 5 years you stood a good chance of living until you were 60 or 70, except in times of famine, plague, etc. The idea that medieval people were "old at 30" is nonsense. Many died before they were 20, but once past that milestone they stood a good chance of living until what even we today would consider an old age.
Adrian Dunn, Worcester, UK

This is something I have understood for a very long time and it is great to see it put so well in writing. This applies to everything that is depicted by a persons' story of an event or time. As individuals we would all tell a different story of the same event, whether it be because of different experiences or because of personal beliefs. Perhaps people who believe so strongly and aggressively about things they have learnt about our past and present history may give them something to think about before making such an ill formed judgment of 'our world'.
Sally-Anne Gates, Swansea

One perspective I would like to see is from the perspective of slavery. There have been recent noises regarding apologies about slavery and how terrible it was but never seen in the context of the people responsible for it. Why for instance is Queen Elizabeth the first known as the virgin queen and not the mother of the African slave trade in this country? It seems normal for Hitler and Stalin to be mentioned inseparably from their crimes against humanity. Why does that not happen with out historical "heroes".
Duncan, London, UK

Hmmm... an article about "British" History which is entirely anglo-centric? I wish I could say I was surprised.
Duncan Kennedy, Inverness, Scotland

In none of those "alternatives" did history change. So I challenge the notion that "history is changing all the time". All you have done is change the viewpoint to give a different narrative, all of which are valid. You could have written a "fashion viewpoint" or a "sports viewpoint" but history wont have changed.
John, Epsom

Margaret, Do you know why there is very little teaching, if any, on Celtic history in the school syllabus? Given that the name Great Britain itself is a translation of 'large Britain' from the time of the Celts it is an astonishing omission and a considerable insult to exclude this whole period (which is much longer in duration that the history which is currently taught). The negative PR campaign by Roman historians to belittle the Celtic culture, which in many ways was far more civilised than that of their own (respect for women, elderly, young; devolved power structure, road construction, gold mining…) and relative lack of documents are not sufficient excuses. How about batting for the home side?
David Navas, London, England

I'm surprised that Margaret Macmillan has made such a fundamental error. Of course history does not change. It is our knowledge and interpretation of it that changes as new facts emerge.
Phil, Portsmouth

All versions should be taught (perhaps in a fashion not quite so biased as each of these are). The peril is in the absolute banning of a version. Adults and children must be given the opportunity to see the past from various angles to be able to generate a full view, and to develop ideas for the future.
Bruce Taylor, Cheshire, Connecticut, USA

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