I must tell you, though, that this is not a history lesson, but a story-book. There are many facts in school histories that seem to children to belong to lessons only. Some of these you will not find here. But you will find some stories that are not to be found in your school books,—stories which wise people say are only fairy tales and not history. But it seems to me that they are part of Our Island Story, and ought not to be forgotten, any more than those stories about which there is no doubt. —Preface to “Our Island Story” by H. E. Marshall
Story of the English by Helene Guerber Story of England by Samuel B. Harding
Our Island Story by H. E. Marshall
Comparing Core Reading Selections from British History
While all of the following books are excellent, Our Island Story by H. E. Marshall is the most well-known. It is recommended by several traditional curriculums and never disappoints. The others, however, are worthy of note, and each is considerably shorter than H. E. Marshall’s landmark work. Once students are fluent readers and ready to study history in earnest, we recommend they read two spines, simply because reading a historical account more than once greatly increases retention. The Heritage History program does not include worksheets or written tests, so reading the stories of England more than once, by more than one author, provides a valuable review, without the “busywork”.
The following books are listed in order of difficulty, but even Our Island Story, the most challenging of the group, is very accessible to older elementary and middle school students. It is listed last because, it is a very substantial work, hundreds of pages long. All of the following books are highly readable, however, largely because English history is packed with exciting events and fascinating characters. Unlike fiction writers, historians need to stick to the facts, but the chronicles furnished by two thousand years of British history are a rich feast for history writers and students alike.
Stories from English History by Hilda Skae
This short volume is included in our Young Readers collection, and includes just six nicely illustrated stories from English history. It is by no means a complete history of England, but it is intended for young readers who are easily overwhelmed by books with for too much detail. It merely introduces a few romantic characters from 1500 years of English history, and helps lay the foundation for a more detailed study in the future.
The characters the book does introduce, however, are each representative of an important era in English history, so students get a feel for numerous historical periods. The British heroes featured include Caradoc (a.k.a. Caratacus), a Celtic Briton chief who fought the Romans, Augustine of Kent, a Christian missionary and first bishop of Canterbury, Harold Godwinson, the last Saxon King of England, who lost his contest with William the Conqueror for the throne of England; Prince Arthur, the rightful king of England who was murdered by his nefarious uncle; Edward the Black Prince, English hero of the Hundred Years War, and Sir Francis Drake, the fearless sailor and bane of the Spanish. Altogether, an excellent introduction to English history.
Cambridge Historical Reader by Cambridge Press
This history reader is also composed of a collection of tales from English history, written for younger students, it is longer and a more thorough introduction to English history. It was written as a school history reader, especially for primary school students, so the chapters and paragraphs are short and it is lavishly illustrated.
In spite of its brevity, however, it is very well written and sure to hold the interest younger students. It includes about forty stories altogether from Boadicea’s revolt against the Romans, to the end of Victoria’s reign in the early 20th century. Each story is only three or four pages long, and can be easily read by a novice reader, and the stories cover all of the major characters and highlights of English history. Like most Storybook style histories, it omits many events and characters of lesser importance and skips over certain uneventful periods of history, but that is very appropriate for the age group that it is targeting.
Story of the English by Helene Guerber
If you are familiar with any of Guerber’s other historical volumes, which include books that focus on Greek, Roman, French, American and Biblical history, then you must already have high expectations for her book on the English. It is probably the easiest of the intermediate level books in the Heritage collection due to its short chapters and Guerber’s lucid writing style, yet it reads as a true comprehensive history rather than a collection of history stories.
Story of the English includes over 100 chapters and so touches on every major reign, conflict, and character, at least in brief. Guerber is an especially talented writer who covers a great deal of material in relatively few words. Her books are therefore both readable and packed with information. She is able to accomplish this great feat of because of her keen understanding what best holds the attention of young readers, and her talent for condensing interesting facts into succinct but engaging chapters.
Although Guerber is an excellent story teller, and most of her chapters focus on a single incident in British history, she is always a serious historian, and emphasizes legendary and mythical history less than some other writers for children. She starts her history with the Stone-age history of the native Britons, rather than a mythical history and does not develop the more romantic legends associated with England to as great an extent as other authors, believing that “real” history, when well told, is just as appealing to young people as fairy tales.
Story of England by Samuel B. Harding
The Story of England, by Samuel Harding is intended for a sixth or seventh grade audience, and of the intermediate histories reviewed here, it is the most textbook-like of the group. Unlike most of the storybook histories that are broken up into very short chapters, Harding’s book is more thematic, and includes review questions at the end of each chapter. Nevertheless, it is very well written and likely to appeal to his target age-group.
Harding’s books has several notable strengths, and is especially strong in telling the later history of the British Empire as it arose in the decades following the “Glorious revolution”. Like all small countries that become great empires, there is a point in English history where romantic tales of Kings and heroes give way to more complicated and political matters, and that is a difficult transition for a book that exalts the romance of history. It is for this reason that children’s histories of Ancient Greece and Rome focus mostly on the early years of those civilizations and that “storybook” histories of England rarely venture into the imperial age.
Because the Story of England is more thematic in style, it handles the difficult transition into imperial history better than most other children’s histories. The final third of the book includes chapters on “Industrial and Social Change”, “A Period of Reform”, and “England and Ireland”, among others. None of these are topics that lend themselves well to “story-based” history, yet Harding does an exceptionally good job of explaining these important issues to young people.
The real strength of Harding book is that it is an excellent complement to story based histories, precisely because it is slightly more analytical yet still appealing. His is not the most romantic rendition of English history, but it provides exactly the right level of explanation of complicated concepts to young readers, and helps lay the ground work for young people to understand those important parts of history that can’t be easily disguised as a fairy tales.
Our Island Story by H. E. Marshall
H. E. Marshall’s was a prolific writer of Children’s history, but her masterpiece, is Our Island Story—what she calls a “Storybook” of English history. Her book is a mainstay of the Ambleside curriculum and recommended by many other children’s history programs as well, so it hardly needs an introduction to most homeschoolers. For the sake of completeness, however, I will highlight its strengths and limitations.
As thousands of English and American school children will attest, Our Island Story is a romantic and very readable history of England, perfect for young people. It intentionally romanticizes English history by including myths and legends as well as regular history stories. What makes it especially valuable as a middle school introduction, however, is its scope and thoroughness. It includes hundreds of short stories from English history, including almost every important topic of interest. It tells stories of the most famous characters of English history but also the stories of many of lesser fame so students are exposed to a broad swath of English history. It is very popular with young people and many read and re-read the book for entertainment as well as instruction.
Accepted simply as a romantic rendition of English history the book has no particular weaknesses, except one, and that is that the storybook approach to history tends to break down in more recent eras. As long as English history is confined primarily to the Island of Britain, that is—until about the end of the Stuart monarchy—the storybook framework fits well.
But as England expands into a colossal empire, verging on world domination, it is harder to “romanticize”—or even to clearly explain, its diverse endeavors. The last twenty or so chapters of the books, which cover the major events of the Hanoverian dynasty, are just as interesting to young readers as the earlier chapters, but one has the feeling that they barely touch the “real” history of the British Empire. Many important developments are recent times are simply impossible to tell as children’s stories.
Marshall’s answer to this, of course, was to write an entirely new book entitled “Our Empire Story” that tries to do justice to the history of British colonial development throughout the world, and this book is one of the mainstays of the British Empire Curriculum, which is intended to follow the British Middle Ages curriculum.
Another thing to keep in mind about Our Island Story, is that it is very long—one of the largest books in the Heritage History collection. Its high level of readability compensates well for its length, but realistically, it may not be a good choice for a weak reader. Other books such as the Cambridge Historical Reader and Guerber’s Story of the English are also very attractive story-based histories that are less exhausting for younger students.
Other English History Spines
Two other authors are worthy of mention, although I recommend their books as secondary spines, or supplemental selections rather than as primary, comprehensive histories. Alfred J. Church and Charles Morris are two prolific writers who wrote dozens of books on a wide variety of topics and many of their works are found in the Heritage History library. Both wrote books that are collections of Stories from English History. Both authors, however, simply select a number of their favorite stories to re-tell, and do not make any attempt to write a comprehensive history of England. Their stories are very readable and make for excellent supplements, and I often select a few unusual stories of special interest (such as The Wooing of Elfrida, or Death of the Red King) to assign to students, but don’t assign these books as primary histories for students who are just getting acquainted with English history.
This sums up the collection of comprehensive English histories currently found the Heritage History library, but we have only begun to touch on our wonderful selection of English biographies, or adapted literature. We’ve already featured the Makers of England series and written reviews of the lives of Alfred the Great and William the Conqueror. Look for more English history features in the next few months.