A Review of Winston Churchill’s
History of the English Speaking Peoples
(Published by Barnes & Noble, New York, 1993)
The Right Honorable Winston S. Churchill, K.G. O.M. C.H. M.P., (1874-1965) was best known as England’s prime minister during the Second World War. The stout, cigar smoking politician could be seen flashing “V” for victory after the surrender of the Germans, saying, “This is our finest hour.” But his finest written work is undoubtedly the four-volume, twelve-book set begun in 1936 entitled A History of the English Speaking Peoples. Originally published in 1956, the anthology was more widely reprinted in 1993 by the popular Barnes & Noble. He says in the preface:
At the outbreak of the war about a half million words were duly delivered. Of course, there was still much to be done in proof-reading when I went to the Admiralty on September 3, 1939. All this was set aside. During six years of war, and an even longer period in which I was occupied with my war memoirs, the book slumbered peacefully. It is only now when things have quieted down that I present [it] to the public. (VI-vii)
Churchill was not only a great leader and writer; he was an incurable insomniac and workaholic. Beginning in the Stone Age and ending around the beginning of the 20th century, he takes the reader from the British Isles, to America and Canada, then to India, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and other places where English speaking people have settled. What’s amazing, and the reason for this review, is the number of time our family surnames are mentioned in the 1800 pages. We present these citations in very brief fashion, beginning with the Pearce and all, my father’s, side of the family and concluding with the Gray’s and all, my mother’s, side. They are almost exclusively from the British Isles. I haven’t taken the time with this writing to mention my wife’s German, Prussian, and Swiss side, and there are also many mentions of these people. Perhaps, as research continues, an addendum will be appropriate, especially since the Kings George were from Germany and many of the wars over the years involved the related lands. To make complete sense out of what’s to follow, we recommend reading earlier E-gen indexes and articles in each family line, such as Trees, Vitals, and Tables of Contents. But, let’s begin with our Pearce’s and Austens.
As we learned in the story “Upon This Rock: The Origins of the Pearce Name,” the English surname Pearce began as the Norman Percy and came to the great island with William the Conqueror, who awarded the family the large Northumberland estate for their loyalty and service. One continual struggle was with the neighboring Scots. It was understood that the Percys would provide the defense for the Throne through the borderlands. Apparently in the late 11th century a split occurred between the Percy brothers, and Richard established the Yorkshire line as represented by the famous Pearce Hall, as it is known today. Things apparently went well between successive kings and Percys for more than 300 years when, in the early 1400’s at the death of Richard II, replacement Henry of Bolingbroke faced the wrath of our family. Churchill puts it this way:
His most serious conflict was with the Percys. These lords of the Northern Marches, the old Earl of Northumberland and his fiery son Hotspur [of Shakespeare fame], had for nearly three years carried on the defence of England against the Scots unaided and almost entirely at their own expense. They also held important area for the King in North Wales. They could no longer bear the burden. They demanded a settlement of the account. (VI-396)
The new king had inherited bankruptcy, so Henry could only offer L40,000 against Percy’s demand for L60,000. Apparently, the family had played a major role in having Henry seated on the Throne in the first place, so naturally, when other troubles began for the king, the Percys were under suspicion. Hotspur lost his temper and in 1403 challenged the king to battle. Henry killed him at Shrewsbury, and even the older Percy had to surrender. Henry pardoned him freely but Parliament reluctantly dropped the charges of treason, letting the crime of trespass stick. Churchill continues:
This clemency was no doubt due to the necessities of the Border and to lack of any other means of defending it against the Scots. The Earl therefore addressed himself to the task, which secured his position at the head of strong forces.
Just two years later, unable to forget the death of his son, Percy rebelled again. This time the king drove him off the estate and across the border, where he troubled the king’s supporters, including Henry’s son and successor, Henry V, who had led the troops in the death of Hotspur at Shrewsbury. The Percys were between the preverbal “rock and a hard place.” The Scots, always eager for ransom, captured Hotspur’s son. Churchill says that with the new king:
A wave of reconciliation swept the land. The king declared a general pardon. He sought to assuage the past. He negotiated a general pardon with the Scots for the release of Hotspur’s son, and reinstated him in the Earldom of Northumberland. (VI-401)
Two generations later, after the War of the Roses in 1462 when Yorkist Edward captured the throne, the Percy name again is mentioned. Sir Ralph Percy had been on the wrong side of the struggle and had been jailed. The new King in a fit of generosity and kindness released him and, after hearing his vow of allegiance, restored his estate. Churchill says: “Edward’s magnanimity and forgiveness were ill repaid. Percy opened [his] gates to the Scots” (452).
It wasn’t long before the new king reasserted himself. In 1464 at Hedgeley Moor, near Alnwick, the Lancastrian revolt was broken:
Sir Ralph Percy fought to the death, and used the expression, remarkable for one who had accepted pardon and even office from King Edward, “I have saved the bird in my bosom” What was this bird? It was the cause of Lancaster, which might be dissembled or even betrayed under duress, but still remained, when occasion served, the lodestar of their bosoms, but could never have coined Percy’s grand phrase or stooped to his baseness. (VI-455).
We conclude Churchill’s reference to the Percys, or Pearces, with his mention of Wiltshire, the supposed origins of our Great-great grandfather Richard in the 178os. Ironically, he says that the final wave of Celtic invaders from Gaul, or France, landed in Kent, the origin of the Austens, the other half of our family, Richard’s wife Susan. These first century invaders were called the Belgics, as in modern day Belgium, and they spread over the southern counties of England, including Wiltshire:
They were a people of chariots and horsemen, They were less addicted to the hill- forts in which the existing inhabitants put their trust. They built new towns in the valleys, sometimes even below the hilltop on which the old fort had stood.
Churchill alludes to “strong traces of Celtic law” in Northumbria, but he says that in Wilts[shire] “a broad belt of names seems to show the natives still cultivating their old fields on the downs [lowlands below the hilltops], while the Saxons were clearing the valleys [the lowest land along the streams]. The was no color bar.” Historians believe that the Brittons, the Saxons, and the Celts were almost physically indistinguishable: “Probabilities are that in many districts a substantial British element was incorporated in the Saxon’s [and Celtic] stock” (VI-64)
By the second half of the first millennium the Viking tribes had conquered most of the northern parts of the island. After the death of King Alfred the Great in 899 a contest was waged for the Throne between his son Edward and his nephew Ethelwald. Ethelwald retreated to our Northumbria and the Danish settlement. In 904 these allies returned south toward the capital at Wessex and “ravaged part of Wiltshire.” Edward’s forces, made up of soldiers from London and Kent, went around to the right to divide their army. Despite initial victory in Anglia, “the Danes were victorious, and made a great slaughter.” But both the Danish leader and Ethelwald were killed. The new Viking leader made peace with Edward, but six years later war was rekindled, and this time the Danes lost, opening up Northumbria for British conquest and eventual settlement by the Percys (VI-128).
Let’s move on to the Beards and Austens, the maternal side of my father’s family. Early in Churchill’s 4th volume, “The New World,” a lengthy quote is given on the Protestant Reformation from Victorian clergyman and lecturer, Charles Beard. Indeed, while we don’t know of any direct connection with this gentleman, from earlier research on this branch of the family we know that some of our Beards were among the earliest and most devout English Quakers. In the 17th century, with the rise of Cromwell, Churchill says that a certain “liberty of conscience” was permitted. However, Roman Catholics and Quakers were excluded. He banned the Mass and imprisoned many Quakers, our direct ancestors included. The Lord Protector believed that these actions were not so much out of religious persecution as “fear of civil disturbance” (VII-315). Ironically, the Jews were considered “a useful element in the civil community,” and thus given full privileges for the first time in 400 years. Apparently, according to Churchill, the Quakers were looked upon as blasphemers, and parliament would have had them tortured and put to death, but Cromwell, raised as a strict Puritan, “mitigated” their sentences. With the death of Cromwell, the Restoration of the Monarchy, King Charles, and the passage of the Clarendon Code of 1662, England experience an almost “freedom of religion. Suffice it to repeat what Charles said directly to the Quakers: “Of this you may be sure, that you shall none of you suffer for your opinions or religious beliefs, so long as you live peaceably, and you have the word of the King for it” (VII-338). Scottish Presbyterian, our forefather, the Rev. William Jack was “ejected” from his pulpit at the Bull Alley Church in Dublin along with 60 other protestant clergy across Britain during this turbulent time.
What does Churchill say about the Austens and Kent? On the very first page he describes the mind of Julius Caesar in 55 BC, looking to Britain as a possible conquest: “He knew that it was inhabited by the same type of tribesmen who confronted the Roman arms in Germany, Gaul [France], and Spain. The islanders had helped the local tribes in the late campaigns along the northern coast of Gaul. The were the same Celtic stock, somewhat intensified by insular life” (VI-3). Caesar has nothing but good things to say about the new land in his writing The Conquest of Gaul (translated by S.A. Handford in 1951). He admits a certain curiosity about the Druids. The Romans had encountered them in Germany and France: “Those who want to make a study of the subject generally go to Britain for that purpose.” Churchill explains:
The unnatural principle of human sacrifice was carried by the British Druids to a ruthless pitch. The mysterious priesthoods of the forests bound themselves and their votaries together by the most deadly sacrament that men can take. Here perhaps upon these wooden altars of a sullen island, there lay on e of the secrets, awful, inflaming, unifying, of the tribes of Gaul (VI-4).
[The word “Druid” refers to the oak tree and it is believed that many of the prehistoric attractions in Wiltshire were built by the Druids. See the reference to Avebury in VI-7.]
Churchill quotes the great British historian Trevelyan who believed that the southern part of the island where the Austens and Pearces originated could have, at the time of the Roman conquest, have supported only about 700 families. Were our ancestors part of these tribes? Caesar didn’t quite agree on the population of early England:
The population is exceedingly large, the ground thickly studded with homesteads, closely resembling those of the Gauls, and the cattle very numerous. Hares, fowl, and geese they think it unlawful to eat, but rear them for pleasure and amusement. By far the most civilized inhabitants are those living in Kent, whose way of life differs little from that of the Gauls. Most of the tribes in the interior do not grow corn but live on milk and meat, and wear skins. All the Britons dye their bodies with woad [leaves of the mustard plant], which produces a blue color, and this gives them a more terrifying appearance in battle. They wear their hair long, and shave the whole of their bodies except the head and upper lip. Wives are shared between brothers and between fathers and sons; but the offspring of these unions are counted as the children of the man with whom a particular woman cohabitated first. (VI-14)
Some of these customs are very similar to those of the Vikings, who later conquered northern portions of Britain. So it was that Caesar began his conquest of Britain in 55 BC. He sailed toward Dover at midnight with two legions aboard 80 ships, but as morning dawned and the white cliffs greeted him, so did many natives atop them. Realizing that they probably had every sort of rock and missile to throw down upon the invaders, Caesar reported the spot, in perhaps the world’s greatest understatement, as “quite unsuitable for landing.” He sailed another seven miles further down the beach, but the Britons kept pace with their horses and chariots. The Romans met the natives’ javelins and stones with catapults and arrows. Churchills says, “There was a short, ferocious fight amid the waves, but the Romans reached the shore, and, once arrayed, forced the Britons to flight” (VI-15). The islanders at first thought to surrender, but seeing their attackers with backs to the sea, resumed their defense. After about two weeks, the Romans repaired their boats, packed up their provisions and hostages, and returned to the mainland. The next year, however, the Romans returned with over 10 times the men and ships to the shores of Kent. Again, after several weeks, the Romans found themselves in a stalemate, and “negotiated a further surrender of hostages and a promise of tribute and submission, in return for which Caesar was again content to quit the island” (VI-17).
It was nearly 100 years before the Romans returned, this time to conquer. Churchill’s account of this battle includes elephants brought over from France and German knights in full armor, allied to the Romans, swimming across rivers to defeat the Britons. In giving the history of Kent, Churchill cites the ancient writer Gildas the Wise of the mid 6th century and three other scribes who tell the story of British chief Vortigern. He had invited Saxon mercenaries across the sea to strengthen his position. But, once in England, their leader, Hengist, claimed that southern land, the county of our Austen ancestors. Gildas says that Vortigern and his army originally thought that they had stopped the incursion of the foreigners, but they return, apparently with other tribes from the north:
No sooner have [the Britons] gone back to their land than the foul hosts of the Picts and Scots land promptly from their coracles [wicker boats]. These two races differ in part in their manners, but they agree in their lust for blood, and in their habit of covering their hang-dog faces with hair, instead of covering with clothing those parts of their bodies which demand it. (VI-57)
Gildas describes the slaughter of the Britons in detail. The land is stripped of food, there is drought, and for a while it is every man for himself. Legend has it that a great leader emerges by the name of Arthur. He and his Knights of the Round Table “guarding the Sacred Flame of Christianity” call on God for strength, and they succeed in at least 12 battles. Churchill says, “All four groups of the Celtic tribes which dwelt in the titled uplands of Britain cheered themselves with the Arthurian legend, and each claimed their own region as the scene of his exploits” (VI-59).
It is through the survival of language that we understand which peoples remained and which were exterminated. Churchill explains: “The study of modern English place-names has shown that hill, wood, and stream names are often Celtic in origin, even in regions where the village names are Anglo-Saxon. There is good reason to think that the newcomers in Kent settled down beside the old inhabitants, whose name, Cantiaci, they adopted” (VI-64). History books point to the year 449 A.D. as the founding of the Jutish [Northern Saxony/German] kingdom of Kent. According to Churchill, “Kent had always been the part of the British Island most closely in contact with Europe, and in all its various phases the most advanced in culture,” so nearly a century later, 596 A.D., Pope Gregory sent a “trusty and cultured monk” named Augustine to England to evangelize. King Ethelbert, the King of Kent still worshiped the Celtic god Thor but had in-laws on the throne in Paris, so he was not above being influenced by the “dominant creed of Western Europe.” Augustine, after whom our Austens were named, brought him to the Christian faith, thus re-establishing the Church at Canterbury, the “center and summit of religious England” yet today (VI-74).
Kent lay between Wessex, or the kingdom of the West Saxons, the ruling center of southern England, and Europe. London had yet to be established as capital. The British kings, including Alfred the Great, were almost constantly defending their territory from the Danish Vikings from the north and Franks from the east. Churchill describes the strategic importance of Kent as religious and cultural center, as seacoast, and as breadbasket (VI-124). Sometimes, as in 1006 A.D., the king, in this case Ethelred, simply paid off the enemy, “suing for peace.” But, in this case, not before the Danes ravaged Kent. The ransom paid was 36,000 pounds of silver, the equivalent of perhaps four years of national income (VI-137). Six years later, the Vikings again sacked Canterbury, kidnapping and killing the Archbishop because he would not collect the 48,000 pounds of silver from the congregation.
Of course history holds the conquest of England in 1066 by William de Croy [believed to be our Gray ancestor] as beginning of the new millennium of royalty. Old King Harold had just defended his realm from another Viking invasion that autumn at Stamford when he had to turn his weary forces south to meet William. They covered 200 miles in just seven days, marching night and day. Churchill says that “principal persons in Wessex and Kent hastened to join his standard, bringing their retainers and local militia with them” (VI-162). We wonder if any of our Austens or Beards were present to meet the Pearces and Grays who, according to history, landed with William.
In several other sections of his great work, Churchill mentions that the Black Death [plague] of the mid 14th century was most severe in Kent (VI-372). Surely this was because of its status as doorway between Europe and England. A century later, Kent provided an uprising in support of the House of York against the Lancastrians in the War of the Roses (VI-430). Their leader, Jack Cade (d. 1450), called himself Mortimer. Churchill gives his readers a sense that popular and religious support from Kent was absolutely vital in the making of these early kings, and later, parliamentary leaders.
My great-great grandfather was Thomas Nelson (1802-1875), and I have written several articles on his beloved namesake, Lord Horatio Nelson (1758-1805). He is first mentioned by Churchill in the defeat of the Spanish Navy, allies of France, in 1797 off Cape St. Vincent (VIII-292). Napoleon Bonaparte had been very successful militarily on land throughout Europe and in 1798 he launched a fleet to take Egypt. Lord Nelson was commanded to follow. Late in the afternoon of August 1, the French ships anchored as close to shore as the captains thought safe. Many of the men left their belongings sprawled on the decks as they took small boats to shore. Just before sundown, with a word of caution, Nelson ordered five of his vessels to sail between the French and land. He was confident that his captains could avoid the dangerous shoals, and they did.. While these gunboats fired, other British ships blasted from the other direction. Within several hours of chaos the French warships had either surrendered, burned, or run aground. Only four ships escaped to tell the tale. Nelson’s victory insured that Napoleon was unable to return to Paris immediately, and he would eventually give up a grand plan of Eastern conquest.
Of course, Bonaparte reorganized and began again. Lord Nelson returned with his fleet to the Mediterranean in May of 1803. The French lay in Toulon, but the British knew that they had their sights set on either Italy and the Eastern Mediterranean or the Straits of Gibralter and England. For two years Nelson watched and waited for the French to make their move. Would they sail east or west? In April of 1805 the French headed west and toward the Americas with 17 vessels. Nelson followed with 10. He reached the Indies in a week and played hide-and-seek with the enemy before following them back to Europe in June. By mid-summer the great battle of Trafalgar was set to begin, eventually.
By August 14 Nelson had nearly 40 ships guarding England at the Channel. But, in early September the French had retreated and Nelson went home for R & R. He informed his superior, “I hold myself ready to go forth whenever I am desired, Although God knows I want rest” (VIII-305). He was ordered back to sea on September 15. Often described as “frail” this military genius decided to ignore the Navy’s “Fighting Instructions” and hit the French immediately as they came out of port. He would sail through the enemy rather than line up with them. He met with the captains and wrote, “All approved. It was new, it was singular, it was simple. I must succeed.” On October 19 the enemy was on the move. At 6:00 in the morning and 10 miles west of the French Nelson’s ship sailed toward them in two columns. Because Nelson was windward and the French apparently were surprised, their commanders realized that they could not flee. It’s reported that Nelson turned to one of his officers and said, “They have put a good face on it, but I will give them such a dressing as they have never had before.” At this, Nelson went down to his cabin and wrote a prayer:
May the Great God whom I worship grant to my country, and for the benefit of Europe in general, a great and glorious victory. For myself, I commit my life to Him who made me, and may His blessing light upon my endeavors for serving my country faithfully.
The battle that ensued was thrilling, noisy, and deadly. At 1:15 in the afternoon, Nelson was hit in the shoulder by a single French bullet, his back broken. He was carried below in the heat of the battle. In the end, 18 ships of the enemy surrendered and at least 15 retreated. The following is noted on the commander’s ship log:
Partial firing continued until 4:30, when a victory having been reported to the right Hon. Lord Viscount Nelson, K.B. and Commander-in-Chief, he then died of his wound. (VIII-308) Lord Nelson is especially remembered today through his monument in Trafalgar Square, London.
Continuing on my father’s side of the family, Churchill forwards the Hill name. In the third volume, Abigail Hill is described as a “poor relation” to Queen Anne in the early 18th century but “had acquired an influence with the Queen destined to deflect the course of European history” (VIII-67). Abigail was a cousin of Lord Sunderland, the leader of Parliament’s Whig party, whom the Queen “loathed from the bottom of her heart” (VIII-66). But, Abigail was also the cousin of the leader of the Tories and Secretary of State, Lord Harley, Earl of Oxford. Churchill describes the Queen as follows:
Anne’s feminine friendships were exacting. She wanted her companion to be with her all day long and playing cards far into the night. (VIII-70)
Abigail served the Queen as a “dresser” or lady’s maid. She was with Anne through the fiery struggles between the Throne and Parliament, including the feud involving Marlborough, perhaps England’s greatest war general. Churchill describes cousin Harley’s influence over Queen Anne as working through Abigail “up the back stairs” (VIII-77). As the war between England and France was about to be settled with the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, Churchill says:
All eyes were now turned upon the English Court. It was known throughout Europe that Marlborough’s power with the Queen had vanished. Harley, with infinite craft and Abigail’s aid pursued his design of installing a Tory administration in power, with the object of ending a war of which all were weary. (VIII-84)
Harley’s final questionable strategy involved exposing the private lives of certain members of Parliament. But, Viscount Bolingbroke apparently bribed Abigail to get to the Queen, winning her favor. She asked Harley to surrender the Lord Treasurer’s White Staff at a meeting of the Cabinet Council in 1714. The men got into a shouting match right in front of the Queen. She was “deeply smitten” by all of this and died three days later. However, in summing up this period of history, Churchill ends book seven saying:
Thus ended one of the greatest reigns on English history, rendered glorious by Marlborough’s victories and guidance. The Union and greatness of the Island had been established. The last of the Stuart sovereigns had presided over a wonderful expansion. She deserved to bear in history the title of “The good Queen Anne.” (VIII-100)
The bribery aside, wouldn’t it be nice to be a “poor relation” to Abigail Hill. Two other Hills, Sir Rowland and America General Ambrose P. Hill, are mentioned in volume IV, and we’ll cover them now. Sir Rowland Hill is remembered by Churchill as introducing penny postage to England in 1840. For the first time persons, businesses, and organizations could send circulars and pamphlets inexpensively all over the country (IV-59). The context for the author’s remarks, however, pertains to what were called the Corn Laws, introduced in 1815 to protect British farmers from cheap grain imports that began with the cessation of hostilities with France and America. Because of Hill, propaganda for free trade could be circulated to the masses. The potato famine in Ireland in 1845 also contributed to the repeal of the Corn Laws the following year.
Churchill discusses the American Civil War in some detail in Volume IV, and General Ambrose P. Hill, better known as A. P. Hill, is credited as one of the Confederates’ leading officers. His first action listed is the prevention of the Union under Burnside from cutting Lee’s line of retreat from Harper’s Ferry in 1862. The next year, Hill was wounded near Chancellorsville in the famous battle of the film Gods and Generals where Stonewall Jackson had been mortally wounded. Hill recovered and was appointed as one of three corps leaders of the Army of Northern Virginia. On June 30, 1863, Hill’s men marched toward Gettysburg for what many believe to have been the turning point of the war. He believed at the time that he would find shoes for his troops and while there, look for a passage to move other divisions. But, a Federal camp awaited them and on July 1 the shooting started. Most of Hill’s men never fired a shot. But some did manage to pierce General Meade’s flank. The third day saw the deadly Pickett’s charge and other encounters. When it was over, 43,000 Americans lay dead or dying under the hot July sun. The Rebels sounded the retreat and we’re left to search other history books for what happened to our famous namesake. Ironically, as we learn later. Ambrose P. Hill was one of only a handful of Southern Aristocrats who never owned a slave.
Our review continues at sometime in the future with a look at my mother’s major surnames: Gray, Campbell, Norris, Leslie, and Patterson. Please check back.
Last revised 3/31/21