History books that cover large spans of time can often seem superficial—or they can be huge, 1000-page tomes that are too bulky to hold and so dry that nobody wants to read them. Is it possible to write a comprehensive history of Britain from its beginnings to the infancy of the Tudor era in 450 pages? Peter Ackroyd gives it a try in Foundation, the first in a series. Remarkably enough, he succeeds for the most part. While it is somewhat cursory, it does provide a pretty good overview of the time period in question.
Ackroyd alternates between royal history (or just leaders in the times before the Romans and during Roman rule) and brief chapters on society as a whole. Thus, Foundation is a chronological tale in which the societal chapters cover more ground. There's even a small chapter on how names changed before William the Conqueror (the Norman invasion of 1066) and afterward, to name one example. These chapters provide a welcome break from the straight historical retelling of the political events of the various kings' reigns as time passes. They're also quite informative.
Otherwise, the book mostly covers each king, the fights with various nobles over taxation and rebellion, invasions from other European factions, the Hundred Years War with France, and the like. Ackroyd tells the story in an entertaining way, though the book desperately needs those societal interludes or it would be difficult to get through.
What makes this book really interesting are the little asides on things like where certain words come from, or how something (a building, for example, or even a code of law) still exists today. I had no idea that "peeping Tom" came from the Lady Godiva legend: one man named Tom disobeyed the royal edict of not looking at Godiva as she rode through the town naked. These are sprinkled throughout the chapters and add a bit of meat to what otherwise would be a rather bare history.
Besides the slightly cursory nature of the narrative, the only other real problem with Foundation is the lack of documentation, which I suppose indicates that the series is intended to be more of a popular history than a scholarly one. At the back of the book is a non-exhaustive list of "further reading" suggestions, books and other sources that Ackroyd "found helpful" while creating this book.
There are no notes tying anything that he says in the book to a specific source. I would be thrown out of the book occasionally when I encountered something like "Three hundred skulls, dating from the Neolithic to the Iron Age, have been found in the Thames." It would have been nice to see the source for that. At the beginning of the book, I found myself jokingly thinking "We're just supposed to believe your word on this?" before going with the flow and forgetting about it. I do not doubt Ackroyd, but it would have been nice to go read further on that kind of finding.
Foundation is a wonderful overview of British history with a lot to offer, even to those who have some knowledge of the subject but aren't necessarily experts. I learned quite a bit from it, though much of it was already familiar to me. A new interpretation was welcome, especially on kings and other areas of history that I have already read about (such as Richard III, the controversial king upon whom Ackroyd wisely avoids offering too heavy-handed an opinion).
The book is an enjoyable way to dip your toes into British history and see if it's something you would like to explore further.