Episode 1 Beginnings – Covering the period 3100 B.C. 1000 A.D. 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.
Episode 2 Conquest – Simon Schama tells the story of the Battle of Hastings in 1066, which saw King Harold beaten after leading an army worn out from fighting his brother Tostig and a horde of Vikings, to confront William the Conqueror. The Saxon defeat led to 300 years of Norman rule and a country plagued by massacre and famine, but the rulers managed to keep an inventory of all land and possessions, better known as the Domesday Book.
Episode 3 Dynasty – The story of Henry II, who built one of the greatest empires in the medieval world, only to see it torn down by members of his own family. Infamous for inciting the murder of Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket, Henry has rarely been recognised for his achievements, which included the laying of the foundations for today’s legal system.
Episode 4 Nations – Simon Schama presents a profile of King Edward I, nicknamed the Hammer of the Scots and portrayed as a villainous tyrant in the 1995 film Braveheart. He established English rule over Wales but his attempts to conquer Scotland were thwarted by the fierce resistance led by William Wallace and Robert the Bruce. As a consequence, Scotland and Wales gained a stronger sense of national identity, while Edward was forced to listen to his people’s parliament.
Episode 5 King Death – Simon Schama reflects on the impact of the Black Death, a disease which ravaged 14th century England during King Richard II’s reign and wiped out half the population, leaving decades of anarchy and civil unrest for the survivors. Ironically, the plague which sowed the seeds of the Peasants’ Revolt also contributed to the rise of the country gentleman.
Episode 6 Burning convictions – Covering 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.
Episode 7 The Body of the Queen – The feud between Queen Elizabeth I, a resourceful and ruthless monarch who had the difficult task of ruling a Protestant state in a climate still strongly influenced by Catholicism and her cousin Mary, Queen of Scots, whose conspiring ultimately led to her execution. Simon Schama questions whether Elizabeth’s eventual victory over her rival rang hollow, given that Mary was mother to the main contender for the throne.
Episode 8 The British Wars – A chronicle of the English Civil War, revealing that behind the romantic stories of Cavaliers and Roundheads lies a terrible tale of tragedy and the death of innocents. The conflict saw hundreds of thousands of men, women and children killed, families torn apart and the nation divided, culminating in the public execution of King Charles I and the rise of Cromwell as Lord Protector.
Episode 9 Revolutions – Simon Schama charts the dramatic story of the political and religious upheavals in Britain following the death of Charles I. Republican leader Oliver Cromwell envisaged a godly kingdom, while Charles II restored the lustre of the monarchy. Subsequent anti-Catholicism during the brief reign of James II led to a pivotal uprising which would transform the country forever.
Episode 10 Britannia Incorporated – Historian Simon Schama continues his epic journey through time with a look at the 18th century. Renowned for being a period of economic growth which laid the foundations for the modern parliamentary state, it was also a time of uncertainty as the Jacobite claim to the throne threatened to undermine the progress of new forces in British society.
Episode 11 The Wrong Empire – Simon Schama continues his journey through British history, discovering how the expansion of imperialism was built on the Empire’s slave trade and relied on the subjugation of native peoples to enrich the mother country, despite Britons’ natural distrust of large armies and all powerful governments.
Episode 12 Forces of Nature-Simon Schama continues his narrative with a look at why Britain proved immune to the ideals of the French Revolution, ignoring the call of liberty, equality and fraternity so readily embraced by the peasantry of France. Instead, the influence of poets, painters and journalists of the Romantic movement persuaded the nation of the primacy of feeling over reason, and divided opinion on the civil strife across the channel.
Episode 13 Victoria and Her Sisters – Simon Schama investigates the changing role of women in the Victorian era, looking at the work of novelist Elizabeth Gaskell, whose fiction highlighted the plight of needy factory workers. He also examines the ground breaking efforts of doctor Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, health campaigner Mary Seacole and political activists Harriet Stuart Mill and Annie Besant.
Episode 14 Empire of Good Intentions – Simon Schama investigates how the noble ideals behind the British Empire failed to match the reality. While British society believed it was delivering the benefits of modern Western civilization, in truth the inhabitants of India and Ireland suffered privation due to a laissez – faire economic policy. Mutiny, famine and lack of religious sensitivity drove a wedge between Britons and Indians, while the great potato famines of the 1840s caused mass migration from Ireland to America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
Episode 15 The Two Winstons – Simon Schama draws on the lives of Winston Churchill and George Orwell, who created the hero Winston Smith in his novel 1984. These men had a huge personal impact on the historian and touched many of the key events of the 20th century, including the World Wars and the Depression.