Your cheeky guide to the dynasty

A Chat with Dr. Lucy Worsley

Didn’t you just love Dr. Lucy Worsley’s grocery-store segment of the National Geographic special “Inside the Body of Henry VIII“? So did I! And I recently had the privilege of interviewing Dr. Worsley, who is the chief curator of the Historic Royal Palaces.  Lucky gal–What a dream job to have! That’s her, above, in front of the fab Hampton Court Palace (click to enlarge image). Read on for her thoughts on Tudor palaces, Henry’s wives, historical fiction, and her latest exciting find …

Barb: You oversee all the historic royal palaces; which is your fave and why?

Dr. Worsley: I get sucked into the history of whichever one I’m doing the most detailed research work on at the present moment.  So currently that means Kensington Palace, because we’re doing a huge re-presentation project there that will be finished in 2012.  At different times I would have said Hampton Court (when we were re-furnishing the Tudor palace) and Kew Palace (when we were taking the interiors back to 1804, the year when poor old George III was taken there to recover from his ‘madness’.)

Barb: As an American who grew up in a house built in 1898, I always believed that was “really old” — until I lived in England! I was that person who would touch the stone walls of castles and marvel that they stood for so many centuries, that medieval kings and queens had walked down the same hallways I was walking. Being British and working around these historic sites day in and day out, do you have that sense of awe? Has it lessened over the years? Grown?

Dr. Worsley: It’s a really enormous privilege to spend the day in any of my places of work.  It was because I enjoyed being in old buildings that wanted to work in this field in the first place, and I don’t think I shall ever lose the pleasure I find in wandering through our grand state apartments or dusty forgotten attics thinking about the people who’ve gone before me.

Barb: I understand that your interest in history came from reading historical fiction as a young girl. I cannot get into historical fiction because it drives me crazy not to know what’s true and what’s made up! Now that you work around so much history on a daily basis, do you find you still have an interest in historical fiction?

Dr. Worsley: I’m not the biggest consumer of historical fiction, but it’s a fabulous means of finding your way into different periods.  Thereafter I feel you should graduate to ‘real’ histories based on documents, and those are the books I most like to read.  However, I also study novels for the way they bring history to life.  For example, Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White, about a prostitute in Victorian London, is all written in the present tense, and reading it gives you the feeling of watching a film.  So I decided to write my book about seventeenth-century country house life, Cavalier, in the same way.

Barb: As the chief curator of Historic Royal Palaces, what has been your most exciting find in the recent past?

Dr. Worsley: Oh, I was super-thrilled very recently when we found what might be Henry VIII’s bath tap!  We recently discovered this ancient tap [below] tucked away in the curators’ offices at Hampton Court.  It looks Tudor, though we’re not 100% sure.  If it is, it’s so tempting to imagine that it might once have filled Henry’s tub!

Barb: Historic Royal Palaces include the Tower of London and Hampton Court Palace, two of the most spectacular historical buildings in the city — and some say two of the most spectral-friendly! Have you ever experienced any ghostly happenings in these places?

Dr. Worsley: Sorry, never seen a ghost.  But one of our assistant curators was lucky enough to get to BE a ghost – she provided the silhouette for the projected ‘ghostly’ image of Katherine Howard that occasionally flickers over the wall in the ‘Haunted Gallery’ at Hampton Court.  It’s very subtle but effective, and I’ve seen it make visitors jump out of their skins.

Barb: What are some things most people don’t realise about Henry VIII?

Dr. Worsley: I think the top thing that people don’t realise about Henry VIII is that he wasn’t always the bloated and paranoid tyrant of old age.  When he came to the throne, he was young, handsome, talented and apparently blessed by good fortune.  Only with time, infertility, hubris and mistakes did he become one of the bad guys.  There are plenty of historians who’ve asked the despairing question: ‘Oh Henry, where did it all go wrong?’

Barb: In your Arts Industry magazine interview, you are quoted as saying, “I like to shock in a cheeky way.” Right after my own heart! And I was pleased to see that you took on David Starkey in his statement that female historians like to show off their looks on book jackets and have turned Tudor history into “a bizarre soap opera.” I think it’s so important to remember that the Tudors, like all historic figures, were human and thus had human needs, worries, joys, domestic routines, traditions, medical issues, and the like. What kinds of social history would you like to see brought to light as far as the Tudor dynasty goes?

Dr. Worsley: I’m always interested in how people really lived their lives.  I like the knitty-gritty details of what they wore and how they walked and the mundane thoughts about life or love or even boredom that pass through people’s heads every day.  I think that things like food, clothes, furniture and art can help us reconstruct a mental world – and this challenge is just as important as examining foreign policy or national politics in the past.  When we work out what a piece of medieval furniture looked like, really trying to see into the mind of the person who owned and used it.

Barb: Is there a Henry VIII wife who you think is misunderstood? Do you think he had a fave, or even several?

Dr. Worsley: We quite often have a debating event at Hampton Court where different curators ‘make the case’ for the different wives and the audience vote for their favourite at the end.  For some reason I always get stuck with Jane Seymour!  (Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn are usually people’s joint favourites.)  To modern tastes Jane is a little bit anodyne and we don’t hear much of her voice – but I always argue that we should judge the wives by Tudor standards, and Jane was the only one absolutely to fulfil her job description, i.e. to give the king a son.  That’s why she’s the one with whom he chose to be buried.

Barb: One of my favorite parts of National Geographic’s “Inside the Body of Henry VIII” was your spin round Tesco to do Henry’s weekly shop. It was a classic show-don’t-tell that I tried to employ often as a teacher, because it’s a way to present information in a memorable fashion. Does Historic Royal Palaces ever offer public events that would allow people to get inside history rather than simply providing them with written facts? If not, are there any plans to do so? I imagine it would be wildly popular!

Dr. Worsley: I can’t tell you how much fun we had whizzing round that supermarket doing Henry’s weekly shop!  If you visit Hampton Court or the Tower of London, you’ll probably meet some of the professional live interpreters who perform in character as members of Henry’s court every day.  This is actually really hard work because they need to entertain as well as inform.  And it’s hard work getting in and out of the clothes too!


Dr. Lucy Worsley’s new series ‘If Walls Could Talk, An Intimate History of the Home’ is showing in the UK in April on the BBC.  She is currently filming another series about “the naughty Prince Regent.” Cheeky!  Her most recent book is The Courtiers: Splendour and Intrigue in the Georgian Court at Kensington Palace, published in 2010 by Walker Books. Check out her fabulous site!


  Clive Morgan wrote @

That was informative, I will have to catch the program next time it comes around. … David Starkey like’s to dish it out, but he always seems to do it facing into the wind ha ha.

  dewey wingate jr wrote @

i was wondering if the dr. [whose last name is worsley] is related to candal worsley from Tudor times. please repley

  barbalexander wrote @

The cardinal was named Thomas Wolsey, so the last name is different. Doesn’t mean there is no relation but I really have no way of knowing. =)

  carly wrote @

So interesting! That was probably my favorite part of that special, and she is obviously very knowledgeable. I especially love when the two of you discuss how people had the same basic human urges that we have today, and how history is interesting because of the “nitty gritty.” My favorite English teacher once told me that people throughout history are always the same, no matter what the culture.

I am so jealous that you got to pick her brain! Fabulous interview, thank you for sharing it with us. 🙂

  A Different Lara wrote @

Insightful interview! Thanks so much for sharing!

  Sylwia wrote @

What a great interview, Barb! I enjoy Lucy Worsley’s books and TV documentaries she’s hosting. Dr. Lucy is very passionate about history, and this passion shines though her!

  Alan Hall PhD wrote @

Hey Lucy. Really enjoyed your recent program on Channel 4. Such a tonic to hear English spoken properly. You made a potentially dull subject so interesting. I think that you look great in a boiler outfit by the way.

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