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Archive for Historians

Weirfore Art Thou, Footnotes?


Ever read one of Alison Weir’s nonfiction books on Tudor history and, though you enjoy the information, you simply cannot track where it comes from? Many of Weir’s popular works do not include the footnotes and other citations that most nonfiction books do and this has been a source of contention for me as well as others.

On a recent related Facebook page thread, Weir kindly took some time out to explain the deal to me and my followers, and gave me permission to repost the info, as it is a common concern for history fans. Take it away, Alison! …

“Regarding source notes, I must say that my publishers would not allow me to include source notes in my early books – they were then regarded as inappropriate in so-called popular history books. When that editor retired, I insisted that they should be included. Would you believe I then had people complaining that they were a distraction?

“I was told to indicate in the text where the sources came from, but that takes up a lot of text, and you cannot do it in every case. It was not a good decision, and I was unhappy about it, but the world of publishing was very different then, and a new author doesn’t have much clout.

“Since 1998 I have included notes and references in all my books, and I am now rewriting The Six Wives of Henry VIII and restoring all the notes and references, which I still have. But because of my editor’s rule, I did not compile lists of references for the other early books, and my huge files of research notes were discarded in the course of several house moves, which is something I have had cause to regret. I owe a lot to my first editor, but I have been blamed personally for the lack of references when in fact it was something beyond my control. After she retired, I insisted that they be included in the future, and my present editor supported me.”

I thought it would be a good idea to present this, for the record, and I thank Alison again for her participation and time!


Truth in Advertising

“Hmm…How should we define ‘historian’? And why don’t people seem to care for me as Anne Boleyn?”

If it looks like a duck and sounds like a duck, is it a duck? What if it doesn’t really, but still calls itself a duck? Over the past several days, via Twitter and Facebook, I’ve been engulfed by the swarm of comments that either condemn popular history writers for their “I’m a historian!” assertation or vehemently defend said authors. I thought I would take this to you and that maybe we could sort this one out together.

For example, let’s talk about Philippa Gregory, author of the novel The Other Boleyn Girl. The word “novel” should tip people off to the fact that this is a work of fiction, but I am always hearing that this is lost on so many. That’s not my problem and it’s not yours. In my opinion, the consumer (of the book, movie, etc) is solely responsible for being able to discern fact from fiction.

I have never read Gregory’s works; as some of you may already know, historical fiction is not my bag. I haven’t even seen the movie. There’s a lot of chatter from TOBG fans that Gregory has claimed truths in her work, a claim that many of you have a problem with. I’m going to leave that to anyone who has actually had contact with the book or film.

Her “About” section on her Facebook page says that “her love for history and commitment to historical accuracy are the hallmarks of her writing.” I’m only seeing fiction on her website; am I missing nonfiction works somewhere? That’s not snarky; that’s an honest question. Because if we’re talking about historical accuracy being an outstanding feature in TOBG I don’t know how that’s going to fly with actual historians. (For the record, there is an extensive list of sources for the Cousins’ War series she is currently working on.)

Let’s get to the issue at hand: When we talk about popular history-based works and their authors, I worry about deceptive advertising. On her website, Gregory states that she was “an established historian” before she ever penned a single Tudorrific thought. Gregory’s biography currently reads like this, although on Friday I got this (UPDATE: That, too, is no longer available. Next time I shall have the foresight to get a screen capture).  “Philippa obtained a BA degree in history at the University of Sussex in Brighton and a PhD at Edinburgh University in 18th-century literature.” I still wonder why I can’t get to this page from her current site design, but there ya go.

Lest you think I am picking on Gregory (because that accusation has already started), let’s check out Alison Weir’s credentials. From her website’s biography page, “I was educated at the City of London School for Girls and the North Western Polytechnic, training to be a teacher with history as my main subject. I did not pursue that career, however, because I quickly became disillusioned with trendy teaching methods. Before becoming a published author in 1989, I was a civil servant, then a housewife and mother. From 1991 to 1997, whilst researching and writing books, I ran my own school for children with learning difficulties, before taking up writing full-time.”

Sounds like a thorough description of Weir’s education and work history, so cheers to her for detailing all that for us. But how does one make the jump from that to being “a historian”?

This depends on how we define such a word. Must that person have a PhD in history? Teach history at a university? Perform curator duties for a historical site? I would expect a true historian would be 100% forthright in providing accurate sources, and yet this is one of Weir’s notorious criticisms. She’s a wonderful storyteller and a prolific writer, but how do we refer to someone with her education, work history, publishing history, reticence with source material, and other experience? (Update: Alison Weir explains the lack of source material in her books here; thank you, Alison!) defines it as “an expert on history, an authority on history” and “a writer of history; a chronicler.” Merriam-Webster gives us “a student or writer of history” and “a writer or compiler of a chronicle.” Just for the record (since Wikipedia shouldn’t be given too much weight), Wiki says “A historian is a person who studies and writes about the past and is regarded as an authority on it.”

As you can see, none of these (taken from a small sample of possible definitions) mention a degree or any specific work experience to call oneself as such. Yet there is often an underlying “S/he’s not a real historian!” that comes up for various history writers.

Is that a valid concern? Are people too picky? Or should writers be held to a higher standard if they’d like to use that description? Do you see deception? Or truth?

* Full disclosure: However you define “historian,” I’m not one. I don’t claim to be. My creds are clearly listed on my blog and on my website. So I have no horse in this race. I just saw the need for the discussion so we can all hash it out and then clink glasses and relax.


His remarks on Newsnight after this summer’s London riots gave 102 academics from universities across Britain fuel to pen a letter to the BBC, encouraging them to stop referring to Dr. David Starkey as a “historian” except on the subject of the Tudors.

Oh please.   

Is Starkey all that concerned with other people’s opinions? Only he can answer that. Does he think before he speaks? Probably to a greater extent than the Duke of Edinburgh does.  A bespectacled gay man who was born crippled with two left feet, he says he knows hurt and prejudice and that he is “not, in any way, racist” but rather thinks racists are “demented.” I certainly agree with him there.

I was under the impression that we no longer publicly hang people for expressing their opinions. And Dr. Starkey,  who has certainly inspired ire in the past (I have to bring up this swipe at “pretty-girl history”), is also admired and respected by many for his vast knowledge and his tirelessness in sharing it with the Tudor-loving world.  So here I give you a lovely linkfest to just some of the myriad goods from that Tudor historian we all love to hate disagree with!

I intent to make this an on-going list, so please check back for more classic Starkey!

Henry VIII’s Annus Horribilis

I didn’t want to get started on reviewing books; I first dipped my toe into that water when I ranted about Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire and her spoiled crew. I still plan on leaving book reviews to others, but there is a relatively new book I believe you should add to your queue, Tudor fans!

This isn’t as much a review (I don’t feel I’m qualified as a book reviewer) as it is a recommendation for the book I read just after that one, which I have recently finished, and that is 1536: The Year That Changed Henry VIII by Suzannah Lipscomb

One of the tragedies of Henry VIII’s character is his change from charming, athletic prince to paranoid, gross, and cruel king. Dr. Lipscomb explores the events of 1536 and puts forth why that year was a crucial turning point in the change we see. She easily conveys her vast knowledge of the subject in a well-organized and conversational manner, making 1536 a pleasure to read. It is only 209 pages, perfect for getting your Tudor fix during a long day at the beach or during a quiet weekend!

Dr. Lipscomb has been a research curator at Hampton Court, and a university lecturer. She’s now the subject convenor and Senior Lecturer for history at New College of the Humanities in central London. The complete goods, including video clips, can be found on her website.  And if you are on Twitter, give her a follow! @sixteenthCgirl

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!