On Saturday the 23rd July I dragged my mum and my sister all the way to Northamptonshire, a good 2 ½ hours drive, to the annual English Heritage History Live Festival. The event spanned the whole weekend and was filled with battle re-enactments, various Medieval stalls and lecture tents where I spent the majority of my time. Sadly we arrived in the BBC history lecture tent too late to enjoy the first talk about Vikings and the English Civil War by Giles Kristian because someone (my sister) pressed her snooze button a few too many times, but listened to the next talk by Marc Morris on the Norman Conquest.
Having explored the usefulness of the Bayeux Tapestry, and pointed out how Bishop Odo of Bayeux who commissioned the tapestry is unsubtly depicted as heroic, Morris then explained the main three ways in which the Normans affected Britain. One way was castle-building, although they did have sizeable cathedrals, before the Norman invasion the British didn’t have any proper castles. The Normans took down and reconstructed many of these cathedrals on a much larger scale. As well as having these new castles, British fighting techniques were also enhanced by the use of cavalry- pre-invasion, the English got their fighting techniques from the Vikings so had a lot of see warfare and would generally ride to battle and then dismount their horses before fighting- this changed. Finally, and in my opinion most interestingly, all the ideas of chivalry came from the Normans. All these fairy-tale like images of a ‘knight in shining armour’ actually came from abroad. Sparing your enemy if he surrendered had previously been practically unheard of, however William the Conqueror killed a relatively small number of the British once he had secured his place of the throne, and people followed his merciful example. In fact, once this had become the norm it actually distanced England from Scotland and Ireland who hadn’t changed their ways and were now often view as ‘savage’ by the Medieval English.
Following this, Anna Whitelock talked about her new book, ‘Elizabeth’s Bedfellows’. When she had finished, I bought (and had signed!) both her books. ‘Elizabeth’s Bedfellows’ explores Elizabeth the First’s personal life, including facts about her various health problems, her close relationship with her ladies-in-waiting and, of course, her love life. I’m also currently working my way through her other book about Mary Tudor which is very interesting because instead of writing about her as ‘Bloody Mary’, Whitelock explorers her in a sympathetic light, first exploring the aspects of her childhood which would cause her to make various decisions later in life. For example, from an early age she was widely praised throughout international courts and referred to as ‘a pearl of the world’, but following her mother’s death, her father’s re-marriage and her refusal to accept her father as the Head of the Church, this previous love and affection was harshly withdrawn. I would thoroughly recommend both books.
Next, while my mother and sister went to watch a re-enactment of the Battle of Dunbar, I listened to a talk from Roy Hattersley about the Devonshires. What makes this family so special is that while you find some family names reappearing in political history, such as the Cecils and Dudleys, the Devonshires are present the whole time. They also tend to have some character traits which Hattersley discussed fondly- for example, at one point in history one of the family members was asked if he wanted to be Prime Minister, to which he accepted on the condition that it wouldn’t be too time-demanding. If I remember correctly, he was Prime Minister for 3 weeks.
By this point my concentration span had almost completely gone, but I stayed in the tent to listen to the remaining two talks. While, Sam Willis‘ talk was entitled ‘Despatches from Trafalgar’, he instead focused on a new source he had discovered. Doing research, he was in the British Library (notably not the national archives) when he asked for a book, not expecting the heavily-protected chest which arrived for him. Inside was a beautifully decorated book containing naval dispatches, accounts of a battle written by the captain, during the 19th century. This was a time filled with sea warfare and some of the accounts had been written in the middle of the battle while the captain was injured or parts of the ship were on fire which makes them really seem to come alive.
Finally Linda Porter, sitting down because of a recent foot injury, gave an in depth account of Mary Queen of Scots’ life, her failed marriages and other tragedies which unfolded and led to her death in 1587.
Overall, it was a thoroughly enjoyable day and I would encourage you to go next year! E.D.