Posts in Category: Blog

Henry and Anne: The Lovers Who Changed History

For Channel Five, I have written and presented a two-part series on the love affair between Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn – its rise and its terrible fall.

The first episode airs on Thursday 20 February 2014 at 8pm and it concludes a week later.

Although – or perhaps because – this is a much-studied period of history, Henry and Anne’s relationship is a fiercely debated subject. Historians are divided about why and when the couple formed and, above all, why their relationship fell apart so spectacularly and with such fatal consequences.

For this series, I travelled in the footsteps of the couple – from Hever Castle in Kent to Thornbury Castle in Gloucestershire, from the Château Royal de Blois to Hampton Court Palace. Above all, I looked carefully at the surviving manuscripts and sources, the most touching of which are Henry’s love letters to Anne, and two Books of Hours owned by Anne herself. These seem to me to give an amazing insight into a 500-year-old relationship.

I have tried to present my view of Henry and Anne, as a partnership based on mutual respect and attraction, and driven apart by the most terrible of misunderstandings.

I have written more about this for BBC History Magazine: (link to follow)

The programme was chosen as a Pick of the Day or TV Highlight on 15-16 February 2014 by: Radio Times, The Sunday Telegraph (Seven), The Observer (The New Review), The Mail on Sunday (Event), The Sunday Times (Culture), The Guardian (The Guide), The Times (Saturday Review), Daily Express (Saturday Magazine), The Sun (TV Magazine), The Daily Telegraph (Review), and The Daily Mail (Weekend).–anne-the-lovers-who-changed-history–series-1—episode-1

The series was made by Chris Mitchell and Bill Locke at Lion TV. Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn are played by Jack Hawkins and Emma Connell.

Media Evolution


This week, I was invited to give the opening keynote address at the Media Evolution Conference in Malmo, Sweden. The themes of the conference were Power, Disruption and Lies, and I talked about what we can learn from the past, and what we can’t.

It was an extraordinary group of people and a brilliant conference, and I was chuffed and honoured to be invited.

You can see a video of my (30-minute) talk here:

Why the Tudors mattered

Why did the Tudors matter? Funny you ask. I recently made this short film for Chalke Valley History Hub explaining just why I think they were, and are, so crucial.

Anne Boleyn and BBC Breakfast

On Wednesday 22nd May, I went on BBC Breakfast with Susanna Reid and Bill Turnbull to talk about the forthcoming programme, The Last Days of Anne Boleyn (airing 23 May 2013 at 9pm on BBC 2). If that wasn’t treat enough, I was also sitting on the famous red sofa when Jamie Cullum and his band struck up to sing us out. Boy, they’re good!

You can watch again here:

The Last Days of Anne Boleyn

On 19 May 1536, Anne Boleyn was executed on charges of adultery, incest and conspiring King Henry VIII’s death.

But what happened in those last days before her death? Why did Anne, and the five men accused with her, have to die?

A new in-depth drama-documentary on BBC 2 will explore the continuing controversy among historians. Rather wonderfully, rather than giving a single linear account, it recreates the historical debate that rages on. It makes for history at its most contentious and exciting.

It features seven historians and historical novelists: Dr David Starkey, Hilary Mantel, Philippa Gregory, Alison Weir, Prof. George Bernard, Prof. Greg Walker and me.

For anyone interested in Tudor history and in the extraordinary character of Anne Boleyn, this is unmissable.

It will air on 23 May 2013 at 9pm on BBC 2.

And if you want to know more, in progressively greater depth, do consult the following:



Hidden Killers of the Victorian Home

My new BBC 4 programme, ‘Hidden Killers of the Victorian Home’ airs on Wednesday 3 April at 9pm. You can watch it on iPlayer here.

I so enjoyed making it. I got to research some fascinating stories in the history of science and technology – and the social and human cost of progress – and to work with some really talented and generous scientists and historians. Here’s what it’s all about:

‘While the Victorians confronted the challenges of ruling an Empire, perhaps the most dangerous environment they faced was in their own homes. Householders lapped up the latest products, gadgets and conveniences but in an era with no health and safety standards they were unwittingly turning their homes into hazardous death traps. In a genuine horror story, Dr Suzannah Lipscomb reveals the lethal killers that lurked in every room of the Victorian home and shows how they were unmasked. What new innovation killed thousands of babies? And what turned the domestic haven into a ticking time bomb?’

It is my first authored programme and obviously took me far from my usual sixteenth-century territory, but I tried to compensate with copious amounts of research, into a period that has always intrigued me. I hope the nineteenth-century historians will forgive me!

I’m delighted that it was Pick of the Day in the Radio Times, The Times, The Guardian and The Independent, and particularly chuffed that it was Pick of the Week on BBC History Magazine’s website.

My excellent contributors were: Dr Kate Williams, Judith Flanders, Dr Suzy Lishman, Prof. Andrew Meharg, Colin King, Matt Furber, Sarah Nicol, Dr Matthew Avison, Nathan Goss and Max Wagner.

The programme was made by Modern TV. It was produced and directed by Suzanne Phillips. The Executive Producers were Griff Rhys Jones, Liz Hartford and Sarah Broughton. The rest of the team were: Camera – Tudor Evans; Researcher – Celyn Williams; Sound – Brian Murrell; Production Assistant – Alyn Farrow; Junior Production Manager – Katy Daykin; and Photography – James Jones.

Thank you to everyone for all their work on it. Particular thanks are due to Griff Rhys Jones who first thought of the idea of me making a documentary with his production company.

Why did Anne Boleyn have to die?

I’ve written the cover article for this month’s BBC History Magazine. In it, I try to answer a perennial question of English history: why did Henry VIII’s second wife, Anne Boleyn, have to be executed on 19 May 1536? Historians debate the evidence and have come up with four possible theories, which I’ve outlined, so you can make up your own mind about which is the most convincing.

The magazine also features articles by Ian Mortimer on Tudor breakfasts and Robert Hutchinson on the Spanish Armada, so is well worth a read!

I recorded a podcast on the AB question with Charlotte Hodgman, at the Tower of London, which you can listen to here.

Bloody Tales

Bloody Tales series 2 goes out today at 8pm on National Geographic Channel, and we’ve attracted our fair share of coverage. We’re, amazingly, pick of the day in the Radio Times, The Daily Telegraph, The Sun, The Daily Mail, The Guardian, Total TV Guide and Sky Online.

Tonight’s episode, ‘Executions’, features stories about the deaths of Nazi commander, Amon Goeth – played by Ralph Fiennes in the film Schindler’s List – Scottish hero William Wallace and Viking warrior Ragnar Lodbrok. It really makes for some bloody – and hopefully, fascinating – viewing.

The Daily Mail have also covered our groundbreaking discoveries about Goeth’s death online.

Is the Past a Foreign Country?

I was recently delighted to be invited to give a TEDx talk at St Paul’s School.

The question I posed, in the words of L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between was: ‘Is the Past a Foreign Country?’


Richard III: the king in the car park

Well, hasn’t this all been fun? Medieval history hitting the news! Stop press for the 15th century!

There’s much to say about the discovery of Richard III’s bones, but as many people are saying it, for now, here’s my tuppence worth:

On BBC 2′s Newsnight with director Sir Richard Eyre and Kirsty Wark:

And in the London Evening Standard:

Why did the Tudors matter?

Earlier this year, I debated with Dan Jones in the Tower of London whether the Tudors or the Plantagenets were most important (we didn’t quite come to blows).

It was a BBC History Magazine event and they have now issued it as two podcasts (1 and 8 November 2012), to which you can listen here:

The fools of history

On Tuesday 6 November, a listener to the BBC Radio 4 series Making History asked about the role of the fool in history, and specifically about why two such figures appear in the arches of this Royal Collection painting of The Family of Henry VIII (1545).

Making History’s presenter Dr Helen Castor, and her producer, Nick Patrick, went to speak to Simon Callow about fools in Shakespeare, and then came to me (from the sublime to the ridiculous) to discuss the historic fool – especially those at the court of Henry VIII. I told them all about the research I’d done as part of All The King’s Fools, the distinction between artificial fools and natural fools, and my belief – from the historical evidence – that natural fools had learning disabilities. You can hear the interviews on the programme here (starting at 9.16 minutes in - though the rest of the programme is well worth a listen too!)



SCSC Roelker Prize

To say I am utterly delighted is an understatement.

I’ve just heard that my journal article ‘Crossing Boundaries: Women’s Gossip, Insults and Violence in 16th-century France’ in French History (Vol 25, No. 4), has been awarded a US prize for historical scholarship – the Nancy Lyman Roelker Prize.

The Roelker Prize is awarded by the Sixteenth Century Society every year for the best article in English on sixteenth-century French history. It will be formally presented at the Sixteenth Century Society Conference in Cincinnati, Ohio in October.

The article was written for a special edition of French History in honour of the historian Robin Briggs, my doctoral supervisor and inspiration. I don’t know who nominated my article – but I am very grateful to him or her!

You can read the full text of my article here at French History if you subscribe or here in its pre-print form.

The article was also featured in BBC History Magazine in April 2012 (see below). I am now writing a book on my research on sixteenth-century France.


From princes to fools, on Radio 4

I popped on Front Row on 18 October 2012 to review the ‘The Lost Prince: The Life and Death of Henry Stuart’, a new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. The exhibition looks at the life of and court surrounding the young Prince Henry, son of James VI and I, who died at the age of eighteen, leaving his brother, Charles as heir. Whilst he lived, Prince Henry was the great hope of kingdom and his court was the centre of a cultural Renaissance – and the exhibition seemed to centre on this, more than on the little evidence we might have of the interior life of this teenager. The highlights for me were the innovative portraits of Henry by Robert Peake the Elder – which show, for the first time, a royal outside in a set of dramatic, dynamic poses. I was also very moved by Henry’s copybook in which he had doodled and practised his signature, and his wooden funeral effigy, now deteriorated and missing its head. The exhibition runs until 13 January 2013.

A couple of days before, I had recorded an interview with Helen Castor for her series with Tom Holland, Making History, about the fool in history. The programme will air at 3pm on Tuesday 6 November.


Booker Prize 2012: Mantel’s tale drips with the often putrid scents of the Tudor age

Many, many congratulations to Hilary Mantel on her second Man Booker Prize for Bring Up the Bodies! She has set the standard for a new level of mastery of historical fiction and brought Tudor history to a wider public.

The Daily Telegraph asked me for an historian’s view on Mantel’s win, which you can read here.

Bloody Tales on DVD

Just as we start to film the second series, I was delighted to discover, quite by chance, that Bloody Tales of the Tower has been made into a DVD, which goes on sale in mid-October 2012.

I think the best comment came from a friend on Twitter who admired the ‘corpse hunter CSI Tower Hill’ look of the cover.



A Tudor historian’s view of the Richard III excavations

I’ve written a blog for BBC History Magazine on the excavations of a skeleton which may belong to English king, Richard III:

Richard III

It is not surprising that for centuries Richard III has been synonymous with evil tyranny and physical deformity. To argue otherwise has been to take on three of history’s greats – Sir Thomas More, William Shakespeare and Winston Churchill, all of whom argued that Richard had been a man with a crooked back and a crooked life.

Although we’re all familiar with Shakespeare’s powerful evocation – in which Richard III is a hellish villain with a mind as warped as his body – the Tudor tradition of portraying the last Plantagenet king as a monster went much further back.

Shakespeare followed the account by Raphael Holinshed, who in turn echoed Polydore Vergil and Thomas More. Vergil, in a work commissioned by Henry VII and probably finished by 1513, depicted Richard as a cruel tyrant. More, meanwhile, writing in 1514-18 (self-consciously modelling his History on Tacitus’s treatment of Tiberius) described Richard as ‘little of stature, ill fetured of limmes, croke backed, his left shoulder much higher then his right’.

To More, Richard’s physical deformities revealed his monstrous character and reflected a life of acts ‘unnaturallye committed’.

Both Vergil and More had made use of older accounts, such as that by John Rous, in circulation soon after Richard’s death and newly scrubbed up for the Tudor dynasty to blacken Richard’s name. (Rous even records that Richard unnaturally gestated for two years’ in his mother’s womb before being born breech, with both teeth and flowing hair.)

Pictorial depictions too were on the receiving end of obvious post-1485 doctoring, as Pamela Tudor-Craig has concluded of this image in the Royal Collection.

But, the problem until now – and the reason Shakespeare has been largely unchallenged – has been that this evidence cannot convincingly tell us whether the accounts and depictions dating from Richard’s lifetime were accurate records by eyewitnesses, later changed by the Tudors to make Richard more sinister and villainous, or, flattering descriptions written when Richard was alive, with the truth only emerging after his death.

DNA-tested bones can, and that is why the skeleton that may belong to Richard III is so very important.

So far, the media has excitedly revealed that the skeleton ‘reveals a hunchback king’. This is inaccurate in more than one way, but if the skeleton does turn out to be that of Richard III, it can potentially reveal to us several crucial facts:

• Whether Richard had scoliosis – a type of spinal curvature – or kyphosis – the hunchback that Shakespeare gives him. There’s a distinct difference between the two. The former would have made one shoulder higher than the other, as More attested, and may also have made one shoulder blade prominent.

• How this might have affected both Richard’s appearance and his physical abilities. There’s always been a tension between Richard III’s renowned skill on the battlefield and the supposed extremity of his deformities.

• How exactly Richard died. The king’s martial prowess and the fact that he came within feet of Henry Tudor, whom he could easily have bested in one-to-one combat (no one would have put odds on the chance of a Tudor victory in 1485), mean that the only real way to explain his demise at Bosworth was that he was attacked from behind, as the skeleton initially seems to suggest.

But, finally and crucially, if the skeleton does turn out to be that of Richard III, it will hopefully prompt us to reassess not only Richard himself – we’re thankfully beyond seeing physical disability as some sort of evidence of a twisted soul – but the reputations of both Shakespeare and, especially, More.

Should we conclude that the sainted More, a man of integrity who died a martyr rather than swear against his conscience, was a liar? That can of worms may be even more controversial than the story of Richard III himself.


Wellcome History

I’ve told you much about our innovative project working with actors with learning difficulties at Hampton Court Palace (see here), but here’s a little more: the Wellcome Trust – which funded the performances through a People Award – has featured an article I wrote about the project in the latest issue of Wellcome History magazine. Also don’t miss the piece by Penny Lepisz, one of the actors who performed as a ‘King’s fool’ (though the picture next to her doesn’t show her leading the troops but actor Maude Winkler Reid). You can also learn from Lucy Worsley about the other ways that Historic Royal Palaces has worked with the Wellcome Trust.

1536 – the new cover

My first book, 1536: The Year that Changed Henry VIII, is being reprinted in a brand new paperback edition, complete with new cover:

Do you like it? It’ll be out in October.


Time Team Reflections


Over this summer, I’ve been the contributing historian on four Time Team programmes, which I’ve told you about before (see more photos and videos here), but I haven’t before commented much on the process.

Three of the sites I worked on were Tudor – houses owned by Cardinal Thomas Wolsey near Watford and Charles Brandon, duke of Suffolk at Henham Park, and the third, a copper mine in the Lake District that was started under Elizabeth I – and one was Norman – an Anglo-Norman castle in Pembrokeshire.

The experience has been exceptionally enjoyable.

The Time Team crowd is a good one, full of experienced and professional people with deep and thorough expertise – be it in archaeology, ceramics, metalwork, production or presenting. I have learnt much from their example, and benefited from their generous friendship.

There is also a very high level of research behind each shoot: what you see on screen is the tip of the iceberg.

To give you an example: on the last shoot – the Elizabethan copper mines at Coniston – I prepared myself by reading around the subject and was sent, before filming, a pack of extra articles and documents to bring myself up to speed on the niceties of early modern mining.

But, on top of this, on location, researcher Celyn Williams and I worked through photographs of the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century manuscripts of (among others):

  • the charter creating the Company of Mines Royal in the name of Queen Elizabeth I
  • surveys commissioned by Elizabeth I
  • letters written by the German miner who founded the mines, Daniel Hoeckstetter
  • parish registers for 1590-1620

This was genuine historical research, and the fruits of it – and not all the hard graft behind the scenes – is what appears on screen: historical research complementing the archaeological discovery unfolding over the three days. The two together brought results that were surprising and salutary, and it was very rewarding to have been a part of uncovering this history. Hopefully you too will find it all as enjoyable to watch.

The new series will air in early 2013.