My First Visit To Chalke Valley History Festival For Schools

Georgina Hawkins, Aged 12, Millfield Prep School, Year 7

Day One

Lice. A LOT of lice. I hadn’t expected the CVHF to kick off with a talk from Horrible Histories illustrator Martin Browne that enlightened us on just how bad the wee beasties could get. If you’re at all squeamish, look away but the record number of 10,428 on a British Tommy in WW1 was incredible. Plus that was just the count from his shirt! Martin went on to emphasise that realism in art isn’t the only ‘right’ way to go, in fact choosing to draw in a stylistic way is thousands of years old and often more clearly gets across the desired message.

Out in the Living Histories exhibitions we learned about the harsh reality of warfare and the escallating cat-and-mouse chase between developing armour and the finding the means to break through it and inflict maximum damage. Equally interesting was the history behind some of our everyday food items, and especially the risks taken to obtain spices such as pepper and nutmeg in Tudor times. When things went wrong, they went terribly wrong, including falling into the hands of Vlad the Impailer or being marooned in the Arctic over winter. Which would you have chosen?

Moving on, I discovered that The Black Prince really knew how to be a prince, living a life of luxury whist fighting at the front for England. Not quite so comfortable were the Numidian Cavalry who were part of the Roman Army and rode naked without saddle, reigns or clothing into battle.

The WW2 Trench Experience relives the Allies fight to push inland following d-day. Interestingly the Allies had penicillin by this time but the Axis forces did not. Equally, soldiers given morphine had an M marked on their forehead, since an overdose would stop the heart.

There is so much diverse aspects of history at the festival and so many knowledgeable people, and it’s fantastic to uncover that what we think of as history may not be the reality at all.

Day Two

My second day at the festival saw less action than yesterday but more in-depth talks on a range of subjects. Out of an enticing choice of twelve topics I chose Appeasing Hitler, The Russian Revolution, Henry VIII and Mary Queen of Scots. All were interesting for very different reasons – Chamberlain’s desperate optimism that war with Hitler and the associated loss of life could be avoided, a taste of a lecture format, the manipulations of the men at Henry VIII’s side and being a Scot, my personal favourite, the doomed story of Mary Queen of Scots.

I also had a first-rate lesson in historical navigation with all manner of wonderful tools, including the revelation that I walk across the festival field at 1.5 knots. I’ll have to come back next year to work out how fast I can run.

Power And Curiosity: How The Abbasid Caliph Al-Mamun Pushed The Boundaries Of Scientific Knowledge 

Born in 786, al-Mamun was the son of the legendary Caliph Harun al-Rashid, whose adventures feature in lurid detail in One Thousand and One Nights. Harun appointed Jafar, a member of the cultured Persian Barmakid family, as Mamun’s tutor, who instilled a profound love of learning in his young pupil that continued throughout his life.

Well versed in all aspects of Greek philosophy and learning, Mamun even claimed that Aristotle had visited him in a dream, and he certainly adopted the great philosopher’s fascination with the natural world and how it works.

A gold Abbasid dinar, struck during the reign of al-Mamun

When Mamun became Caliph (after a bloody civil war with his brother al-Amin, Harun’s chosen heir) he put his enormous power and wealth in the service of scientific discovery. His personal interest and curiosity lay at the heart of this endeavour. When on campaign in Egypt he commissioned scholars to try to decipher hieroglyphs (something that was not finally achieved until after the discovery of the Rosetta Stone in 1799), he forced entry into the Great Pyramid of Khufu and was disappointed to discover that it had already been plundered – apparently all that was left was a sarcophagus of bones and a jar of gold.

Back in his capital city Baghdad, he and erudite members of the elite paid translators in bags of silver to carry out vital work transmitting ideas from ancient Greece, India, Persia and Syria into the Arabic tradition. Obtaining copies of these books was a vital component of the huge flowering of learning in Baghdad during this period, Mamun himself wrote to the Emperor in Constantinople asking him to send ancient texts so he could have them translated into Arabic.

A 16th century image of astronomers using a wide array of instruments in an observatory.

He also paid for original scientific research, setting up the first observatory in the Islamic world so that his astronomers could record accurate observations of the celestial bodies, later building another one in Damascus so that data from the two could be compared. Mamun’s palaces thronged with scholars engaged in lively debates, he encouraged them to challenge one another and the ancient texts they studied. He was demanding and arrogant – no question was too big or too difficult, he wanted to know everything, a desire that culminated in a project to measure the circumference of the globe. Ancient astronomers had already made these calculations, using the stars to work out how much one degree of the circumference measured and then multiplying it by 360, the problem was that there was no record of the size of their units of measurement. Mamun’s astronomers set off in the middle of the night across the flat plain of Sinjar, one group walking due north, the other due south, until they had measured one degree of the earth, before walking back towards one another carefully counting the distance. The resulting average, when multiplied by 360, gave them a total of 24,500 miles – a mere 400 miles off the accepted distance measured by modern science. This was an exceptional feat of scientific brilliance, but, typically, Mamun was not satisfied – he sent them all off to the Syrian desert so that they could repeat the experiment and check their answer. Under Mamun’s influence, scientific discovery blossomed in the Islamic Empire; his vision, curiosity and charisma helped fuel one of the greatest intellectual epochs of all time. 

In The Map of Knowledge, I follow the books translated and written in Mamun’s Baghdad as they travel across the Mediterranean and later pass into Latin Europe, where, in fifteenth century Venice, they are printed for the first time and their legacy is assured. 


Violet Moller is a historian and writer who lives in Oxford. The Map of Knowledge received a prestigious RSL Jerwood Award in 2016.

She will be speaking at Chalke Valley History Festival on Thursday 27th June 2019 about The Map Of Knowledge: How Classical Ideas Were Lost And Found. Tickets are available here.

The History of Philosophy

Extract from ‘The History of Philosophy’ by A.C. Grayling published on 20th June 2019.

It would seem that there is a recipe for being a great civilisation-dominating figure such as the Buddha, Confucius, Socrates, Jesus and Mohammed. It is this: Write nothing. Have devoted disciples. Be lucky. Note that this recipe does not include: Be original. Be profound. None of these figures were either of these things, though in the Be Lucky department they had followers who were both, and who made from the remembered fragments of their sayings, and the legends that embroidered memory of their persons, whole systems of thought and practice which they themselves might probably not have recognised or even perhaps approved. 

If these seem to be disparaging things to say, as a kind of lese majeste against the greatest and most iconic of names, note this. Each of these figures was, in his own time, one among many who were doing what they were doing: teaching or preaching, gathering followers, variously borrowing from and disagreeing with others and with earlier teachings. In the case of some it was decades, in the case of others centuries, before the teachings attributed to them were written down. In each case the followers of their followers soon began to disagree and split from each other, the schisms and quarrels forming different versions of the legacies thus surviving. 

Take Siddartha Gautama – he who came to be known as the Buddha – as an example. Legend makes him the son of a king who led a life so sheltered and opulent that when he first encountered a sick man, an old man and a corpse in the world outside the palace walls he was shocked, and therefore abandoned his station and family and set off as a mendicant wanderer in search of release from the sufferings of life. He tried deep meditation at the feet of the yogis, he tried severe self-mortification after the fashion of the ascetics, seeking by these means to secure release from the endless cycles of pain that constitutes existence. Neither worked. But one day, seated in thought under a Bodhi tree, he found enlightenment: he became Buddha, ‘the enlightened,’ and was released; and spent the rest of his life teaching disciples.

This fabulised and abbreviated account makes Gautama seem as if he were unique, as if he arose out of nothing with a great and transforming revelation to offer the world. But what of the yogis and ascetics with whom he first studied? In fact he arose out of a period in the history of India that was tumultuous in the tens of thousands of seekers and mendicants, of yogis and ascetics, of teachers and preachers, who congregated in huge crowds in great public debating halls and in parks in the cities of the Ganges, where they argued among themselves, lectured the public, and taught their followers. It was common currency that acts of charity would help towards a more fortunate reincarnation in a next life, and therefore these swarms of mendicants were able to rely on being fed and clothed by the communities through which they passed. Nothing was more helpful to fostering the abundance of philosophy and religion in the India of that time than the coupled ideas of reincarnation and karma.

The teachings of the Buddha began to be written down three to four centuries after his death. The two oldest sources of what he is believed to have taught are the Suttapitaka (the Basket of Discourses) and the Vinayapitaka (the Basket of the Disciplinary Code). They were gathered from memorised oral transmission of the teachings, an approximate canon of which had been formed by about a century after his death. The oral nature of this first record introduced formulaic and repetitive forms required for memorisation, and variations in the eventual texts made from them are in part attributable to the vagaries of memory. But there were certainly also misunderstandings, interpolations and reinterpretations of the material passed down too, adding to the variability of the written versions.

Moreover, whatever language the Buddha spoke in his native land among the Sakya people, who lived in what is now the border area between India and Nepal on the northern slopes of the Ganges basin, it was not Pali, Sanskrit or one of the Pakritic dialects, and the transmission of Buddhist teachings through these languages, and later through other south Asian languages and Tibetan, Chinese and Japanese, introduced many differing additions and changes to create what Buddhism is now.

Nevertheless there is a recognisable core to Buddhist doctrine, centering on the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. A striking fact about Buddhism, as with the rival outlook that arose at the same time in history, namely Jainism, is that it is not a religion but a philosophy. It involves no deity or deities, and relies on no messages from transcendent sources about the purpose of life and how to live it. Later versions of Buddhism in Tibet, China and Japan gathered a great penumbra of superstitions and beliefs in gods and inhuman beings – a typical development for the human imagination – but this constitutes a corrupted version of the original, as the austere scholars of the Theravada school of Sri Lanka will readily tell one, as they look with disdain at the excesses of the Mahayana schools and their encrustations of the ‘true doctrine’ with what these scholars think is nonsense.

Matters are no different as regards Confucius. He too was one of many ‘literati’ who sought to advise princes and teach a way of life; he had the good fortune to inspire a follower who lived a century after his time, Mencius, whose admiration prompted even later scholars to collect sayings attributed to Confucius and write them down. About two and a half centuries after Confucius’ death the first emperor of unified China, Qin Shi Huangdi (221-206 BCE) made a bonfire of the books of all previous philosophers – and, as it happened, any available living authors of them too – in order to efface the past and to establish the Legalist philosophy of his own day, which supported his rule. Fortunately he was unable to destroy all copies of previous classics such as the Book of Songs, the Spring and Autumn Annals, the Analects of Confucius, the Yijing (in an earlier Anglicisation known as ‘I Ching’), and Mencius’s book, the Mengzi. When the next dynasty came into power, known as the ‘Former Han,’ Confucius’s reputation blossomed; numerous of the ancient classics were attributed to his authorship or editorship, and preferment in the bureaucracy of the empire turned on success in examinations on the classics attributed to him. The Confucian character of China was shaped by the many and long periods when the teachings attributed to Confucius were the subject of these imperial examinations; they only ceased to be so in the first decade of the twentieth century.

The pattern of post-mortem collections of saying and teachings, the earliest written down decades after the event, and a canon being established only centuries after the event, is repeated in the case of Jesus and Mohammed. The stand-out figure is Socrates, personally known to Plato, Xenophon and others who wrote about him – but even here too, with the exception of some lampoons by Aristophanes, nothing was written about him or recorded of him until after his death. Subsequent philosophers developed different aspects of Socrates’ legacy – Aristotle the trope of the considered life, the Cynics his disdain for convention, the Stoics his fortitude and adherence to principle – but in the case of the Buddha, Jesus and Mohammed the divergences and schisms among their followers in the centuries after their deaths descended into conflict and violence. This too, alas, is a typical feature of things human.

Socrates is however like all the others in having been one among a large number of people – in his case the Sophists – who were doing much the same thing as he was: teaching, influencing, attracting pupils. Jesus was likewise one of a large number of enthusiasts and preachers, and his form of execution – reserved by the Roman authorities for political insurrectionaries – suggests that he was not viewed as being much different from the many others who were disturbing the peace at the time. Gautama competed for the attention of his contemporaries with the Jains, with other atheist philosophers, and with the theistic devotees of the India of his day. Why did Confucius rather than Mozi come to have followers long after his own time who elaborated teachings in his name, thus making him the venerated sage of China? Why did St Paul choose to make a religion out of the deceased Jesus rather than some other zealous preacher of the day? You might reply: the intrinsic merits of the teaching. Perhaps so. But undoubtedly there was a large measure of luck in it. And it makes one ask, prompted by Thomas Grey’s Elegy in a Country Churchyard, how many ‘village Hampdens and mute inglorious MIltons’ in their thousands thought and taught, but have been long forgotten? Refocus the question and ask, Why is it that romantic novels sell in far greater numbers than literary ones? Were there teachers and thinkers of profound insight whose teachings were too difficult to understand or to follow, leaving the legacy of the more popular ones to flourish in history? A survey of the history of philosophy suggests an answer: in it are to be seen the thinkers who may well have more to offer the thoughtful than the popularised teachings associated with those ‘big names.’

One thing we certainly learn from these considerations is that ‘Buddha,’ ‘Confucius’ and the rest are the names of images or icons rather than of people – or better, perhaps, the ideas of notional people to whom can be attributed for convenience the inspiration for a philosophy or a religion. 

Picking out a few individuals for elevation to iconic status in this way is a kind of shorthand for the entire period in which they and increasingly many others were raising questions about values, society, ideas of the good, and enquiry into fundamental questions about the word and humankind. No doubt others had done the same in the millennia before them, but at this period – between the eighth and third centuries BCE especially – there was a marked efflorescence of debate, both in numbers of people involved and written records of what emerged from their discussions. For this reason the period has been labelled ‘the Axial Age’ (axiology is the study of values, from Greek axia ‘worth,’ ‘value’) – a name coined by Karl Jaspers on the basis of views advanced by scholars in the nineteenth century who were struck by the emergence of philosophy in India and China contemporaneously with its appearance in the Greek world. Jaspers included Zoroastrianism in Persia and Judaism in the Middle East among the movements constituting the age, and might have added many more which have since vanished into historical curiosities, such as the mystery cults, Hermeticism, and then-contemporary versions of the mythopoeic religions of Egypt and Mesopotamia. It would seem that philosophy – what we recognise specifically as philosophy – stood out against the increasingly busy background of speculation in all these forms, and it is a striking fact that the great iconic figures at the heart of the period – Buddha, Confucius, Socrates – are all philosophers, not prophets or religious leaders, still less gods.


A. C. Grayling CBE MA DPhil (Oxon) FRSA FRSL is the Master of the New College of the Humanities, London, and its Professor of Philosophy. He is also a Supernumerary Fellow of St Anne’s College, Oxford. He is the author of over thirty books of philosophy, biography, history of ideas, and essays.

He will be speaking at Chalke Valley History Festival on Thursday 27th June about The History of Philosophy. Tickets are available here.

THE LAST CAVALIER: PRINCE RUPERT OF THE RHINE

When I remembered that 2019 marked the 400th anniversary of the birth of Prince Rupert of the Rhine, I immediately thought that this was something I wanted to mark:  I spoke to Jane Pleydell-Bouverie, Festival Director of Chalke Valley, and we agreed that I should put together a talk on him for the CVHF audience that I know – from recent talks I’ve given there, on Charles I and then (last year) on Charles II – loves the English Civil War.

When I started researching Rupert for his biography, 13 years ago, I really only knew about his dynamic and controversial hand in that conflict. Then I got to grips with an astonishingly broad life – one that involved his piracy, romantic forays, many fascinating siblings, scientific and artistic discoveries, punchy quarrels with Samuel Pepys, as well as his pivotal role in the opening up of Canada.

Rupert starts off as a baby, being tossed into the last royal carriage fleeing his parents’ vanquished capital, and ends up as one of the most important people in England – a battered veteran at sea in the louche world of Restoration England.

I’m returning to Chalke Valley to share an astonishing life with an audience that loves History – and I can’t wait!


Charles Spencer obtained his degree in Modern History at Magdalen College, Oxford. He was a reporter on NBC’s Today Show from 1986 until 1995, and is the author of several books, including Sunday Times bestseller Blenheim: Battle for Europe (shortlisted for History Book of the Year at the 2005 National Book Awards), Prince Rupert: The Last Cavalier, Killers of the King and To Catch a King: Charles II’s Great Escape.

He will be speaking about Prince Rupert of the Rhine on Thursday 27th June – tickets are available here.

Gold, Frank-intentions and Murder

By the summer of 1940 Britain stood alone on the edge of Europe with nothing to protect her apart from the Channel.

This is an oft stated fact that has become entirely accepted by a large majority of the British population today. But is it true? Strictly speaking, yes. Geographically we stand on the edge of the European continent and always have done. There is nothing new in that claim. But the implication here when set in the context of the early summer of 1940 is that of plucky little Britain, with its population of 38 million, standing shoulder to shoulder to face the threat of a German invasion entirely alone and with no support from anyone. That is the bit that is not true and it does history a great disservice to ignore the massive contribution made by our friends and allies both that summer and in the subsequent springs, summers, autumns and winters that followed.

By the time the Battle of Britain took place, London was host to seven foreign governments-in-exile and the hot-headed French General, Charles de Gaulle, had arrived as well. None of them came empty handed. 

The Norwegian government leant the British more than 1,300 vessels from their fleet, the fourth largest and most modern merchant fleet in the world, which sailed with the Atlantic convoys for the whole war. In 1941 a British official declared that the Norwegian merchant fleet was worth ‘more than an army of a million men’. That was an enormously valuable contribution and one that was not without risk. Many Norwegian sailors would lose their lives in the heaving seas of the submarine-infested waters of the North Atlantic. In addition, King Haakon of Norway brought 1400 soldiers, 1,000 sailors and a small number of pilots that grew rapidly over the next few months. 

The Belgians donated their substantial gold reserves and over the course of the war shipped 1,375 tons of uranium from their stocks to the USA to fuel the Manhattan project. 

The Dutch government and their magnificent Queen Wilhelmina, who was described by Churchill as the only real man among the governments-in-exile in London brought six hundred ships from its mercantile fleet and rich resources from the Dutch East Indies. 

Jozef Gabcik, one of the two assassins of Reinhard Heydrich

Jan Kubis, the assassin who threw the grenade that killed Heydrich

The Czechs’ contribution was brilliant intelligence from inside Nazi Germany. Their main agent, A54 as he was known, was a high-ranking Abwehr officer who divulged highly valuable secrets until his eventual capture in 1941. He told the Czechs about the build-up of Goering’s Luftwaffe, he gave them the code for German wirelesses in 1938. It was a sinister code: Heil 15 März and a week before Prague was invaded (on 15 March 1939) he told them that the Germans had been instructed to round up all intelligence officers and treat them with great harshness. His warnings helped the intelligence services to evacuate to London the night before the invasion. In 1942 two agents, one Czech, one Slovak, carried out the most audacious assassination of the highest-ranking Nazi to be murdered: Acting Reichsprotektor Reinhard Heydrich. Jozef Gabčik and Jan Kubiš were trained in Britain and flown to Bohemia by the RAF to carry out the murder. Our past is inextricably linked to the former Czechoslovakia.

Charles de Gaulle’s contribution would take longer to materialise but his presence in London cannot be underestimated. Churchill, passionately supportive of the French, gave de Gaulle every encouragement as he gradually built up the Free French army and encouraged the development of the Resistance. Many of their agents were trained in Britain and used safe houses all over the country, including one in Sussex which features in Our Uninvited Guests, to stay while waiting for flights into occupied France.

End House, used during the war as a secret training base for Polish agents.

The Poles brought fighter pilots to the Battle of Britain. They were among a total of 8,000 airmen and 20,000 soldiers as well as hundreds of sailors manning three destroyers, two submarines and a number of smaller vessels who arrived here after the Fall of France. By the end of the war the Polish was the fourth largest Allied Force after Russia, the USA and the British Empire. Critically they also sent an early decoded version of the Enigma machine for the British security services. It was the Poles in 1932 who first worked out how to use the German Enigma machines and they had been reading German messages for the greater part of seven years by the time the war broke out. I’m not saying the coders at Bletchley Park could not have done their work without Polish help but it might not have happened so quickly. We owe the Poles more than we ever imagine. That is why I have dedicated my book to them. They might have been Uninvited Guests but they were brilliant guests to have on our side.

Auxiliary Units trained at Coleshill House near Swindon from the summer of 1940 until they were stood down in late 1944

Closer to home we had the Auxiliary Units, young men and women recruited in the summer of 1940 to act as a sabotage force to work behind the lines in the event of an invasion. They were told their work was so secret that they could not tell anyone about it outside the tiny groups of six or so who would man an observation post, underground, and plan their attacks on bridges, railway lines, petrol stores and so on. The life expectancy of an Auxilier had the Germans invaded was estimated to be no more than fourteen days. Their training centre was based at Coleshill House, home of the Pleydell-Bouverie family, just outside the village of Highworth in Wiltshire, close to the railway hub of Swindon, meaning that trainees from all over the country could reach Coleshill with relative ease. The man who developed the training programme to turn vicars, poachers, farmers and schoolteachers into saboteurs and silent killers was Brigadier Sir Colin McVean Gubbins, the man who would later be in charge of Special Operations Executive.

When you next hear somebody misusing history, please suggest they might like to read Our Uninvited Guests and remind themselves of the real behind the scenes story of the summer of 1940.

 

 

 

 


Julie Summers is a bestselling author and historian. Her books include: Fearless on Everest: The Quest for Sandy Irvine; The Colonel of Tamarkan, a biography of her grandfather, the man who built the ‘real’ bridge on the River Kwai; Stranger in the House, a social history of servicemen reuniting with their families after the Second World War, and When the Children Came Home, which tells the story of returning evacuees. Her book Jambusters was the inspiration for ITV’s hit drama series Home Fires, which ran for two seasons in 2015–16.

Julie will be speaking at Chalke Valley History Festival on Friday 28th June about Our Uninvited Guests: The Secret Lives of Britain’s Country Houses. Tickets are available here.

John Ruskin: a Victorian visionary for today

John Ruskin, depicted with the founders of Ruskin, Florida, on a 2008 mural by Mike Parker, painted on the centenary of the community’s foundation on Ruskinian ideals (photo: Mike Parker)

By the end of the 19th century, John Ruskin – sage, social critic, artist, scientist, environmental  campaigner – was perhaps the most famous living Victorian apart from Queen Victoria herself (who was also born 200 years ago this year).

Yet after his death in 1900, aged 80, this remarkable polymath’s fame quickly faded. For much of the 20th century, his reputation seemed as dead and buried as the man himself.

For those who have heard of him, the Victorian age’s best-known, most controversial and most prolific intellectual is still a bearded old has-been: prudish, aloof, self-righteous, conservative to a fault, and resistant to progress.

The motto and emblem chosen by Ruskin and featured on his books. (photo courtesy: The Ruskin, Lancaster University)

Ruskin’s personal motto, stamped on later editions of his books, was, however, powerful, simple, and remains highly relevant: ‘To-day’. He rallied followers to take on practical challenges and to do now what they might otherwise put off until tomorrow.

Ruskin shaped – and still shapes – the world we live in, the way we think and work, the environment, built and natural, that surrounds us, and many of the services we enjoy. Two hundred years since his birth, we live in ‘Ruskinland’.

It becomes obvious that Ruskinland exists as soon as you pick up the trail of Ruskin, say in an art gallery or a museum. Those are the places where his legacy is most obvious, but he is also present in the work of craftspeople and artisans, the thinking of ecologists and scientists, and even in the dry regulatory crevices of modern finance, or the ambitious mission and purpose statements of big companies.

Many people know at least a little about John Ruskin or his work. Very few people, though, have sight of the whole of Ruskin – which is hardly surprising given the protean, polymathic nature of the man and his thinking.

As a teenager, studying the history of art, I acquired the best-known piece of the patchwork: his role as artist and art critic, a fixture in London artistic circles before he had turned forty. When I revisited Venice for the first time in decades, I found that the places and works that astonished and energised Ruskin in the 19th century – the Tintorettos in the Scuola di San Rocco, the Carpaccios in the Accademia – were on my itinerary in the second half of the 20th, when I first visited his ‘paradise of cities’, aged 16, with a school art trip. As a regular traveller in the Lake District, with a holiday home not far from Brantwood, I knew about Ruskin’s love of the region. I was well aware that Oxford boasted a Ruskin College and a Ruskin School of Art.
But even to those who know a part of Ruskin’s legacy, other parts remain obscure.

My quest to learn more about Ruskin’s influence really started, though, when I came across his social and economic criticism, and observations on the environment, which seem ever more relevant in an unequal and polluted world. It turned out that people who knew about those corners of Ruskinland were as eager to show me round as I was to explain my journey through other regions of his influence.

The whistlestop tour – which, incidentally, Ruskin, one of the greatest and most leisurely travellers in history, would never deign to join – goes like this.

Ruskin’s ideas sowed the seeds of the modern welfare state, universal state education and healthcare free at the point of delivery.

His acute appreciation of natural beauty underpinned the National Trust, while his sensitivity to pollution and environmental change, decades before it was considered other than a local phenomenon, prefigured the modern green movement.

He staked his reputation on Turner and the Pre-Raphaelites when they were under fire, ensuring their reputations have continued to burn brightly even as his has suffered.

Ruskin’s 1894 portrait, on the wall at the Unto This Last furniture workshop in Brick Lane, London (photo: Unto This Last)

His violent critique of free market economics, Unto This Last, was the title that most influenced the first intake of Labour MPs in 1906 – more than 40 years after its publication.Those articles, and a series of other writings and lectures in which Ruskin laid into the smug captains of Victorian capitalism, are striking precursors of the current debate about inequality, executive pay, ethical and purposeful business, and the perils and opportunities of greater automation.

Ruskin may have claimed not to enjoy a fight, but as a young man, he was not afraid to provoke and pursue debate, through all contemporary media, including books, magazines, pamphlets and letters to newspapers. His insights are often strikingly modern. For instance, his withering assessment of the contemporary condition, from the fifth volume of his book Modern Painters, is no less relevant than it was when it was published in 1860. People appear, he wrote, to have ‘no other desire or hope but to have large houses and to be able to move fast’.

In his prime, Ruskin was also a hugely popular public speaker, attracting sell-out audiences and lively press criticism with his controversial views and idiosyncratic approach. He would not have been an obvious proponent of the popular TeD talk, with its time limit of 20 minutes. His lectures often lasted over an hour. But as a speaker, he had a gift, as one modern biographer has written, for being ‘both combative and inspiring’.

As a man who wrote some nine million published words in his lifetime, Ruskin would have struggled with Twitter’s 280-character limit, that is for sure.
But I’m certain he would have been a regular and avidly followed tweeter.

What is more, his intense visual sense and interest in early photographic technology would make him a natural enthusiast for today’s image-based social media. Who would not want to follow the world’s most discerning eye for natural and manmade beauty on Instagram?

Ruskin is hard to categorise.‘I am never satisfied that I have handled a subject properly till I have contradicted myself at least three times,’ he said. At different times described himself as a ‘violent Tory of the old school’ and ‘a Communist of the old school – reddest also of the red’, which always makes me think: that must have been some school.

Despite the contradictions – and his own often tortured personal life, which ended in reclusive, mentally troubled near-silence – John Ruskin reminds us of many positive ways to live better today.

He wasn’t the only 19th-century thinker preoccupied with how his world was changing and how to guide it down the best path. But he was among the most prescient and inspirational. Without him and his more pragmatic and campaigning followers – from William Morris to Mahatma Gandhi – many of the enlightened ideas of the modern world would have taken longer to evolve, probably developed differently, and in some cases might not have developed at all.


Andrew is an award-winning journalist at the Financial Times and author of Ruskinland: How John Ruskin Shapes Our World (Pallas Athene). He writes a weekly column for the FT on business, strategy and leadership, as well as contributing longer features, videos and podcasts and appearing regularly at conferences and on panels.

He was named Business Commentator of the Year 2016 in the Editorial Intelligence Comment Awards. He is also the author of Leadership in the Headlines (2016). Andrew is a trustee of The Ruskin Foundation, which has been responsible for the UK’s largest archive of material relating John Ruskin, and chair of the Blueprint Trust, the charity behind Blueprint for Better Business, which challenges business to be a force for good.

Andrew will be speaking at Chalke Valley History Festival about John Ruskin on Thursday, 27th June and tickets can be purchased here: How John Ruskin Shapes Our World.

THE KREMLIN LETTERS: DAVID REYNOLDS ON THE CORRESPONDENCE OF CHURCHILL, ROOSEVELT AND STALIN

This article was previously published by Yale University Press.

For nearly four years, and against all the odds, Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt and Josef Stalin led the most effective alliance in history. Yet they met face-to-face only twice. Instead, the ‘Big Three’ had to communicate through secret telegrams and coded letters. They exchanged more than six hundred messages between 22 June 1941, when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, and Roosevelt’s sudden death on 12 April 1945. And, as this extraordinary correspondence demonstrates, each member of this implausible trio became fascinated by the other two, genuinely trying, in his distinctive way, to build personal relationships.

From birthday wishes to arranging meetings and discussing the war, Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin’s correspondence reveal hidden nuances in how they interacted during that crucial time in the world’s history. In this article, David Reynolds reflects on the process of piecing together the story of The Kremlin Letters, co-authored with Vladimir Pechatnov.


Churchill and Roosevelt waged war as allies for nearly four years. Yet they met face to face for less than two weeks. Our book shows how the triumvirate conducted their relationship most of the time: through the now unfashionable medium of letter-writing. The result – we believe – is a novel perspective on the Big Three, as human beings and as political leaders.

Constructing a narrative from the letters of the ‘Big Three’

The actual letters have been available for sixty years – the Soviet Foreign Ministry published them in Russian and English in 1957, partly in retaliation for piecemeal quotation by Churchill and other memoirists. But, although largely accurate, this was simply an edition of the raw messages, lacking much context and with the British and American strands printed in separate volumes. Our book brings the messages together in a single chronological sequence, thereby unfolding the story of the wartime alliance from Hitler’s invasion of the USSR on 22 June 1941 to Roosevelt’s sudden death on 12 April 1945. And we go beyond the standard format of such edited texts in what John Gaddis – doyen of Cold War historians – has generously called “a pioneering effort to embed documents within a single sustained narrative.”

That narrative has been constructed from a much larger database pieced together from the archives of all three countries in a research project generously supported by grants from the Leverhulme Trust, the British Academy and the Russkiy Mir Foundation. The database includes drafts of the messages, discussions about their proposed content – particularly in the British War Cabinet – and invaluable accounts from the ambassadorial delivery boys about how the messages were actually received. Among these men, Ivan Maisky, Stalin’s man in London till mid-1943, takes the prize for his vivid renditions of Churchill’s varied and highly emotional reactions. Here are a few extracts: “His face was white as chalk and he was breathing heavily. He was obviously enraged … He shut his eyes for a moment, and when he opened them I could see tears … Churchill must have had a drop too much whisky.”

Both photos: The “Big Three” at Tehran, November 1943

New material from the Russian Archives

It is the Russian material that gives the book much of its novelty and freshness – not just from theMaisky diary (now available in English thanks to Gabriel Gorodetsky and Yale University Press), but from the Stalin fonds in the Russian State Archive of Social and Political History, the Presidential Archive of the Russian Federation and the Foreign Ministry Archive in Moscow. These were mined exhaustively by Vladimir and his junior colleague Iskander Magadeyev. Here we can see at work the remarkable team of Foreign Commissar Vyacheslav Molotov, from whose office most of the draft messages originated, and Josef Stalin, unquestionably editor-in-chief.

All this documentation reveals in rich detail the Big Three’s “epistolary relationship.” Not quite on a par with the letters exchanged by Voltaire and Catherine the Great, let alone Abelard and Héloïse, but in its own way memorable and significant. Some messages dealt with weighty issues such as the Second Front, the Arctic convoys and the fate of Poland – on all of which Churchill and Stalin often had explosive arguments. At other times the exchanges were lighter, even chatty: news from the battlefronts, congratulations on notable successes, and occasional digs at foreign leaders such as Charles de Gaulle. Churchill and Stalin even exchanged birthday greetings each year.

Churchill and the “two Stalins”

Yet Churchill never quite fathomed the Soviet leader: to explain the apparently inexplicable mix of letters – sometimes on the same day – he developed the concept of “two Stalins.” Friendly messages were deemed to be from the man himself, while nasty ones were attributed to pressures from dark forces in the shadows of the Kremlin.

Others in London and Washington shared this binary image, yet it was a bizarre illusion. As Sheila Fitzpatrick has recently underlined [in her book On Stalin’s Team, 2015], Stalin worked with a team, but none of them – certainly not Molotov – had any doubt who was Boss. The Soviet leader managed to build relationships with his allies, while retaining the ability to keep them guessing. His growing skill as a diplomatist is clearly documented in the book. This was one of the most surprising features of the correspondence for assistant editor Olga Kucherenko – a specialist in the social history of the Great Patriotic War. We think that our readers will be equally intrigued.

Left to right: 1. Stalin’s cri de coeur, September 1941 2. Letter from Churchill, September 1941 3. Harry Hopkins in Stalin’s Kremlin office, July 1941 4. Ivan Maisky and Churchill, August 1941

Roosevelt and Stalin

Churchill and Stalin were the more prolific correspondents. Roosevelt, by contrast, sent fewer messages and generally relied on drafts from aides and government departments – adding just a few personal touches. FDR often used VIP envoys, such as right-hand man Harry Hopkins or former Ambassador to Moscow Joseph Davies, to ensure access to Stalin. On their return to Washington, the Wheelchair President would pump them for every possible insight into the Kremlin recluse. Roosevelt’s real goal was to use the correspondence to pave the way for personal meetings and thereby bring the Soviet Union in from the cold. Ideally, he wanted one-on-one discussions with Stalin, without Churchill – whom FDR considered a benighted Victorian imperialist, unable to imagine a post-colonial world.

The President’s efforts to arrange these meetings bulk large in correspondence. We can watch his gambits and also the adroit way Stalin played his cards, aware of the President’s ardour. He declined to meet until the USSR was in a strong military position after the Red Army’s victory at Kursk in July 1943, and he also forced FDR to come to him – at Teheran and then at Yalta. The first trip undermined Roosevelt’s health, the second finished him off.

Left to right: 1. Vyacheslav Molotov lands in Scotland, May 1942 2. Molotov is met by Admiral Ernest J. King (left), Ambassador Litvinov, Secretary of State Cordell Hull and General George C. Marshall, June 1942 3. Molotov, Maisky and Churchill on the veranda at 10 Downing Street, May 1942 4. Soviet and US airmen pose in front of a P-63 fighter, Alaska 1943

Yet, as our final chapter shows, in the last months of his life the dying president finally became the senior partner at the Western end of the correspondence. On paper, as in the war effort as a whole, Washington was now calling the shots. It is striking that hardly any of some 3,400 words that the White House sent to the Kremlin in the last six weeks of Roosevelt’s life were composed by Franklin Roosevelt. But they were authentically his voice. It was a remarkable and moving story – as you will understand when you read The Kremlin Letters.


David Reynolds is professor of international history at Cambridge University and the author of eleven books. Vladimir Pechatnov, a prolific scholar of the Cold War, is chair of European and American studies, Moscow State Institute of International Relations.

David will be at Chalke Valley History Festival on Wednesday 26th June to speak about THE KREMLIN LETTERS. Tickets are available to book here.

She-Merchants, Buccaneers and Gentlewomen by Katie Hickman

Courtesy of Katie Hickman/ Sunday Times

In February 1617, a young woman, Frances Webb, set sail for India on board an East India Company [EIC] vessel, the New Year’s Gift.   In the 17th Century, the company had strict rules prohibiting women from their voyages, but Frances Webb and another Englishwoman, Mrs Hudson, had managed to circumvent them by claiming to be the female attendants of a third, an Armenian Christian, Mrs Towerson, who had married an English sea captain, and was returning home with him to the Mughal city of Agra.  

It did not go well.  

 “Before I pass the equinoctal, I am to acquaint your Honours and Worships with a strange accident which hath happened contrary I do think to any of your expectations,” the Master of the New Year’s Gift wrote in a letter to the Company directors in London.  “One of the gentlewomen which came with Captain Towerson and his wife is great with child, and at present is so big that I fear that if she have not twins she will hardly hold out to Surat [the Mughal port on the coast of Gujarat].”  It transpired that the pregnant woman, Frances Webb, had not only formed a liaison with one of her fellow travellers, Richard Steele, but at some point on the journey had actually married him, “under a tree.” (The East India Company archive is surprisingly full of these lively details.)  Clearly, the couple had hoped that her pregnancy could be kept secret until they arrived in India, “but that her belly told tales,” the Master noted acerbically, “and could no longer be hid under the name of a timpany.”  

Unlike the groups of women I have written about in the past – women married to British diplomats, in Daughters of Britannia, and 18th and 19th century English courtesans, about whom very little was generally known – when I came to research a book about the experiences of British women in India I found that absolutely everyone had an opinion.  

Usually it was the same opinion.  Everyone knew that the widening of the cultural divide between the British and Indians was entirely due to the increasing numbers of women who made their way to India in the ‘fishing fleets’ of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  Everyone knew that if it were not for the snobbery and racial prejudice of the memsahibs there would, somehow, have been far greater harmony and accord between the races.   And, most particularly, everyone knew that it was women who somehow had put a stop to the inter-racial marriages that were such a pleasant multi-cultural feature of life – for English men, naturally – in 18th  century India.   Indolent, racist, snobbish, passive – the legacy of the British memsahib seemed to have become stuck in some hazy notion of the Raj, with all its attendant, imperial evils.

But before the mid-19th century, though, there was no Raj.  Between the foundation of the East India Company in 1600 and the birth of the British Empire in India stretches a period of 250 years.  During this time many thousands of women found their way to India.  Who were they?  And what on earth can possibly have induced them to make a journey that was as long and dangerous as a voyage into outer space might be today?  

Mistresses Webb and Husdon would have been well aware that the round trip to India could take several years to complete.   During that time they would be at risk not only of hurricanes, piracy, shipwreck, and attacks by rival merchant ships, but also of disease.   There are accounts of vessels so ravaged by the ‘bloody flux’ [dysentery] that they sailed into harbour as ghost ships, every person on board either dead or dying.   

Despite Frances Webb’s unexpected acquisition of a husband and baby en route, domestic bliss cannot have been the reason for their journey.  These women were tough adventurers, every bit as intrepid as the men.  Once arrived in Surat – and in direct defiance of the English ambassador, Sir Thomas Roe, who tried everything in his power to force them to return to England –  they set off almost immediately to travel five hundred miles from Surat to Agra.  

Frances Webb was soon living in some style, with a coach, a ‘palinke’ [palanquin], seven horses and ten servants at her command.  More unusually still, she caught the attention of some of the women of the Emperor Jahangir’s court, with whom she found herself on frequent visiting terms.  Her account of one of these visits of courtesy, complete with a detailed description of the ox-drawn chariots, slaves, clothes, gift-giving and feasting involved, is the first of its kind, and predates all others by Englishwomen by more than 120 years.  

While Mrs Webb was busy making friends at the Mughal court, her companion, Mrs Hudson, had other, even more interesting ideas. She had arrived in India with £100 (equivalent to £24,000 today) and immediately set about investing it.   First, she tried to put her money into indigo, but the EIC merchants, jealous of their monopoly, soon put a stop to that.  Instead, they suggested that she invest in cloth –  and stood back, one feels, to have a good laugh at her expense.   “She may be lucky as a calling duck,” Roe wrote with heavy irony, “and therefore try her.”    

As it turned out, it was Mrs Hudson who had the last laugh.  By time she returned to England two years later she had amassed a cargo so considerable that the freight alone was £30 (more than £7,000 today) making her the first of many successful ‘she-merchants’ to ply their trade in India.  

In the 17th and 18th centuries, the land-grabbing, tax-collecting, para-military behemoth that the East India Company would one day become, was no such thing.  Not only did it have no thoughts of conquest, but for many years was not even the most successful trader to the Indies, frequently bested by the Portuguese, the Dutch and the French.   Its first territory on the subcontinent was acquired almost by accident.  The tiny archipelago of Bombay had originally come to the newly-restored Charles II as part of the dowry of his bride, the Portuguese princess Catherine of Braganza.  Charles sent troops there, and then in 1668, not knowing what to do with it, leased it to the Company, for a rent of £10 “in gold, on 30th September, yearly, forever.”  

Having spent a good deal of time trying to keep women out of India, the Company now reversed its policy completely.  For the new colony to succeed it needed to be populated, and for this to happen was going to need more than the handful of emaciated soldiers that was all that was left of Charles’s troops.  From being an expensive nuisance, women became, almost overnight, a necessary evil. 

Ever pragmatic, the company put out an advertisement, hoping to lure suitable women across the seas.  First, their aim was to attract couples; then – perhaps thinking of the plight of the soldiers who were still languishing there – it was spinsters, so long as they were ‘of sober and civil lives.’  “That if any single women or maids, related to the soldiers or others… shall be willing to go to Bombay,” it was announced in the Company minutes on 30th December, 1668,  “20 shall be permitted to do so at the Company’s expense.”

When this largesse did not have the desired effect, the EIC tried a different tactic.  In order that there might be “a supply of young maidens, that have had a virtuous education,” those on the Company committees who were also governors of Christ’s Hospital – a charitable institution for orphans – were urged to find “young women bred up there to be disposed of in this way.”  The desired age group of this job lot was to be between twelve and thirty.  

It is hard to imagine the thoughts of an otherwise destitute twelve-year-old as she made her way, friendless and alone, to the west coast of India in the 1670’s; nor is it known how many young women took up the Company’s offer, but it is certain that at least some did,  perhaps not so much the spirit of adventure as out of sheer desperation.  Bombay had a higher mortality rate than anywhere else in India – “two mussuouns” [monsoons] was one contemporary estimate of the average life expectancy, while not more than one in twenty children lived into adulthood .  Despite this, the colony prospered. 

By the beginning of the 18th century, the company had thriving communities in three key settlements:  Madras, Calcutta and Bombay.  The numbers of European women in India were still tiny – in Bengal at this time a few hundred at most – but there were just enough for a society of sorts.  Women attended balls and masquerades, sent home for the latest fashions, drove about in expensive carriages, and amused themselves with high-stakes gambling (a terse EIC directive from 1721 laments the outposts infected by “the itch of gaming”.)   

De rigeur for all newly arrived ladies with social ambitions was the curious ritual of the “setting up ceremony”.  Charlotte Hickey, the wife of the diarist William Hickey, underwent this in Calcutta in 1772, when she appeared “stuck up, full dressed, in a chair at the head of the best room…. three gentlemen being selected for the purpose of introducing the respective visitors, male and female.”  Curtseys and salutations were exchanged in this way from seven in the morning until eleven o’clock at night, for three days running.  It was, William  wrote, “a disagreeable and foolish ceremony”, with more than a whiff of the meat market about it, but one that was in vogue for several more decades.  

Charlotte herself must have faced the marathon with more than a twinge of apprehension.  She was neither a lady, nor in fact Mrs Hickey, but a notorious London courtesan, Charlotte Barry, who had travelled to India with her protector and, as many women like her would do, had magically re-invented herself somewhere on the high seas.  

Courtesans were, of course, nothing new in India.  The so-called  white Mughals – as certain thoroughly ‘Indianized’ EIC officials have become known – are often described as having taken Indian wives, but in the vast majority of cases these were actually ‘bibis’ or mistresses. There was no sense in which these Indian ‘wives’ could, or would want to play a part in the kind of society that the English had in mind.  

Far from keeping themselves snobbishly aloof, British women frequently lamented how hard it was to meet their Indian sisters.  One of the many culture shocks that they experienced was the startling discovery that all Indian women at this period, Hindu and Moslem alike, except for the very lowliest servant castes, observed purdah.  Purdah women lived secluded lives in their own special quarters, completely segregated from all men except from their closest male relatives.   Very few English women were privileged to cross this divide, and when they did so, there were perplexities on both sides.  Fanny Parkes, an eccentric free spirit from Wales, who travelled alone and extensively throughout India in the early 19th  century,  described how she had to wait four years before she was able to meet any Indian women other than her own servants.  Later, becoming friends with many high-ranking zenana ladies, she reflected on the cultural differences that kept them apart.   Quite apart from English women’s shocking insistence on flaunting themselves in public, many of the accomplishments that they held so dear were regarded as completely degrading.  “Music is considered disgraceful for a lady of rank, dancing the same – such things are left to nautch-women,” Parkes wrote.  

Nautch women – a courtesan class, but highly-respected for their musical and poetic abilities – were among the very few Indian women who could appear freely in mixed society.  In the 1780’s Elizabeth Plowden met the celebrated diva, Khanum Jan, in Lucknow, with whom she formed an extraordinary musical collaboration.  An accomplished musician herself, Mrs Plowden was able to transpose Jan’s songs into European notation, and the resulting ‘Hindustani Airs’ became all the rage in British drawing rooms.  In recognition of this mutually creative partnership, the Mughal emperor, Shah Alam II, bestowed the title of begum on Mrs Plowden, the exquisitely decorated and gilded ferman for which is still held in the British Library.

At the same time as Begum Plowden and Khanum Jan were making music together, the EIC was at war.  Robert Clive’s victory at Plassey in 1757 was only the first in half a century of almost continuous warfare.  While the EIC would eventually emerge victorious, with vast amounts of land under its control, these were frightening, vulnerable times for the women who lived through them.  

Eliza Fay was one of two Englishwomen taken hostage by Haider Ali, the ruler of Mysore, when their ship arrived in Calicut, in south   India, in 1779.  Unceremoniously dragged onto shore by Indian sepoys, Mrs Fay and her husband were stripped of all their possessions apart from three watches that he had the presence of mind to conceal in his wife’s elaborate headpiece.   Sitting for many hours, shivering and soaked to the skin, while the Governor of Calicut sat “feasting his eyes” on his prisoners, Mrs Fay suddenly became aware of a ticking sensation on her scalp.  The pin that her husband had stuck into one of the watches to stop it working, had come loose.  “Never shall I forget what a terrible sensation the ticking of the watch caused!  I think had it continued long I must completely have lost my senses; for I dared not remove it, from fear of worse consequences.”  

After three months in captivity, and several failed attempts to escape dressed as a French seaman, Eliza Fay eventually made it to safety in Calcutta, where she went on to become an enterprising milliner and cloth merchant, learning both shorthand and double-entry book-keeping along the way.  In this, she was not at all unusual.  While marriage may have remained women’s principal desideratum, it did not stop them from succeeding in an astonishing variety of careers and business ventures.  They worked as traders, actresses, portrait-painters, dress-makers, shop-keepers, lady’s maids and governesses; they opened schools and orphanages, ran bakeries, confectionary shops, boarding houses, and millinery establishments. Later, they would also flourish as teachers, doctors, nurses and school inspectors.  Others found unlooked for opportunities as travellers, naturalists, collectors, botanists, patrons of the arts and writers.  

By the turn of the 19th century, however, there was a palpable shift in British attitudes.  The EIC was now de facto ruler of most of the subcontinent: from being lowly immigrants, the British were now the overlords of a conquered people.  In addition, and perhaps even more disastrously for Anglo-Indian relations, the rise of the Evangelical Christian movement in England would radically change the way Indians were viewed.  Missionaries, many of them female, who had until now been banned from India (bad for business) were now given free reign under the renewed EIC charter of 1813.  Among the very first was a single woman, the Baptist Miss Ann Chaffin, who hurried there almost as soon as the ink on the charter was dry.  

From being admired as the possessors of some of the most exquisite art and philosophy the world had ever seen, Indians were increasingly viewed as idol-worshiping heathens, ripe for conversion.  This pernicious new mind-set coincided with a surge in the numbers of women who were able to travel to India, a conflagration of events which proved disastrous, not only to their posthumous reputations, but also to their very lives.   

By mid-century, India was ripe for revolt.  During the uprisings of 1857-58, many hundreds of women and children lost their lives – and were avenged by the British with equal savagery.  One of the bloodiest massacres occurred at the military cantonment at Kanpur (Cawnpore), during which 73 women, and 124 children were butchered by five assassins wielding tulwars, curved swords.   Later, a scrap of paper was found among the blood-soaked detritus.  It had belonged to a young woman, Caroline Lindsay, who had herself been among the victims. On it she had written these stark words:

Entered the barracks May 21st 

Cavalry left June 5th

First shot fired June 6th

Aunt Lilly died June 17th

Uncle Willy died June 18th

Left barracks June 27th

George died June 27th

Alice died July 9th

Mama died July 12th

British imperialism has cast a long shadow.   While it remains true that prejudice of every kind – racial, social, imperial, religious – clouded many aspects of women’s involvement in India, this was not invariably the case.  Their testaments reveal an astonishing range of responses to India, and show that theirs is a longer, more complex, and more fascinating story than we have ever thought.  They saw death and suffering, but they saw marvels too.  Whatever their fate, none of the women who went to India could fail to be changed by it.  

                               *      *      *

This article first appeared in the Sunday Times Magazine, April 28th, 2019

Katie Hickman’s ‘She-Merchants, Buccaneers and Gentlewomen:  British Women in India 1600 – 1900’ is published by Virago. 


Katie Hickman is the author of eight books, including two bestselling works of non-fiction, Daughters of Britannia – in the Sunday Times bestseller lists for 10 months and a 20-part series for BBC Radio 4 – and Courtesans. She has also written a trilogy of historical novels – the Aviary Gate, The Pindar Diamond and the House of Bishopgate – which have been translated into 20 languages.

Katie will be at Chalke Valley History Festival on Monday 24th June to tell the incredible stories of the first British women to set foot in India. Tickets are available here.

How to be a Historical Landscape Detective

Have you ever stared out of a car or train window at a lumpy field and wondered what made it lumpy? Or walked along a footpath scored so deeply into the landscape that you felt you were almost in a tunnel? Or sat in a historical pub wondering at its age? Wherever you go in Britain there’s history woven into the landscape around you – in the shape of a field, the wall of a cottage, a standing stone or churchyard, even in the grass under your feet. With just a few pointers you can become a landscape detective, equipped to puzzle out the historical mysteries around you. You’ll know what to look for, and what it might be telling you. In some parts of the country it means you can add some six thousand or more years of history to the landscape you’re looking at.

You can even do your detective work simply looking at a map in the comfort of your own armchair! But whether in the field or online, be warned, Landscape Spotting is an addictive pastime – once you start, you’ll find yourself noticing features everywhere!

Here are a few features to look out for:

Holloways
Ever walked, cycled or driven down a lane that feels like it’s sunk down into the ground? Often coming into or out of villages, with steep, banked sides and towering hedgerows, these tracks are known as Holloways.

Holloways are at least 300 years old, but many in the South West, southern Wales and Welsh borders, East Anglia and the Weald probably have their origins in prehistory. You really are walking in the footsteps of the ancestors.

The deepest Holloways in Britain are as much as 6m below the ground surface, where feet, hooves and wheels have worn down the land surface and rainwater has eroded it over centuries to create a sunken lane, or ‘hollow way’.

Ancient route along a lowland valley, Herefordshire. pic © Mary Ann Ochota

A deep Holloway may suggest that the place you’re heading into or out of is equally old. And if it seems like the Holloway leads to nowhere special, look again. Tracks are ‘articulating features’ – they only come into existence in order to link one place with another, which means that there must have been a place at both ends at some point (maybe now just the remains of a deserted village or hamlet, or perhaps something smaller, like a field barn, sheepfold, or junction with another route).

A few Holloways were intentionally created as land boundaries. Landowners dug a wide ditch, and threw the soil up into banks on either side. The base of the ditch was then used as a sunken track and the parallel banks formed the Holloway sides. Check your map – the Holloway may still mark a modern parish boundary.

In open country, you may still be able to trace the line of an old Holloway – look for a wide grassy furrow with shorter or paler vegetation, where the grass struggles to grow in the harder, compacted soil that was once the track.


Ridge and Furrow

If you see a grass field or hillside area in central England that has long parallel rows of wide humps in the surface, you may be looking at the remnants of a 1,000 year old pattern called Ridge and Furrow, created by medieval ploughing.

From around 800AD to the mid 1500s, most land used for farming crops wasn’t enclosed by hedges or walls. Instead, farmers were allocated strips of the communal Great Fields that surrounded their village. Each strip was ploughed individually in a clockwise pattern, and the plough threw the soil inwards, creating a well-drained flat area ready for planting – the Ridge. The soil level between each strip got lower and lower – the Furrow.

Ridge and Furrow only survives in fields that are now used for pasture, or rough land that is no longer farmed at all. This itself is a clue to the history of the time – in the 12th and 13th centuries there was enormous population pressure on agricultural land. The best, most fertile land was already under the plough, so ‘land-hungry’ farmers were forced on to steeper, rougher hillside areas and places with poor soil. Then the Black Death of 1348-50 killed half the British population. With the population decimated, there was more fertile land to go around the survivors and poorer land was abandoned, leaving the plough marks frozen in time.

If you spot flights of terraces that run horizontally across steeper hillsides, rather than up and down, these are Strip Lynchets. They were hand dug around 600 years ago to make it easier to plough, plant and harvest steep land – also the result of hungry medieval people looking for space to farm.

Narrow horizontal lines across a grassy hillside are more likely to be terracettes – natural features where soil particles slowly slip downhill underneath the grass and over time form ripples in the hillside. Some of these mini-terraces end up exploited by wild animals, livestock and walkers looking for an easy line across the landscape – and so the terracettes become more pronounced.

Tomb of the Eagles passage grave, South Ronaldsay, Orkney. pic © Mary Ann Ochota

 

Stone Age tombs
The oldest visible monuments in the British landscape are Long Barrows, burial sites from the Neolithic – the Late Stone Age – around 4200BC. If you spot one of these long, lozenge-shaped earth mounds, you’ve just added more than six thousand years of human history to the landscape you’re looking at! Ones that are still visible to the naked eye are marked on OS maps.

Chambered Tombs also date from the Late Stone Age – these have internal stone chambers where bodies – or parts of dismembered bodies – were placed by their community. Chambered tombs that have been excavated are sometimes open and you can go inside to explore. Great examples include West Kennet in Wiltshire, Bryn Celli Ddu on Anglesey, and the Tomb of the Eagles in Orkney (pictured)

 

Ancient Burial mounds
Round Barrows, sometimes called Tumuli, are the most common prehistoric monuments in the country. These circular earthen mounds are often seen in groups, and you can sometimes spot them on the crests of hills, lurking under clumps of trees, or as uncultivated lumps in farmers’ fields – because of the precious archaeology below, the land is legally protected and so can’t be ploughed. These mounds date to the Bronze Age – mostly between 2400BC and 1200BC.

Although there are no written records from Britain at this time, the archaeology suggests there was a change in religious and social practices – instead of communal tombs, people start to be buried as individuals, either cremated first or placed in a crouched position in a grave with food, jewellery and other offerings like cups of mead. Early findings from ancient DNA studies are also pointing to a change in the genetic profile too – there were certainly new people on these shores, although how much of the native population may have been displaced isn’t yet clear. Some, but not all, round barrows have been excavated by archaeologists: Others remain undisturbed. Archaeological excavation is inherently destructive (once you’ve dug it up you can’t put it back) so barrows are now only excavated if there’s a genuine research question to answer, or if they’re at risk in some way. So next time you see a Round Barrow, take a moment to imagine what, and who, may be inside it.

Moraines at Small Water, near Mardale Head in the Lake District. Don’t be fooled – these aren’t burial mounds, these are geological features known as moraines, found in glacial valleys. pic © Mary Ann Ochota

 

Graveyards, gates and trees
Graveyards are usually older than the church buildings they contain. Even though the bodies rot away, centuries of burials progressively raise the earth surface, so as a rule of thumb, the higher a graveyard is compared to the surrounding land, the older it is. It’s estimated that the average English parish churchyard contains at least 10,000 bodies. Urban cemeteries may contain more than 100,000.

Churchyards are usually rectangular, with the church positioned roughly centrally. If a churchyard is circular or oval, it suggests that you’re looking at a very early church site (from 600AD or even earlier), or a place where the church was built on an earlier pagan site. Also look for lych gates: open-sided gatehouses at the entrance of a churchyard, named after the old English for ‘corpse’ (lich). This was where the priest would meet the body at the churchyard entrance, say initial prayers, then lead the way into the church.

Many churchyards in Britain contain Yew trees (Taxus baccata), the longest-living organisms in the whole of Europe. Native Britons probably considered the yew to be a sacred tree, so when early Christians co-opted pagan sites, yew trees came with the land. Yew trees are only officially designated as ‘ancient’ when they’re around 800 years old with a girth greater than 7m (23ft), and it’s thought the oldest churchyard yews are an incredible four to five thousand years old – visit them at St Coeddi’s Church, Fortingall in Perthshire (NN 742 471), St Dygain’s Church in Llangernyw, Conwy (SH 874 674) and St Cynog’s Church, Defynnog, Powys (SN 925 279).

Yew trees ‘bleed’ red sap when cut, and are evergreen, possibly part of the reason they have long had spiritual status. Pic © Mary Ann Ochota

Dry stone wall built on and around a large earthfast boulder, Glenridding, Cumbria. Pic © Mary Ann Ochota

 

Dry Stone Walls
Some of the most intriguing dry stone walls you’ll see are abandoned Intake walls (or newtake walls). They can climb vertiginous slopes of rough moorland, then end abruptly, or loop back down. Many of these were a result of Enclosure Acts that were passed by Parliament between 1750 and 1850, when commons, moorlands, and open fields were allocated to private landowners.

These new landowners were keen to build walls and then lease the land to tenant farmers – even if the land wasn’t up to it. You’ll see abandoned plots of land in many upland areas including the Grampians and the Lake District. The hungry, hardworking tenant farmers are memorialised in evocative place-names: Mount Famine in the Peak District (SK 055 848), and Starvation Hill, Never Gains, Famish Acre and Mount Misery (SX 636 705) on Dartmoor.


Mary-Ann Ochota is a broadcaster and anthropologist who gained her MA in Archaeology and Anthropology from Cambridge University in 2002. She’s a familiar face on archaeology programmes including the cult show Time Team, the History Channel’s Ancient Impossible, ITV’s Britain’s Secret Treasures – for which she also wrote the tie-in book in association with the British Museum, as well as BBC specials on Silbury Hill, Stonehenge and most recently the series Britain Afloat. She has also presented documentaries for Animal Planet, Nat Geo, Channel 4 and BBC4 and writes regularly for newspapers and magazines on the outdoors and adventure, including the Daily Telegraph, Guardian, Countryfile Magazine, Geographical and Summit. She is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, a Hillwalking Ambassador for the British Mountaineering Council and an Ordnance Survey GetOutside Champion. 

Mary-Ann will be talking about Hidden Histories at Chalke Valley History Festival at 3.30pm on Tuesday 25th June 2019. Get your tickets here.

Follow @MaryAnnOchota on Twitter and Instagram

www.maryannochota.com

Why do we still care about Henry VIII?

‘How many more books can there be about Henry VIII?’ lamented a well-known seventeenth century historian.  ‘I mean, whatever next…Henry VIII’s toenail?’

Admittedly, this remark was made as part of a speech to promote his new book about a Stuart monarch, so his flippant remark may have been aimed at trying to persuade people to look beyond the Tudors for once.  But he did have a point.  Henry VIII has been the subject of more books, dramas, films and documentaries than any other monarch in British history.  Yet still we have an insatiable desire to find out more.

As joint Chief Curator of Historic Royal Palaces, I see thousands of visitors flock to Hampton Court every year.  Much as we try to show them the other (larger) side of the palace – Wren’s magnificent Baroque masterpiece commissioned by William III and Mary II in the late seventeenth century – they aren’t interested.  They are here for Henry, and Henry alone.

In part, our fascination with this most famous of kings is understandable.  He married six times, told the Pope where to go, oversaw one of the most seismic religious and political revolutions in our history, and created the foundation of our national identity.  No wonder that we can’t get enough of him.

I have been a Tudor historian for over twenty years, but until recently I have skirted around Henry – mentioning him in the context of his daughter Elizabeth, exploring the life he led behind closed doors, that sort of thing.  But I had never dared to tackle a full biography.  Surely there are too many of those?

But then a thought occurred to me.  Yes, Henry has been written about endlessly, but almost always in the context of his wives.  Surely there is another side to the story?  Exploring the men in Henry VIII’s life reveals a dazzling and eclectic cast of characters: relations, servants, ministers, rivals, confidants and companions.  Some were ‘mad’ (Sir Francis Bryan, the so-called ‘Vicar of Hell’), some ‘bad’ (the arch-schemer, Stephen Gardiner), but none as ‘dangerous to know’ as Henry VIII himself. There are also the men whose stories have, until now, remained in the shadows: Sir William Butts, Henry’s favourite physician, Will Somer, his fool, and Sir Thomas Cawarden, who superintended some of the most spectacular entertainments of the later reign, reminding Henry of his glorious younger days. It is these men who helped to shape the character, opinions and image of their king, and whose influence – sometimes visible, sometimes hidden – lay behind the Tudor throne.

By the end of my research, I felt like I had met Henry for the first time.  I can’t wait to introduce Chalke Valley History Festival goers to him on 26 June!

Tracy Borman’s book, Henry VIII and the Men Who Made Him, was published by Hodder & Stoughton last year.


Tracy Borman

Tracy Borman is joint Chief Curator of Historic Royal Palaces and Chief Executive of the Heritage Education Trust. She studied and taught history at the University of Hull and was awarded a PhD in 1997. Tracy is the author of a number of highly acclaimed books including The Private Lives of the Tudors: Uncovering the Secrets of Britain’s Greatest Dynasty, Thomas Cromwell: The Untold Story of Henry VIII’s Most Faithful Servant, and Witches: A Tale of Sorcery, Scandal and Seduction. Tracy is also a regular broadcaster and public speaker, giving talks on her books across the UK and abroad.

 

Tracy will be speaking at Chalke Valley History Festival about Henry VIII and the Men Who Made Him on Wednesday, 26th June 2019. Tickets are available here.