British history

We must never lose the treasured Orkneys

When, last summer, a group of Orcadians declared they’d like to leave the UK and join Norway, it became clear just how little most of us in the south understand Orkney. Friends who know I go there often ask me where it is (somewhere near the Hebrides?), how many Orkney islands there are, and whether they are mountainous or flat. As Peter Marshall explains at the start of this astonishing tour de force, the 70-odd Orkney islands lie just 25 miles north of Scotland, separated from the mainland by the Pentland Firth – the point, he says, at which ‘the North Sea meets the Atlantic, a place of hidden, treacherous

Set in a silver sea: the glory of Britain’s islands

Islands always intrigue, hovering on the horizons of our imaginations – seen, according to your lights, as territories to be taken, ancient redoubts, repositories of secrets, even loci of lands of youth. Where there are no islands, we often imagine them – Plato’s Atlantis, the Celts’ Avalon, the Irish Hy-Brasil, Zeno’s Friseland, Columbus’s Antillia – and occasionally find them, like Terra Australis Incognita, postulated long before Europeans made landfall. Orkney was a trading station long before London, and Iona was the epicentre of Celtic Christianity Britain was once itself an imagined island – or rather islands plurally, called by Pliny Britanniae, one archipelago among others in the great geographer’s speculative

In praise of Birmingham, Britain’s maligned second city

During my gap year in 1981, I worked on the 24th floor of Birmingham’s Alpha Tower for the Regional Manpower Intelligence Unit. The city below, with its express ways racing past the Venetian Gothic of Joseph Chamberlain’s house and the Roman Revival of the town hall, were the realisation of the city planner Herbert Manzoni’s dream of creating a Midlands Motown. The Rotunda, the acres of systems-built tower blocks, even the inverted ziggurat of a modernist central library, together amounted to the antithesis of the smoky, tweedy, horse-powered, cut-throat Birmingham the world now knows from Peaky Blinders. That year, though, was the one which went wrong for Birmingham, Richard Vinen

Why was Henrietta Maria, Charles I’s beautiful wife, so reviled?

On 15 June 1645, as Thomas Fairfax’s soldiers picked over the scattered debris on the Naseby battlefield, they made a sensational discovery. Amid the corpses and musket balls, dismembered limbs and severed swords there nestled a carrying case of personal letters and papers. It was nothing less than the king’s private correspondence. The cache included letters between Charles I and his queen, Henrietta Maria – his always opened ‘My deare harte’ – which discussed in detail the tactics and strategies of the war. Never ones to miss a PR opportunity, the Parliamentary high command ordered that a selection should be published with a guiding commentary. The first editorial note got

It’s thrilling to learn that the rebellious Urien actually existed

Once, when we shared the same history teacher in our teens, my older brother Dominic handed in an essay about the Dark Ages that deliberately parodied a sub-Tolkien mysticism of tone. ‘Little is known,’ his opening sentence ran, ‘about those shadowy twilit years twixt 400 and 600 AD.’ Our teacher was particularly enraged by the word ‘twixt’. In Dom’s defence, he was just reacting to a challenge that still confronts medievalists today. When there’s barely any evidence, what is there to say? The response of this intriguing book by Thomas Williams is to lean into the problem. In Lost Realms, he makes a beeline for the very darkest part of

The Victorian origins of ‘medieval’ folklore

I would guess that contemporary pagans have a love-hate relationship with Ronald Hutton. With books such as The Triumph of the Moon and Stations of the Sun, scholarly accounts of the history of modern witchcraft and the ritual year in Britain, no one writes more sensitively about their worldview. On the other hand, as an academic, Hutton assiduously seeks to saw off the branch on which many of their fondest assumptions sit. The paradox can be explained. Queens of the Wild returns to one of Hutton’s key themes: the debunking of the idea that pagan practices and beliefs survived intact in Europe from archaic times. With characteristic frankness he explains

Brother against brother in the English civil war

‘The Wars of the Three Kingdoms’ is the best description of the devastating conflict that erupted in England, Ireland and Scotland during the 1640s and 1650s. While Britain lost 2.2 per cent of its population in the first world war, 4 per cent perished during these terrible 17th-century clashes. The kingdoms were, at the outset, Charles I’s. At a time when even a great leader would have struggled to navigate the political, religious and social torrents confronting him, the king was weak and apt to act on the latest advice he received; his only strengths were piety, art patronage and being a loving husband and father. When a ruler of

How Charles II sought to obliterate a decade of British history

When the Restoration of the Stuart monarchy, in the person of that ‘lovely black boy’ Charles II, was announced in May 1660 it was with a flourish of public amnesia. Charles had, it was declared, already been king for 11 years, from the moment in January 1649 when his father had been unlawfully executed. Such acts of contrived forgetting were not unprecedented in English history. William the Conqueror effaced Harold’s short reign from the records and Henry VII did much the same for Richard III. But 11 years was ambitious. And this forgetting would be expected not of people on whose daily lives the great affairs of state barely impinged,

With Elizabeth Stuart as monarch, might the English civil war have been avoided?

Many girls dream about their favourite princesses. Elizabeth Stuart, a princess herself, took this fantasy a step further and modelled herself from childhood on her godmother and namesake, Elizabeth I. The young daughter of James I plucked her hairline to imitate her father’s predecessor, the great Tudor queen. Aged ten, she was painted with a vivid red wig, dripping in jewels recognisably inherited from her godmother. She even practised her signature until it was almost indistinguishable from Elizabeth I’s famous flourishes. At 13, grandeur got the better of her when she signed herself ‘Elizabeth R’, her most exact copy yet of the queen’s mark. The surviving document shows that someone

How fears of popery led to a century of turmoil in ‘the land of fallen angels’

Stuart England did not do its anti-Catholicism by halves. In the late 1670s and early 1680s, a popular feature of London’s civic life were the annual Pope-burning pageants which took place every 17 November to commemorate the accession of Elizabeth I and the nation’s historic deliverance from the forces of international Catholicism. In 1679, one contemporary estimated that 200,000 people watched the spectacle, as a series of floats wound through London’s thronged streets bearing oversized effigies of Roman Catholic clergy, nuns, Jesuits and the Pope to be tipped into a bonfire at Temple Bar or Smithfield with lavish firework accompaniment. In some years, the Pope’s effigy would bow to the

Has George III been seriously maligned?

Every British historian has a story about the witlessness of Americans when it comes to our Georgian kings. The fate of Alan Bennett’s play The Madness of George III is notorious — Hollywood turned it into a film entitled The Madness of King George, in part lest American audiences assume it a tertiary sequel to The Madness of George I. A few years ago I encountered a highly educated editor at a reputable American news outlet who was under the impression that George V and George VI were ‘Hanoverian’ sovereigns, for surely they had been the son and grandson of George IV. I have deep sympathy, therefore, with the impulse

The delicate business of monitoring the monarchy

This very readable account of relations between the British intelligence services and the Crown does more than it says on the tin. Although subtitled ‘Spying and the Crown, from Victoria to Diana’, it quite properly begins with Queen Elizabeth I and the intelligence network masterminded by Francis Walsingham, whom MI6 regard as their historical progenitor. It also quite properly makes the point that ‘spies and royal statecraft were episodic and opportunistic partners’. Unlike other major powers, Britain had no permanent intelligence services until 1909. There weren’t even any permanent military intelligence organisations until the late 19th century. Such networks as there were came and went with war, or its threat,

What does it really mean to feel English?

Referring to the precarious future of the Union of England and Scotland, the authors of Englishness: The Political Force Transforming Britain conclude their book with the observation that ‘it is hard to imagine that any break-up would not be the source of regret and recrimination’. I imagine our present prime minister, even though he has a pandemic to handle, thinks of this with increasing force. There would be few faster routes from office for him than to awake one morning to find he had presided over the end of the Union. We are weeks away from elections in Scotland that seem certain to bring another SNP victory, and calls from