The Favourite, my book about the relationship between Elizabeth I and Sir Walter Ralegh, is now out in paperback through Constable. The new edition includes a lengthy afterword taking the story through to the end of Ralegh’s life in 1618.
‘The Favourite is wonderful. Elegant and intriguing – a seductive portrait of a fascinating relationship. I couldn’t put it down.’
Helen Castor, author of She-Wolves and Blood and Roses. Helen also chose The Favourite as one of her books of 2011 in The Telegraph.
‘It is a compelling and beguiling read, full of little known details for the general reader. Like Ralegh himself, Lyons has a magical turn of phrase that compels the reader to turn the pages to find out what happens next…’
Susan Ronald, author of Pirate Queen: Queen Elizabeth I, Her Pirate Adventurers, and the Dawn of Empire
‘Stunningly researched, The Favourite pulses with the lethal intrigues of the Elizabethan court. Above and apart stands Ralegh, the adventurer who wanted to give his queen a new world. A moving portrait of two fiercely independent individuals and their intimate, secret bond.’
Barbara Kyle, author of The Queen’s Lady
‘Impeccably researched book by a real enthusiast for the subject, revealing the true story behind the relationship between Elizabeth I and the great Sir Walter Ralegh.’
Caroline Sanderson, The Bookseller
‘A beautifully-written, imaginative volume (and the prose really is superb)… very entertaining, eminently readable.’
Jonathan Wright, Herald Scotland
‘The Favourite offers an intriguing and perceptive understanding of a relationship that continues to fascinate down the centuries.’
Lucinda Byatt, Historical Novels Review
‘A vivid picture of the glitter and hazards at court, with its jealousies and intrigues.’
East Anglia Daily Times
The Favourite was also selected as a History Today summer read by historian Linda Porter.
I have recently been reading Tom Holland’s superb new translation of Herodotus’ Histories. I am by no means an authority on classical writers, but I have always enjoyed Herodotus. He is so irrepressibly inquisitive and, in every sense, a pleasure to read. Holland has always been a fine writer, both in the clarity and subtlety of his intellect and the spare, evocative lucidity of his style. Reading the two together, as it were, has made me more aware than ever before of the exquisite tension between writer and translator.
I have also wondered why we still read Herodotus, aside from the gifts of the translators he attracts. It is partly a question of style, I think, partly of intellectual attitude and partly his distinctive collation of data. We are delighted when we believe him to be accurate; but accuracy is not a standard we demand of him. If we want a reliable account of the classical world, we read a modern historian. Herodotus we read for a first-hand sense of the world as it was understood and experienced by its people.
We do not, though, apply the same standards to our own antique historians. I am not wholly sure why.
Since I encountered him first at university, I have always been an admirer of William Camden, author of the Britannia, first published in 1586 in Latin and revised a number of times over his lifetime. He oversaw an English translation in 1610. It is a volume that lays claim to being the first truly great work of English history, but it is also so much more than that. It is a work of historiography, linguistics, chorography and numismatics, too. Its primary organising principle is the pre-Roman English tribes – the Belgae, Iceni, Trinobantes and so on – and, within those, the county. Chapter by chapter, Camden pieces together landscape and language, history and archaeology, research and observation, always as aware of the deep and hidden history of the past as he is the visible innovations of the present.
Camden has not only taught himself Anglo-Saxon and Welsh: he has studied a dauntingly vast range of archival material; he has read every authority; he has talked or corresponded with every expert; and, importantly, he has travelled to every part of the country. We see England through his eyes as we understand it through his learning; the flux of both history and historiography becomes startlingly present. He is everywhere in his work, sifting, evaluating, commenting, observing, weaving together what we would now regard as wildly disparate disciplines. It is a mighty testament to the historian’s greatest asset: a restless curiosity. This is not to say Camden is always right, but, as with Herodotus, he is usually wrong in thought-provoking, revealing and entertaining ways.
In the age of the Internet and the car, his industry is exhausting. For the 1570s and 80s it is almost unbelievable and it is a sobering thought that he did all this and saw the Britannia into print by the age of 35.
It is even more so, perhaps, when you consider that the study of Britain’s antiquity was by no means highly regarded as an intellectual pursuit. ‘Some there are’, he admits, ‘which wholly condemn and avile this study of antiquity as a back-looking curiosity.’ But part of Camden’s achievement was simply to make the study of history intellectually credible in England and this rebuke to his critics is magnificent: ‘If any there be which are desirous to be strangers in their own soil and foreigners in their own city, they may so continue and therein flatter themselves.’
I plan to memorise that and repeat it next time someone questions me about the value of history. We could do with some of his scholarly defiance.
Yet who reads him today? We read classical historians, flawed though they are; but we disdain the great historians of our own culture and tradition. This is a loss to us culturally as a nation and a loss to us professionally as historians.
The study of antiquity ‘hath a certain resemblance with eternity’, Camden wrote. It is time we rescued him from it.
The recent media coverage of the discovery of Sir John Franklin’s flagship, the HMS Erebus, on the sea floor in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, is a reminder of the public’s abiding fascination with the Age of Exploration and of its huge cost, in terms of both blood and treasure. Neither the Erebus, nor HMS Terror, the other ship under Franklin’s command had been seen since 1845. A search party found three graves in 1850. The other 126 bodies have never been found.
With this in mind, James Evans’ new book Merchant Adventurers: The Voyage of Discovery that Transformed Tudor England seems particularly timely.
Franklin and his men were among the last to perish in the centuries-long quest for a North-West Passage over the top of the Americas to the rich markets of the east, and in particular to China, or Cathay as it used to known. While many books have been written about that quest, Evans has, quite literally, gone in another direction.
At the heart of his book is a 1553 voyage, seeking to find a North-Eastern route to China over the top of Scandinavia and Russia. It is one of the great untold tales of English exploration. Three ships sailed out of London on May 10th that year under the command of Sir Hugh Willoughby a soldier of great character but unremarkable achievements – and precious little knowledge of the sea. More vital to the expedition’s success was its pilot – and also captain of the largest ship – a young man fully versed in the nascent science of navigation named Richard Chancellor.
A year later just one ship returned. It was Chancellor’s. The three ships had become separated by a storm the previous July; no-one yet knew the fate of the others. Chancellor, however, had travelled inland to the court of Ivan the Terrible, initiating the first contact between England and Russia. It was, says Evans, in some respects a model for how England – and the future East India Company – would create an empire.
As for Willoughby, he and his men would die trying to see the winter out. Their bodies were discovered perfectly preserved on board their ships by Russian fishermen the following year. It is often said they froze to death, although Evans persuasively argues that they may have been died from carbon-monoxide poisoning as a result of burning sea-coal and closing all the vents to preserve the heat.
Where Evans’ triumphs is in the breadth of his interest: the story of the 1553 voyage is superbly told, drawing on Willoughby’s surviving logbook and accounts given by Chancellor and his men on his return. But, unusually for a maritime historian, Evans also has much to say on the less viscerally exciting material – the formation, structure and financing of the Muscovy company and, more generally, on the economic climate that made it an attractive investment. It is hard to say which he excels in most.
The Muscovy Company was the first joint-stock company in England. As such, Evans argues, its importance is hard to overstate. On previous international trading ventures, merchants might have come together to fund a voyage, their mutual interest was strictly limited to the period of the journey, and any goods their individual factors bought and sold were always held separately.
But the incorporation of the Muscovy company allowed no individual trading. All stock was held in common. Investors were asked to buy shares not just in the voyage, but in the ongoing trade that the voyage was intended to spawn. The company would exist in perpetuity.
It was certainly an innovative and influential model for England, although as Evans notes it seems to have been based on existing business practices in Italy and was likely introduced to the Company by one of its prime movers, the Bristol-born Venetian explorer Sebastian Cabot. It was also immediately successful: the company quickly found 240 investors at £25 a share.
Evans all this brings to vivid life: not merely the courage and peril of the men who risked and often sacrificed their lives at sea, but also the foment of political, economic and intellectual life. Importantly, he captures the sense of these great endeavours not merely as enterprises but first and foremost as ideas, as projects that grew of the new-born sciences of cartography and navigation, out of the daily reality of world’s map being redrawn, and of the need for men of commerce to adapt their own practices to these bewildering, exciting developments.
In that sense, the subtext of the book might be seen as the battle between traditional thought – the supposed givens of trade and travel – and newer empirical approaches. In their different ways all these men are battling to find a way forward at what Elizabeth I called the unknown limits of the world.
It has always bemused me that there is so little formal – or, for that matter, informal – dialogue and collaboration between historians and literary scholars. Each are aware of the others’ work, certainly; but the intellectual, cultural and administrative inheritances that maintain the academic silos of schools and faculties surely seem increasingly outdated in a 21st-century, hyper-connected world.
But each discipline has much to learn from the other about the way our ancestors explained the world and their place in it to themselves, how they negotiated that place with one another, and more generally about how meaning is shaped and expressed over time through language, thought and action.
In particular, I would argue that only inter-disciplinary approaches can hope to recover the human experiences of the past, the texture of each now, the resonance of the senses for historical actors whose lives we tend otherwise reduce to mere thought.
I was thinking about this while rereading a couple of Shakespeare’s later plays recently, specifically Henry VIII and The Winter’s Tale. Both were among the plays Shakespeare’s company performed at its indoor theatre, itself created out of part of the Great Hall of the former Blackfriars priory.
As some friends may know, I spent last week acting in the final six performances of The Dolphin’s Back production of Christopher Marlowe’s The Massacre at Paris at the Rose Playhouse on London’s South Bank. The offer to do so came out of the blue, so much so that – as much out of surprise as anything – I initially said no.
I had seen the director James Wallace’s previous, superb revival of John Lyly’s The Woman in the Moon – also at the Rose – and we had got chatting after the show about early-modern drama and such. He said that he was looking for someone to play the part of Peter Ramus (actually Pierre de la Ramée), the humanist scholar; his original choice was unavailable for health reasons and James himself was playing the part until someone else came along. For reasons that are still obscure to me, James thought that someone might be me. I think the idea of a scholar (which I suppose I am, loosely) playing a scholar – perhaps particularly one who dies a bloody and painful death – amused him.
And he may have calculated that a novice’s blind terror at performing might not appear too amiss in a character who spends most of his brief life on stage being threatened with daggers, swords and a sickle.
I have, I should make clear to you, no acting experience. I may not have made that entirely clear to James. The last time I can remember acting in anything was a school production of Toad of Toad Hall. I was twelve and I played a policeman and hated every brief and brightly lit second of the experience.
Nevertheless, overnight I reconsidered my firm no.
We are all familiar with the opening life of LP Hartley’s 1953 novel The Go-Between: “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.” Like all elegantly expressed truths it quickly became a cliché. And, as such, like all clichés, it obscures as much as it reveals. It is difficult not to look on the alienness of the past as indiscriminately and equally estranged from us; just as the ancient Greeks were indifferent to the infinite distinctions among those they labeled barbaros, ‘barbarians’ – which in essence means ‘those who cannot speak Greek’ – so the past can begin to seem homogeneously foreign, lost in translation. Indeed, perhaps our search for continuities is in itself a tacit acknowledgement of the voids and spaces we try so hard to ignore as we peer behind us to the vanishing horizon.
But it is easy to forget that, for all but a handful of our ancestors, most of their world was no less foreign to them than it is to us, a place of wonder, discomfort and fear where misapprehensions could quickly proliferate like flies in the heat. This, at any rate, was the thought that occurred to me as I flicked through an example of one of the least explored literary genres of the early-modern and medieval world, the pilgrims’ travel guide.
In May Brighton College, an independent fee-paying school, announced its intention to make the study of history compulsory for all pupils through to 18. Whatever one’s view of the decision, the fact that it was considered unusual and innovative enough to make the national newspapers should give us – and anyone interested in the practice and pleasures of history – pause for thought.
Should it not be obvious why the past is worth studying all the way through school? And, if it is not obvious, do we make the case for our subject’s virtues with sufficient force? What, indeed, are its virtues?
For me history isn’t really about the past. It is about how we engage with the past, which isn’t quite the same thing. That is what makes it such an excellent educational tool: to read history is to be constantly aware of the struggle between certainty and doubt. Indeed ‘bad’ history – poor research, weak methodology, clumsy arguments and so on – can be just as instructive and illuminating as its counterpart, precisely because it draws attention to the processes and techniques that all historians use.
All history is selective. But where, then, is its truth? One way to answer that question is to consider the areas in which history is most unlike itself, the margins of the discipline where it clearly shades into other traditions of thought, where facts are at best unstable and often largely absent.
One of the many criticisms leveled at Michael Gove’s revision of the history curriculum was that is would reduce lessons to little more than the recitation and memorializing of facts, to what Sir Philip Sidney called ‘the bare was of history. But the simpler a statement of fact is, the more it deceives us of its certainty – and particularly so when facts are strung together like prayer beads to form a providential narrative of national greatness, as Gove’s vision did.
The problem we have as historians is that such narratives – themselves almost indistinguishable from myths – have a tenacity that genuine history with its caveats and lacunae struggles to overcome. And in practice the seductiveness of their clarity only serves to provide the past with a more subtle oblivion than mere erasure. Once the glass is cloudy, it is impossible to clean.