My article in July issue of History Today

I have a brief piece in this month’s History Today on the subject of Sir Walter Ralegh’s reputation in the 20th century. It is part of the magazine’s regular ‘From the Archives’ feature, and is a response to an excellent 1998 essay by Robert Lawson-Peebles titled ‘The Many Faces of Sir Walter Ralegh’, which traced Ralegh’s reputation through history. Lawson-Peebles essay can be viewed in History Today’s archives here.

My article is currently available online here – and I will post it on my blog in a couple of weeks – but of course History Today is a great magazine, so why wouldn’t you want to buy it, if you don’t already subscribe? Alternatively, subscription details are online here!

UPDATE: The article is now up on my blog here.

Richard Topcliffe: the Queen’s torturer

There is no known portrait of Richard Topcliffe, the man most associated with the torture and persecution of Catholics in Elizabethan England. In some respects that is as it should be: those who break human bodies on behalf of the state are usually anonymous, ordinary figures, extraordinary only in the apparent disjunction between their personal banality – as Hannah Arendt noted – and the malignancy of the work they go daily to do.

But Topcliffe was something of an exception: he was famous – or infamous – in his lifetime. As you might expect, surviving Catholic correspondence is full of despite for him: he was, they said, ‘the cruellest tyrant in all England’. But in other circles, his name was casually used as shorthand – disapproving but largely void of horror – for the practices he made his own. So Anthony Standen, writing to Nicholas Bacon in March 1594, referred to England’s ‘Topcliffian customs’ in the conversion of Catholics; and the poet Frances Davison, writing home to his father from Lucca a couple of years later, explained his unwillingness ‘to informare or Topclifizare’ [meaning hunt after and persecute] some fellow Englishmen who bragged about planning to kill the queen.

That both these references come from the circles around Robert Devereux, the young Earl of Essex, and the closest thing to a radical Protestant figurehead at court, may tell us something, that even among England’s more zealous reformists Topcliffe’s cruelty towards the anti-Christian enemy created moral discomfort. Alternatively, both correspondents may reflect continental disdain for English justice: Standen was widely traveled – the DNB describes him as an ‘adventurer’ – and Davison was undertaking an early version of the Grand Tour.

On either reading, however, the fact that his name was recognisable shorthand for torture is an indication of how public and singular his reputation was. Certainly other men undertook such things. But none with such zeal and efficiency as Richard Topcliffe.
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Richard Topcliffe and the capture and torture of Robert Southwell

The capture and torture of Southwell is a perfect example of Topcliffe’s full-service approach to persecution: it was his own handiwork through and through, and took extensive planning and thought.

Southwell, a Norfolk man, had left England for the Catholic English College at Douai in the summer of 1576. He was not yet 15. Two years later he was on his way to Rome to join the Society of Jesus, and there he had stayed until his passionate self-doubting desire to prove his spiritual worth led him to volunteer for the English mission. Accompanied by Henry Garnet, he had arrived back in England from Rome on 7 July 1586, with, he wrote ‘the highest hope of martyrdom’. He could hardly have chosen a worse time to arrive.

The previous year, the government had made it a treasonable offence to be a Rome-ordained priest in England; harbouring such missionaries, or helping them in any way, was to be a capital crime. When Southwell and Garnet set foot in England there were five other Jesuits here, but four of those were already in prison. The fifth, and the head of the English mission, William Weston, was the only one at liberty, and he met the two young men for the first time at a London inn on 13 July.

With exquisite timing, Anthony Babington revealed the details of his plot to Weston the very same day. Weston needed little time to realise the danger of such knowledge to the English mission, and fled with Southwell and Garnet the following morning to a safe house in Buckinghamshire. But his premonition proved correct, and Weston would be arrested on his return to London on 3rd August – just outside Bishopsgate – as part of the operation that would eventually sweep up the Babington conspirators.
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Review: The Hollow Crown: Henry V

I was privileged to be invited to a screening at the British Museum on Friday night of the new BBC film version of Henry V, the fourth part of its Hollow Crown tetralogy, which also includes Richard II and Henry IV parts I and II.

The season is a BBC co-production with Sam Mendes’ Neal Street Productions, NBC Universal and WNET Thirteen; this particular film is the directorial début of Thea Sharrock, whose theatre credits include the superb revival of Equus a few years ago, which starred Daniel Radcliffe, and more recently a wonderful As You Like It at the Globe. It was adapted for the screen by Ben Power, of the Royal National Theatre.

With all due caveats with regard to the fact that this is the final part of a four-film series and I have yet to see the previous three, I thought I should share a few brief thoughts on the production – and its star, Tom Hiddleston.

The film opens with a child picking a flower for the funeral of Henry V*, over whose obsequies we hear the great opening speech from the Chorus – ‘O, for a muse of fire, etc’ – intoned not without a certain dolour. Thus Shakespeare’s rich and playful rhetoric is immediately undercut, and a frame for the film emerges: its subject is really human transience, the fleeting glories of flesh and fame.

There’s an exchange in Henry IV, part 1 where Falstaff asks the young Prince Hal for the time and Hal replies: “What a devil hast thou to do with the time of the day?” The truth is, though, as Hollow Crown reminds us, that time catches up with us all – as it does with Falstaff and Bardolph and Henry himself – however passing brave our boasts as we flit from eternity to eternity.

As is usually the case, it is revealing to note which scenes have been stripped from the play in its transition to the screen. Gone from this version are many of the scenes among the ordinary men at Agincourt – most notably featuring Fluellen, MacMorris and Jamy. Gone is much of the vanity and brutality of the French: we see a brief glimpse of their languorous crowing before dawn breaks on the day of battle; we do not see their slaughter of the young boys guarding the English baggage train. The effect of such excisions is to focus attention almost exclusively on Henry and his anxieties: this Henry V might be subtitled ‘the psychology of power’, and it is certainly as much a psychological study of Henry and his kingship as it is a history.
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Out now in paperback: The Favourite

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.

The Favourite is available from Amazon, Waterstones and all good bookshops.

Ben Jonson: his early life and how it shaped him

Ben Jonson 1572-1637

Contrary as always, Ben Jonson could cast horoscopes – but didn’t believe in them. What, then, would he have made of his own?

In some ways, perhaps, he was born lucky: winter offered the worst chances of survival for an Elizabethan baby; Jonson was born in midsummer. Even so, he was fortunate to survive. One in fifty babies were dead within a day; one in twenty within a week; one in ten within a month; one in eight within a year. One in three would not live out their childhood. Wherever he was born, it was not in London, and in this he was lucky, too: mortality in the City was higher than anywhere else in the country.

He entered the world on 11 June 1572, the feast of St Barnabas. In Canterbury and Stratford-on-Avon, Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare, both eight years old, were already at school. Spenser was still studying at Cambridge; Sidney had left Oxford – and friends like William Camden – before graduating and was now on the Grand Tour. It would be another four years before London would get a permanent theatre, its first since Roman times. The Elizabethan moment had yet to arrive.

Under the old calendar, the feast of St Barnabas was the longest day of the year. The people celebrated it as Barnaby the Bright; they cut flowers to garland the altars. But there was not a great deal else to celebrate for England that summer. Fear and suspicion were rife. May Day had seen the first demonstration before Elizabeth of London’s – and England’s –  trained bands, a Privy Council innovation to ensure that there was an adequate ‘home guard’ in case of invasion. Counties were required to ensure that their best men received ten days training a year in use of pike and musket, and in military discipline generally. On that May holiday, 3,000 of the finest from London’s City militia took part in a war game – perhaps around one in 20 of the adult male population.
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My post on Kipling and his critics for Normblog

As mentioned last week, Norman Geras was kind enough not only to invite me to contribute to the Writer’s Choice feature on his website, but also to allow me to split my contribution over two weeks.

My first piece, on Rudyard Kipling and The Jungle Book, can be read here. The second piece, posted today can be accessed here. It is on Kipling and his critics – and more broadly on the difficulty of reading him without prejudice.

UPDATE: The article is now up on my blog here.