Before the Tudors: An Interview with Charles Spencer

Charles Spencer talks about his love of history, his current project-Henry I and The White Ship, and the next thing.

Charles Spencer

What first attracted you to the period or periods you work in?

I gravitate to stories and people from the past who, I believe, have been wrongly lost to the shadows of History. Period is not such a driver for me – although my previous four books were from the Stuart dynasty. My latest work, The White Ship, harks back 900 years, and I have enjoyed tiptoeing into the Middle Ages.

Can you tell us a little more about how you research? Has the process changed over the years?

I read a lot on the period, then on the story, before taking notes. I start off with a rough idea of the number of chapters there might be, and I then have lever arch files, broken down into those chapters, and put my research into each section as I go. I used to write it all out with pen and ink, because I thought the contents went in deeper. But now I type it all up on my computer….

The common phrase is that history is written by the victors. Do you think this is true?

Official history may be written in that way, but all participants leave a footprint for later generations. I believe it’s the historian’s role to wade through it all, and get to the pertinent points for the reader. With a conflict such as the English Civil Wars – the subject of my three previous books – there is an enormous amount of propaganda from both the main sides, and from others.

Are there any historians who helped shaped your career? Similarly, can you recommend three history books which budding historians should read?

I loved reading Barry Coward’s The Stuart Age, at school. And he was guest examiner for the main history test at Eton. I got to meet him, and he further piqued my interest in his era. I would recommend Seeds of Change by Henry Hobhouse, The Face of Battle by John Keegan and Religion and the Decline of Magic by Keith Thomas, because between them – they give a good basis for economic, warrior and social historical study.

If you could meet any figure from history, who would it be and why? Also, if you could witness any event throughout history, what would it be?

I would like to meet Henry I. Such an underappreciated monarch, he opportunistically bound together England and Normandy (as his father, the Conqueror, had managed to do), cleverly relied on merit rather than bloodline in his key men, and cannily set up the Exchequer, to see the Crown was getting all that was due to it. He had a fun side, with his court turning to learning and open enjoyment in the afternoons. He enjoyed life, while taking his duties as king-duke very seriously.

I would like to have witnessed the Restoration of Charles II. It seems that London has never seen celebrations like it, since. Relief at the end of the bloodiest war suffered in Britain, mixed with enormous hope for the future.

If you could give a piece of advice to your younger self, either as a student or when you first started out as a writer, what would it be?

I wish I had done more work at Oxford. I am aware that that is not a very original sentence!

Can you tell us a little bit more about the project you are currently working on?

I am making inroads into a 20th century story that has intrigued me for a few years now. I’ve been jotting notes down for all that time. There are now more than 700 paragraphs of those notes, and I need to see if they work together.

SOLD OUT: Charles Spencer to appear at Chalke Valley History Festival on June 23.

The White Ship: Conquest, Anarchy and the Wrecking of Henry I’s Dream

King Henry I was sailing for England in triumph after four years of fighting the French. Congregating with the king at the port of Barfleur on that freezing night was the cream of Anglo-Norman society, including the only legitimate heir to the throne. By 1120, Henry was the most formidable ruler in Europe with an enviable record on the battlefield, immense lands and wealth and unprecedented authority in his kingdoms. Everything he had worked for was finally achieved, and he was ready to hand it on to his beloved son, William Ætheling.

Henry I and his retinue set out first. The White Ship – considered the fastest afloat – would follow, carrying the young prince. Spoilt and arrogant, William had plied his comrades and crew with drink from the minute he stepped aboard. It was the middle of the night when the drunken helmsman rammed the ship into rocks. There would be only one survivor from the gilded roll call of passengers…

Charles Spencer evokes this tragic and brutal story of the Normans from Conquest to Anarchy. With the heir dead, a civil war of untold violence erupted, a game of thrones which saw families turn in on each other with English and Norman barons, rebellious Welsh princes and the Scottish king all playing a part in a bloody, desperate scrum for power.

Purchase here:

UK

US

Biography

Charles Spencer

Charles Spencer was educated at Eton College, and took a degree in Modern History at Magdalen College, University of Oxford. He then worked in 30 countries as a reporter for the American network NBC for a decade from 1986.

He is the author of seven History books, including the Sunday Times bestsellers Blenheim: Battle for Europe (shortlisted for History Book of the Year, at the 2005 National Book Awards), and Killers of the King (the second highest-selling History book in the UK, in 2014).

Charles is also the 9th Earl Spencer, inheriting Althorp in 1992. He founded the Althorp Literary Festival. He has written for a number of UK and US publications including The Spectator, The Financial Times, and Vanity Fair.

Follow him at these sites:

Twitter

Instagram

Facebook

Website

Special thanks to Aspects of History.

Tracy Borman

Bestselling author and historian Tracy Borman took time to discuss her career, history obsession and her upcoming appearance at the Chalke Valley History Festival. Find out what dastardly deeds caught her attention while writing The Fallen Angel.

-How would you describe yourself in fifty words or less?

Author, historian and broadcaster whose obsession with the Tudors borders on the unhealthy.  I’m also joint Chief Curator of Historic Royal Palaces and Chief Executive of the Heritage Education Trust.

-Why do you love history?

I’ve always loved it and I think that’s innate, rather than something learned.  Apparently my paternal grandfather was a fellow history-lover so perhaps I get it from him, although sadly he died before I was born.  Thanks to my work for Historic Royal Palaces, I spend a lot of time in beautiful historical buildings, but for me what sets my passion for history alight is the research.  The thrill of getting my hands on original documents in The National Archives, the British Library and elsewhere is something that never diminishes, even after all these years of writing and researching.

-Can you think of one specific event that led to this?

I think the reason I’m a historian now is thanks to my ‘A’ level history teacher, who really encouraged my passion for the subject…and made me fall in love with the Tudors.  She also opened my eyes to the fact that history isn’t just about ‘facts’, dates and events; it’s about real people – human beings with emotions just like us.  That changed everything for me.

What drew you to Tudor and Stuart history?

See above.  Mrs Jones has a lot to answer for!  But I also became fascinated with the Stuarts when researching my non-fiction book, Witches: James I and the English Witch Hunts.  It was such a dark and turbulent period of our history, yet one that’s often overlooked.  That research inspired my fiction trilogy, The King’s Witch, The Devil’s Slave and The Fallen Angel.

-Do you have any favourite characters or persons from these eras that appeal to you? Any that you dislike?

My all-time historical heroine is Elizabeth I.  I admire her so much – her self-discipline, courage, shrewdness and the way she confounded expectations as a ‘weak and feeble woman’ ruling over a court and kingdom dominated by men.  Mary, Queen of Scots, on the other hand, deepened the prejudice against female rulers by being reckless, self-indulgent and entirely led by the heart.  The two women couldn’t have been more different – and I think you can tell who’s my favourite!  For the Stuart era, I was really drawn to Anne of Denmark, queen consort of James I.  I think there’s much more to her than meets the eye, particularly with regard to her clandestine links to the Catholic community and, possibly, even the Gunpowder Plotters – as I hint at in my novels.

-What led to your interest in the Duke of Buckingham & James I/VI?

It was the research I carried out for my non-fiction book, Witches.  The transition from the Tudor to the Stuart dynasty led to great uncertainty in England, which soon darkened into hostility towards the new king – and, ultimately, an attempt to blow him and his entire government to the skies.  James himself is an intriguing character – not easy to like, despite his intellectual gifts and wry sense of humour.  As for his favourite, Buckingham, he was an out and out villain – both in my novel, The Fallen Angel, and in real life.  But villains are so much more fun to write about than heroes so I’m grateful for all his dastardly deeds, even if his contemporaries didn’t quite feel the same.

-Tell us one thing you learned while writing The Fallen Angel that blew your mind.

I think it would have to be the fact that Buckingham may have had a hand in James I’s death.  Evidence has been uncovered recently that shows Buckingham had access to poisons and physicians who dealt in them.  He was certainly in close attendance on the king in his final weeks.  It may just be circumstantial – there were often rumours of poison surrounding royal deaths – but let’s just say the dastardly duke had the means.

-What’s your involvement with Chalke Valley History Festival?

I’m proud to be a patron of the festival and have taken part in it every year since 2015, when I postponed my honeymoon in order to be there!  It’s been wonderful to see it get bigger and better every year.  Come rain or shine (and there’s been plenty of both!) it’s the highlight of my events calendar. 

-When will you be appearing?

2pm on Thursday 24 June.

-How can we find you on social media?

Twitter

Instagram

Website 

Purchase your ticket here

About Tracy Borman…

Tracy Borman studied and taught history at the University of Hull and was awarded a PHD in 1997. She went on to a successful career in heritage including working for the Heritage Lottery Fund, The National Archives and English Heritage. She is now Chief Executive of the Heritage Education Trust and also joint Chief Curator for Historic Royal Palaces. She is a trustee of The Buccleuch Living Heritage Trust and The National Archives Foundation, as well as a Patron of Lavenham Library and a Honorary Patron of the Chalke Valley History Festival. She is the author of a number of highly acclaimed books, including Thomas Cromwell: The Untold Story of Henry VIII’s Most Faithful Servant; Matilda: Wife of the Conqueror, First Queen of England; Elizabeth’s Women: The Hidden Story of the Virgin Queen; and Witches: A Tale of Sorcery, Scandal and Seduction. She is also a regular broadcaster and public speaker, giving talks on her books across the UK and abroad.

About Chalke Valley History Festival

The aim is to excite, enthral and entertain about the past. All proceeds from the festival have, since 2012, been directed to the Chalke Valley History Trust, which promotes the understanding of history to all ages, but especially children.

The Chalke Valley History Festival began in June 2011 on a small scale and as a fundraiser for the local cricket club. Club stalwart and historian James Holland had the idea for a festival but it was James Heneage, founder and former CEO of Ottakar’s bookshops and now historical novelist, who suggested a festival dedicated to history.

It began with the help of a number of local volunteers, among whom Peter Bell and Rachel Holland played a big part in that first year and continue to do so today. Jane Pleydell-Bouverie came on board in autumn 2011 and has been at the heart of the festival ever since. The Daily Mail became the festival’s principal sponsor in 2013, and it now consists of a week of talks, discussions, debates, as well as extensive and immersive living history and historic air displays.

Since 2013, the festival has also incorporated the History Festival for Schools. ‘An understanding of the past is essential,’ says Co-Founder James Heneage, ‘without that, it is impossible to make sense of the present or prepare for the future.’

2017 saw the festival move to a new site of over 70 acres in Broad Chalke, but still in the heart of the beautiful Wiltshire Chalke Valley.

Church Bottom, Bury Lane, Broad Chalke,
Near Salisbury, Wiltshire, SP5 5DP

Find out more and purchase tickets here!

Join Us!

Chalke Valley History Festival 2021

Join us.

Wednesday, May 18 at 3:00pm Eastern/20:00 UK time, I’m discussing Chalke Valley History Festival with James Holland & the All Things Tudor Club on Clubhouse. We’ll be chatting about Tudors & More!

Chalke Valley History Festival is the UK’s largest festival devoted just to history. The dates of the event are June 23-27, 2021. Look for it on social media using #CVHF #AmazingHistory on Instagram: @chalkevalleyhistoryfestival and Twitter: https://twitter.com/CVHISTORYFEST

Clubhouse is a space for casual, drop-in audio conversations. The app can be accessed via iOS or Android.

Find our conversation & drop in at this link: https://joinclubhouse.com/event/MKDveLAN