A Radical History of Britain

has now gone to the publishers. Yippee! It has a new, exciting subtitle,  Visionaries, rebels and revolutionaries: the men and women who fought for our freedoms, and a firm publication date, 4 June 2009.

In other news, over at Me and My Big Mouth, the battle continues between myself and Patrick Dillon, though this round looks more like a dead heat. Scott’s got as far as the revolutionary wars in Ireland and Scotland, so the end result is imminent. Whatever the outcome, history, I think, has been the winner.

Finally, as it’s Halloween, news from CNN that some present-day witches want their sixteenth- and seventeenth-century predecessors to be posthumously pardoned.

Amusingly, someone from the Ministry of Justice has replied to the effect that

“Evidence must prove conclusively that no offense was committed or that the applicant did not commit the offense. It is not enough that the conviction may be unsafe — the applicant must be technically and morally innocent.”

Does the Ministry of Justice believe in the power of maleficient magic? I suppose the recall of Peter ‘Lord Vader’ Mandelson is evidence enough.


Kett’s Rebellion – in Lego

This is the way to bring history to life!

Published in: on October 30, 2008 at 11:54 am  Leave a Comment  
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Putney Debates as a word cloud

Published in: on October 22, 2008 at 8:49 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Magnacartaballs rides again…

Shami Chakrabati in the Indie on Sunday

“If the House of Lords doesn’t stand up for the Magna Carta, then it’s hard to know what the Magna Carta is for.”

Don’t worry Shami, those Barons won’t let you down.

Taking Liberties at the British Library, pt. 2.

As regular readers will recall, I posted a week or so ago about the publicity for this forthcoming (31st October) exhibition at the BL. The post got picked up not only by a few other bloggers, but also by Matthew Shaw, the curator of the exhibition. (Does the BL have some sort of web ‘rapid rebuttal unit’? When I wrote some ill-informed guff about their plans for digital theses, I also got a very swift response putting me straight.)

The BL very kindly invited me to have a sneak preview of some of the items in the exhibition. Matthew let me see the London Working Men’s Association minutebook, papers relating to Francis Place and Sir Francis Burdett, and the suffragette Olive Wharry’s prison scrapbook. If there’s anything likely to assuage a grumpy historian, it’s an opportunity to look at some old stuff.

The exhibition will feature items from outside of the BL’s own collections, including the original text of the Putney Debates (on loan from Worcester College) and the 18-foot long Great Reform Act, complete with stitched on amendments. Not only will it stretch chronologically from Magna Carta right up to the present day, but it will also tackle a variety of different themes, from the struggle for democratic rights to campaigns for freedom of the press, to the development of social and economic rights in the modern era.

Aside from the exhibition itself, there will also be a permanent website linked to it (not yet live), and a series of evening events debating key questions with guest speakers including Shami Chakrabati, Baroness Williams, Professor Conor Gearty and Polly Toynbee.

As somebody who likes watching the X-factor and also cares about threats to our civil liberties, I still don’t like the posters, but, hey, they’ve certainly provoked debate. Whatever my remaining reservations about the publicity, the range of documents on show, and the breadth of themes addressed, make this a very important and timely exhibition.

For more info, go here. Thanks very much to Matthew and his colleagues at the BL for letting me have a nose around and ask a few questions.

Michael Gove, the Glorious Revolution and me…

Apparently, Michael Gove said this at the Conservative Party Conference, last week

‘Instead of being taught about the Magna Carta, the Glorious Revolution and the heroic role of the Royal navy in putting down slavery, our children are [now] either taught to put Britain in the dock or they remain in ignorance of our island story, That is morally wrong, culturally self-defeating – and we would put it right.’

He promised the history curriculum would be overhauled so as once again to highlight ‘the great things that we as Britons have achieved’.

Of course, concerned parents out there, not willing to wait for the imminent Conservative election victory and worried about their kids missing out on some of the great things Britons like William of Orange achieved can buy my The Glorious Revolution: 1688 and Britain’s Fight for Liberty for a mere £7.50 . And…my new book A Radical History of Britain has exactly 73 mentions of Magna Carta. Just £20 in hardback. Out June 09. Lovely.

Review: Anna Keay, The Magnificent Monarch: Charles II and the Ceremonies of Power

The following review by me has just appeared in the latest edition of BBC History Magazine (thanks to Sue Wingrove for permission to reproduce it here.)

The Magnificent Monarch: Charles II and the Ceremonies of Power, by Anna Keay Hambledon Continuum, 319 pp. £25.

The notoriously sybaritic Charles James Fox, apparently without a trace of irony, described the reign of Charles II as ‘a disgrace to the history of our country.’ Anna Keay’s important and lucid book adds weight to a number of recent biographies which have helped to revise the picture of the ‘merry monarch’, stressing the shrewd and serious operator behind the louche stereotype.

Concentrating upon Charles II’s use of and participation in ceremony, Keay demonstrates that far from being indifferent to court ritual, the king was an assiduous observer of royal ceremony. Charles carefully used this to sustain and increase his power, evidenced by his desire to maintain etiquette even in the straightened circumstances of exile in 1650s.

The book is full of arresting details, such as Keay’s revelation that Charles II touched 100,000 of his subjects for the ‘King’s Evil’ (scrofula) during his reign, amounting to 2% of the entire population. This dedication to the ritual was in marked contrast to his father’s reluctance to perform the ceremony.

As the 1680s progressed the court became more formal, access to the king more restricted and its rituals more consciously modelled on the French. The public rising and going to bed of the king, the leveé and couché, were introduced, grand new public rooms built in Windsor and a prospective ‘English Versailles’ planned (but never completed) at Winchester. If the emphasis on the earlier years of Charles II’s reign had been upon munificence and approachability, in the king’s later years, it was upon magnificence and power. The Maundy Thursday ritual of washing the feet of the poor, emphasising the monarch’s humility, was tellingly performed by a stand-in – the bishop of London – during the 1670s.

Keay is very strong in unpicking what Charles hoped changes at court would achieve politically but she spends little time in considering whether these alterations secured the desired result. For example, she discusses Charles’ decision to reintroduce public dining as an attempt to counter the ‘public relations fiasco’ of the Dutch raid on the Medway in 1667. One wonders just how effective such royal spin was against verse libels as hostile as the Fourth Advice to a Painter which pictured Charles as a Nero-like figure who

‘when the Dutch fleet


Saw his ships burn’d and, as they burn’d, he


Equally, how did Charles II’s care for court decorum square with the notorious activities of courtiers like John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, the 2nd Duke of Buckingham, and the king’s bastard son, the Duke of Monmouth? Did the French influence displayed at court in antagonise a Protestant nation, fearful about Louis XIV’s pretensions to be ‘Universal Monarch?’

Nonetheless, this is a very valuable book which reminds us of the court’s persistence as an influential institution in an era widely depicted as dominated by Parliament. Keay clearly demonstrates that, despite the challenge posed by the regicide and revolution, royal ritual, ceremony and gesture remained powerful forms of political communication.