Three decades after he died, the historian E P Thompson occupies an ambiguous position in British intellectual life. While his reputation as a commentator has declined, he remains someone who has to be referred to, but with little real engagement. His historical work has lasted and if as a Marxist he suffered from the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Maoist Chinese move into capitalism, the current wave of protest movements in the UK echoes his own protest activity and makes bringing his work back into focus a priority. The recent reference to Thompson in the Political Quarterly aligned him with Cowling, Pelling and Namier in a debate over how political history has produced an alleged split between High and Popular history. This is hardly the case with Thompson. Trevor Fisher reviews aspects of his academic life.
Above: Aston Hall Birmingham 6 – where I first realized the past was another country. Built by Thomas Holte in the 1630s, I was taken there by my mother in the 1950s, 400 yards to the right is the Holte end of Villa Park. Built 1897 and where as much history has been made as in the Hall.
This is a selection of some of my historical essays based on the best available evidence, which is slippery and often vanishes at the crucial juncture. There are no final answers, and as the history of Christopher Marlowe shows, key pointers can be lost for centuries and discovered by accident. The attempt to construct a final overarching history which nineteenth century historians attempted is clearly impossible to achieve, so historians work on selected topic areas. I chose to work in English history in the Tudor, Stuart, Regency, C19th and C20th periods simply because I have never studied earlier history and I have not studied English C18th, and I can’t do foreign languages. If my choice of topics is somewhat random, there are common themes. Hopefully these essays will entertain and illuminate.
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Amyas Paulet was the most stringent jailer of Mary Queen of Scots, and there is a large amount of correspondence from Paulet to Walsingham while he was in charge at Tutbury Castle and Chartley Manor. The letters are not entirely complete, and in compiling them, the Catholic priest Father Morris commented “it is plain that many of the later letters of this series are missing, and that they were purposely withdrawn from the collection is shown by the significant erasure of the item “A bundle of letters from Sir Amyas Paulet succeeding Sir Ralph Sadler 1585 to 1586”. (J Morris The letter books of Amyas Paulet, London 1874, p3).
Francis Walsingham has become a legendary figure in the history of spying, but while he was a genius, his genius was based on a combination of hard work and the ability to exploit strokes of good fortune. The story of Henry Fagot demonstrates this. Discovering the Throckmorton plot so preventing a Catholic invasion of southern England only happened because someone in the French embassy in London, self named Henry Fagot, contacted Walsingham and passed him copies of secret letters between Mary Queen of Scots and her French supporters. Walsingham’s skill was to work out that the crucial link outside the Embassy was Francis Throckmorton. Walsingham worked a lucky break.
I first applied to university at age 18 – my birthday is the 6th October – and entered Warwick University on my 21st birthday, October 6th 1967. The three years in between were a painful example of how a working-class boy with little cultural capital experienced the admissions process in the mid 1960s – and sadly my experience has many lessons to give over half a century later. The university admissions system then was an obstacle race for working class children – and it still is.
Walsingham’s reputation as a spy catcher is based on building a spider’s web of agents and using counter espionage to control potential threats to Elizabethan government. But in 1580 and for some years to come, he was groping in the dark. As Conyers Read comments, “In the year 1580…. It is pretty clear that his secret service was not yet developed. He had to do what he could with the means at his command.
Sir Francis Walsingham, Secretary of State to Elizabeth 1, casts a long but indistinct shadow over history. Currently seen mainly as a founder of counter-espionage and often referred to as a ‘spycatcher’, not only is the wider contribution Walsingham made to Elizabethan politics obscured in general literature on the reign, but is a precursor to struggles of the twentieth century.
Reviews of Mary Queen of Scots Book
The time has come to extend the discussion. I am therefore setting up a History Mysteries project to widen the focus, and hopefully discuss with others some key issues. If you can help, then I would like to hear from you.
See the full info in the History Mysteries section and please use the contact form to get in touch.
The classic account of Charles II’s escape in 1651 is the account he gave to Samuel Pepys in 1680. Yet as Pepys himself realized, the story as the King gave it was full of mistakes some of which Pepys corrected in footnotes. However, researchers have other accounts to draw upon, some of which are based on first hand research though many are little more than rumour and hearsay. Of the more reliable commentaries the book published by Thomas Blount in 1660, BOSCOBEL, seemed to be accurate and was initially backed by the King. This was much nearer to the events so the King’s poor memory of what happened when he spoke to Pepys did not appear crucial.
In the medieval parish church of St Bartholomews in Tong, Shropshire, hangs a massive bell which is one of the 150 heaviest bells in the country. Other bells hang in the church and do the job of calling the faithful to prayer, so why this was commissioned in 1518 is a mystery. At a weight recently calculated at 46 hundredweight one stone – or well over two tons – this is totally unsuitable for a church of this size. The Church has a plethora of mediaeval tombs built between 1410 when the church was commissioned and 1518 when Sir Henry Vernon was buried here, in a new chapel called the Golden Chapel built to take an extra tomb – his own.
The second mystery is why skilled and presumably clever experts do not understand election results. This is shown by the co-incidence of the Batley by-election results of 1919 and 2021. A century or more apart, the same mistakes are made and in the meantime in 1971 a top Cambridge historian, Maurice Cowling, jumped on the same bandwagon and lost the plot.
During the June Batley by-election, George Galloway as the candidate for the left wing Workers Party had placed a series of weather proof message boards on the road into Batley from the railway station,. The message which was most striking was the claim I WILL BE A VOICE FOR
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