Thursday, 12 March 2020

The search for women in the Viking Age (Thursday 26 March)

Vikings! Bewhiskered helmeted warriors brandishing swords. Fearsome energetic invaders arriving in magnificent longships. Men of the other side, our opponents. ... Few of us will not have been introduced as children to the Vikings. For many of us they entered our history as glamorous exciting figures: dangerous, effective, brave. And now we know more, how easy is it to throw off the mythology of those early encounters as archaeological and historical research reveal a more nuanced account of the lives and deeds of those men and women of the early Middle Ages?

From the late eighth century to the late eleventh people from Scandinavia travelled, raided and traded across much of Europe. Trade and military conquest established Vikings in increasing numbers in the British Isles, France, the Baltic, Kievan Rus (parts of present-day Russia, Ukraine and Belarus) and Sicily. They traded throughout much of the Mediterranean including North Africa and the Levant. Their seafaring took them to Iceland, Greenland and Vinland. They knew how to build sleek slender longships capable of travelling great distances at high speed. They possessed pre-eminent navigational and seafaring skills.

Viking men were clearly expected to be men of action. But what of Viking women? Historical research has shown that women could have property rights and the status of head of family. They were allowed authority in matters of religion. There were women poets and runecarvers. Women could be merchants and dispensers of medicine. In Scandinavian folklore and mythology there were shield-maidens - female warriors - but the historical evidence has been heavily debated.

In the tenth century a large ceremonial burial took place at Birka, near Stockholm. It was excavated in the 1970s and found to contain a human skeleton, a large number of weapons and the bones of two horses. Study of the human bones and recent DNA analysis (2017) confirmed that this was the grave of a woman. But what could be the conclusion? Was she necessarily a warrior? Some other Viking women were also buried with weapons. What does this tell us?

The great Viking era and the Viking empire ended almost a thousand years ago. Scholars who seek to understand and interpret the history of the Vikings face a unique set of challenges, Viking artefacts reflect a restless mobile people who spread widely and were accustomed to adapting to local circumstances. In their leisure time they appear to have been great tellers of stories. The stories add to the fictions that may distort later understanding of reality.

In our next lecture Dr Chris Callow of the University of Birmingham will endeavour to illuminate the lives of women in Viking society, sharing with us some of the challenges posed by the evidence and its interpretation.

Mike Short      


Sunday, 2 February 2020

Who is the tramp? Vagrancy in Victorian and Edwardian Britain (Thursday 27 February)

Throughout history vagrants or vagabonds or tramps or drifters - homeless people without regular employment or income - have been considered troublesome outsiders by people living in settled, ordered communities. They might be thought worthy of scorn or mistrust, or they could be the recipients of charity.

The first major vagrancy law in England and Wales was the Ordinance of Labourers (1349). At a time when the population had been depleted by the Black Death it made unemployment an offence. A person who was judged able to work but declined to do so would be branded or whipped. Four Vagabonds Acts in the sixteenth century included as legal punishments flogging, disfigurement, enslavement, transportation and execution.

In 1821 a parliamentary review recommended the consolidation and simplification of earlier vagrancy laws, the removal of the abuses and fraud that had developed in their operation, and, for certain types of vagrants, longer prison sentences with hard labour. The outcome was An Act for the Punishment of Idle and Disorderly Persons and Rogues and Vagabonds (1824).

On 27 February we will welcome as our speaker Nick Crowson, Professor of Contemporary British History at the University of Birmingham. Nick has a particular interest in homelessness from the 1880s to the present. In his lecture for the Historical Association Bath branch he will use records of court cases, censuses and personal documents to demonstrate how genealogical research can be used to recreate the hidden life stories of the vagrant and the tramp in late Victorian and Edwardian Britain.

Nick Crowson's findings challenge the frequently-made assumption that tramps adopted their way of life because they were personally inadequate. Through exploring their life stories it becomes apparent that there were varied pathways into, through and out of homelessness.

Mike Short

Tuesday, 24 December 2019

'This war without an enemy': Civil conflict in Somerset and Wiltshire in 1643 (Thursday 23 January)

The lecture originally planned for Thursday 23 January, on international diplomacy between the two world wars, has had to be cancelled. In its place the Bath branch of the Historical Association is pleased to welcome Julian Humphrys of the Battlefields Trust to speak on 'This war without an enemy': Civil conflict in Somerset and Wiltshire in 1643.

Sir William Waller (1597-1668) and Lord Ralph Hopton (1596-1652) were close personal friends. During the English Civil War Waller became a leading general on the side of the Parliamentarians while Hopton led soldiers loyal to King Charles I. Their friendship endured. Even as they prepared to face each other as rival commanders at what became the Battle of Lansdown (5 July 1643) and the subsequent Battle of Roundway Hill (13 July 1643) they wrote letters to each other as friends. In a letter to Hopton Waller wrote ...
That great God who is the searcher of my heart knows with what a sad sense I go upon this service, and with what a perfect hatred I detest this war without an enemy ... We are both upon the stage and must act such parts as are assigned to us in this tragedy, let us do it in a way of honour and without personal animosities.
The English Civil War was fought in three phases, which some scholars regard as three individual wars: 1642-1646 and 1648-1649 when the forces of Parliament faced those of King Charles I, and 1649-1651 when the combatants were Parliament or 'the Commonwealth' and supporters of 'King Charles II'.

Charles I's refusal to call a Parliament between 1629 and 1640, his imposition of taxes without Parliament's consent, his ill-judged support for favourites, his Catholic wife, his encouragement of moves towards 'High Anglicanism' in the church, and his belief in the Divine Right of Kings were bound to cause unease and opposition among Members of Parliament and their supporters.

Charles's attempt to introduce a High Anglican version of the Book of Common Prayer in Scotland, his other kingdom, led to armed conflict. Needing money for an army Charles finally summoned Parliament. Parliament would grant no taxes until the grievances of its members were addressed. Charles attempted to arrest five leading members of the House of Commons.

In January 1642, with tensions high and rising, Charles left London with his family. On 22 August 1642 Charles raised the royal standard at Nottingham and started to gather support. Parliament began to recruit an army of volunteers and appointed Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex, as its commander.

The first major skirmish took place near Worcester on 23 September. Exactly a month later the first pitched battle of the Civil War was fought, inconclusively, at Edgehill in Warwickshire.

Royalists and Parliamentarians each took control of extensive areas of English and Wales. By May 1643 Lord Hopton's Royalist army had captured most of the South West of England. Sir William Waller's Parliamentary forces held Bath and the route to London.

As the Royalists closed on Bath Waller withdrew to a strong position on Lansdown Hill. On 5 July Hopton attacked and the Battle of Lansdown ensued. The Royalists were repulsed and retreated to Devizes. The Parliamentarians followed them and by 8 July occupied the high ground to the north of Devizes, Roundway Down. Waller's soldiers surrounded the town and demanded its surrender, but on 13 July a Royalist relief force appeared near Roundway Down. With Royalist soldiers now in front of and behind his own troops Waller was unable to take advantage of his higher position. The Royalists attacked. The Parliamentarians were defeated. Roundway Down came to be regarded as the greatest cavalry victory of the English Civil War.

To lead us through these tumultuous events we are fortunate to have as our guest speaker the historian, writer, lecturer, broadcaster and tour guide Julian Humphrys. Julian is the Development Officer of the Battlefields Trust and chairs the trust's Wessex region.

We hope to follow this lecture with a guided walk around the Lansdown battlefield during the summer of 2020.

Mike Short 

Thursday, 7 November 2019

Henry VIII, Tracy Borman and the Roman Baths

As 2019 approaches its end, the Bath branch of the Historical Association completes a memorable year with a flourish.

The branch's final lecture of the year focuses on one of the biggest subjects - in every sense! - in British history. Its title is Henry VIII and the Men Who Made Him. This is also the title of one of the most recent books written by best-selling historical author Dr Tracy Borman, who will be our speaker at Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution, Queen Square, on Thursday 21 November at 7.30 pm. Tracy has made many appearances on television and radio, notably in Private Lives for the Yesterday Channel and the documentary series Inside the Tower of London for Channel 5. Tracy's books include Elizabeth's Women: The Hidden Story of the Virgin Queen, Thomas Cromwell: The Untold Story of Henry VIII's Most Faithful Servant and The Private Lives of the Tudors: Uncovering the Secrets of Britain's Greatest Dynasty. Tracy has also written about Henrietta Howard, the mistress of King George II, Matilda, wife of William the Conqueror, and witches. Last year she published her first novel, The King's Witch, the first of a trilogy. Tracy is the joint Chief Curator of Historic Royal Palaces and Chief Executive of the Heritage Education Trust. She is a trustee of the National Archives Foundation.

The historical author Alison Weir has described Henry VIII and the Men Who Made Him as 'a brilliantly woven story of the men who surrounded, influenced and sometimes plagued Henry VIII'. Tracy Borman will tell us that story on 21 November. At the end of her lecture Tracy will sign copies of the book. Books for sale will be provided at the lecture by Mr B's Emporium of Reading Delights of John Street, Bath.

Twelve days after the lecture, on the evening of Tuesday 3 December, the HA Bath branch's Christmas visit will take place at the Roman Baths and Pump Room. It will begin in the Pump Room with complimentary drinks and a talk given by Stephen Bird, Head of Heritage Services for Bath and North East Somerset, about recent and planned developments in the Roman Baths complex. Members will then divide into groups for a guided tour of the baths and museum before coming together again for a convivial buffet on the enclosed terrace that overlooks the Great Bath, which will be illuminated with flaming torches. It promises to be a very special evening to conclude the branch's programme for 2019.

The visit to the Roman Baths and Pump Room is a ticket-only event. Tickets (£20 each) must be purchased from me ( or 01225 812945) no later than Tuesday 19 November.

Mike Short       

Thursday, 10 October 2019

Recreating Elizabethan and Jacobean Theatres: Shakespeare's Globe and the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse (Thursday 24 October)

The actor and director Sam Wanamaker (1919-1993) was a man with a particular vision. It was to rebuild Shakespeare's Globe theatre on or near its original site on the south bank of the River Thames.

The Globe had been built in 1599, destroyed by fire in 1613, rebuilt the following year and finally demolished in 1644. Many of Shakespeare's plays were performed there.

In 1970 Sam Wanamaker set up the Shakespeare Globe Trust, and the process of gathering support, addressing the technical complexities of the task and gaining the necessary official permissions began.

The site of the new Globe could not be the original one because of the buildings currently there. Indeed, the original site is now much further from the Thames than it was. The site found, chosen and approved is about 230 metres from where the original stood but close to the river.

The team tasked with building the theatre had to decide what to build. There was evidence to work with of both the 1599 and 1614 theatres. The twentieth-century theatre would have to be an approximation based on this evidence. Once the structure was agreed, there would be questions about the building materials and techniques to be used. And, of course, modern requirements concerning safety would have to be taken into account. Shakespeare's Globe today is able to accommodate less than half the number of spectators that would have thronged the building in Shakespeare's time.

The wish for authenticity was bound to conflict sometimes with practical considerations. Recreating Shakespeare's Globe would be as challenging in its way as attempting to play Bach on period instruments.

The new theatre opened triumphantly in 1997.

One of the team who recreated Shakespeare's Globe was Paul Simons, a restoration architect and our speaker at Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution on 24 October. Paul has had a distinguished career in heritage and tourism. Among many other roles he is Secretary General of UNESCO's Great Spas of Europe project and in Bath chairs the Cleveland Pools Trust.

Sam Wanamaker did not live long enough to see the opening of the recreated Globe. When the decision was taken to add nearby an indoor Jacobean theatre illuminated by candles, it was decided also to name it the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. It opened in 2014. Paul Simons was a member of the team that designed it and brought to completion.

Mike Short   

Friday, 30 August 2019

Researching William Beckford's Fonthill (Thursday 26 September)

One of the most extraordinary characters in the history of Bath is William Beckford (1760-1844). He was 10 years old when his father, who had been twice Lord Mayor of London, died and left him a fortune. This consisted of £1 million in cash, an estate, including a Palladian mansion, at Fonthill Gifford in Wiltshire, several sugar plantations in Jamaica, and a colossal annual income.

William Beckford could do whatever he liked. He was interested in art, music and literature. He wrote Vathek, a Gothic novel, in 1786 as well as criticism and vivid accounts of his travels in Europe. He was a knowledgable and also profligate collector of works of art and a generous patron of decorative art. He was MP for Wells (1784-1790) and Hindon in Wiltshire (1790-1795 and 1806-1820). And he built Fonthill Abbey and Lansdown (Beckford's) Tower. He was reputed to be the richest commoner in England.

In 1783 William Beckford married a daughter of the Earl of Aboyne. Soon afterwards a scandal alleging a homosexual relationship with a teenage boy - who later became the Earl of Devon - made the young couple choose exile on the continent. In 1786 Margaret Beckford died giving birth to their second daughter, Susan.

Beckford sought refuge and sanctuary at his estate at Fonthill Gifford. He engaged the architect James Wyatt to build a large Gothic revival country house to accommodate the complete library of Edward Gibbon (1737-1794), which he had acquired at auction, and his own art collection. The house was Fonthill Abbey, begun in 1796 and completed by about 1810. The building's most striking feature was its 90-metre-high central tower, which collapsed several times. James Wyatt was unreliable and absent for long periods. Beckford himself then took on the role of supervisor of works.

By 1820 Beckford was finally short of money. He sold Fonthill Abbey for £330,000 and moved to Bath, where he bought 20 Lansdown Crescent - and later 18 and 19 also - and 1 Lansdown Place West. By 1827 Lansdown Tower - to us 'Beckford's Tower' - had been completed.

Back at Fonthill, on 21 December 1825, most of the Abbey collapsed as the tower crashed down on it again.

At his death in 1844 William Beckford left about £80,000.

Much is known about William Beckford and his great 'folly' Fonthill Abbey. Possibly nobody knows more than the Bath Preservation Trust's Dr Amy Frost, whom many of us will have known first as the curator of Beckford's Tower.

How is it possible to extend research into something that is already well-researched? When you know a lot, what makes it possible to know more? These are questions that Amy Frost has faced in her work on William Beckford and Fonthill. The many of us who know Amy know that she will enlighten, surprise and fascinate us as she addresses the subject Researching William Beckford's Fonthill at our first lecture of the new season on Thursday 26 September at our new venue, Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution, 16-18 Queen Square, beginning at 7.30 pm.

Mike Short    

Monday, 1 July 2019

The 2019-20 lecture programme and a very special event for Christmas

Since the completion of last season's programme of lectures on 25 April three groups of HA Bath members have visited The Hall at Bradford-on-Avon on 23 May and 6 June and Hamswell House, just north of Bath, on 12 June.

Some members also attended the Historical Association Conference in Chester on 17 and 18 May.

The next scheduled event for members is the first of our lectures for the 2019-20 season. Details of the seven lectures were circulated at the branch's annual general meeting on 25 April. They will all take place at our new home, Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution in Queen Square.

The first speaker of our new season will be local favourite Dr Amy Frost of Bath Preservation Trust whose subject will be Researching William Beckford's Fonthill. Amy will be followed by Paul Simons, also well-known in Bath, a restoration architect whose first-hand experience will enable him to explain the issues involved in recreating historic buildings. In November we will welcome Tracy Borman, renowned author and joint Chief Curator (with Lucy Worsley) of Historic Royal Palaces. In the new year a varied programme will be presented by speakers from Birkbeck University of London and the universities of Birmingham and Worcester.

This year's special event before Christmas will be very special indeed. It will begin with a talk, accompanied by a glass of wine, given by Stephen Bird, Head of Heritage Services for B&NES, in the Pump Room. This will be followed by a guided tour of the Roman Baths and Museum. We will finish with a buffet on the enclosed terrace overlooking the Great Bath, which will be illuminated with flaming torches. The date for this is Tuesday 3 December, the starting time 7 o'clock. Details and application forms will be sent to members during August.

This is the programme ...

26 September 2019
Researching William Beckford's Fonthill
Dr Amy Frost (Bath Preservation Trust)

24 October 2019
Recreating Elizabethan and Jacobean Theatres: Shakespeare's Globe and the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse
Paul Simons (Restoration architect)

21 November 2019
Henry VIII and the Men Who Made Him
Dr Tracy Borman (Heritage Education Trust, Historic Royal Palaces)

3 December 2019
Members' Christmas Visit and Buffet at the Roman Baths and Pump Room, Bath

23 January 2020
International diplomacy between the wars: dead ends or new beginnings?
Dr Jessica Reinisch (Birkbeck University of London)

27 February 2020
Who is the tramp? Vagrancy in Victorian and Edwardian Britain
Professor Nicholas Crowson (University of Birmingham)

26 March 2020
The search for women in the Viking Age
Dr Chris Callow (University of Birmingham)

23 April 2020
Royal attitudes to the Atlantic slave trade, 1785-1808
Professor Suzanne Schwarz (University of Worcester)

All lectures will take place on Thursday evenings at 7.30 at Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution, 16-18 Queen Square. I will introduce each lecture in this diary.

Mike Short