Notes and Essays
This section of the website is for the on-line publication of various ideas, thoughts and comments. It does not include articles published in print unless they are freely available on the Internet. For printed publications, see Full Bibliography. For interviews, see this page.
4 December 2016
The necessity of cultural appropriation
I picked up on Lily Allen's comment on a musical act including elements of 'cultural appropriation', and herself being 'guilty' of this in the past. It made me look up what she might have meant by this term. I wondered what a world in which it never happened might be like. It struck me that it would be a deeply divided and divisive one. So I wrote a note about it.
14 June 2016
Twelve priorities - and a dozen reasons to remain in the EU
I am appalled at the low quality of the debate about the UK in Europe. Anything Brexit does not like, it slams as 'scaremongering' - even if there may be a good reason to be scared. I was amazed to hear a Labour MP say the best reason for voting to remain in the EU was that it was exactly what Nigel Farage didn't want, so had to be a good thing. Stupid. This debate is not about personalities, it is not about loyalty to a cause. But what is it about? Many things, all wrapped up in one vote. I reckon the best way for people to approach this question is for them to lay aside loyalty to a cause or a party and to think out their priorities for themselves, and then assess what is likely to happen in relation to those priorities in the event of a decision to remain or leave the EU. Here is my conclusion.
12 May 2016
Defending 'The Dark Ages'
Kate Wiles wrote a piece castigating English Heritage for using the term 'Dark Ages' in the 'History Matters' section of the History Today website. The problem isn't the term, it is that English Heritage use it to describe the later-Saxon period, which wasn't at all like the early, pre-700 epoch. 'The Dark Ages' is actually very useful for describing these centuries, both specifically and generally, as it is recognisably a special phenomenon: a society that turns violently in on itself and, in its collapse, destroys the evidence of its own destruction. Dark indeed, in more ways than one. So I wrote a riposte.
19 January 2016
The first edition of Ghost Gleams
Not long ago an American gentleman came to visit. Before tea, I showed him around the house. As we passed through the hall he stopped by a bookcase on which I keep some of the family books. 'You've got a copy of Ghost Gleams,' he exclaimed. It's one of the most sought-after ghost-story books, published in 1921. But it turns out my copy is rather special.
1 August 2015
The Meaning of War
The text of my keynote address to the Agincourt 600th anniversary conference at the University of Southampton is now available to buy as a Keynote Speech, either as a stand-alone piece or as part of the compendium of four keynote speeches.
12 May 2015
The supposed Mortimer family motto
I've been reviewing a book which refers three times to the supposed motto of the medieval Mortimer family. Unfortunately it seems to be a twentieth-century rumour, nothing more. Here are my thoughts on the matter. If anyone knows better, or more, about this subject, please do get in touch.
24 April 2015
The Shakespeare Authorship Debate and Historical Responsibility
The text of this lecture delivered in the Chapter House of Exeter Cathedral is now available to buy as a Keynote Speech, either as a stand-alone piece or as part of the compendium of four keynote speeches.
10 February 2015
The Wigmore Chronicle
A note on the various chronicles of Wigmore Abbey, for explanatory purposes.
12 October 2014
French royals rhyme
Those who know the Victorian doggerel by which to remember the order of English kings ('Willie, Willie, Harry, Ste / Harry, Dick, John, Harry Three...') might find this useful for remembering the order of French kings.
13 September 2014
An Extraordinary History Master
A tribute to Euan Clarke, my history master at Eastbourne College, inspired by revisiting the school earlier in the month and failing to meet him.
24 July 2014
Why I do not fly
This is a revised version of the essay that I wrote in 2008, now corrected, with a more accurate spaceshuttle figure from NASA.
16 October 2013
The future of our national parks
The government has issued a consultation paper that effectively proposes to value all land in the country according to the commercial price it might be worth for housing, regardless if it is in the heart of the Lake District or Dartmoor. It implies the denial of the social and aesthetic value of our most protected landscapes - and no one seems to be taking the blindest bit of notice. Hence this article.
25 August 2013
An inconvenient fact: thoughts on the academic reception of 'The death of Edward II'
I was asked on Twitter why other historians do not accept that Edward II survived Berkeley Castle. It's an interesting subject - so I took some time to set down my thoughts on the matter.
8 July 2013
A note on the problem of literary festivals not paying writers to appear, and the unfortunate long-term consequences.
11 October 2012
Hilary Mantel and the limits of historical accuracy
A piece for the Huffington Post about historical accuracy and how people see it in very different ways.
12 June 2012
The text of a talk delivered to the Friends of the National Archives. This now forms part of the collection of articles and speeches on writing history and historical fiction, published as an ebook through Kindle Direct under the title What isn't History?
31 March 2012
The Two Elizabethan Englands
An edited version of this essay (reduced by a third) was published as 'The great queen, parts 1 and 2,' in Daily Telegraph, Lifestyle section, p. 9 (31 March 2012).
13 March 2012
How to be an (Elizabethan) Woman
A short article for 'We love this book'.
18 January 2012
Wikipedia and Politics
Wikipedia going off-line? Why is this not A Good Thing?
9 January 2012
A few thoughts on the seasonal activity of cutting out self-indulgences.
19 November 2011
Novel approaches - from academic history to historical fiction
The Society of Authors asked me to write a blog entry about the Institute of Historical Research's wniter conference. It was full of thought-provoking moments.
16 November 2011
Twelve hints for writing history for the general public
These notes were drawn up for a lecture at the University of Nottingham in March 2011. They now form part of the collection of articles and speeches on writing history and historical fiction, published as an ebook through Kindle Direct under the title What isn't History?
13 November 2011
The Count of Hainault's Daughter
A revision of the piece that appeared as Appendix 1 of my book The Perfect King (2006) - largely rewritten and given a more expansive ending. Do such minutiae matter? Yes - because unless you can sort out the minutiae, you can't say anything more meaningful about the past.
7 July 2011
Great historical writing? It's not about the past.
A short piece for The Spectator provoked by the establishment of the Historical Writers Association, which plans to represent both historical fiction and popular history writers.
6 August 2011
The Lying Art of Historical Fiction.
A short piece for The Guardian about history and historical fiction.
1 July 2010
The Art of History
This essay appeared in volume 11/3 of the American journal Historically Speaking. It now forms part of the collection of articles and speeches on writing history and historical fiction, published as an ebook through Kindle Direct under the title What isn't History?. The original was accompanied by an interview with the editor, Donald A. Yerxa.
12 May 2010
Should we get rid of political parties?
In the run-up to this year's election I wrote a piece on banning political parties. Unfortunately for me, more politically charged, less-idealistic pieces shunted it from the comments pages of the broadsheets. But, given the hung parliament and the talk of electoral reform of both Lords and Commons, I decided to rewrite it yesterday evening and place it here. I wonder what I'll think about it on 7 May 2015 (the date of the 'next' election, optimistically set yesterday). Coincidentally, the same day as I posted this, a piece by Terry Jones appeared in The Guardian saying much the same thing.
27 April 2010
'What isn't History? The Nature and Enjoyment of History in the Twenty-First Century
Frequently I am finding myself needing to refer to this article, which was published in the journal History in 2008. It was written at the same time as my Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England and introduces the concept of 'Free History', which underpins a lot of my thinking about the role of history in our modern, everyday lives, despite the criticisms of postmodernists. It therefore underlines why we still need historians - and always will. The final draft now forms part of the collection of articles and speeches on writing history and historical fiction, published as an ebook through Kindle Direct under the title What isn't History?
31 March 2010
Wikipedia and the Ship of Fools
In the course of trying to add part of the detail in the note on 'hanging, drawing and quartering' to Wikipedia, I ran yet again into the problem of Wikipedia being a Ship of Fools. It caused me to think. What is the value of knowledge if an editor may delete it or alter it simply for the sake of exercising their own authority? Is Wikipedia not undermining the value of knowledge itself? This now forms part of the collection of articles and speeches on writing history and historical fiction, published as an ebook through Kindle Direct under the title What isn't History?
30 March 2010
Why do we say 'hanged, drawn and quartered?'
A minor point perhaps; but as several people have now given me the wrong explanation, which turns out to be based on an OED editor's 'presumption', it seems I should make this note available.
13 September 2009
Forty Years Hence - the Repositioning of History
In 2008 contributors to the Sixteenth Century Journal were invited to write a short essay towards a fortieth anniversary edition of the journal, to be published in 2009. It was suggested that we might try to imagine aspects of historical research forty years from now.
8 October 2008
'The Uncertain Death of Edward II' by JS Hamilton
A note on a piece of work answering - or trying to answer - my work on the death of Edward II.
2 October 2008
Introduction to a talk on Climate Change and the National Trust
Adrian Colston delivered an important talk to the Moretonhampstead History Society (of which I am chairman). Several people asked for my Introduction to his presentation to be made available. Here it is.
25 August 2008
The Paris Catacombs
A personal reaction to the passages beneath the streets of Paris in which the bones of six million of the city's dead now lie. This now forms part of the collection of articles and speeches on writing history and historical fiction, published as an ebook through Kindle Direct under the title What isn't History?
18 July 2008
Ways with Words, Dartington
I did enjoy this year's Ways with Words. And realised why it is so different from urban literary festivals.
10 July 2008
History in Education
Should history be a compulsory element of education? My thoughts on the subject now form part of the collection of articles and speeches on writing history and historical fiction, published as an ebook through Kindle Direct under the title What isn't History?
21 May 2008
Why I do not fly
This is the original version of the essay, as amended in 2009. A revised 2014 version is available at Why I do not fly.
4 April 2008
A note on the deaths of Edward II
A simplified (but still substantial) explanation of my research into the 'first death' of Edward II in 1327, with an emphasis on the methodology employed.
28 June 2007
After the Rivalry
A note drawn up the day after Gordon Brown became Prime Minister. It was not published at the time. But it's worth comparing the transitions of power in 1399 and 2007, and what happened afterwards, as recent events have shown.
28 March 2007
History as Literature
Why do history books not feature on lists of all-time favourite books? Why do they no longer feature on lists of important books? Is history still a form of literature or merely an academic exercise?
9 July 2006
The Future of the Academic Monograph
A letter to the Royal Historical Society discussing a suggestion previously made about accessible writing and the sustainability of academic history books.
23 April 2006
Why is St George our patron saint?
A note drawn up for St George's Day 2006, following my appearance on Sky News, trying to explain why St Patrick has such a following and St George does not.
9 March 2006
The Old Icon
A comment published in The Guardian about Edward III and the origins of English nationalism, The editor changed the title to 'Englishness is more about Crécy than cups of tea'. I prefer my own title. [Note: this article opens in a new window.]
19 February 2004
Do we really care about the past?
A short article which I drew up reflecting on some reactions to my book The Greatest Traitor.[Note: this article opens in a new window.]
11 April 2003
'A red-hot poker? It was just a red herring'
An article which I drew up for The Times Higher Education Supplement reflecting on Edward II's death to coincide with the publication of The Greatest Traitor.[Note: this article opens in a new window.]