Our Site Podcast with Helen Castor

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Helen Castor presents the history magazine programme in which listeners and researchers share their passion for the past.

Helen Castor presents Radio 4's popular history programme in which listener's questions and research help offer new insights into the past.

Queens of Speed: Making History listener Tony Allen is related to a pioneer motoring ace from the Edwardian period. Between 1906 and 1910 Dorothy Levitt took on the best drivers in the world at endurance, speed and hill-climb events - and often won. But little is known of her life after 1910. Helen talks to historian Dr Stephen Cullen from the University of Warwick about Dorothy's career and what might have happened to her.
Dr Cullen is researching a book about sportswomen of the 1920's and 1930's who became known for their right wing views in the lead up to the Second World War. One of these women was a Fay Taylour who became a leading motor-cycle speedway rider until she was prevented from competing against men because of her gender. Taylour was imprisoned for three years during the war because she was seen to be a threat to national security.

Street Dancers: Dr Anne Witchard at the University of Westminster is researching the links between street-dancing, music hall and the ballet in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. She talks to Tom Holland about how the Victorians disapproved of the ballet, how some artists and poets became infatuated with it and how London street-dancing may well have influenced the Parisian 'Can-Can'.

A History of Cancer: Helen talks to Dr Elizabeth Toon at the University of Manchester about past societies dealt with cancer.

Pembroke Dock Explosion: Reporter Lizz Pearson heads for west Wales to find out about an explosion in 1942 which killed 19 trainee bomb disposal officers. The Sunderland Trust which is researching this incident is trying to find relatives of those that died.

Elizabeth I’s personality: the unfathomable queen

What was Elizabeth I really like? From an early age, 'Gloriana' was a master of hiding her true emotions, choosing to remain silent on one of the most foundational events of her life: the killing of her mother, Anne Boleyn, on the the orders of her father, Henry VIII. Here, Helen Castor attempts to decipher what the Virgin Queen was really thinking behind that inscrutable visage.

This competition is now closed

Published: March 31, 2020 at 3:05 pm

Elizabeth I is an icon. The Virgin Queen is more instantly recognisable even than her monstrously charismatic father, Henry VIII. But she is also an enigma. The image of ‘Gloriana’ is a mask – literally so, in the ‘mask of youth’ portraits painted in the last two decades of her life. In these paintings, Elizabeth’s unlined face remains ageless and changeless, unlike the sitter on which they were modelled. And it is a mask that was – and is – remarkably difficult to shift.

As England’s sovereign, Elizabeth said a great deal. She gave speeches, wrote letters, poems and prayers. Her comments, in public and private, were recorded by ministers, courtiers and ambassadors. But it is often difficult to be certain of what she actually meant. Her intellect is clear in every word she ever wrote or spoke. Infinitely less clear are her intentions and emotions, the tone and the sincerity or otherwise of what she said, hidden as they always were behind the carapace of a carefully constructed public self.

Her unreadability is not a trick of the historical light. Elizabeth was as unfathomable to her contemporaries as she is to posterity. As the Spanish ambassador in London wrote in 1566 – significantly, concerning the personally as well as politically fraught question of whether Elizabeth would choose to marry – “she is so nimble in her dealing and threads in and out of this business in such a way that her most intimate favourites fail to understand her, and her intentions are therefore variously interpreted”. And if it was hard to be sure of her intentions when she spoke, still more challenging is the task of interpreting her silence.

A terrible blow?

One subject on which she remained resolutely silent was the foundational event of her life. In May 1536, when Elizabeth was not yet three, her mother, Anne Boleyn, was killed on the orders of her father. Anne was the first English noblewoman, and the first anointed queen, to die at the executioner’s hand. It was a deeply shocking moment, which left her only child facing a frighteningly unpredictable future. And for the rest of her life, at least so far as the extant sources can tell us, Elizabeth never once uttered her mother’s name.

Arguments from silence are notoriously difficult to make, and historians have not found it easy to agree on the effect of this early loss. David Loades suggests that, though Elizabeth “was very aware of her mother’s fate”, she “seems not to have been affected by it”. David Starkey, on the other hand, sees Anne’s death as “a terrible blow for Elizabeth, and her father’s role in it more terrible still. But how deep the wound went we do not know…”. The one immediate impact to which he points is that “the shower of lovely clothes which Anne Boleyn had lavished on her daughter suddenly dried up” – and thereafter sees Elizabeth as a young woman who inherited all “the overweening self-confidence and egotism of her house”.

But there are other ways of reading Elizabeth’s inscrutability in the face of her mother’s loss, and other scraps of evidence to weigh in the balance. We know that she never spoke of Anne, and lionised the father who was responsible for her execution. Yet, when Elizabeth secured the degree of control over her environment to make it possible, she chose to surround herself with her mother’s relatives. And in her later years she owned an exquisite mother-of-pearl locket ring, which opened to reveal miniature portraits of herself and Anne. The specific sentiments behind these silent actions are impossible to elucidate, but, however we interpret them, they can hardly stand as evidence that the knowledge of her mother’s violent death left no mark on Elizabeth’s psyche.

Watch: Tracy Borman on what Elizabeth I thought of her mother – in less than 60 seconds

It is plausible, at least, to suggest that her internal psychological landscape was shaped by the kind of traumatic emotional dissonance that can produce not overweening confidence, but deep-seated insecurity. Elizabeth grew up knowing that her mother had been found guilty on trumped-up charges of adultery with five men, one of them Anne’s own brother, and then beheaded – all on the authority of her father. And yet her father was the one certainty that remained, without whose approval she could not hope to flourish. As the 12-year-old Elizabeth said in the only surviving letter she wrote to Henry: “I am bound unto you as lord by the law of royal authority, as lord and father by the law of nature, and as greatest lord and matchless and most benevolent father by the divine law, and by all laws and duties I am bound unto your majesty in various and manifold ways…”

The bastard daughter

What is certain is that Elizabeth was too young when her mother died to remember a time when her own position in the world was anything other than precarious. Before she was three she was declared illegitimate as a result of the annulment of her parents’ marriage – no longer the heir to the throne, or a princess, but simply the ‘Lady Elizabeth’. And there was nothing straightforward about her revised position as the king’s bastard daughter. The Act of Succession of 1544 named Elizabeth and her older half-sister Mary as royal heirs to their younger half-brother Edward, while at the same time Henry continued to insist, in all other contexts, on their illegitimacy.

It was a contradiction that troubled their father little, but it left Elizabeth’s future in political limbo. The lives of most royal women were shaped by marriage to husbands whose identities were decided by the manoeuvrings of national and international diplomacy. Elizabeth and her half-sister were pawns in this matrimonial game, but pawns whose value was hugely difficult to assess, as royal bastards who, however unlikely it seemed, might one day become queens.

Politically, Elizabeth could not anticipate the life that lay ahead of her with any degree of confidence. Meanwhile – lest her mother’s fate had left her in any doubt of the physical and political dangers marriage might present – she gained and lost three stepmothers before her ninth birthday. The first, Jane Seymour, died of an infection less than a fortnight after giving birth to Henry’s son. The second, Anne of Cleves, was rejected by the king before the marriage had even taken effect. And the third, Catherine Howard – a teenage cousin of Elizabeth’s mother – was killed in the same way as Anne, as a result of similar charges of sexual misconduct.

From the summer of 1543 a fourth stepmother, Katherine Parr, facilitated a more workable approximation of family life for the three royal siblings. But the violent riptides of politics at their father’s court were never far away, and Elizabeth had neither the unique status of her brother Edward as heir to the throne to protect her, nor, like half-Spanish Mary, powerful relatives on the continent to keep an eye on her welfare.

Dangerous daydreams

The uncertainties of Elizabeth’s position only multiplied after her father’s death in January 1547. In February 1548 – now living with the widowed queen Katherine Parr and her new husband, Thomas Seymour – 14-year-old Elizabeth noted in a letter to her brother, the young King Edward, that “it is (as your majesty is not unaware) rather characteristic of my nature… not to say in words as much as I think in my mind”. The significance of this instinct toward opacity was confirmed a year later when Seymour was arrested on charges of treason. It emerged that he had not only flirted indecorously with Elizabeth but, after Katherine’s death in childbirth in the autumn of 1548, planned to marry her.

Elizabeth, it turned out, had not been resistant to Seymour’s advances. If this was an adolescent crush on a handsome and attentive older man – a father-figure who was not sexually out of bounds, should he ask for her hand – it is only likely to have been intensified by the fact that the prospect of marrying Seymour would spare Elizabeth the usual fate of royal daughters: to be sent abroad, in permanent exile from all that was familiar, to make a new life with a stranger for a husband. Now, however, it was suddenly evident just how dangerous such daydreams might be.

And in response, Elizabeth, at only 15, brought a public mask into political play for the first time. Under interrogation, with her closest servants in custody, she remained immovable, insisting that she had not been involved in Seymour’s plans, and there had been no discussion of marriage without the explicit proviso that the consent of the privy council was paramount. “She has a very good wit,” wrote the harassed Sir Robert Tirwhit, charged with extracting her confession, “and nothing is gotten off her but by great policy.” In March 1549 Seymour was sent to the block Elizabeth was left to retreat into the calm of her books. It was a formative lesson: her decision to adopt a defensible position and resist all pressure to shift her ground had saved her from clear and present danger.

Profound and enduring insecurity, both personal and political, had defined Elizabeth’s environment and her experience even before she became the Protestant heir to her Catholic sister’s throne after Edward’s death in 1553. Within months, she found herself in the Tower – a prisoner, suspected of treason, in the same apartments where her mother had spent her last days. Psychological pressure found physical expression – her health was not good, and she had difficulty sleeping – but her composure, just as it had been during the Seymour affair, was impenetrable. She was innocent of conspiracy. If Mary believed otherwise, she must prove it. And the truth was that, as the Spanish ambassador admitted through gritted teeth, “there is not sufficient evidence to condemn Elizabeth”.

Hidden in plain sight

How, then, are we to understand Elizabeth as queen? Her accession to the throne in 1558, at the age of 25, brought authority and autonomy, but it did not bring safety. Already, her sharp intellect had been forged into a cautious and subtle intelligence, and her interaction with the world into a masked reactivity. Those same instincts – to watch and wait, to choose her friends carefully, and her enemies more carefully still – continued to guide the new queen as the threats to her person and her kingdom mutated and multiplied.

Mercurial as she could be, difficult to read as she was, she hid in plain sight. She took up positions – on religion, marriage, counsel, diplomacy – at the start of her reign, and, wherever she could, however she could, rebuffed attempts to make her move. Her ministers questioned her methods – her resistance to change, to war, to marriage, to naming an heir – but Elizabeth’s ambition as monarch was consistent and coherent: to seek security through stillness to manage the known risks of current circumstances, rather than precipitate unknown dangers through irreversible action.

The experience of insecurity, it turned out, would shape one of the most remarkable monarchs in English history.

Helen Castor is a historian, broadcaster and author. She is co-presenter of Making History on Radio 4 and has presented several TV series, most recently England’s Forgotten Queen on BBC Four. She is also the author of Elizabeth I (Penguin Monarchs): A Study in Insecurity, published by Allen Lane.

Think you know Elizabeth I? Test your knowledge with our Elizabeth I quiz

Joan of Arc&aposs Trial Was an International Sensation

Perhaps no event during the Middle Ages created a bigger international sensation, writes Daniel Hobbins in his 2005 book, The Trial of Joan of Arc. “‘Such wonders she performed,’ wrote the German theologian Johannes Nider, ‘that not just France but every Christian kingdom stands amazed.’”

According to the trial transcript, Joan was questioned repeatedly not only about the voices she heard, but on why she chose to dress as a man.

“It is both more seemly and proper to dress like this when surrounded by men, than wearing a woman’s clothes,” she told the judges. “While I have been in prison, the English have molested me when I was dressed as a woman. (She weeps.) I have done this to defend my modesty.”

Joan of Arc, as painted by artist Jules Bastien-Lepage, in the moment when Saints Michael, Margaret, and Catherine appear to her in her parents’ garden, rousing her to fight the English invaders in the Hundred Years War.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Erwin Davis, 1889

During the trial, St. Mary’s University notes, Joan faced six public and nine private examinations, culminating in The Twelve Articles of Accusation, which included the charges of dressing in men’s clothing and hearing voices of the divine. The church officials found her guilty, urging her to repent in order to save her life.

The trial itself was an ecclesiastical procedure covered under canon law𠅊 heresy investigation carried out as an inquisition, according to Hobbins.

“Joan of Arc was tried as a heretic not because she was a woman, though that factor played an important part, nor because she heard voices, but because she heard voices telling her to attack the English,” Hobbins writes. “Joan believed that God favored the French: God was on her side. … As long as she insisted … that her voices were saints telling her to attack the English, she was doomed.”

Hobbins adds that the motivation for the trial was political, because Joan’s claims were political.

“If true,” he writes, “they would have invalidated the English claim to legitimate rule in France. Of course, exposing Joan as a fraud, or as someone deluded by evil spirits, would also have struck at the legitimacy of Charles VII.”

Making History BBC

Popular history series where the past connects with the present.

Tom Holland and Iszi Lawrence explore historical connections to today's big issues.

Recent political convulsions have revealed a rift between the UK's capital and its regions. So this week Tom and Iszi consider other moments in history when London has been out of sync with the rest of the country - from the Romans to the 1700s. Examining how John Bull came into being and looking at the particular history of Northumbria, they look at the relationship between London and the rest of the UK.

Presenters: Tom Holland and Iszi Lawrence
Producer: Alison Vernon-Smith

A Pier production for BBC Radio 4

With this year's Oscars imminent, Tom Holland and Iszi Lawrence meet the cineasts who help us understand history and the history of cinema.

Hannah Grieg, historical consultant on the Oscar-winning film The Favourite, and the screenwriter of Churchill, Alex von Tunzelmann, discuss the portrayal of history on the big screen.

Tom meets Kevin Brownlow, whose work finding and restoring film from the silent era earned him an Oscar in 2010.

And Matthew Sweet tells the story of Vic Kinson, a bookkeeper from Derbyshire, who created the IMDB of his day.

Produced by Craig Smith
A Pier production for BBC Radio 4

Tom Holland and Iszi Lawrence continue to explore the historical connections behind today's headlines.

As the first electric commercial aircraft takes flight in Vancouver, Tom and Iszi look at the lengths people have gone to over the past millennium to reach for the skies.

Tom goes to the spot where Eilmer of Malmesbury, an 11th century English monk, made one of the earliest attempts at flight in the British Isles. Inspired by the Greek fable of Daedalus, he strapped wings to his hands and feet and jumped from the abbey tower. He broke both his legs.

And Iszi visits the Science Museum to find out about the first woman in space. At the age of 26, Valentina Tereshkova, orbited the earth 48 times over 3 days and parachuted out of the capsule to land safely in Siberia.

Producer: Kim Normanton
A Pier production for BBC Radio 4

Tom Holland and Iszi Lawrence present the show that explores the historical connections behind today's issues.

As fascination with genealogy and our own family history has become almost a national obsession, this week's programme looks at the historical aspects of what makes up a family and how attitudes to incestuous relationships have shifted over time and throughout cultures. From Ancient Egypt to the nuclear family, from the Victorians and the National Vigilance Association to Jacobean literature, how has incest been defined, discussed, outlawed and - occasionally - even encouraged?

Producer: Alison Vernon-Smith
A Pier production for BBC Radio 4

After the feast of the festive season comes the pain of the January fast. Well, to help us better understand our relationship with the food we eat, Making History goes on the spice trail with historians Roger Michel and Matthew Cobb. Curator Victoria Avery tells us why pineapples were all the rage in Elizabethan times and Dominic Sandbrook offers up a potted history of fast food in the UK - with a side of fries and a banana milkshake.

Feast and Fast: The Art of Food in Europe, 1500 - 1800 at the Fitzwilliam Museum runs until 26th April.

Producer: Craig Smith
A Pier production for BBC Radio 4

Tom Holland and Iszi Lawrence present the show that explores the historical connections behind today's issues.

In this New Year's Eve programme, Tom and Iszi look at what history has had to say about the future. They explore when "the future" emerged as a concept and why some people thought they could foretell it

They look at the time when the future became political and ask what we can know about our ancestors' fears from the science fiction they produced.

She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth by Helen Castor

Medieval history is a fashionable but challenging period: the sources are often flimsy and obscure, yet modern readers have a craving for detail that is often absent from the prissy monkish chronicles of the time. The great challenge is to present the period’s subtle complexities without sacrificing historical authenticity.

She-Wolves is a history of a selection of England’s queens and queens consort over four centuries, which demands that its author, Helen Castor, has mastery of a range of dynasties from the Normans to the Tudors. Her aim is to analyse the feminine role in politics: could a queen ever exert political independence without being accused of being a sort of vampiress – or, as it was often termed at the time, a “she-wolf”?

Castor doubles the challenge by imposing a complicated structure on her book. It opens with the death of Henry VIII’s son Edward VI and then travels back to the Anglo-Norman queen consort Matilda before moving back again via Henry II, Edward II and Henry VI to the Tudors. This is an act of literary contortionism, but Castor pulls it off in this gripping book.

Her first subject, Matilda, is in some ways the hardest to write about since there is so little known about her personality, though it is clear that she was a formidable political force.

She was the granddaughter of William the Conqueror and daughter of Henry I, and she married the Holy Roman Emperor. She was the rightful heir on her father’s death in 1135 but, partly because she was a woman, her cousin Stephen of Blois seized the throne. The result was almost 20 years of civil war that ended with King Stephen’s agreement to leave the throne to Matilda’s son, Henry II.

Castor then turns to Eleanor of Aquitaine, who is better known than Matilda and was a political animal of much skill. She was the powerful heiress of Aquitaine in her own right, queen consort of first France and then England, and at various times during the late 12th century she challenged male dominance.

She helped her sons to rebel against her husband Henry II, paying for it with a decade of house arrest – and later she effectively ruled England on behalf of her son Richard the Lionheart who was on crusade during the early 1190s.

Then we jump to the marriage of Edward II to Isabella, a French princess who embarked on an adulterous relationship with her fellow rebel leader, Roger Mortimer, and then led a successful invasion that overthrew her husband.

Castor shrewdly weighs up the legend versus the evidence. It is said that Edward was murdered with a poker up the fundament, but Castor sensibly concludes that this story originated at a much later date. She is convinced that he was murdered, and firmly discounts the myth that he became a wandering hermit.

Isabella’s career is not dissimilar to that of Margaret, another French princess, who found herself married to the simpleton Henry VI. The kingdom could not cope without a king, but Margaret was a ruthless operator who did her best to hold together her husband’s Lancastrian faction.

Partly because she was a woman, and partly because of the complicated political situation – the presence of a competent and attractive alternative as legitimate king in Edward IV, and his backing by Warwick the kingmaker – Margaret lost the fight. Henry VI was murdered.

Castor then takes us back to the start – the death of the young Edward VI, the nine-day reign of poor Lady Jane Grey and the accession of Mary. For the first time, a woman was regarded as a legitimate heir to the throne in her own right – though partly because her rival (Lady Jane) was also a woman. The book ends with the accession of Elizabeth.

She-Wolves is a superb history of the powerful women who have surrounded England’s throne, combining blood-drenched drama, politics, sex and swordplay with scholarly analysis, sympathy for the plight of women and elegant writing.

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Joan of Arc: A History By Helen Castor| Review

“In gaining a saint, we have lost a human being,” the Cambridge historian Helen Castor writes in this riveting history. If Castor’s mission is to restore that human being she has achieved it admirably. From 1425, and the rout of the French at Agincourt, we are led through a country convulsed by civil war before we encounter the 16-year-old Joan at the court of the dauphin Charles. We see her as contemporaries would have: a charismatic village girl, bizarrely dressed (in men’s clothes), with a forceful message from God. Her astonishing progress in lifting a six-month siege on Orleans in four days is followed in visceral detail, as are her subsequent capture, trial and burning as a heretic. As her end nears, Joan’s humanity becomes agonising to witness. A vulnerable young girl fighting off the groping hands of captors who see her not as “the maid” but as the “whore of the Armagnacs”. The teenage warrior impresses, but nothing has more power and pathos than “what happened, in the end, when the miracles stopped”.

Watch the video: The Real Versailles with Lucy Worsley and Helen Castor (May 2022).