Tuesday 9 September saw renowned author, historian and television personality David Starkey take to the Maltings stage for a thought-provoking evening simply titled ‘The Tudors and Us’. All members of our community were represented. From student to teacher, the casually interested to the die-hard enthusiast, Farnham packed out the Maltings Great Hall.
We were lucky enough to spend some time with David before he took to the stage, to try to get an insight into his beginnings in history, his experience of Farnham, and life on tour.
M: Welcome to Farnham Maltings. Have you been to Farnham before?
DS: I don’t think I’ve ever been to Farnham before. I know a little bit about Farnham under the Tudors, that prince Arthur, Henry’s older brother, is dropped off here six weeks after his birth and spend the first 6 months of his life here hanging between life and death in the castle. So, you have a very strong Tudor connection. It’s exactly what it is now. It’s on the London-Winchester road. So often it’s the geography that determines the importance of the place. It’s Tudor commuterville!
M: A perfect stop for your tour then?
DS: Perfect spot yes!
M: How have your talks been going so far, have you enjoyed it, going to different places around the country?
DS: Oh yes, some very surprising, some places I’d never heard of at all. Some places I couldn’t discover any Tudor connection with at all, which I won’t mention of course! What I’ve found interesting is everywhere, without exception, there’s been a good audience, and not simply good in terms of numbers, but in terms of interest in information. Very good levels of questioning, of a sense of excitement. Which I suppose really justifies the whole idea. Clearly they are a popular subject, it’s the most popular period of our history, that there is that sense somehow, in a funny kind of way, a hotline over 4 or 5 hundred years between them and now.
M: Why do you think that is?
DS: I think there’s several reasons. The Tudors are the first generation of people whom we know what they looked like. With medieval kings you hardly know at all. With the Tudors, were Henry VIII to sit in the audience, you would recognise him. I think this is one of the absolute fundamentals. When people do their family history, which I somewhat mistakenly have been lured into doing, it’s now very easy using the web. Though it is very easy to trace our ancestors right back to the 18th century, they mean nothing, because you have no idea what they look like, and then suddenly, about 1890 you get those photographs and they become people. The Tudors appear as people because we can actually put a face to the name.
I think they’re more than history. The Tudors are the English Greek myths. They have this quality, they go beyond a Henry VIII and 6 wives. If you were to go along to a film producer now and offer that as a script, he’d look at you “Oh come on” you know? It’s silly and far fetched, nobody would possibly believe it, and each one of the dynasty has this much over used iconic quality, each one of them has this way of appearing as though they’ve stepped out of the pages of a fairy story. Henry is Bluebeard. Mary is the English Medea. Elizabeth is a born again virgin, which is really quite an achievement.
And if you like, that’s the right hand column of the Daily Mail webpage, that’s the Tudors as ‘celeb’. The Tudors are the beginning of what we are, or what we are at the moment. If you think of the two great issues of the moment; Anglo-Scottish relations and the succession of the thrown, and the relations between Great Britain and Europe; all of those are really first engaged under Henry VIII. Really it’s really quite extraordinary.
M: What drew you to history as a subject initially?
DS: It’s odd. I can’t say that it was something I’d always dreamt of doing. When I was a schoolboy, I was pretty well equally good at the arts and the sciences. Indeed when it came to my O Levels, I think I probably did better on the sciences than the arts. The great point was, I was not a natural mathematician. I could do it, but I didn’t particularly enjoy it. It was a little northern boys grammar school of 300, a sort of form of 20-25. Two of us got open scholarships to Cambridge, one got exhibition and one got entrance. If you’d got used to that as a sort of cohort, you have pretty high standards. I was very fortunate to realise that in order to excel in the sciences, you needed that mathematical gift, which I didn’t have. On the other hand, I recognised at a very early stage that I had a gift with language. History is the subject which in many ways is on the arts side nearest to a science.
It’s very analytical. It’s the one that uses evidence, that tests theories but does it in the frame of language. I’ve also always had an appetite for nosing around, smelling, searching, and history is a subject which is very heavily research dependent. That was how first I discovered at Cambridge that I was actually very good at it. It was in my third year in the special subject taught by Geoffrey Elton, a great Tudor historian, which was heavily document based, that I really discovered I could do it. I remember there was one amazing experience where I actually corrected him! I thought “Gosh, I can really do this”.
I received a very large pat on the head, and then went on and did research under him. The only time I was ever popular in the school was when there was a public speaking competition which I always won for my house, and I did a lot of acting, a lot of performance. A lot of scholars, I think, indeed a lot of writers, are very uncomfortable doing the kind of thing I’m now about to do. Literary festivals, particularly for a lot of novelists, are a torment. What they really want to do is lock themselves away and get very agitated about commas and semi colons and the right word, whereas I’ve always really rather enjoyed performance. So, the transition into what I am doing now, and of course into television, came pretty naturally.
M: Is there anything you’ve been to see recently and really enjoyed.
DS: I’ve been terrible, I haven’t been to the theatre or performance for quite some years. Before I moved to the country, I was a sort of fixture at Covent Garden and all the rest of it. I was in London for getting on for over 35 years. I saw the complete repertory of the stage and opera and concerts through. The last thing I saw actually, in a sense it wasn’t really a public performance, last year I did a series called music and monarchy, which was looking at the relationship between the crown, the court, the chapel royal, the music and its development in England, and we used as the performers the academy of ancient music. So I was asked would I be the speaker at their big fundraising event which took place a few months ago, it wasn’t a formal performance in that sort of sense, but it was completely extraordinary. It took place in one of the greatest of Tudor houses at Hattfield, at the house of Elizabeth I’s last secretary of state. One element of it was a series of musical performances and the other was me. While I wouldn’t claim to have enjoyed my performance, listening to the music of that period actually performed again in the interiors for which it was written, on that scale, you actually had a fantasia for organ performed on a Tudor organ, in a Tudor great chamber, extraordinary, quite extraordinary.
Having generously given up his time talking to us backstage, Dr David Starkey entertained, informed and inspired the Maltings Great Hall with his own brand of wit and teaching ability that only experience and knowledge can create.