February 2015

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6th February

 

The castle at Conisbrough (between Doncaster and Rotherham in South Yorkshire) has always been an imposing site (see left), with its soaring keep built c. 1180 by Hamelin Plantagenet, and substantial portions of its curtain wall intact. When I first visited in the late 1980's, the keep was just an empty shell - impressive enough to stand inside and gaze up its full height - but it was completely transformed in 1994 when English Heritage re-roofed it and reinstated the floors, giving access to three of the four original main internal spaces, intra-mural rooms like the chapel (below left) and a palatial garderobe, and a rooftop walkway with spectacular views. Now, thanks to a £1.1 million Heritage Lottery grant, the visiting experience has been enhanced with new interpretation boards around the site, projections inside the keep telling the story of Hamelin and his wife Isabella, and an excellent Visitor Centre (replacing the previous rather strange fibreglass structure, designed to resemble medieval jousting pavilions - see below centre). The Centre contains an exhibition on the castle's history, featuring archaeological finds from the site (below right), some of which I

recognised because I'd treated them in the laboratory back in my days as a conservator for Doncaster Museum Service (a bit like bumping into old friends you haven't seen in years!) - and includes a wonderful cut-away scale model of the keep, with projections showing typical activities which would have taken place on each floor. Mick and I found that riveting - it's great for children, and some compensation for people who are unable to climb the many stairs up to and inside the building itself.

 

Conisbrough Castle is managed by English Heritage, so it's free to get in for EH members, or £4.75 for full adult admission. Considering the quality of the presentation, we thought it was good value - and it's great to see one of Yorkshire's castles in such a fine state of preservation. Highly recommended!

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20th February

 

It seems February is my month for talking about bad kings... on the 7th, I gave a new presentation on the Magna Carta to Pontefract Local History Society, to celebrate the forthcoming 800th anniversary of its creation in 1215. The research for that was fun - I tried to be objective about it, but it was hard to escape the conclusion that the monarch of that time, King John, (left) was a pretty nasty person and an even worse king! Then on the 24th, I'm giving a talk in Ulleskelf on The Six Wives of Henry VIII (right) - and it's difficult to say which of them I like least. John's complete lack of morals and rapacious quest for money to wage war in France inflicted great suffering on the country and drove his barons to such a pitch of desperation that they drafted the Great Charter to try and force him to reform (which he didn't). Henry, on the other hand, started as a golden boy with the potential to be truly great - until his equally rapacious quest for a son and insane

love affair with Anne Boleyn also inflicted great suffering - on his poor first wife, Catherine of Aragon, and their daughter Mary; then on his erstwhile friend Thomas Cromwell, for failing to get his marriage annulled; and finally on the Church, when he broke with Rome, declared himself Supreme Head, dissolved the monasteries and executed other former friends like Bishop John Fisher and Sir Thomas More for refusing to recognise his new status. This was the point at which Henry degenerated into a despotic monster, and his subsequent marital career - beheading Anne Boleyn for alleged treason, divorcing Anne of Cleves after his third wife, Jane Seymour, died, and beheading Wife No. 5, Katharine Howard, for adultery, became the scandal of Europe. (His sixth and last wife, Catherine Parr, only escaped being tried and executed for heresy by the skin of her teeth). Ugh - what a horrible man!