Interview with The History Geeks (December 2017) whose page on Facebook and Twitter covers all things that is wonderful about history. They asked some tough, but great questions…
HG: What got you into history?
SS: I have always been interested in history. I used to sit on my mum’s lap when I was little and together we would thumb our way through a colourful Kings and Queens of Britain book. I can still quote them in order, forwards and backwards, but get a bit ropey on the early Scottish kings and the native Welsh Princes. So I think it was my mum who shared her passion with me. She inspired me to look into the past, to always be curious. She created a monster as I now live and breathe it everyday.
HG: What’s your Favourite Era?
SS: I have a broad training in history picked up in part through reading my BA at King’s College London years ago which covered a vast period between 400AD to 1960. It was presented by great professors such as David Carpenter, Anne Duggan and the late but very enigmatic Conrad Russell. We used to have to research and write weekly 3,000 worded essays and then debate our findings with a professor and two other students. You learn a lot very quickly in that environment. I relished it. But despite wrestling with WWI or Saxon kings, without question my favourite period is post Norman Conquest, in particular the Plantagenets.
HG: Why the Plantagenets?
SS: I think the Tudors dominate the popular agenda and the Saxons I always struggle with the names. You’ve only got to look at the space taken up by Henry VIII and his six wives in any good bookstore to see how much info is already out there.The medieval world in my mind, especially the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries in particular, are critical periods in our nation’s story. Magna Carta, the Oxford provisions, the Ordinances, the evolution of the foundations of parliament; fascinating monarchs, our complex relationship with Europe is violently played out, our national identity was forged more formally, and the power play with over mighty vassals battling their kings has shaped the nation that we know today. What better times to wrestle with.
HG: Favourite Plantagenet?
SS: I go for the bad ones! Move over Henry II, Edward I, Edward III, Henry V. Give me Edward II any day. Don’t get me wrong, the golden boys are, well, golden, but there is something far more interesting I think in getting to grips with the bad boys; John, Henry III, Edward II, Richard II. I also find powerful medieval women really interesting to, like my favourite Eleanor of Aquitaine, to Isabella of France and Margaret of Anjou.
HG: Edward II! What is it about him that you find so appealing?
SS: He’s always had a bad rep. I first really noticed him over twenty years ago portrayed as the foppish and incompetent heir to the throne in Braveheart. Even though that film is a historian’s nightmare for accuracy and facts it is a good old fashioned romp and if you take it for that, I don’t get my pants in a twist. That aside, my curiosity set in. Did his lover get thrown from a window by old Longshanks? Of course not, it was far grislier than that! The more I researched and began to look at contemporary evidence, the more the man began to emerge from behind all the propaganda, the prejudice, the witting and unwitting misrepresentation. He achieved loads and had many great skills (I know shocking!) such as competent foreign diplomacy, he was a champion of the church, he cared about his people, especially the poor in an age when most monarchs did not, and he was determined to win in Scotland, despite Bannockburn and other set backs. Even the blow by blow events at Bannockburn are in part distorted to fit the image of sole royal incompetence. All of his skills get forgotten behind the Edward bashing because some people see only what they want to see. He was far from saintly, but he throughly deserves more than a second look.
HG: So you think he was good after all?
SS: Depends on what good means. He ultimately failed as king. He was deposed; the first king since the Norman Conquest to be so and it set a precedent that would reverberate through the next 150 years of history; after 1327, kings could be removed. Not a great legacy. Nor can those facts bring about rehabilitation. In that the king’s political and personal failures are self-evident. Yet there is room for moderate and factual redemption based on the evidence. All I read about him for years was that he was ‘incompetent’, ‘unfit’, ‘degenerate’, ‘idle’, ‘weak’ and much more besides. Yet these barbed opinions are so often based on a really narrow window in which a handful of people peer through and see only what they want to see; an incomplete picture. Few choose to look through the other windows that are there and actually seek to understand the man as a whole. The whole tapestry is very different than just one frayed corner.
HG:What do you see through these other windows…or tapestry was it?
SS: You soon see that his inheritance was incredibly difficult. An escalating war with Scotland that even his father failed to win by 1307; enormous debts, suppressed vassals who were increasingly chomping at the bit to flex their muscles and wanted a bigger slice of patronage; the succession of five kings of France, nearly all demanding homage for the Duchy of Aquitaine and manipulating the complexities of Anglo-French relationships, are just some of the many, many issues that created a heady and challenging backdrop throughout Edward’s reign that in itself added to the political instability. Edward tried hard to govern with these challenges but his longstanding desire for revenge for the murder of Piers Gaveston dominated the core part of his reign and added to that instability along with Thomas of Lancaster’s own political limitations. Edward’s reliance on royal favourites, especially Despenser the younger after 1319, is well known but when you really get to grips with Edward’s character his later closeness to Despener is very different to that of his relationship with Gaveston; historians have missed some of the critical subtleties here. It is not just about love for one and power for the other, its more complex. The world in which Edward lived and ruled and the politics of the time all need to be set right and placed in context before any real picture truly emerges.
HG: What about the Fieschi letter? Do you think he was murdered?
SS: For some, the notion that he survived feels all like a conspiracy theory. I hate conspiracy theories and i’m not an Edward groupie. I work in the cold light of facts. There is compelling evidence beyond the now infamous Fieschi letter claiming the king survived. Even some of his former magnates believed him to be living beyond 1327. In my gut, I feel he survived and did make his way to Italy via the papal palace at Avignon and was eventually buried in Gloucester in the early 1340’s, only after which works on his effigy began. Even as far fetched as that all sounds, we should at least open our minds to investigate the possibility before shooting down contemporary evidence as false without first understanding the context. We can be too quick to judge and this is the first time in nearly 700 years that real consideration has been allowed for. We need time to wrestle with that beast. The work by Ian Mortimer and more recently Kathryn Warner has, more than any others, opened a once closed window in which we should all take the time to at least look through with an open mind. We may be surprised with what we find. Equally, we may decide some of us are not.
HG: Queen Isabella. She-Wolf or femme-fatale?
SS: The more I’ve researched the more I have come to admire Isabella. A strong, independent woman who passionately defended her rights and position as a wife, a mother, a queen. Up until the first half of the 1320’s Isabella had stood by Edward through the difficulties of his reign. Their marriage was by medieval standards a success, even beyond the obvious four children they had together. However, after 1324, Isabella’s role in the invasion and subsequent deposition of Edward II is harder to justify. Interestingly I feel Isabella’s primary aim was the destruction of the Despensers, especially the younger, but that got more than a little complicated once she and Roger Mortimer became lovers and formed a political alliance. Had Edward II sailed to France to give homage in 1325 rather than pretending to be ill, then events may have turned out much different. We must remember to forgo the benefit of hindsight.
HG: So we seen your book, ‘Edward II the Man: A Doomed Inheritance’. It look’s great.
SS: Yeah, my first and I am really excited by the whole journey. Twenty years of research in the making. Thanks to Amberley, Edward II the Man: A Doomed Inheritance is out now and available at Amazon, Waterstones, Foyles, WH Smiths and elsewhere. It’s been such a pleasure to see it on the bookshelves. The book challenges established perceptions of Edward, seeks to find the man behind the myth and set him in context with the events of his reign. Watch out in particular for the chapters on his childhood and formative years which is about a quarter of the book; Piers Gaveston, the events at Bannockburn and the initial rise of the Despensers. I love the early part of Edward’s life from 1284 until 1319 especially. Some challenges in those chapters that I hope gets everyone thinking, even if not everyone will agree with my arguments I’m sure. But that is the nature of history. Always a few, if not 50 shades of grey!
HG:We read that you give writing tips and talk about your writing journey on your blog, fourteenthcenturyfiend.com as well as writing articles on Edward II. What’s your advice to History Geeker’s out there if they want to write a book?
SS: Someone once said to me, ‘keep writing until the words surprise you’. Another friend who is a script writer for Holby City said, ‘you can’t read something you’ve never written’ after I had spent an evening bemoaning my writer’s block. Ultimately my top tip is always be yourself. Forget that inner critic, no matter how loud and obnoxious they try to be, and go for it. Write until the writing gets good. I like to write on my blog about my honest experiences. Any writer that tells you they don’t have a wobble or three, or never falls down rabbit holes or the writing always just flows, is either rare and very fortunate or telling a porkie or two. Being pushed to your creative edge, exposing your work to your audience is like running down the street naked. It makes you feel vulnerable. I am sure all writers feel this; if you are at the start of the journey this is exactly how it should feel. Its normal, and doesn’t go away. You have to learn to look your inner critic in the eyes and wrestle it to submission before it all repeats. Why bother? Because in that moment of greatest vulnerability, we find our creative edge. We give over our true thoughts. If you feel you have something to say, research it well, and then say it. Some people will hate it and that’s ok. Many others will stop and listen, debate and even some may just agree and be thankful that someone else was brave enough to say what they had been thinking all along. Be brave, pick yourself up when you fall and keep going. The words will surprise you.
HG:So beyond writing a book and blogging what do you do?
SS:I also work for the National Trust as a General Manager for the North Warwickshire portfolio which consists of Baddesley Clinton, Coughton Court, Packwood House and Kinwarton Dovecote. I have the privilege of running the portfolio which means I am accountable for visitors, conservation, commercial performance, park and estate management as well as stakeholders and much beyond including ultimately looking after our army of 900 volunteers and 150 staff. It’s really diverse and every day is different.
HG:Sounds like a busy job. How long you been doing that?
SS:I’ve been working in heritage for 11 years, after I gave up a training contract as a solicitor in the city of London in 2004. I know, a bit of career change! My first heritage job after law was at English Heritage at Kenilworth castle cleaning toilets and giving guided tours one summer! I loved it. I started on the ground and worked my way up moving to the National Trust in 2007, but still can be found on the dishwasher during bank holidays when everyone wants a National Trust cream tea at one of my properties. We can sell nearly 2,000 scones in three days in August just at my places alone. That’s a lot of pot washing!
HG:Do you love it?
SS: Being around such beautiful heritage reminds me daily of the need to open up our buildings, landscapes and countryside in order to conserve and protect them now and for future generations. There is nothing more special than walking into or locking up these places after everyone has gone home and the birds come back to roost. They are magical and are a connection with our distant ancestors. Writing is the same for me. Understanding our past, telling Edward II’s story or any story for that matter to anyone who will listen, may just inspire people to keep him and history more generally alive for generations ahead of us. I feel that I have a small role to play in that and try my best to do it well.
HG:What’s next for you?
SS; I’ve definitely caught the writing bug. I am thinking about book two now, and have a few ideas which range from another royal biography to something a bit different like the Scottish Wars of independence with a particular focus on Edward II and Robert Bruce. I also plan to run a lecture series later in the year so I can do what I love doing and talk about Edward II to any one who wants to know a bit more. Anyone interested, just drop me a line via my blog.
Website & Blog: Fourteenthcenturyfiend.com