A couple of weeks or so ago I went to see David Starkey give a talk on “The Tudors and Us” in Maidenhead. I was lucky to get in- I got the very last ticket after my wife spotted them online- it would have been a shame to miss it as it was a five minute stroll away.
I suspect that if you are British and reading this history blog, you will know Starkey. He is certainly an interesting character. He is either very establishment or anti-establishment depending on what your view of the establishment is. He is right wing in a largely leftist profession but openly gay in a largely homophobic political creed. He is an forthright atheist but described himself (with typical elegance) as an “Anglican atheist”. He found a niche as a public intellectual with appearances on Radio 4’s “Moral Maze” and as an occasional political and cultural commentator an earned the label (thanks to our arbiters of intellect at The Daily Mail again) as the “Rudest Man In Britain”- a sobriquet which he responded to by suggesting that the reputation was worth more than £100,000 per year to him. From the turn of the millennium (about when he gave up full time teaching) he started being seen more and more on TV with various programmes and series, initially mostly on the Tudors, but with credentials established and TV history back in vogue, branched out to talk Monarchy, Churchill, Marlborough and Music. Some of it, if not quite all of it, rather good
I personally have always had mixed feeling about him. He is often obnoxious, unkind and conceited. A friend of mine told me she thought he bordered on the misogynist, a view I of him I’ve failed to dismiss from my mind since. However I have a tremendous weakness for genuinely clever people, and he undeniably that and another friend who knows him personally cannot speak highly enough of his generous nature. Some of his TV work has been excellent and his forthright spikiness can be a breath of fresh air in the often anodyne TV news medium.
He is, of course, also a historian of genuine high calibre and for all his fame may owe more to his talents as a controversialist and raconteur than an historian, he is in his field of the Tudor monarchy, a historian with depth as well as sheen.
Hundred thousand pound reputation or not, Starkey was the model of polite charm (at least to those present) in front of his Berkshire audience. At forty, with the exception of a couple of groups of young women of undergraduate or sixth form age, I was amongst the youngest there and in front of his mature (and fee paying) attendees he was affable and respectful.
I felt the “and Us” conceit of the “Tudors and Us” was a little weak and a bit unnecessary in my (often grumpy) view, history need not have relevance to the modern world to be valuable and interesting. He made some token efforts to explain why we feel uniquely connected to the Tudors, but fortunately didn’t feel the need to pursue it too far.
He was repeatedly rather rude about Hilary Mantel (rather ungratefully, as I’m sure his selling out a theatre at seventeen and a half quid per head for a talk on the Tudors owes at least something to her). He admitted (or rather claimed) only to have read 25 pages of her Wolf Hall and one of the personal anecdotes which he sparingly spread through the talk centred on his reassuring his male neighbours that they need not read it whilst fending of queries on Mantel’s accuracy from their wives. There is a bit of posturing in his attitude to Mantel, but we all came expecting it and he didn’t want to disappoint.
He masterfully indulged the prurient curiosity of the audience. How many historians can work the phrase “vajazzle” into a talk on the Tudors? Whenever sex found its way into his narrative, he protested that he couldn’t possibly reveal the details he was party to, then went on to relate them with glee. In the Q&A session, whilst maintaining his good manners, I detected a certain delight in dismissing one of his more romantic questioners assumptions of the sexual continence of pre-puritan Englishwomen with a lurid tale of a Sixteenth Century romp and his countering the indignation of another at his suggestion that Elizabeth’s virginity was of the born-again variety.
He really was very good. He was charming, lively and entertaining, flattering his audience with knowing references to past feuds and his personal life, reminding us that he had sharp teeth, even if he chose not to use them tonight. In an expensive looking suit, he stood behind a chair for the entire talk which, a testament to his skill, was meticulously prepared, yet still seemed conversational.
So what of the history? Tudor history, Starkey explained was caused by the personalities and happenstances of the time. He dismisses the theories of the previous generation of historians (he famously fell out with his mentor Geoffrey Elton) that all history was due to great irresistible forces in history which made its course inevitable with out the intervention of its protagonists. The English reformation was the most significant event since the Norman conquest, but it would not have happened due to the extraordinary circumstances in Henry VIII’s life. Henry was not born to be King. His elder brother, Arthur was. Arthur was raised from an early age amongst men. Henry, the second son, was raised amongst women and developed an intense, obsessive love for women which, along with his genuine piety would dictate the course of his life. On the eve of Henry’s application to the Pope for divorce, he was the most papist monarch, and England the most papist country in Europe. Had Henry not had this weakness for women, or had the Pope not been in compromised political position which prevented his granting the divorce which he would otherwise been inclined to give his Defender of the Faith, the Reformation, for Starkey would not have happened and the history of a counter-reformed England would have been unrecognisable from the protestant arc it took.
I’m not entirely convinced. Plenty of other nations had reformations without an Anne Boleyn, or even a Henry, most notably England’s nearest neighbour Scotland, who reformed far more thoroughly than England, in spite of, not because of, their monarchy. Theirs was a reformation from below. Piety seems to me a precondition for reformation, not a barrier. I’m not saying Starkey is wrong, his counter-factual England is quite plausible, and of course we will never know, but I’d be disinclined to express such certainty in that (or any) outcome.
David Starkey, even on his best behaviour, was waspish and mischievous but very polished and engaging. Whilst lecturing on his sweet spot of the Tudor royals he is also impressively assured. I thoroughly enjoyed the evening, even if some of my reservations about him remain. He is touring other (surprisingly obscure) venues over the next few months. If you get a chance, it is a worthwhile use of an evening.
I saw David Starkey on 27th January at Norden Farm in Maidenhead. Online publicity is surprisingly poor, but it seems he will be in Radlett, Spalding and Potters Bar over the next few months. See here.