Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Top and Bottom - or - Whose History is it Anyway?

by Derek Wilson

As I see it there are two major problems about our approach to the study of history today. The first is that we look at it backwards. That may seem so glaringly obvious as to be not worth saying but we should remind ourselves of it if we want to understand how people in past ages felt about the events through which they lived. They didn’t know what the outcome of these events would be. We do. And its that knowledge that tends to colour how we record the past and assess the past.

The second problem is our obsession with ‘top people’. Biographers, novelists and popular historians seem to be as starry-eyed about, for example, Richard III, Anne Boleyn or Mary Stuart as today’s teenage fans are about pop music celebs. Glamorising the lives of our favourite heroes and heroines is nothing less than a distortion of our common cultural heritage. Surely, the 19th century historian, Lord Macaulay was right when he wrote,

‘The history of the government and the history of the people [should] be exhibited in that mode in which alone they can be exhibited justly – in inseparable conjunction and intermixture.’

How have we got into this mess? I’m sure a fundamental answer to that question is the way history has been taught in schools for generations. For example, I recall as an ‘A’ level student grappling with the Dissolution of the Monasteries and the Pilgrimage of Grace. I and fellow sufferers were expected to memorise all the relevant Acts of Parliament and to be able to wax eloquent about the motivation of Henry VIII. I simply could not engage with the subject. Fortunately, I came across H.F.M. Prescott’s wonderfully moving book The Man on a Donkey and, through reading that, I became aware of what these ‘historic events’ actually meant. Yes, it was a novel (though Hilda Prescott was an academic historian with an excellent grasp of facts) and that illustrates another reason why the stories of ‘little people’ get squeezed out of the narrative by the endless repetition of the actions of kings and queens, in their sumptuous surroundings: the folk lower down the social scale leave fewer records of their experiences. To write about them demands a greater commitment to original research.

To sharpen the focus on what I am trying to say let us consider Kett’s Rebellion of 1549. For fifty days in that hot summer, Norwich, the second city in the land, was besieged, captured and held against the government by 16,000 angry Englishmen. We know that this popular rising failed, that 3,500 rebels were slain in the bloody showdown and that the body of the ringleader, Robert Kett, was hanged on a gibbet at Norwich Castle where it slowly rotted away in the plain sight of all the citizens. Because nothing came of this popular protest it tends to be glossed over by writers more interested in what was happening in the corridors of power where the Duke of Somerset fought a losing battle to hang onto his position as Protector of the Realm. Yet for the victims of unrest, who saw their houses burned down or their sons and brothers killed in the fighting, Kett’s Rebellion was the biggest life-changing event of their lives and certainly worthy of being recorded.

Kett's Oak, beside the B1172, near Hethersett, Norfolk

The Dissolution of the Monasteries (the biggest land grab in English history) created a territorial free-for-all as hundreds of thousands of acres of confiscated land were sold by the Crown. It was a property speculator’s paradise. Most new estate builders were primarily interested in extracting as much profit as possible from their holdings with the result that traditional tenants’ rights and customs often went by the board. The rural backlash soon grew nasty. Mobs of outraged yeomen and peasants over a wide area began tearing down fences and uprooting hedges. Feelings rose particularly high in Norfolk where, on 8 July, local landowner, Robert Kett, turned an undisciplined rabble into an organized protest march and advanced on the county town of Norwich. His army encamped on nearby heathland from where Kett issued his demands to the government. The situation was complicated by the fact that the Duke of Somerset declared his sympathy for the common people, which encouraged Kett to believe that he was only carrying out government policy when he commandeered food for his army from the citizens and local farmers. Needless to say, the leaders of Norfolk society did not see things this way and demanded the immediate suppression of the rebellion.

Robert Kett and his followers under the Oak
of Reformation on Mousehold Heath

Somerset dithered. On 21 July Kett temporarily occupied Norwich and dismantled part of the wall. A week later Somerset sent an inadequate force led by the inexperienced Marquess of Northampton to restore royal authority. This prompted Kett to make a night assault. One eye-witness described the scene as the rebels rampaged through the streets:

‘nothing was seen or heard but lamentation and weeping … the clashing of weapons, the flames of the burning, the ruin and fall of houses, and many other fearful things which … struck with incredible sorrow the hearts and ears of all that heard it’. 

Northampton was driven out and returned, humiliated, to London.

The capital now fell into a state of panic, expecting that Kett would march south, gathering an ever-increasing army for an assault on the capital. A curfew was imposed, the guard was doubled on all the gates and loyal troops were brought in to defend the capital. Still Somerset took no firm action. Only on 7 August did he authorize a larger military expedition, including 1,000 German mercenaries, led by the Earl of Warwick to retake Norwich. Kett was sent a demand to surrender and assured of lenient treatment. His refusal led to the Battle of Dussindale at which rebels, most of whom wielded makeshift weapons, were massacred by Warwick’s professional troops.

John Dudley, Earl of Warwick

On his return to the capital the earl was welcomed as a hero. For him and his conciliar colleagues Dussindale was the last straw. They plotted the overthrow of the Protector and seized control of the Tower of London (6 October). A week later Somerset surrendered. He was placed in the Tower while members of the Council plotted and intrigued in a process from which Warwick emerged as the de facto ruler of England.

There could scarcely be a better example of the ‘history of government’ and the ‘history of the people’ intermixing to decide the fate of the nation. That is certainly one reason why I decided to set my latest novel, The Devil’s Chalice, against the background of these events taking place in the capital and in the provinces, affecting men and women at all levels of society. In a preface to The Man on a Donkey, Hilda Prescott explained that she was attempting

To introduce the reader into a world, rather than at first to present him with a narrative. In that world he must for a while move like a stranger, as in real life picking up, from seemingly trifling episodes, understanding of those about him, and learning to know them without knowing that he learns.

I would like to think that my book has the same effect on readers. If you have not yet encountered The Man on a Donkey I hope you will seek out a copy.

[all above images in the public domain, via Wikiepedia]


Derek Wilson has been writing historical fiction and non-fiction since the mid 1970s and is the author of 70+ books, as well as work for radio and television and innumerable newspaper and magazine articles. After graduating from Cambridge in History and Theology, he spent some years teaching and travelling abroad before settling to a freelance writing career. He specializes in the Reformation but his large output includes studies of the Rothschild family, the Plantagenets, Peter the Great, Charlemagne and the history of circumnavigation. He lives in Devon and is the patriarch of a family of three children and six grandchildren. His most recent release is ‘The Devil’s Chalice’, published by MadeGlobal.

Giveaway of The Devil's Chalice HERE


  1. Thank you ... the importance of keeping a diary and passing it along in a retrievable way was never part of life, except for the wealthy. Samuel Pepys and Rev Josselin and some of the 17th century essayists make Stuart times a bit more approachable. Lets hope Facebook will be retrievable for the next generation(s) so they can figure out what we are up to. Perhaps their problem will be too much material.

    1. Yes, Sally, what this means for the author of historical fact or fiction is a lot more ferreting about in local and family archives. Actually, there's quite a lot out there but some writers prefer the easy path of sticking (or not sticking!) to what they read in the history books. That's why we get book after book romanticising about the stock figures. Surely we've heard enough about the six wives by now! What was happening below the surface was just as exciting and often more important than the tangled love lives of courtiers and courtesans.

  2. I just finished reading The Time Traveler's Guide to Elizabethan England and it gives so much insight into how the people outside Elizabeth's court actually lived. Quite differently than the nobility! The author talks about how audiences seeing Shakespeare's plays were able to relate to them as a part of the period in which they all lived, whereas audiences in modern times can't have that same experience. I love reading about the court and wasn't sure I would like this book, but it was a very interesting read.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.