Winchester and York History Weekends: 5 minutes with Anna Keay

At dawn on 6 July 1685, the last battle ever fought on English soil was already coming to a close. It was the sorry end of the invasion attempt by Charles II’s dashing illegitimate son, James, Duke of Monmouth. At our York and Winchester History Weekends this autumn, Anna Keay will examine the duke’s remarkable life, revealing how a debauched bastard son grew into a man of principle, challenging his uncle for the throne, and becoming one of the founding fathers of modern politics…

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Ahead of her talk, ‘The Last Royal Rebel’, we caught up with Anna to find out more and to learn about her passion for history…
 
Q: How and when did you first realise you had a passion for history?
 
A: I think it was castles that did it. I grew up in the west of Scotland, and in our small village is Kilchurn Castle, the glory of many a biscuit tin. It stands, magnificent, in the midst of Loch Awe, reached across a little spit of land. My mother used to tell me tales about the mad old lady who lived in the roofless keep with her 50 cats. She apparently survived entirely on hampers from Harrods, which they kept delivering, confident that someone from such an exalted address would eventually pay up. 
 
Q: Why do you love your period of history?
 
A: I love the 17th century because it was a period on the cusp of change. The old ways blended with the new; magic and astronomy, hereditary monarchy and parliamentary government, medical science and touching for the king’s evil [a belief in medieval England and France that a touch from royalty could heal skin disease known as scrofula or the ‘king’s evil’, a swelling of the lymph nodes in the neck caused by tuberculosis]. 
 
It was an experimental time and an age of revolution. The Civil War, the Great Fire of London, the rise of political party, the Bill of Rights – these all changed things forever. It was when the modern world began.
 
Q: Which other historical areas fascinate you and why?
 
A: I’m fascinated by Britain at the time that Rome collapsed – what happened when the administrative infrastructure simply fell away and new ways of living and ruling among the ruins evolved.
 
Q: Which history book are you reading at the moment?
 
A: Jacqueline Riding’s Jacobites: A New History of the ’45 Rebellion (2016) – a wonderful, intimate account of the craziness that was the 1745 invasion.
 
Q: Are there any developments in your field that are really exciting you at the moment?
 
A: Really exciting and groundbreaking research is going on into 17th-century popular culture. Angela McShane’s work on ballads and drinking songs for instance, is brilliant, and gives a fascinating picture of how big politics played out at the local level.
 
Q: What are you most looking forward to about the York and Winchester History Weekends? 
 
A: The chance to meet and talk to other people who are as nerdy as me about British history!
 
Q: What can we expect from your talks?
 
A: Glamour and grit! Big political history made personal and human – which was how it was in the 17th century (and perhaps still is in the 21st…).
 
Q: Which other talks are you looking forward to at the History Weekends? 
 
A: The great Barry Cunliffe, a living legend. [Cunliffe’s talk, ‘By Steppe, Desert and Ocean: the Birth of Eurasia’, will look at how the vast Eurasian landscape affected the mobility of people from the earliest Neolithic farmers to the Mongols].
 
Anna Keay is a writer and historian who is also the director of the Landmark Trust. She is the author of The Last Royal Rebel. You can find out more about our Winchester and York History Weekends and Anna’s talk, ‘The Last Royal Rebel’, here.
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