Ahead of his talks, ‘Alfred of Wessex: The Greatest Briton?’ and ‘Searching for Shakespeare’, we caught up with Michael to find out more and to learn about his passion for history…
Q: How and when did you first realise you had a passion for history?
A: I remember stories of parents and grandparents when I was little in Manchester: Uncle Bill was at Dunkirk, D-Day and the march to Berlin; Uncle Syd was on a destroyer sunk in the Mediterranean; Dad was at Haslar Naval Hospital on D-Day before going out to Ceylon and mum was caught up in the Manchester blitz.
There were older stories too – my Great-Uncle Eddie spoke about the Somme and there were even tales of a Welsh ancestor on the HMS Victory at Trafalgar. All these things linger in a child’s mind. Above all, history is about telling stories.
Q: Why do you love your period of history?
A: There are several different periods of history I especially like. One of the wonderful things about the job I do is that you can really immerse yourself in things. For example, I have just spent three years intensively thinking about China – an interest that goes back to my student days and earlier and to journeys across China in the eighties.
But above all I love English history, especially the Anglo-Saxon period in the Viking Age. The three generations of Alfred, Aethelflaed and Athelstan have been the focus of lot of my writing and I’m currently working on a long-term project to attempt a full-scale biography of Aethelstan, bringing him to life with what you might call ‘sympathetic imagination’.
I have always loved Anglo-Saxon history – it was a fascinating, violent and creative time when the rulers were building up from the bottom. The Anglo-Saxons are still at the root of our story today – the origins of English language, literature, poetry, art, law and many of our ideas about society can be traced back to that time. And Alfred surely (as Churchill thought) was the greatest Briton. What’s not to like about that?!
Q: Which historical places fascinate you and why?
A: I have been fortunate to spend my life working in history and to spend time in so many fascinating places. Greece I have loved since I was young and I have travelled there since my teens: I still adore it and still try to read and learn about it.
There’s India of course (especially the South, on which I have written – e.g. A South Indian Journey.) And then there’s Iraq, which I have visited since the late eighties –anyone who has ever been to the sites of the first cities – Uruk, Eridu, Nippur – will be haunted by them.
Q: Which history books are you reading at the moment?
A: Working in a small independent film company [Maya Vision], I’m always reading and thinking about ideas. I have been re-reading the work of Victor Klemperer, one of the all time great diarists, and Theo Richmond’s Konin: One Man’s Quest for a Vanished Jewish Community, a great Holocaust book which gripped me when I first read it.
I have also been writing a treatment for a film about Richard II – a kind of prequel to the recent brouhaha about Richard III, so I have had Gervase Mathew’s The Court of Richard II off my shelf at home.
And there’s always Aethelstan – I’ve recently been revising my unpublished draft about the lost manuscript on the king discovered by William of Malmesbury in the 1130s. This has pushed me back again to Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge’s translation of Asser’s Life of King Alfred and David Gantz’s lovely Penguin edition of Einhard’s Two Lives of Charlemagne: an essential insight into early medieval kingship.
Q: Are there any developments in your field that are really exciting you at the moment?
A: I’m a magpie, so I’ll confine myself to three fields. First is Anglo-Saxon studies, which have been transformed in the past 30 years, especially by archaeology. There have been some sensational hoards discovered by metal detectorists in Staffordshire, Harrogate, Thirsk, Huxley and Bedale, and in only the last couple of years, Watlington, Galloway and Lenborough (5,000 coins there!). These discoveries are opening new vistas, new connections with the eastern world, and even unknown kings.
Second is Shakespeare, a special love. If there is any time in history I could go back to, it would be London in the late 1590s! Boosted by the 400th anniversary, Shakespeare studies are booming at the moment. There have been some very interesting new takes on the history, such as James Shapiro’s 1606: William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear and Paul Edmondson’s The Shakespeare Circle.
Finally there are the classics. Amazing new vistas on Homer and the epic tradition have opened up since I first made films about Troy 30 years ago. With Martin West’s books on Indo-European poetry and Walter Burkert’s on the debt of archaic Greek poetry to the near east, we can now begin to see that the roots of Homer go back as far as first great work of literature, The Epic of Gilgamesh.
Q: What are you most looking forward to about the York and Winchester History Weekends?
A: I always enjoy the interaction with the audience: that’s the most fun part. I’m also looking forward to hearing new ideas from some of the contributors. And of course it’s always nice to be back in Winchester and York. As I’m sure history weekend attendees will agree, it’s all the more pleasurable in a really atmospheric place where the history is all around you.
Q: What can we expect from your talks?
A: I hope they’ll be entertaining and informative! Both my talks are biographical, and are about (in my view) the two greatest Britons. One a king and warrior; the other a playwright and poet.
On Shakespeare, I’ll try to situate him in history with some new material on his Warwickshire background. This helps us see him as an Elizabethan gent from a family of husbandmen, and to recognise that his parents and grandparents are a crucial part of the story.
In my talk on Alfred, I’ll look at what actually happened in his most important campaign – Edington in 878, but also try to get a bit closer to him as a person too. I am fascinated by possibilities of biography for an early medieval person, limited as they may seem. I hope both talks will take the audience closer to the greatest figures in our history.
Q: Which other talks are you looking forward to at the History Weekends?
A: In York, there’s David Olusoga on Friday evening – I admired his First World War series very much. Then there’s Julian D Richards’ talk The Great Viking Army and the Making of Britain, scaling up the size of the Viking threat, to my mind persuasively. There’s also Philip Mansel’s talk on Aleppo, one of the world’s oldest and most magical cities but now a giant tragedy; I was lucky enough to go there just before the fall.
In Winchester I will try to get to Peter Frankopan’s talk on the Silk Road, on which we spent some time in The Story of China. And if possible, Tom Holland’s Aethelstan and the Making of England. I started working on Aethelstan as a graduate with a view to a full-scale biography, but you soon realise there are certain big unsolved questions without which real biography is difficult, indeed impossible. You really have to wrestle with the sources to try to crack some of the problems of Aethelstan’s reign and to construct a narrative, but with so many things unknown that has taken me longer than I thought it would! But now the Aethelstan bandwagon has begun to roll which, after all these years, is pleasing…
Michael Wood is the author of several highly praised books on English history and has recorded more than 100 documentary films, among them In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great; The Story of India and, most recently, The Story of China.
Michael will be speaking at both the Winchester and York History Weekends this autumn. You can find out more about the events and Michael’s two talks, ‘Alfred of Wessex: The Greatest Briton?’ and ‘Searching for Shakespeare’, here.