The battle of Trafalgar
The 1805 battle of Trafalgar, in which the British Navy took on a combined Franco-Spanish fleet, is marked as one of the great naval clashes in history – not least because it is the one in which the fêted Admiral Horatio Nelson lost his life. In this episode from 2019, Sam Willis examines of the battle in the context of the wider Napoleonic Wars and asks how much of the victory really was Nelson’s doing – given that he died an hour into it.
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Indians in the trenches
I’ve long been aware that Indians fought for Britain during World War One, but not how many took part in the conflict – 1.5 million, I learned from this 2020 podcast with George Morton-Jack. Nor that they saw action as far around the world as they did, from the Western Front to Gallipoli and North Africa. This is a nuanced conversation, spanning endemic racism, colonial hierarchy and why the Indian story has been neglected over the past 100 years.
The Battle of the Atlantic
Oil, food, US troops – they all came to Britain by sea during World War Two, but not without peril. Here, Jonathan Dimbleby explores the Battle of the Atlantic – not a single engagement, but a sprawling, cat-and-mouse contest for control of shipping lanes that spanned six years. Dimbleby asserts that there “would not have been a D-Day” had the Allies not prevailed, in a ranging discussion that touches on why Churchill was keen to suppress news of what happened at sea, and why the influence of the Bletchley Park codebreakers might not have been so significant after all. Also on this podcast, Marion Milne discusses the history of Spain.
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The Norman Conquest
The year 1066 is seared into British history as one that heralded a new dawn and a new direction for medieval England – marking the end of Anglo-Saxon dominance and the ascendancy of the Normans. In this assessment of the Norman Conquest, Marc Morris sets the battle of Hastings in its wider context as the culmination of the succession crisis after the death of Edward the Confessor, and why the showdown between William the Conqueror and Harold Godwinson was less of a forgone conclusion than you might expect.
Bonus listen: Marc Morris looks beyond the Norman Conquest to tells us everything we ever wanted to know about the Normans, but were afraid to ask.
In military history, the focus often lies on glory and geopolitics, thrones and tactics, with the human cost getting short shrift. Emma Butcher and Hannah Partis-Jennings address this overlooked aspect of armed conflict in this 2019 episode, which reveals how trauma was appearing in the memoirs of soldiers from the American Civil War, the Napoleonic Wars and earlier long before it was recognised and given a name. It’s a brilliant discourse on mental health and labelling, the way trauma seeps into society as well as ensnaring the soldiery, and how its very nature has changed with way wars are waged.
Women at war
Another of the less-discussed aspects of military history are the roles played by women in times of war – and not just in the 20th century. “We have to accept that women have always been there,” says Julie Wheelwright, who addresses the balance in this account of women who have gone to war, their motives and the risks they took to do so – in an episode from March 2020.
Medieval civil war
Frequently speculated as one of the real-life influences in the novels that spawned A Game of Thrones, the civil war between Henry II and his sons – Henry the Young King, Geoffrey, Duke of Brittany, Richard the Lionheart and John ‘Lackland’ – dominated the late 12th century, a dynastic spat over who should rule what in the years to come. Nick Barrett frames this pugnacious interlude delightfully: “It’s a human story of a despairing parent trying to get their kids to play nicely.”
Everything you wanted to know about the Crusades, but were afraid to ask
In this episode of our ‘Everything you wanted to know’ series, Rebecca Rist tackles the perennially popular Crusades, the papal-backed slew of religious wars that began in the Middle Ages. There’s a lot to chew over here – did the Crusades ultimately erode the chivalric code, for instance, or did the sacking of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade fatally undermine the Byzantine Empire? What surprised me most was that one of the more contentious questions is: how many crusades were there?
- Explore the rest of the free ‘Everything you wanted to know’ series, including episodes on the Vikings, Roman Britain, the Tudors, and British prehistory
The East India Company
The story of the East India Company is one of a corporate takeover: in the twilight of the Mughal Empire, it rose to assume control of the Indian subcontinent and eventually could muster an armed force twice the size of the British Army. In this episode from 2019, William Dalrymple explores how a small trading company became a colonial superpower, and how corruption and greed brought about the Indian Rebellion and its downfall.
Kev Lochun is the production editor of BBC History Revealed