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The best bits of 2014 in the world of history

2014 has been an exciting year: debate raged over where Richard III should be reinterred, scores of exhibitions opened to mark the centenary of the First World War, and gripping history books were published by the likes of Ian Morris and Linda Colley. Here, we look back at the year’s history highlights…

Published: December 31, 2014 at 5:00 am
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Richard III


As in 2013, Richard III has rarely been out of the history headlines. In May, Professor Michael Hicks, the recently retired head of history at the University of Winchester, and Martin Biddle, archaeologist and director of the Winchester Research Unit, raised doubts about whether we can truly say the bones are Richard’s.

Speaking exclusively to BBC History Magazine, the pair voiced concerns about the DNA testing, radiocarbon dating and damage to the skeleton. Hicks said we “cannot say with any confidence” that bones found in Leicester are those of the last Plantagenent king, and insisted they could belong to a victim of any of the battles fought during the Wars of the Roses.

In December, however, the University of Leicester announced that a new DNA study “confirms identity of King Richard III to the point of 99.999 per cent at its most conservative”. Researchers, who collected DNA from living relatives of Richard III and analysed several genetic markers, claimed the new genealogical research proves “beyond reasonable doubt” that the remains discovered underneath a Leicester car park in 2012 are those of Richard III.

The planned reburial of Richard III also sparked controversy in 2014. In May, Richard’s distant relatives lost their High Court battle over where his remains should be reburied. The Plantagenet Alliance Limited, which was campaigning to see the former king reburied in York, challenged the justice secretary's decision not to consult further before granting a licence to the University of Leicester to excavate the remains. The licence also enables the university to decide where the remains are reinterred.

However, the High Court ultimately concluded: "There are no public law grounds for the Court interfering with the decisions in question. In the result, therefore, the Claimant’s application for Judicial Review is dismissed." The former monarch is to be reinterred at Leicester Cathedral on Thursday 26 March 2015.

Richard III also hit the headlines in 2014 when new details emerged about his ‘lavish’ diet of swan and heron, and when forensic teams at the University of Leicester announced that the former king was killed by two blows to the head and one to his pelvis.

Was Britain right to fight WW1?

Debate raged this year about whether Britain was right to fight in the First World War, after historian Niall Ferguson suggested in the February issue of BBC History Magazine that Britain made a mistake in taking up arms in 1914.

Speaking to editor Rob Attar, ahead of his BBC Two documentary The Pity of War, Ferguson said Britain could not only have lived with a German victory in the First World War, but it would in fact have been in its “interests to stay out in 1914”.

His claim was contested by Gary Sheffield, professor of war studies at Wolverhampton University, who told History Extra: “If Britain had stayed out of the First World War in August 1914, or even delayed its entry, it could well have resulted in Germany defeating France and Russia. This would have been a disaster for Britain and Europe.”

The 1914 Christmas truce

In the centenary year of the First World War, attention turned to the 1914 Christmas truce, and the football match reputed to have been played on the Western Front. Chosen by Sainsbury’s as the subject of their huge Christmas advertising campaign, the depicted football match prompted renewed debate among historians about whether the sport was actually played on Christmas Day 1914.

Taff Gillingham, a military historian who was recently an adviser to Sainsbury’s in the making of their Christmas advert, said new evidence discovered this year proves there was football during the truce. However, Professor Mark Connelly from the University of Kent said the evidence is too hazy to say with any kind of certainty that a match took place.

In a separate interview, Connelly told History Extra that the Sainsbury’s advert “confuses people about why the war carried on”, and spreads the overly simplistic idea that young men were forced to fight.


Our books editor, Matt Elton, looks back at some of the best books to hit the shelves this past year…

From intimate, revelatory biographies to epic, sweeping accounts of the march of time, 2014 has been a great year for history books. It’s impossible to do justice to all of the great things that have been published in 800 words, but these are some – and only some – of my personal highlights from the past 12 months:

One of earliest new releases – published on 2 January – was Linda Colley’s Acts of Union and Disunion (Profile Books), written to accompany a lengthy Radio 4 series and charting the forces that have both kept the UK together and, at times, pulled it apart. The book is fascinating, both huge in its scope and incisive about the myths that have come to be as important as historical fact.

Even more wide-ranging was Ian Morris’ War – What is it Good For? The Role of Conflict in Civilisation, from Primates to Robots (Profile). The book’s provocative argument – that war has, in some cases, been a positive force in human history – is inevitably divisive. Yet even if you disagree with Morris, his friendly style and striking case studies mean there’s plenty here to enjoy.

From the whole of civilisation to a single city at a single point in time, Lee Jackson’s Dirty Old London: The Victorian Fight Against Filth (Yale) plunges readers into the often fetid 19th-century metropolis, and introduces us to the individuals who helped clean it up. And it certainly needed cleaning: as Jackson notes, the passage of social campaigner Lady Harberton along Piccadilly resulted in an impressive inventory in the train of her skirt: “cigarette ends, a pork pie, four toothpicks, two hairpins, orange peel, some cat’s meat, a clay pipe, the sole of a boot, some chewed tobacco, miscellaneous straw, paper and two fine cigars”.

I particularly enjoyed two ensemble biographies, coincidentally both released in September. Janice Hadlow’s The Strangest Family: The Private Lives of George III, Queen Charlotte and the Hanoverians (William Collins) is a sympathetic, insightful look at the ways in which George III was shaped by his predecessors, and how he in turn shaped the lives of those around him – not always for the better. My abiding feeling on finishing Hadlow’s book was a profound sense of sadness for the lives of the women in his court, caught in a world that they could never fully control or, indeed, escape from.

Charles Spencer’s Killers of the King: The Men Who Dared Execute Charles I (Bloomsbury), meanwhile, is also suffused with compassion for its subjects. From the king determined to avenge his dead father, to those involved in the regicide – many of whom were executed despite promises to the contrary – it’s an account packed with strong characters and written in a wry, distinctive tone.

In the moments when he wasn’t tackling the small job of running the British Museum, Neil MacGregor produced a Radio 4 series and wrote a beautifully presented book, Germany: Memories of a Nation (Penguin) exploring the history of the country across hundreds of years. Both the book and exhibition follow the format made famous in 2010 by the ‘History of the World in 100 Objects’ project, and focus on a series of artefacts and documents that reveal how Germany has come to see itself (and how other countries regard it). I have the book on my desk, and often flick through to stop at a vivid painting or particularly poignant relic from the nation’s turbulent, hugely influential past.

As I said at the start of this piece, there’s no way that a brief, hugely subjective list such as this can do justice to the sheer breadth and depth of history titles released over the past 12 months, so I’ll end by briefly running through some of the other books that caught my eye this year. A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal (Bloomsbury) is Ben Macintyre’s look at the spy who, despite working as a Soviet double agent, came close to running British intelligence.

David Olusoga’s The World’s War (Head of Zeus) is a timely reminder that the First World War affected people from a huge range of nations and ethnic backgrounds. The Penguin Monarchs series of books, exploring the lives of British kings and queens and kicking off this month with titles including John Guy’s Henry VIII: The Quest for Fame and Philip Ziegler’s George VI: The Dutiful King, offer great introductions to their subjects, handsomely presented.

Finally, The New Yorker Book of the 40s: Story of a Decade (William Heinemann) is admittedly fairly niche, but it covers a place and time that I find myself repeatedly drawn to. The book is a collection of extracts from the New Yorker in the 1940s exploring world events, complemented by thoughts on that decade from current writers. In particular, I felt some sympathy for the magazine’s founder, who was apparently prone to sending notes to his staff reading, in their entirety, “WRITE SOMETHING GOD DAMN IT”. Let’s my hope my editor doesn’t start doing something similar in 2015.


Our features editor Charlotte Hodgman looks back at some of the best exhibitions of 2014…

The First World War has been the focus of many events and exhibitions this year, including the opening of the brand new First War Galleries at London’s Imperial War Museum in July. More than 1,300 pieces from the museum’s extensive collections are on show, including weapons, uniforms, letters, diaries, photographs, works of art and the towering 9.2in howitzer gun, ‘Mother’, which saw action at the battles of Neuve Chapelle (March 1915) and Festubert (May 1915).

In April, the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, brought together more than 300 works from the Royal Collection to explore the reigns of George I and his son, George II, to mark the 300th anniversary of the Hanoverian succession. Paintings by Peter Paul Rubens and cabinets by James Moore were among the exhibition’s star attractions.


And in Scotland, some of Britain’s most famous poet laureates – from William Wordsworth and Alfred, Lord Tennyson, to Sir John Betjeman and Ted Hughes – came under the spotlight in Edinburgh in an exhibition that explored the unique relationship between poet and monarch over the past 350 years. The exhibition, which featured historic documents from the royal library, went on show at The Queen’s Gallery, Palace of Holyroodhouse.


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