At our York History Weekend in 2016, John Julius presented a vivid history of the Renaissance, told through the stories of its four great princes. Ahead of his talk, ‘Four Princes: Henry VIII, Francis I, Charles V, Suleiman the Magnificent and the Obsessions that Forged the Renaissance’, we caught up with John Julius 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 think I have always been interested in history – it was my father’s passion before me – but when I was at Oxford I studied modern languages instead, to my lasting regret. It was only after I joined the foreign service that my interest in history grew: when I was at our embassy in Belgrade between 1955 and 1957, I became fascinated in eastern Europe and all things Byzantine. Then came a holiday in Sicily in 1961, when I found that there were no readable books about Norman Sicily. So I left the service in order to write one, and I’ve been writing history ever since.
Q: Which historical areas fascinate you and why?
A: All periods interest me except the prehistoric. I’m no good at the Beaker Folk [late Neolithic and early Bronze Age Europeans]; I need people to have proper names and a certain degree of civilization in order to be interested.
I have no particular period, though. Most of my books, which are on topics including Venice, Byzantium, the Mediterranean and the papacy, cover many centuries.
Q: Which history book(s) are you reading at the moment?
A: The Family, Sex and Marriage in England, 1500–1800 (1977) by Lawrence Stone. Riveting.
Q: Are there any developments in your field that are really exciting you at the moment?
A: I love the way in which dry, overly academic history writing – of which we had so much in the days of my youth – is becoming more lively, more literary, and more of a pleasure to read.
Q: What are you most looking forward to about the York History Weekend?
A: Trying out a brand new lecture, which I’ll be giving for the first time.
Q: What can we expect from your talk?
A: Some good stories and hopefully a few laughs.
John Julius Norwich was a historian and author whose books include histories of the popes, Venice, Byzantium and Sicily.