York History Weekend 2018: 5 minutes with Nick Barratt

The tumultuous struggle for supremacy between King Henry II and his four sons was a drama that tore apart the most powerful family in Western Europe and shaped the future of two nations. Although the key events took place over 800 years ago, their significance still resonates today. At our York History Weekend 2018, Nick Barratt will challenge everything you assumed you knew about the medieval world

Nick Barratt.

We caught up with historian Nick Barratt to find out what we can expect from his talk, The Restless Kings: Henry II, His Sons, and the Wars for the Plantagenet Crown, at our York History Weekend 2018…

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Q: What can audiences look forward to in your talk?

A: Most of my talks tend to drift towards historical issues that are still relevant today, and the more I researched the period in which the restless kings lived, the more I could spot parallels with today’s debates around Brexit, national identity and the impossibility of isolationism in an interconnected world. Henry and his sons understood how important it was to forge relationships with the courts of Europe and beyond; yet many of their leading magnates in England – the ones without the cross-Channel ties – wanted their attention to focus on parochial issues back home, albeit important ones around fair, transparent and equitable government. In turn, to understand Henry’s world you need to zoom back out to the period after the fall of the Roman Empire to gain a greater perspective of the European story, and why federalism versus nationalism has always been with us. I think this perspective will be increasingly important in the coming decades, and we can learn lessons from the challenges faced by Henry II and his sons.

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York History Weekend 2017.

Q: Why are you so interested in this area of history?

A: I was drawn to the medieval period by a series of lectures delivered by Professor David Carpenter when I was an undergraduate. He’s a brilliant and compelling historian, bringing the past to life with stories drawn from meticulous research. However, coming from a scientific/maths background I was drawn to the finances of the reign, and focused my attention on the underlying mechanics of government in the hope of understanding why things happened, and how this influenced politics – the old adage, ‘follow the money’. It certainly shaped the way I viewed the turbulent reign of King John, and – unlikeable though he was as a person – there’s no arguing that the way he devoted the latter half of his reign to the business of government and utilised the administrative machinery bordered on genius at times.

Q: Tell us something that might surprise or shock us about this period of history…

A: Did you know that we owe our financial infrastructure to the Muslim world? The introduction of Arabic texts via Muslim Spain included treatises on the abacus, which was incorporated into the nascent Exchequer system introduced to England in the reign of Henry I. 

Q: What is your favourite ‘little-known fact’ from history?

A: I’m always staggered by the impact of the black death in the 14th-century and the number of people it killed. It’s hard to imagine just how devastating it was for local communities, and the way the world was turned upside down.

Q: Which three historical figures would you invite to a dinner party and why?

A: It’s tempting to say King John – if only to ask what on earth he was doing in 1203, when he abandoned his continental lands and slunk back home. But I suspect he would be a troublesome guest. So I’d chose Leonardo da Vinci – imagine talking to him about his ideas, and imagine what he could do with today’s technology. The British suffragist Millicent Fawcett – what an inspiring person to talk to and I’m sure she would have plenty to say about today’s society. Finally, every good dinner party needs a raconteur, and where better to look than a traveller – so probably the Italian merchant Marco Polo to tell us about the sights he saw when he voyaged into the East. If he was unavailable due to embarking on another exploration, then Captain James Cook.

Q: If you had to live in any historical time period, which would you choose and why?

A: I’d love to live in the Victorian period and see many of the engineering feats of wonder being built – while feeling extraordinarily guilty knowing the damage that was being caused by the mass burning of fossil fuels to drive the industrial revolution and the population growth that pushed so many into poverty and crime. Industrialist or social reformer? I’m not sure which path I’d have chosen. Hopefully a mix of both.

Q: Which history books would you recommend?

A: I love Bill Bryson’s Short History of Nearly Everything (2004). Okay, it’s not strictly history but it’s an incredibly entertaining and information read. Dan Jones’s The Hollow Crown (2015) is another gripping read about the bloody demise of the Plantagenet dynasty – a ‘what happened next’ to the descendants of Henry II. I also found Deborah Cadbury’s The Lost King of France (2003) a haunting read.

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Nick Barratt will be speaking about Henry II, his sons, and the wars for the Plantagenet crown at our York History Weekend on Sunday 21 October. To find out more about his talk and to book tickets, click here.