Our Man in Fotheringhay

Posted on by Zoe Guttenplan

In the 17th century, the Uffizi offered its visitors a rather more diverse range of exhibits than it does now, among them weapons made by some distant precursor of Q Branch. The Scottish traveller James Fraser on a visit to Florence in the 1650s recorded what he saw: ‘A rarity, five pistol barrels joined together to be put in your hat, which is discharged at once as you salute your enemy & bid him farewell … another pistol with eighteen barrels in it to be shot desperately and scatter through a room as you enter.’ It is not possible to go very far in the divided Europe of the early modern period without coming across some instance of the many kinds of covert activity that are chronicled in this genial and immensely readable work. The spirit of the age is captured in an extraordinary line in the poem ‘Character of an Ambassador’ by the Dutch polymath and diplomat Constantijn Huygens, which says that ambassadors are ‘honourable spies’.

Cabarets & Conspiracies

Posted on by Zoe Guttenplan

Few places and periods in history conjure up such powerful images as Belle Epoque Paris: the cabarets of Montmartre, the glamour of the Grands Boulevards, the glories of Impressionism and Art Nouveau. Understandably, the era is often viewed through a haze of nostalgia, across the chasm of the First World War. Yet, as Mike Rapport […]

Colonel of Mass Destruction

Posted on by Zoe Guttenplan

To really appreciate the significance of We Are Your Soldiers, one must have a feel for the historiography. The last time, for instance, I was in Cairo, the National Archives of Egypt was holding an exhibition on President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Included were such relics for veneration as a pair of the former president’s socks, […]

Goodbye, Mussolini

Posted on by Zoe Guttenplan

Three interwar European regimes, the governments of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and the USSR, have been damned as ‘totalitarian’. The word originated in Italy, where it was first applied to Benito Mussolini’s regime by the patriotic anti-Fascist Giovanni Amendola. It was then adopted by the Fascists as a description of their purpose, encompassing the idea […]

Planet of the Killer Apes

Posted on by Zoe Guttenplan

‘There’s something about caves,’ Stefanos Geroulanos observes towards the end of this deft and provocative book. They devour and block out the light, forcing us to listen, to see with our minds. Those musings serve as an introduction to a chapter on the modern discovery of prehistoric cave paintings in such places as Altamira and […]

Long Live the Late Queen!

Posted on by Zoe Guttenplan

In 1603, Elizabeth I died after a reign of almost forty-five years, to be succeeded by James VI of Scotland. Her reputation then was ‘far less rosy’ than it is today. She had long declined to marry or name a successor, and yet the regime changed from Tudor to Stuart with apparent ease, leaving the […]

Graveyard of Empires

Posted on by Zoe Guttenplan

By 1914, the city of Lemberg had been a centre of learning and the arts for centuries. Here, in the capital of Austrian Galicia, Poles, Ruthenians, Germans and Jews talked, studied, worked and worshipped side by side. Hundreds of similar cities and towns dotted the borderlands of eastern Europe, the crumple zone where three empires […]

Less Vodka, More Cricket

Posted on by Zoe Guttenplan

This scholarly, often original and always readable study of British and Russian relations in the 19th century is based primarily on diplomatic correspondence and records of ministries of foreign affairs, and secondarily on press sources and private archives. The book begins with chapters tracing the first encounters between Russia and England in the 16th century. […]

Dangerous Liaisons

Posted on by Zoe Guttenplan

The Scandal of the Century is an enjoyable read, but there is no denying that it has its quirks. The title refers to the elopement in 1682 of eighteen-year-old Lady Henrietta Berkeley, daughter of the first Earl of Berkeley, with the rackety Protestant conspirator Lord Grey of Werke. Her father’s dismay was exacerbated by the […]

Reverend with a Cause

Posted on by Zoe Guttenplan

For a churchman whose career ended in disaster on the scaffold, Charles I’s final archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, casts a very long shadow on English history. In the history of the Church of England, the aborted Laudian reforms represent a path not taken. Their importance has been magnified by the fact that they were […]

Fights & Tights

Posted on by Zoe Guttenplan

To be a ‘bluestocking’ is nowadays considered the pits. Yet in their heyday, the second half of the 18th century, the original bluestockings were respected and even admired. The trashing of this lively, intelligent, spirited group of women began in around 1800. It culminated in Thomas Rowlandson’s 1815 caricature of a group of harridans tearing each other’s hair out and clothes off over – connecting them to dangerously radical politics – a puddle of French cream. The Victorians

Hugh Do You Think You Are?

Posted on by Zoe Guttenplan

When Adalbero, archbishop of Rheims, stood up to speak at a gathering of the leading French magnates in Senlis in late May 987, all eyes were on him. Only a few weeks earlier, the young French king, Louis V, had died unexpectedly in a hunting accident, raising serious questions about the succession to the throne. […]

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

Posted on by Zoe Guttenplan

‘This is not a land to stop in unless necessary,’ María de Salinas, a gentlewoman in the service of Princess Katherine of Aragon, wrote to her brother-in-law. It was 8 March, probably 1507 or 1508. Prince Arthur had died some years earlier and Katherine was now a widow, kept in gilded penury by Henry VII. […]

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Scribblers with a Cause

Posted on by Zoe Guttenplan

The medium by which meetings were arranged, debts and wagers settled, tabs in taverns recorded, jokes made and insults spelt out: chalk markings were everywhere in the 18th-century cityscape. Chalk is washed away soon enough, alas, and the message will be scrubbed clear forever unless someone thinks fit to record it on paper. In 1731, […]

Deep in the Czechoslovak Quagmire

Posted on by Zoe Guttenplan

In the summer of 1938, the attention of the world was focused on the state of Czechoslovakia. At issue was what to many seemed a deeply moral question of whether democracy or dictatorship would prevail there. The country was suddenly awash with British visitors – politicians, journalists and curious tourists. The most important was Walter […]

Jailed for Being Disabled

Posted on by Zoe Guttenplan

In 1910, when two ladies from the Eugenics Education Society lobbied the home secretary for the incarceration of the feeble-minded to prevent them from breeding, they found a sympathetic hearing. The minister in question, Winston Churchill (then in his Liberal phase), told them that as many as 130,000 such people were at large. ‘If, by […]

Europe and All That

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

The study of classics, Josephine Quinn avers, is in crisis. The very term ‘classics’ is questionable, since it implies a position of cultural supremacy. Beginning with John Colet’s Renaissance syllabus five hundred years ago, a diet exclusively of Greek and Latin was commonly served in English public schools, in order to provide a supposedly perfect […]

Last Days of King Coal

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

The miners’ strike of 1984–5 must be the most well-worked seam in British labour history. Is there anything new to say? Two books by young scholars seek to answer this question partly by approaching the strike from unexpected angles. Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite and Natalie Thomlinson focus on women (in large measure miners’ wives) and the strike. […]

Pastor with a Poleaxe

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Hands up: who’s heard of the German Peasants’ War? Outside of specialist academic circles, the quincentenaries of its outbreak in 1524 and bloody resolution in 1525 are likely to pass largely unnoticed in this country. Even in Germany, commemorations look set to claim only a fraction of the cultural bandwidth occupied by the anniversary of […]

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