Dan Jones is a medieval historian, author and award winning journalist. His latest book The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses and the Rise of the Tudors is published by Faber and Faber and is out 4th September 2014.
What is an historian?
Researcher, thinker, writer, storyteller, author, TV presenter, radio voice, lecturer, journalist, talking head. Tweeter. Truth-teller. Social conscience. Archival curtain-twitcher. Licensed nose-poker. Some or all of the above, depending on the day of the week.
What made you decide to pursue a career in history?
In school, I had a great teacher. Same in university, where I was lucky enough to have some of the best medievalists in the world as supervisors – Christine Carpenter, Helen Castor, Richard Partington – as well as David Starkey teaching me about the sixteenth century. I was also studying with other historians like Ben Wilson and John Bew, who saw that history could be a career rather than just a degree. But it’s about the teachers, mostly. For all the arguments in recent years over what’s on the history syllabus in state secondary schools, a lifelong passion for history is something that is kindled far more by inspirational teaching than by what’s in the textbook.
What is the one history book you simply couldn’t do without?
Hard to beat the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography for sheer everyday usefulness. When I was writing about the wars of the roses, it was invaluable to have a quick, comprehensive and impeccably authoritative reference book quite literally at my fingertips. (I use the online edition.)
Do you have a favourite website for historical research (or procrastination)? Why?
I rely on social media for historical procrastination: you can create your own personal serendipity feed by following a bunch of historians and just watching what they post.
What is your favourite historical place?
The shrine of Edward the Confessor in Westminster Abbey, surrounded by the tombs of a healthy smattering of the Plantagenet kings from Henry III to Henry V. It’s roped off from the public except for twice a day when they let you up to pray for the souls of the dead monarchs (plenty of them need it) but then usher you out before you can have a chance to really snoop around. I’ve been lucky enough to film there a few times, which gives you unrestricted access between the hours of 7am and 9am. (It also reminds me how much times have changed – the tombs of the kings and queens were once far more accessible to the public and in many cases the embalmed corpses were on display. Samuel Pepys celebrated one his birthdays – I think his 36th, but it may have been another – by taking a trip to Westminster and planting a kiss on the lips of Catherine de Valois, wife of Henry V and Owen Tudor. She used to sit upright in a corner of the abbey in an open coffin. Creepy, right?)
You have a time machine for 24 hours, where do you go?
Much the same path as followed by Bill and Ted in their eponymous Excellent Adventure. Socrates, Napoleon, Billy the Kid, Genghis Khan, a medieval castle, etc. Still worth digging that film out, by the way.
You have a new research project and a deadline. What is your normal working pattern?
I’m an early riser, so I’m usually up between 5am and 6am and try to sit down and do at least an hour’s writing before anyone else – my children, particularly – are out of bed. This will either be work on a chapter, or else my newspaper column. This is the best writing time of the day, when it’s quiet, no emails are arriving and my mind is still fresh. Next: breakfast, get the kids to school and nursery, go to the gym for an hour. Now it’s about half past nine. Back to the desk until midday – writing, admin, reading, whatever. Now it’s lunchtime. Try and go out for lunch. It’s good to see people and hear what’s going on. Next, the London Library for a few hours. Home for the kids’ teatime and bathtime. Cook dinner for the wife. Eat dinner. Then sit down and do another hour or two of reading or writing before bed.
Your period of expertise no longer exists. Which historical period would you research instead?
I’m a massive fan of James Ellroy’s historical fiction – I’m thinking of the American Underworld Trilogy here – and have always hankered to get under the skin of America in the period he concerns himself with. I’m talking primarily about LA in the 1950s-1970s, but with a broad view to every sphere of American political activity, from the deep south to Vietnam. If you haven’t read Ellroy, I recommend him unreservedly. He’s a fevered genius and the way he meshes conspiracy theory, historical themes and good, old-fashioned pulp fiction is something else.
Why is history important today?
Because we’re living through a truly revolutionary time of unprecedented information gathering and unprecedented information dissemination, in which the most valuable skill you can have to negotiate the world is an acute bullshit detector. That’s what history gives you. Absorb a mass of information. Digest. Filter. Question your sources. Question your own biases. Create a coherent narrative. Refine it. Debate it. Repeat.
Finally, what is your best historical fact?
I’ve been writing about the wars of the roses, and people always seem astonished to learn that the ‘red rose of Lancaster’ was almost wholly a Tudor invention. It dates from the period after the battle of Bosworth, and it was created mainly so that the Tudor rose (the red-white hybrid) could tell the story of two houses reunited by Henry VII in a single, visual motif. The Tudors’ rewriting of fifteenth century history is nothing short of amazing – in the sense that it is still essentially the version of history that we believe today. That’s one of the main arguments I put forward in my new book. It’s called The Hollow Crown. It’s awesome. Come on – I saved the plug until the end, right?
You can pre-order The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses and the Rise of the Tudors now.