Marc Morris, what first attracted you to the period in which you work?
That’s an easy one. As an undergraduate at King’s College London, I was surprised and delighted that I could pick my own modules to study. I felt that I had done lots on the Tudors and 20th century history and I really wanted to do something different. What I had not done, at least since the age of about 12, was medieval history and I could not believe that I was allowed to come back and study these things – castles, knights, attainders, conquests – as a grown up! Now, when I look back at that list of lectures on medieval British history, they are essentially the books I went on to write later in my career.
Has the process of your research changed much over the years?
I suppose the most obvious thing is that I spend less time in the archives. There are a couple of reasons for that. My first big book was a biography of King Edward I and the author of a biography has to be exhaustive and cover everything. My later books, for example on the Norman Conquest or Anglo-Saxon England, have covered bigger periods and when one paints with a broader brush there is less time for the finer detail, so I spend less time poring over records in the archives. The other reason, of course, is that so much more material is available online now.
Are there any historians who helped shape your career?
I was lucky to be guided through my MA and Ph.D by Prof David Carpenter at King’s College London and Dr John Maddicott at Oxford. They are both fantastic and inspirational teachers and mentors. Dame Jinty Nelson at King’s College showed me the difference between instruction and education, while Prof Sir Rees Davies at Oxford taught me the importance of British – as opposed to English – history.
Can you recommend three history books which budding historians should read?
I’ll choose three recent books because there are just so many classics and it often pays to read something more recent first before coming to those classics. So, I really liked John Gillingham’s, Conquests, Catastrophe and Recovery. It is a brilliant history of medieval Britain and Ireland packed with loads of fresh ideas. Rory Naismith’s Citadel of the Saxons, a history of Anglo-Saxon London was also excellent and I used that a lot for my most recent book. I also really enjoyed Sophie Ambler’s The Song of Simon de Montfort, especially in the first chapters of the book where she shows just how different Simon was, having been brought up in the religious wars of southern France, to his contemporary barons in England.
Is there a period of history which should be more prominent on school curricula?
I can only really speak of what I know, so I would say medieval history of course. One way I think that history teaching in schools could be improved would be by paying greater attention to the relationships between the peoples of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, because these issues still resonate today.
What advice would you give to yourself as a young historian?
If I were to give any advice to a young writer now, it would be to get your story straight. It took me a while to work that out. But now, I don’t even begin to write until I’ve got all my ducks in a row. Otherwise, how can one see cause and effect or how the work will be structured?
Is there any person from history you would really like to meet?
Well, the last thing I would want to do is have someone like King John round for dinner, even though I wrote a biography of him, as he was just so unpleasant. What I would really like to do is to meet someone, anyone at all apart from Gildas, who was living in the middle of Britain around AD500, and who can tell us what on earth was going on in Britain then. I’d be minted!
Can you tell us a bit about the latest project you’ve been working on?
I’ve just written a book on the Anglo-Saxons, a people and a period which I had only little studied at university. It’s been fascinating to explore this world – especially the origins of so much that we have in our world today. I also felt that it was a period which lacked a history which brought everything together into a coherent story. Hopefully I have done that.
Marc Morris is the author of The Anglo-Saxons: The History of the Beginnings of England. Ian Stone is an academic and medieval historian specialising in London.