What first attracted you to the period or periods you work in?
It began with genealogy and my wife’s connection to the Erskine’s of Mar. In researching them I was drawn into the story of Mary Queen of Scots but wanted to approach it from the point of view of the principal members of the Scottish nobility.
Can you tell us a little about how you research? Has the process changed over the years?
I do as much as I can online working with two screens, one holding the material I am researching and one the text that I am developing. Although I generally start with a preconceived structure for my text, this evolves as I do more research and regularly requires a great deal of reorganisation (cutting and pasting) and rewriting. If I find that there is a particular topic on which I need a better understanding, I go to Wikipedia and look up the bibliography, picking out the book or books that equate best to the resolution of my problem, and I generally buy the book or find its text online. Using the book’s index of the ‘find’ button, I then assimilate the areas relevant to my storyline and add them into my text.
The common phrase is that history is written by the victors. Do you think this is true?
Definitely. In the Tudor period, William and Robert Cecil commissioned William Camden to provide the history, and he placed the spin on historical events that the Cecils wanted. This has resulted in their enemies, such as Mary Queen of Scots, Leicester, Raleigh and Essex receiving a bad press, while Elizabeth was being fed their shortcomings. Most of my books are designed to rehabilitate those who seem to have been treated badly by contemporary propaganda. We all want to use original sources, but these should never be taken at face value. They can be just as full of bias as the present-day press.
Are there any historians who helped shape your career? Similarly, can you recommend three history books which budding historians should read?
Antonia Fraser’s Mary Queen of Scots did it for me as she challenged the propaganda (and it was all propaganda) in the original sources, painting Mary as an innocent let down by her advisers. These days I do not agree with all her conclusions, and she picked out the pieces that supported her thesis, but it made me realise that there was more to history than what was being dished up in the classroom (The Constitutional Documents of the Reign of James I never got beyond page 1).
In choosing history books to read, I like those that break the accepted paradigm and make you think. I do not mind if they may not be entirely historically accurate – very often we do not know. I greatly admired 1421 and 1434 by Gavin Menzies. I enjoyed The Years of the Sword and The Years of the Peace by Elizabeth Longford, but read them ages ago. I enjoyed Crown of Blood by Nicola Tallis. Superbly researched but eminently readable.
If you could meet any figure from history, who would it be and why? Also, if you could witness any event throughout history, what would it be?
The Lady Penelope Rich – She must have been a brilliant dinner party companion. She sang and danced perfectly, was drop dead gorgeous, spoke several languages perfectly, and was an able politician. Yet she died an outcast, and it is not known where she was buried.
The Battle of Kinsale, where Lord Mountjoy defeated the Earl of Tyrone against overwhelming odds, while keeping the Spanish holed up in Kinsale to prevent them linking up to support the Irish.
If you could add any period or subject to the history curriculum, what would it be?
I am biased but it would be the Tudors and Stuarts. Full of despicable personalities and great battles to whet the appetite.
If you could give a piece of advice to your younger self, either as a student or when you first started out as a writer, what would it be?
Focus on a few important characters and stick to a simple story line.
Can you tell us a little bit about the project you are currently working on?
I am aged eighty and am nervous about embarking on a new full-scale book. I am involved with the Ironmongers’ Livery Company, which is currently rewriting its history and has superb records dating back to the 15th Century. I am in a support role but am currently researching all our past masters.
Robert Stedall is a historian and writer, and author of Elizabeth I’s Final Years: Her Favourites & Her Fighting Men.