History Festivals: Why Buckingham Matters

Scintillating conversation, and of course a bar. The director argues the case for Buckingham
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The Buckingham History Festival, which takes place in the celebrated market town over the weekend of 15-17 September, is one that subscribers to Aspects of History will relish. There’s a particular emphasis this year on the Early Modern period – which is no surprise given that I am the festival’s director (and author of Providence Lost: the Rise and Fall of Cromwell’s Protectorate). Anna Keay, whose Restless Republic: Britain Without a Crown won this year’s Pol Roger Duff Cooper award, offers her own take on the period between 1649 and 1660, when Britain emerged from Civil War and dived into a unique political and social experiment. While Jonathan Healey, Oxford don and tireless – and often very funny – advocate of the early modern will open up the panorama to include the whole of the 17th century. His book, The Blazing World: A New History of Revolutionary England, similarly acclaimed, is a breathless survey of this momentous century.

Talking of The Blazing World, the frighteningly young and enviably talented Francesca Peacock will be discussing her debut study, Pure Wit: the Revolutionary Life of Margaret Cavendish, which is released just a few days before the festival opens. An extraordinary figure, Cavendish pioneered the science fiction novel with The Blazing World, and had much to say about philosophy, too. The Tudors also get a look in, with talks from Elizabeth Norton and Christina Faraday.

A number of writers who have appeared in the pages of Aspects of History will be appearing at the festival. Roger Moorhouse, one of the finest historians of Central and Eastern Europe’s traumatic 20th century, will be telling the story unveiled in his new book, The Forgers. Its subtitle, The Forgotten Story of the Holocaust’s Most Audacious Rescue Operation is no hyperbole. Moorhouse, a tenacious researcher, reveals for the first time how a coterie of Polish diplomats and Jewish activists gathered in Switzerland between 1940 and 1943 to devise a systematic programme of forging identity documents for South American countries, which were smuggled into occupied Europe and became a lifeline for thousands of Jews who would otherwise have perished in the Holocaust.

The Second World War also features in Alexander Larman’s new book, albeit from a very different perspective. Larman will be talking about The Windsors at War, looking at how the British royal family navigated the wartime years – despite the Duke of Windsor’s alarming admiration for the Nazis, the bombing of Buckingham Palace during the Blitz, and the death of the Duke of Kent. Britain emerged victorious if impoverished by the conflict. The experience of France was more traumatic, and it was played out in the trial, following the Liberation, of Marshal Pétain, the Great War hero turned Nazi stooge, at his trial held in Vichy. He escaped the death penalty, but not prison and ignominy. The whole febrile story is told by Julian Jackson, acclaimed biographer of Charles de Gaulle, in his new book France on Trial: The Case of Marshal Pétain. Jackson’s talk is sure to be one of the highlights of the festival.

Finally, concerning the Second World War, Iain MacGregor, will reveal the human stories of courage and fear told by those who fought at Stalingrad 80 years ago. The turning point, arguably, of the entire conflict, the Red Army, after months of immense suffering and violence, held the Wermacht at the city on the Volga – named for the brutal Soviet dictator who would accept no retreat – and reversed the tide of the war.

The festival turns its attention to the deeper past, when medievalist Peter Heather compares the fall of Rome – a topic of fascination for historians since Gibbon at the least ­ – with the current predicament of the United States. Is humanity’s ‘last best hope’ embarking on its own death spiral, or will it continue to maintain status as a superpower, albeit one that competes for the world’s attention with a resurgent China? It will be interesting to hear Heather’s verdict.

On more traditional, though no less dramatic, medieval ground, David Carpenter talks of the challenges faced by one of the most important though little known of English kings, Henry III. Carpenter’s magnificent two-volume study is now complete, and is one of the most dazzling achievements in recent scholarship, decades in the making. He will talk of the baronial rebellion led by Simon de Montfort, which led to all out civil war – the English have fought a few of those – the course of the bloody conflict, and how Henry stood his ground to remain king.

It would not be for the Buckingham History Festival to shy away from controversy, and so Nigel Biggar will be defending his survey of moral imperialism – Colonialism: a Moral Reckoning – from those who claim he is an apologist for the excesses of the British Empire. A lively debate should ensue. Owen Matthews will be discussing the Ukraine conflict, and debate and discussion will consider future of history, and the importance of the Classics, while Tomiwa Owolade will be looking at the challenges faced by those who write Black History.

But there is amusement, too. Oliver Soden, on the back of his masterly biography, will be talking about the enduring legacy – social, political and artistic – of the ‘Master’ Noël Coward, while with an eye on the future, Dominic Sandbrook, one half of the phenomenally successful The Rest is History team, will be in conversation with Simon Heffer, who concludes his multi-volume history of Britain from the Victorian age to the Second World War.

Paul Lay is Director of the Buckingham History Festival. Visit the Buckingham History Festival website – https://www.buckinghamhistoryfestival.org/ – for further information and tickets.