Interview with Chris Skidmore

Chris Skidmore, author of Bosworth – the Birth of the Tudors, Death and the Virgin (about the mysterious death of Amy Robsart, wife of Elizabeth I's favourite, Dudley) and Edward VI, The Lost King of England, kindly spent some time with Tudor Times between talks at the BBC History Weekend.

We covered a range of topics from Chris' research and writing methods to the importance of the Lieutenancy of Calais in the events of 1483.

TT: How did you first get into writing history?

CS: I was studying for my PhD, looking at the New Tudor Nobility, and doing some research work for Robert Lacey (author of Great Tales from English History) who asked me if I had thought of doing any writing myself. I hadn't ever imagined being a writer but I am really keen on narrative history and decided to try.

TT: What were your reasons for choosing to write about Edward VI for your first book?

CS: When I started writing, it was all about Henry or Elizabeth, and I wanted to do something different. I thought there were many other topics that would be good to research, like the Tudor Crisis of the mid-sixteenth century. Also, I wouldn't have had the confidence to start by doing a huge topic like Henry. I wanted to do something fairly contained. Obviously, Edward died when he was 15, after a reign of less than seven years, so it was a manageable project.

TT: Your other titles are on very different topics, how did you choose those?

CS: I wanted to write about things where there were unanswered questions and where going back to the original sources might produce more information. It is so important to go back to the original sources. Often, if you read a transcription, you don't know that there is a crossed out line which can give you so much information about the state of mind of the person writing.

TT: You discovered some amazing facts for Death and the Virgin, how did you come across them?

CS: My PhD supervisor, Steven Gunn, identified a King's Bench report that referred to Amy Robsart - it had never been looked at in detail, so when I found out it contained the original Coroner's report I got that spine-tingling feeling you get when you think you have found something new. I had to keep it quiet for two years whilst I wrote the book around it.

TT: You don't give a definite answer on what you think happened to Amy Robsart?

CS: I wanted to do almost an Agatha Christie-style mystery with a number of plausible solutions, to let the reader make up his own mind. I think it was probably a bit like Thomas Becket, and that Dudley's men thought that getting rid of Amy would get rid of the only obstacle to Dudley marrying Elizabeth, and effectively becoming king.

TT: You don't go for the Cecil theory?

CS: Not really, I think he was far too God-fearing. I think he was just being mischievous when he told the Spanish Ambassador, de Quadra, that he feared there was a plan to kill Amy, because when he said this, you can tell from the sources that the news had already reached the Court that she was dead.

TT: Your account of Bosworth is very even handed. Did you start out neutral? Did your views change?

CS: People have very opposing views on Richard. He is either whiter than white, or the black legend, but of course the truth is shades of grey. You have to muddle through the grey. I can't emphasise enough the importance of going back to the sources. You pick up a small fact which doesn't give you the answer but helps build the overall picture. For example, I found a letter in the Duchy of Lancaster papers in which Richard talks about paying 100 monks in York to pray for his soul.

TT: Do you think that means he wanted to be buried in York?

CS: There isn't enough evidence to say. Only small indications that could be interpreted in different ways

TT: With research being so important to you, how do you divide your time between the research and the writing?

CS: I have written three books now, each taking about three years with two years of research, and then about a year of writing. I think of it a bit like Michelangelo with his marble block - you have to assemble all of the raw material, the source material and research, then try to carve out the narrative from it.

TT: What difficulties do you encounter in research?

CS: The terrible handwriting in the Tudor Period. Earlier, most records were written on vellum in "secretary hand", a consistent, trained writing style used by scribes. By the 16th century, people wrote their own letters on paper - they are much harder to read. Robert Dudley's writing was terrible.

TT: With another career as an MP, and now as a father (Chris has a baby daughter) how do you manage to write?

CS: I used to be very organised, fitting writing into my limited spare time late in the evenings and on Saturday evenings and Sundays. When it comes to finishing a book, I usually try and sit down after work and write 2,000 words every day, seven days a week. If I don't finish my words, I have to make them up the next day. At the end of the day, I print out what I have done and watch the file getting thicker. Until the birth of my daughter I was a night owl, working till three or four in the morning, though I'm now finding I'm having to adapt!

TT: With all that, do you still have time to teach?

CS: No, I am an honorary fellow of Bristol University but I can't commit to the hours, it wouldn't be fair to the students to just miss a lecture if I needed to be in Westminster for a three-line whip.

I am very glad to have been able to still have a career involved with history, many of my fellow graduates have had to move into other careers. On the other hand, teaching in universities is now so specialist, with concentration on very narrow, and sometimes obscure topics, that there is less of an opportunity to study the larger picture, the narrative sweep that interests me.

TT: What are you currently working on?

CS: My book on Richard III will be published in Autumn 2015.

TT: Have you discovered anything new about him?

CS: I really want my books to last for ten or 20 years.To do that you have to go back to the sources and find new information and new interpretations. I think I have some interesting new details

TT: Why do you think Elizabeth Woodville reacted so strongly to Richard taking control of Edward V?

CS: Hastings seems to have stirred up trouble. Before this point, Elizabeth Woodville and Richard were not necessarily on bad terms. She had appointed Richard as steward of some of her lands, and her brother Earl Rivers had asked Richard to adjudicate a legal dispute, so they may not have been on such bad terms as has been thought. Hastings, however, was concerned about a Woodville threat to his own position. He was Lieutenant of Calais and was using his power base there to influence events, in the same way that Warwick the Kingmaker had in the 1460s. Much of the activity in 1483 echoes the activity of Warwick in 1469. When Hastings realised that Richard planned to continue as Protector after Edward was crowned, he decided he had backed the wrong horse and began to plot with the Woodvilles.

TT: Did you find anything to suggest why Northumberland failed to support Richard at Bosworth?

CS: There is definitely evidence that Henry had tried to make contact with Northumberland before the battle, and that there was talk of Henry marrying Northumberland's sister-in-law if Richard married Elizabeth of York (although I don't think he had any such plan at all). It's not certain Northumberland received the messages, but it is suggestive. Northumberland had also been forced to accept a subservient position to Richard in the North.

TT: What do you think were the main factors leading to Richard's downfall?

CS: By giving lands and offices and then withdrawing them, Richard III created a situation where many of the nobles felt they had nothing to lose by supporting Henry. I think that can happen in any age if people feel disenfranchised. Also, there were economic factors that still need to be explored, similar to those that affected the reigns of Edward VI and Mary I, that may have contributed

TT: Do you think that there are any parallels there with modern politics?

CS: I think if people have nothing to lose, they will take action, but it still needs a leader, an individual around whom movements can be generated.

TT: So you subscribe to the Great Man theory of history?

CS: Yes, economic and social factors play a part, but it needs a leader. Individuals are agents of change.

TT: We are very much looking forward to reading your book on Richard III. Thank you so much for talking to Tudor Times.