Historienne de formation, Philippa Boston vous propose aventures et mystères dans l’Angleterre élisabéthaine.
Interview with Philippa Boston
How long have you lived in Oxford?
I was born on a farm about fifteen miles away. During the school terms my mother, sisters and I would live in an apartment in Oxford, so that we could go to school in the city.
Some of my earliest memories are bound up with the city, such as sitting with my mother in Fuller’s café, which was in an old Elizabethan building on the Cornmarket. I remember her pointing out the door through which the three famous Protestant martyrs – Archbishop Cranmer, Ridley and Latymer – had been brought out to be burned in the street during the reign of Henry VIII’s Catholic daughter, Queen Mary. That door is still there and still holds me with the same childlike horror and awe when I pass by.
Have you always been interested in the town’s history?
For as long as I can remember. When I was studying Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, the Reformation and Elizabeth I’s re-structuring of the Church of England, I was sitting listening to one of the lectures and suddenly realised that I was sitting in the same ancient hall, in the University Church, where Henry VIII’s councillors had sat and argued about this Constitutional crisis in the 1500s.
That is what I love about this city – the history is everywhere – both high and low. Just across from that same Church, there is a cobbled alley which still has the channel running down the middle where people would have poured their chamber pots and waste water.
Does religion dominate the city’s history?
No. For me, as a child, the city was a series of exciting details: the 3 Martyrs, the last Dodo egg, an alley where someone was stabbed for their thesis in the 1700s, a river meadow over a rainbow-shaped bridge, secret paths, the stadium where Roger Bannister ran the first 4 minute mile, the house where William M. Turner lived and painted for 20 years, other buildings where famous people lived, studied and discovered great things.
What in particular interests you about the Tudor monarchs?
The Tudors are fascinating. You could not create a better plot for a novel than the Tudors created for themselves – rather like the modern British royals. The first of them, Henry VII, was a clever brute who knew that after the chaotic Wars of the Roses he had to be firm and resolute to keep a hold on the crown. There were others who had as good a claim as he did. His eldest son was married to the Spanish princess, Katherine of Aragon, but he died. At this point, both Henry VII and his remaining son, who would become Henry VIII, wanted Katherine for their wife! Henry VII died before he could marry her, so then Henry VIII, who had been infatuated with her since he was ten years old, made her his Queen. They were happily married for twenty years but, of course, had no sons.
Which is what caused Henry to move England away from the Catholic Church.
More or less. He wanted a divorce so that he could marry a wife who would give him sons, certainly, but it was also a classic mid-life crisis! He became infatuated with Anne Boleyn, but she wouldn’t sleep with him until they were married. So he had to break from Rome in order to be able to divorce Katherine. A man who virtually destroyed his country in order to get into bed with a woman who denied him? Hollywood couldn’t do better than this.
But your story takes place in the reign of his second daughter, Elizabeth I.
Yes, Elizabeth was a fantastic queen who never gave in to the huge pressure to marry, who managed to defeat innumerable attempts on her life by Catholic assassins sent over secretly from a French seminary, not to mention surviving at least three outbreaks of the plague. She led her people to conquer the Spanish Armada, she patronised Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe, and lived twenty years longer than virtually any other woman of the time.
Who wouldn’t be fascinated with the Tudors? They changed the course of British history and in the most entertaining way. I’m just glad I wasn’t around at the time.
Could you ever leave Oxford?
There is an ancient story about a group of Romany gypsies who were expelled from the city in the Middle Ages. Apparently they laid a curse on the city as they left, saying that anyone who was born within the city walls would be unable to leave, however hard they tried. I was born on a farm in the Cotswolds, not in the hospital within the city walls like my brothers and sisters, but the pull of the curse seems to have drawn me in all the same. As I grew up and moved away to live in Edinburgh, then London, France and Germany, I found that each time I returned to Oxford, different details of the city would link together, as if I had learnt all the notes as a child but had to have an adult’s perspective to arrange them in a way that made sense. I returned to live in the city when I was about 30. In my research for my writings about Oxford I have found that it is a city of connections – between people, places and events – each stone you turn over exposes the unexpected, connecting back to some other piece of research.