Nelson’s Navy – A History Masterclass with Dr Sam Willis
25 January 2017, Tallow Chandlers Hall, London.
Our lucky Masterclassers were particularly spoiled in this special event held in one of the most extraordinary rooms in London – the Court Room of the Worshipful Company of Tallow Chandlers, one of the most ancient of the London Livery companies. The Tallow Chandlers themselves can trace their roots back to 1300 when they formed a company to regulate the production of tallow – used among other things for making candles. Today the company is a charitable organisation primarily focussed on education.
The location for this inaugural event was therefore chosen for its association with a company committed to bringing light, and now enlightenment, to the world. They have occupied their site on Dowgate Hill, just near the Thames in the heart of the city of London, since the 1400s. The original Hall was destroyed in the Great Fire of London but they rebuilt with splendour and vision, creating a building of great beauty under the guidance and supervision of the architect and polymath Robert Hooke.
The Masterclass itself was a splendid affair of interaction and learning, the group being plunged into the icy waters of British Seapower and fished out after three hours. Topics discussed ranged from strategy and tactics to diplomacy, shipbuilding, life at sea, mutiny, punishment, food, clothing, ship models, dockyards, command, signalling, seamanship and maritime art.
Sam Willis was joined in the second half of the event by Dr James Davey, Curator of Naval History at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich and together they discussed a number of key objects in the museum’s collection. These included a lightning conductor salvaged from the topmast of the French flagship at the Battle of the Nile in 1798, the coat Nelson was wearing when killed at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, an eighteenth-century model of sheerness dockyard and a number of letters and cartoons from the period.
Masterclassers left not only with new facts but also with a new intellectual framework with which to approach this crucial period in world history, and cherished memories of a unique event in a truly special place. Thank you all for coming.
Lessons From History – A History Masterclass with Dan Snow
1 February 2017, Army and Navy Club, St James’s Square, London.
On 1 February Masterclassers took to Pall Mall, the heart of London Clubland, to learn from Dan Snow, who has dedicated his life to the study of history and constantly embraces new technology to preach the value of history to a global audience. The event was held in the Library of the Army and Navy Club, a room of learning and scholarship overlooking St James’s Square, once one of the most fashionable residential addresses in London and still a magnificent example of Georgian architecture.
The Army and Navy Club – affectionately known by its members as the RAG – was founded in 1837 and has occupied the site on the corner of St James’s Square since then. The library, on the second floor, is lined with books on all aspects of military history, on all periods, in all locations.
In two vibrant sessions, divided by a spontaneous masterclass on paintings in the library, our Masterclassers were challenged by Dan from start to finish to consider the value of history, the purpose of history and the means by which history both has been and now is created.
Dan explored these ideas through a series of quotes about history from the ancient world to the modern, and considered the use of history from Aristotle to Trump via Brexit, Afghanistan, Iraq, Jerusalem, Syria, Napoleon, Alexander the Great, slavery, the Somme, Stalingrad, Rommel, Arnhem, Hitler, Mussolini, Tolstoy, Viking tooth infections, plague, Trafalgar, the NHS, London’s sewerage system, courage, drugs, nuclear war, chemical weapons, bereavement and Mesopotamia.
You would only believe it possible if you were lucky enough to be there.
Dan’s initial talk was followed by a break for food and drinks where Masterclassers had the chance to get to know each other and to meet Dan, Sam Willis and Suzannah Lipscomb, who then led the second half of the Masterclass with an open-floor interview. Discussion was open and fluent and our guests as well as our historians left with a keen, and optimistic sense, of the value of history. Thank you all for coming.
The Witch-Trials – A History Masterclass with Dr Suzannah Lipscomb
11 February 2017, New College of the Humanities, 19 Bedford Square, London.
This, the third History Masterclass, was held in a Grade I Listed mansion in London’s Bedford Square, one of the most architecturally important squares in the world and a masterpiece of Georgian city planning.
After a brief introduction by Dr Sam Willis placing no. 19 Bedford Square in its historical context and suggesting surprising thought paths that might link the beautiful eighteenth-century building with the cultural history of early modern magic, the seminar began with a fascinating Q and A session about the myths of the history of witchcraft and witch trials. Were all those condemned as witches executed by burning? Was the English craze of witch trials the worst in Northern Europe? Did witch trials include ducking on stools? Were 1 in 5 witches male? Was the Roman Catholic Church responsible? Were five million women burned at the stake by the church?
The Masterclass then continued with a group discussion of six historical primary sources that recorded known spells. ‘Take the sick person to a certain fig tree and have him kneel facing the east with his hat off….’. You couldn’t make this stuff up.
The purpose of the spells was discussed, which then opened up into a broader discussion of the historical themes behind the rise of the persecution of witches.
Why did this begin? Why did this end? Why did this happen, and in such extremes, in curiously isolated locations?
After a break, the Masterclassers took speaking parts in a documented witch-trial, where the concepts of accusations and legal proof in the early modern era were discussed. The presentation then moved on to questions of patriarchy, misogyny, and a broader discussion of the motivation behind persecution. Such was the explosion of thought and discussion that Sam was moved to photograph and post online the chaotic notes he had taken, while other Masterclassers proudly held up their jottings of inspiration and tweeted their own mental maps.
The session concluded with a discussion between Sam and Suzannah, which began with the premise that history is a creative discipline in which more questions remain unanswered than many suspect. The question of ‘witch lynchings’ in particular was raised, in which local communities acted outside of the law to impose punishments on those suspected of witchcraft but who had escaped the legal noose.
Thank you everyone who came along and to those who engaged on Social Media and, in particular, shared your notes!
Illuminating the Dark Ages – A History Masterclass with Janina Ramirez
3 March 2017, New College of the Humanities, 19 Bedford Square, London.
In Janina Ramirez’s exuberant and fascinating class on Illuminating the Dark Ages, we discovered how much of a misnomer the expression ‘Dark Ages’ is. Dr. Ramirez took us through stunning examples of the art and craftsmanship of the period, taking us deep into the cultural and historical context in which they were produced.
Among the artworks we examined in detail were the carpet page and opening initial of St Luke’s Gospel, from the Lindisfarne Gospels, produced sometime between 687 and 721. There are 10,000 red dots on an illuminated initial in the opening page of St Luke’s Gospel alone – the work of devotion by one man. The carpet page of the Lindisfarne Gospels is reminiscent of the imagery of Islamic prayer rugs – non-figurative, the pattern as part of the meditative process. Dr Ramirez made us imagine the toil in producing an illuminated gospel like this – even finding enough light by which to write in age when there were no glass windows.
We spent some time with the Sutton Hoo ship burial, an extraordinary Anglo-Saxon archaeological site in Suffolk, which can truly be called the English Tutankhamen, and considered its links to Beowulf. We learnt the story of how its treasures were found – and how narrowly they were missed by grave robbers! The precious treasures from Sutton Hoo all date from the late 5th to the early 7th centuries: we examined the gold belt-buckle, and spotted the thirteen animals and birds cleverly intertwined within it (clue: look for the dots, which are eyes), and the exquisite gold shoulder-clasp inlaid with garnet cloisonné and glass, with its interlinked boars and other beasts. The boar was a symbol of ferocity, strength, and courage. These exquisite, precisely-wrought pieces speak of a lost world of high culture, heroism, and outstanding beauty.
The Crusades – A History Masterclass with Dr Peter Frankopan
21 March 2017, Army and Navy Club, St James’s Square, London.
In the library of the Army and Navy Club overlooking the beautiful St James’s Square in the heart of London, our Masterclassers embarked on a journey into the past unlike any other.
The Masterclass was held by Dr Peter Frankopan, Director of the Centre for Byzantine Research at the University of Oxford and author of the bestselling books The Silk Roads and The First Crusade.
The first half of the evening [after wine and a chat to get to know everyone of course] was spent discussing the meaning of the word ‘Crusade’ in both present day and in the past with a wide variety of contributions from the floor. Every single piece of audio and video released by Bin laden in the aftermath of 9/11 mentioned the Crusades. Why was this? How has the symbolism of the red crusader cross – which was first associated with the Republic of Genoa – become so entrenched in modern life? Why do western politicians and the press still regularly turn to the word crusade? The session ended with a detailed introduction to the economic, political and religious situation in both Europe and the East in the 1090s which provided a fertile ground for the seeding of the Crusades.
After a short break for food [and more wine] Dr Sam Willis briefly interviewed Peter Frankopan before taking questions from the floor. This provided a fascinating moment of interaction where everyone could direct the seminar towards their own interests in the middle of the event. How many Crusades were there? 5, 7? 42? Why were there so many? Why have historians traditionally studied the Crusades without considering the full variety of sources available? What gaps still exist in our understanding of the Crusades? Is there a wealth of untapped material, and if so where does it lie? How does archaeology help our understanding of the Crusades? How can our modern understanding of PTSD be applied to what we know about the Crusades?
Peter then picked up from where he had left off at the break and took us on a roaring journey through five Crusades. Everyone left challenged, piqued, fascinated and inspired, all due to the brilliance of Peter Frankopan and the extraordinary events that modern historians are still trying to understand.