The revival in the interest in history has exploded over the last ten years since the advent of amazing blog/website platforms over the internet. It is of no surprise that many talented historians, both professional and amateur have chosen to write and teach via this network. I recently interviewed Prof. Dame Averil Cameron who encouraged me to ‘carry on’ in my endevours to entertain audiences. She specifically said that history (Byzantium in my case) “needs supporters and enthusiasts and this is a great way of raising consciousness and reaching new audiences.”
I am honoured to have a wonderful rapport with another talented woman and historian, Susan Abernethy, who shares many similar sentiments and interests in history as I do. I think its fair to say, as Susan recently reminded me, that we could easily have some great conversations on history! Interestingly, I believe that although we write for ourselves, we both hope that there are like-minded readers out there who will share our love for history and story telling.
Susan recently took time out of her busy schedule to answer questions I posed to her about her very interesting The Freelance History Writer website and obviously her love for history. The Freelance History Writer’s website is exactly how history should be written and what we all should aspire to emulate!
When did you first realize that you wanted to write and share your ideas about history?
“My interest in history began as a teenager and when I was in college I considered being a teacher but for many reasons I never pursued it. About four years ago a friend approached me about writing with her on her history blog. Honestly I didn’t even know if I could write! But the idea really appealed to me and I thought maybe I could teach history by writing about it as well as share my passion for it. I wrote my first article and the rest is history.”
In life, where do you find inspiration to write?
“My inspiration to write comes from my muse and my passion for history. History explains everything for me. I get a lot of inspiration from reading books too.”
What is the hardest thing about choosing a topic to write about every week?
“Honestly I don’t have any trouble finding topics to write about. In reading and researching about one subject, I find other topics to address. I’ve had a couple of changes in focus on the blog because of this. I usually just go where the research takes me. I started out with medieval women then moved on to Scottish history, Anglo-Saxon history, Tudor history and French history. But I will always work on topics of English, French, Tudor and women’s history because these are the topics that interest me the most.”
English history is one of those subjects that has had a resurgence in interest in it. Why do you believewe are all so fascinated by it?
“That is a great question Robert! All these television programs like “The White Queen”, “Wolf Hall”, “The Last Kingdom” and “Vikings” have really spurred an interest in English history. My own interest in history started with the “Six Wives of Henry VIII” television program in the early 1970’s. My reaction to a king marrying six times and beheading two of them was this: You can’t make this stuff up! All these shows about early English history demonstrate how England became a nation. People are interested in the personalities, the alliances and the fighting. I think the history alone speaks for itself. Truth really is stranger than fiction and that is what people find fascinating.”
Who are your five favorite historical figures? Can you elaborate on one?
“William the Conqueror comes to mind. I really appreciate how he organized the entire operation of the conquest and got men to rally around him. I’m a great admirer of Queen Elizabeth I and her political savvy. One of my favorite Anglo-Saxon characters is Aethelfaed, daughter of King Alfred the Great. She basically ruled the kingdom of Mercia after her husband died. She was a warrior queen and fought the Vikings and won! Someone who really intrigues me is Charles the Bold, 15th Century Duke of Burgundy. I find him a psychological mess and I wish we knew more about his personality clinically.”
But someone I’d like to highlight is Anne de Beaujeu, the daughter of King Louis XI of France. Louis was your typical run-of-the-mill misogynist but he admired his daughter so much, he named her unofficial regent of France upon his death. She ruled in all but name for her younger brother Charles VIII. France was a political mess during her governing years but she managed the economy and all the quarrelsome, discontented nobles with immense self-assurance. She also managed to annex the valuable duchy of Brittany into the royal domains of France. I think her talents as an effective leader are not recognized enough and she deserves a full-fledged biography.
If you could live one life of somebody historically important, who would it be and why?
“I am a great admirer of King Alfred the Great. I see in him an enormous intelligence and an inordinate amount of compassion for his people. This is a man who strategically and militarily defeated the Vikings. He came up with a working plan for the fortification and defense of his realm. He codified the law and built a navy. He learned Latin later in his life and actually wrote his own works. He believed in education for the common people, starting a school for the sons of noblemen. And he commissioned a biography of his own life that we can read to this day.”
Women have played a major role throughout history, but are often overlooked in favor of history through a male point of view. More so than ever, I am inspired by writers who are helping to readdress this imbalance. How important is it for us to talk about the amazing women from our past?
“Well I think it is very important. Women in history have not only been overlooked but some have been unfairly slandered by chroniclers in their efforts to promote their agendas. This ends up being perpetuated by successive historians. It seems like it’s only in recent years this is changing and historians are working to seek out the sources and reinterpret them.
Historical women are significantly more influential than they are given credit for. Royal marriages were made with women not only for their ability to bear heirs but for strategic and military alliances. Some medieval men trusted their wives to rule in their stead when they were out of their countries such as Matilda of Flanders, wife of William the Conqueror and also Matilda of Scotland, wife of King Henry I of England. Some women ruled in their own right such as Anne de Beaujeu whom I mentioned before and Marie de Guise who ruled Scotland for her daughter Mary Queen of Scots. King Charles VI of France designated his wife Isabeau of Bavaria as the head of his council when he experienced episodes of madness. These are just a few examples.”
It seems Susan that you are obsessed with history, as much as I am, but if you had to specialize in one field, which would it be?
“Oh that is a hard question Robert. You’re right I am obsessed and I really do love it all. But if I had to choose, it would be Tudor English history. I’ve been studying it the longest and know it the best. There is so much new information coming out all the time regarding this era and it is fun to learn new interpretations and details.”
France has had many watershed moments throughout its history. It is a topic that you seem to spend a lot of time writing about. Is there one moment for you that stands out as one of the most interesting or significant?
“There really are many seminal moments in French history as you say Robert. It seems to me there is genuine significance in the annexation of the duchy of Brittany into the kingdom of France. For centuries the Bretons refused to accept French suzerainty. They had their own language, laws, tribunals and institutions. Brittany paid no taxes into the French treasury and their churchmen resisted any attempt to force their inclusion in the Gallican church.
Most interestingly, the family that had ruled Brittany was reduced to one young girl in the late 15th Century. Anne of Brittany played a key role in the fall of the duchy to France. She realized the inevitability of her position and married King Charles VIII and when he died, King Louis XII. She worked hard to maintain her independence as Duchess of Brittany and wanted to pass it on to her daughters. But with the marriage of her daughter Claude to King François I, her cause was lost and Brittany became a part of France. It was a huge acquisition.”
Who are your literary ‘heroes’ and how have they shaped the way you view and write about history?
“Oh there are so many. Charles Dickens, Honoré de Balzac, Alexandre Dumas pere, Jane Austen, Edith Wharton, Louisa May Alcott, Victor Hugo, historians like Carolly Erickson, Alison Weir, Lady Antonia Fraser, Frank Barlow…. I could go on and on. I just love reading. All of these writers portray real and fictional characters in historical contexts, helping to give a feel for the eras they lived in. They also are all splendid storytellers. It is my mission to emulate these writers in retelling the history, making it attractive for the reader.”
I would bet Susan that you have a wonderful personal library. What is your favorite history book and why? (If you can narrow it down to just one.)
“It is very hard to narrow it down but I’m going to go with a book that I read recently. “Queen’s Mate: Three women of power in France on the eve of the Renaissance” by Pauline Matarasso. It’s a biography of Anne de Beaujeu, Anne of Brittany and Louise of Savoy. Matarasso gives a lot of details and insight into the lives of these three women with a very readable writing style.”
Finally, apart from asking you the obvious question about what are you working on next, instead I would like to ask you, do you have any interest in the history of lives of the Byzantines, a topic close to my heart? There are a number of amazing women in its history and their story desperately needs to be told!
“I have had this question before Robert! I do have an interest in all women in history and do know of a few from the Byzantine era. I’ve even invested in a few books on the topic. Sometime in the future I will write on this topic.”
A huge thank you to Susan Abernethy for her patience, time and contribution. You can visit or contact Susan via her website The Freelance History Writer or you can discover the latest news via her tweeter account @SusanAbernethy2.
Photo credit: The header image is a portrait of a young Queen Elizabeth I. The middle image is Anne de Beaujeu, the daughter of King Louis XI of France. The third image is Anne of Britany, who played a key role in the fall of the duchy to France. All images are in the public domain.
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Really good interview, Robert – I enjoyed it – my favourite person in history is the Tenth century Croatian King Tomislav who in many ways defined the strength and dignity of Croatian people – we know little about him but that little encourages so much grand contemplating
Tomislav is a favourite of mine too. He oversaw the crucial battle of the Bosnian Highlands in 926 against Simeon I of Bulgaria. It saved Croatia and the Byzantine State!