Tracy Borman – “History is about human beings, not just dates and events”

“The University has played a huge role in my life and career and I will be forever grateful to it for that. I will freely admit that I didn’t want to go to university – I was such a homebird that the prospect of leaving to live in a different city terrified me! But from the moment I first visited Hull on an open day, I felt at home. Of all the universities I visited, Hull had the friendliest atmosphere – not to mention a fantastic History Department. I put it down as my first choice but, really, I’d already decided that it was my only choice.”

Tracy Borman

Most peoples’ relationship with history likely ends in school, where students have to memorise a list of facts and dates in order to pass an exam. In a world as drastically changeable as ours is, however, knowing about historical events help to contextualise the world. Humans can only understand events or people looking through a window stained with one’s own knowledge, biases, prejudices, and what history allows us to do is clear the window a little and help us more fully understand things – as the famous phrase goes, those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

As a warm-up to her ‘Inspired in Hull’ lecture coming up on the 1st of November, we interviewed historian and author Tracy Borman. In this interview, Tracy talks about her academic and professional career, her time at the University of Hull, and the transition from writing non-fiction to historical-based fiction.

To book a seat at Tracy’s ‘Inspired in Hull’ lecture, please click here.

You have a long relationship with the University of Hull having studied, taught and been awarded an Honorary Degree with us. Looking back on your time at the University what role would you say it had in your life and career? 

The University has played a huge role in my life and career and I will be forever grateful to it for that. I will freely admit that I didn’t want to go to university – I was such a homebird that the prospect of leaving to live in a different city terrified me! But from the moment I first visited Hull on an open day, I felt at home. Of all the universities I visited, Hull had the friendliest atmosphere – not to mention a fantastic History Department. I put it down as my first choice but, really, I’d already decided that it was my only choice.

Ironically, given I’d been so reticent about going to university, I ended up staying at Hull for almost seven years, during which time I completed a BA, MA and PhD. The knowledge and skills that I gained along the way have been utterly invaluable to my future career as a historian, author and broadcaster. One of the most useful things I studied was a course in palaeography as part of my MA in Historical Research. Learning how to decipher old handwriting was basically like code-breaking. Without that, I wouldn’t have been able to do half of the extensive original research that has underpinned my books.

On a more personal level, I made lifelong friendships during my years at Hull and it really broadened my horizons. I can’t imagine what I’d be doing or even where I’d be living if I hadn’t confronted my fears about university and had stayed at home in Lincoln. Put simply, I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for Hull and I owe the University a debt of gratitude that I will never be able to repay.

When did you realise history was going to be important in your life – and what were the defining moments in you becoming a historian?

I’ve loved history for as long as I can remember. One of my first summer jobs was dressing up as a Victorian jailer and showing visitors around Lincoln Castle prison! My parents always say it must have skipped a generation because my paternal grandfather, who died before I was born, had a huge collection of notebooks that he’d compiled, filled with local history stories that had caught his eye. My passion for the subject was really ignited by my ‘A’ Level history teacher, Judith Jones. She brought it to life for me – the Tudors in particular. I remember she had copies of all the monarchs and their courtiers around the walls of the classroom.

Another defining moment happened in the careers’ library at Hull University. It was when I was studying for my MA and, although I was loving the course, I was anxious about the fact that I still didn’t know what to do with my life after completing it. A conversation with a careers’ adviser at my ‘A’ Level college kept playing over and over in my mind: he had told me that the only career option for someone who liked history was to teach; otherwise, I should keep it as a hobby. But while leafing through an A-Z of careers in the Hull library, the page opened at ‘Heritage Management’. It was a real lightbulb moment. I loved the idea of working in historic sites and I immediately began searching for opportunities. I did some volunteering for Grimsthorpe Castle in my native Lincolnshire while studying for my PhD, which gave me invaluable experience and after (finally!) graduating, I moved down to London and got whatever jobs I could in heritage – and there were some pretty dead-end ones! But they all counted on the CV and enabled me to gradually work my way up, specialising in public engagement and, ultimately, curating.

A key moment for my career as a writer came when I was working as Events and Exhibitions Manager at The National Archives. I invited Alison Weir, Britain’s best-selling female historian, whose work I hugely admired, to give a talk. We hit it off straight away and when I told her I would love to write a book, she was so encouraging. She helped me to develop a proposal to show an agent, and it all went from there. I think when you have those chance encounters or lucky breaks in life, you have to grab them with both hands.

You have written extensively about British monarchs, particularly the Tudors, and are Joint Chief Curator of Historic Royal Palaces. What is it about the stories and lives of the monarchs that fascinates you?

Again, I have my ‘A’ Level History teacher to thank for this. She made me realise that history is about human beings, not just dates and events. That has stayed with me ever since and whenever I tackle a subject, I try to look behind the public image to the real person underneath. It has made me realise that, despite the enormous transformation we have witnessed over the past 500 or so years, human nature doesn’t change that much.

One question that I’m asked repeatedly is why we are so obsessed with the Tudors. For me, the answer is obvious: because it’s the most exciting, dramatic and transformative period in British history (and yes, I’m biased!). You have a king who marries six times, a Virgin Queen, swashbuckling adventurers, poets and playwrights. It’s a gloriously self-confident age defined by the larger-than-life personalities of the monarchs. And even though it’s such a popular period, new discoveries are always coming to light – such as Anne Boleyn’s carved falcon, which came up at auction without the seller realising what it was. Such discoveries mean that there’s always something to keep people (myself included) coming back for more.

Having written The Private Lives of the Tudors and Elizabeth’s Women: The Hidden Story of the Virgin Queen is it fair to say that you are interested in the hidden stories behind the stories?

Very much so. I like to get behind the public image of the people I write about – whether they are kings and queens, chief ministers or mistresses – and find out what really made them tick. Researching the private side of these well-known figures gives you a new understanding of their public actions. Henry VIII is often criticised for being a tyrant in his later years, but researching The Private Lives of the Tudors made me realise how much he was suffering in private. He was plagued with pain from his ulcerated leg and had a whole string of humiliating health issues, which gave me a new sympathy for him. No wonder he was irascible, short-tempered and prone to violent mood swings!

Your fictional The King’s Witch trilogy is about an actually existing historical figure. What drew you to the story of Frances Gorges, and how did writing fiction enable you to explore the history in a way that was different from writing a work of non-fiction?

As a historian making the transition to writing fiction, it was important to me to make it as authentic as possible by basing the narrative on real characters and events. I first encountered Frances while researching my non-fiction book, Elizabeth’s Women. Her mother, Helena Snakenborg, was one of the queen’s favourite ladies-in-waiting. Helena first met Elizabeth I when she accompanied the Princess of Sweden on a visit to the English court in 1565. She loved it so much that she stayed behind to serve Elizabeth when the princess returned to Sweden. Helena subsequently married Thomas Gorges, a member of Elizabeth’s household, and her daughter Frances was the third of their eight children.

For me, Frances was an ideal heroine because although she was a real person, very few details of her life have survived so I was able to weave a rich story around her. I made her a healer who was skilled in herbal remedies, as well as a closet Catholic, both of which things placed her in mortal danger in the court of James I. The story was inspired by my non-fiction book, Witches: James I and the English Witch Hunts. It was such a dark chapter in our history and a very dangerous time to be alive if you were a woman. I became fascinated by it when researching a module on the witch hunts that I taught at Hull University while studying for my PhD.

When I first started writing historical fiction, I naively thought that it would involve a lot less research than for my non-fiction books. I soon realised that the exact opposite was the case.  Although I already have a good grounding in the periods that I recreate in my novels, my knowledge mostly extends to people, places and events, rather than to the social history that is so vital to bringing a historical subject to life in fiction. Pretty much every line I wrote had to be underpinned by painstaking research in order to make the narrative, dialogue and characters authentic, from the clothes people wore to what they ate, how they addressed each other, how they passed the long hours of waiting for the king or queen to appear and so on.

I’m often asked whether I prefer writing non-fiction or fiction. I can honestly say I love both equally. I like the discipline and structure of non-fiction, but I find fiction very liberating as I can let my imagination fill any frustrating gaps in the original sources.

Why is history important? And what can we do to nurture the next generation of historians?

History is hugely important in so many ways. Only by learning from the examples – both good and bad – of the past can we shape our present and future. It really frustrates me when people dismiss it as irrelevant because so much has changed since, say, Tudor times. But as I said, human nature doesn’t change that much and there are other parallels too. Henry VIII sparked widespread social unrest and division by separating England from the rest of Europe in his quest for an annulment. Sound familiar??

In terms of nurturing future generations, I’m a firm believer that history in all its forms can be inspiring. You don’t just have to read weighty non-fiction tomes. There is huge value in historical fiction, television documentaries and dramas, films, re-enactments and so on. All it takes is that single spark to ignite a lifetime’s passion for the subject. And a passion for history is the single most important ingredient for a successful and fulfilling career, whether that’s teaching, writing, presenting or caring for our history.

What does being an Honorary Graduate of the University of Hull mean to you?

It meant the world to me when I was awarded an Honorary Degree by the University in 2017. I feel enormously privileged to have been recognised in this way by an institution that has had such a formative impact on my life and career. I have a photograph of me receiving the degree proudly displayed in my study. If ever I’m suffering from a lack of motivation with my writing or other work, I just look at that and feel humbled and inspired all over again.

2 thoughts on “Tracy Borman – “History is about human beings, not just dates and events”

  1. What an interesting interview with Dr Tracy. I’ve always found her engaging when I’ve seen her on the TV but not realised her connection to Hull.
    I’m off to check out her books…

    Chris – History 1988


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