What I’m Reading: An Interview with Historian Matthew Ward

tags: interview, Matthew Ward, HistoryNeedsYou

Erik Moshe is a freelance writer based in Northern Virginia and an HNN features intern.

Matthew Ward is a British Academy Postdoctoral Research Fellow, researching "The Culture of Loyalty in Fifteenth-Century England." The project constitutes the first major attempt to define and understand political loyalty to the crown and secular lords in England, 1400-1500: how it was manifested; how it developed and how it was discussed in political and social discourse. It focuses on a significant period in the evolution of the concept of loyalty: the end of the Hundred Years War, the instability of the Wars of the Roses, and attempts by the Yorkist and early Tudor regimes to increase the crown's authority in the localities. His book, The Livery Collar in Late Medieval England and Wales: Politics, Identity and Affinity was published by Boydell & Brewer in 2016. 

What books are you reading now?

I’m currently reading a new book by Robert Winder, The Last Wolf: The Hidden Springs of Englishness. Winder explores many facets of ‘Englishness’, and rain and wool come close to the top of his list. England’s wet weather (an English obsession as many will know!) has served to provide rich grass, which has fed the sheep which provided the wool. Later on it was coal and iron which provided the country’s wealth. The book is particularly timely due to the United Kingdom’s recent choice to move away from Europe. In a previous book, Winder looked at Britain’s long history of immigration, reminding us that most indigenous Brits have plenty of foreign blood running through our veins, from Roman to Viking, German and Norman.

What is your favorite history book?

I think it has to be Paul Murray Kendall’s Richard the Third. Richard III has always fascinated me and he has to be my favourite monarch. Although the book was first published in 1955 it is still read widely today. The author’s prose is fantastic and although it contains elements of fiction, his portrayal of the young Richard travelling through the landscape of Wensleydale is one of many evocative passages in the book.

Why did you choose history as your career?

My first memories of being interested in history come from my early childhood when I visited an abundance of castles, cathedrals and battlefields on family holidays. This aroused a love for medieval history. Although my first foray into the world of work was just about as far away from history as you can get (I worked for a local county council as an IT administrator), I decided to take the plunge and do something I always had a passion for. A love for the subject has to be the principal reason why I chose history as a career – and I am sure the majority of historians will agree.

What qualities do you need to be a historian?

An inquisitive mind and a willingness to solve problems definitely helps – I’m sure I’m not the only historian who fancies themselves as something of a detective. Attention to detail also helps, as does the ability to read - a lot! Another key quality is a tendency to question almost everything.

Which historical time period do you find to be the most fascinating?

I have always had a passion for the Wars of the Roses. There are so many twists and turns (some may say too many!), with people changing sides and doing lots of rather naughty things. The period also produced my favourite king, Richard III.

Who was your favorite history teacher?

This was one of my A-level history teachers, Mr. Morrissey, who taught the Tudors. He was certainly old school (I remember he had an old wooden school desk complete with quill and ink in his office), but he had such a passion for the subject that it rubbed off on me. When he retired from teaching he went to university to study theology – an example that we are always learning.

What are your hopes for world and social history as a discipline?

The fact that the world should learn from the past has never been as relevant as it is today. It is sometimes hard to believe that we can learn from our mistakes and the current problems in the world are a bleak reminder of this. That said, history also teaches us that the worst of problems can be resolved and that most things are transitory, and although many have suffered, this should give us a degree of hope.

Do you own any rare history or collectible books? Do you collect artifacts related to history?

I have one book which was given to me as a gift, which I treasure very much: The Noble and Gentle Men of England. It’s a county guide to the armigerous families of England in 1866. Apart from its reasonable rarity, what makes it special is that all the tinctures of the coats of arms have been meticulously coloured in. It’s also rather old fashioned which appeals to me.

What have you found most rewarding and most frustrating about your career?

Most rewarding is being given the freedom and time to develop my own thinking – this of course is relevant to anyone studying at university. I’m also very grateful for being allowed time to undertake research, although I have to say that teaching is probably the most enjoyable aspect of my career to date. This may sound a little corny, but I have yet to be frustrated as a historian!

How has the study of history changed in the course of your career?

I entered the profession relatively late in my career, so I have not noted any particular changes in the study of history. One of my hopes is that medieval history will continue to be relevant and popular with undergraduates.

What is your favorite history-related saying? Have you come up with your own?

I haven’t come up with my own saying, although I am constantly telling my students to ask ‘why’ to everything. My favourite history-related saying probably comes from Monty Python (if this is real history) and is not one that is frequently quoted. It appears in the Swamp Castle scene of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, when the lord (brilliantly played by Michael Palin) meets Sir Launcelot. When he discovers Launcelot is from Camelot and probably has a lot of money the business-like lord’s eyes light up as he says: ‘Camelot? Are you from, uh, Camelot? Pretty nice castle, Camelot. Uh, pretty good pig country.’ For me, it sums up the thinking of medieval landowners – the pound signs were always in their eyes. And the acting is just brilliant too.

What are you doing next?

For the next three years I’ve been awarded a British Academy Research Fellowship and am researching ‘The Culture of Loyalty in Fifteenth-Century England’. I’m interested in the way in which loyalty to the crown and secular lords was manifested, particularly through visual and material culture. My book The Livery Collar in Late-Medieval England and Wales: Politics, Identity and Affinity (Boydell & Brewer, 2016) asked what wearing an item actually meant to medieval contemporaries. This led to me think about what loyalty meant in the fifteenth century, particularly during the Wars of the Roses. The research will result in a book and several seminar papers and events. I am co-organising a conference on ‘Loyalty to the British Monarchs, c.1400-1688’ at the University of Nottingham in January 2018.

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