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Philippa Gregory on why she hated history at school

Philippa Gregory on why she hated history at school

Having written her 26th historical novel, author Philippa Gregory knows a thing or two about learning from the past—especially when it comes to navigating the challenges of modern-day life. She talks to us about the inspiration behind her writing. 

Our not-so-distant past

Philippa Gregory interview
Philippa Greggory. Image via Book Fans

“We’re more like the Tudors than we’ve been for a long time,” says Philippa Gregory. “The Tudor period was a time of intense change, and we’re in a time of intense change. The reformation split England from Europe, and we’ve just taken a decision that’s partly in that direction as well. If you want to read history for its parallels to modern life, there’s a lot to be had from that.”

We’re meeting in the lobby lounge of a swish London hotel to discuss Philippa’s latest novel, Three Sisters, Three Queens. It’s her 26th novel and the eighth of her Tudor Court series—and she lights up when she speaks about the period.

“When Henry VIII split the Church from the control of the Pope, he also cut England off from the Renaissance. There’s a whole change—religious architecture, music, and art—that we missed because we were separated from our cultural neighbours. I’d bet that if Brexit turns out to mean Brexit, in the sense of a big separation, we might regret that when we look back—on a cultural basis if nothing else.”

It’s been no surprise that Philippa has considered such ramifications, as her work often deals in the more personal side of seminal events.


History's forgotten women

The Other Boleyn Girl
The cast of The Other Boleyn Girl. Image via Pinterest

Since her first novel was published in 1987, the 62-year-old author and historian has carved out a career by putting the spotlight on relatively unknown figures in history.

2001’s The Other Boleyn Girl put Mary Boleyn (Anne’s Boleyn’s sister) on the map; Edward V’s mother Elizabeth Woodville was the heroine of 2009’s The White Queen, and in this year’s Three Sisters, Three Queens, Philippa shines a light on Margaret Tudor. “Every time I do research for one book, it leads me to another,” she says. “I stayed in the Tudor period not because of a determination to stay in the period, but because I keep finding someone I want to write about.”



"The only point of studying history is if you find it completely riveting”



These someones are more or less exclusively female. They’re also the women who have played pivotal roles in the development of our monarchy and our nation, yet are marginalised—or entirely passed over in conventional history books. How on earth does Philippa find out about them?

“In a way, it’s gloriously ordinary,” she says. “I read loads—everything from unpublished PhD theses to minor essays in periodicals. For Margaret Tudor, I had to read books mostly about her son and her husband simply to find any material about her.”

The result is that Philippa is often credited with giving a voice to women in history—and has even influenced the historical record. This is highlighted by the fact that before she wrote the aforementioned The Other Boleyn Girl (which was subsequently made into a Hollywood movie starring Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson, see above), there was more or less nothing written about Mary Boleyn. Now, there are no less than three biographies in print and a simple Google search renders an impressive 406,000 results.


"History in schools is boring"

The White Queen

Redefining the historical record is a great feat, especially when you consider that Philippa received a mere E grade in her A Level History.

“I think history in schools is insanely boring,” she laughs. “I was bored when I was doing A Levels and I don’t think it’s improved enough. The government feels what we need to do is try and inculcate civic virtue by teaching history. But that’s not history’s role. The only point of studying history is if you find it completely riveting.”

So how would she change its teaching? “Thank God it’s not my job to say!” she exclaims. “But what I’d do is start in the present and go backwards. I’d say to the kids, ‘Tell me about your mum and dad. Tell me about their mum and dad.  Where did they grow up? Where did they come from? What work did they do?’ Then you could deduce, for example, that 80 percent of the grandparents of that class are coal miners, perhaps because it’s a mining village. Then you get into the history of the mines, the Victorian period and the Industrial Revolution. That way, kids would get why it’s of interest to them—because they’re the sons and daughters of those times.

“One of the biggest growing areas of historical research is being done by completely ordinary people doing their family history,” she continues. “People are really interested in their own history.”


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