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Five Minutes With… Helen Graham Matheson

Helen Graham Matheson pictureHelen Graham-Matheson  is an historian of early modern women and political engagement. She is in the final stages of her PhD with the Centre for Editing Lives and Letters (CELL) at UCL and organises a conference on Educating Women. She can be found on Twitter @helenjgm.

What is an historian?

To me, an historian is anyone with an interest in and an ambition to find out more about the past.

What made you decide to pursue a career in history?

As recommended by my mother I started reading historical fiction when I was a teenager.  I was hooked, particularly by novels about the Tudor period and channelled it into studying the literature of the early modern period as an undergraduate.  I quickly realised that I wanted to know about the people who wrote the texts I loved and why, more than studying the texts themselves so I decided to switch to history as a postgraduate.  Really, though, my work is interdisciplinary as I mine letters and texts for their biographical and socio-political details.  As for pursuing a career… I have just submitted my PhD so at the very beginning of my career as an historian, I hope.  I’m looking for that first job, and I’m going to ‘pursue’ it with everything it takes!

What is the one history book you simply couldn’t do without?

Just coming out of my PhD I’m still thinking of the books that formed my thinking and methodology.  The one book that had the most impact was Barbara J. Harris’ English Aristocratic Women, 1450-1550.  Harris’ work opened my eyes to women’s political engagement in the wider domestic sphere and introduced me to concepts such as women’s ‘careers’ and the value of traditionally female activity in a patriarchal domain such as the court, even before the accession of queens regnant.  Harris’ conclusions are based on more that 1000 case studies and it’s inspiring how much material she found and accessed before digitisation.

Do you have a favourite website for historical research (or procrastination)? Why?

Without a doubt the ODNB. My work is predominantly biographical in focus as I think that if you know about a person’s life and networks you can begin to build a picture of everything else.  I can lose hours on that site moving from person to person, building networks and mapping events through participants and alliances.

What is your favourite historical place?

Hever Castle in Kent.  For most people it’s Anne Boleyn’s childhood home (and home of a great maze and café – I recommend the pork baguettes).  For me it’s where I learned to catalogue medieval manuscripts, developed a love for Books of Hours and found my PhD topic. I’ve spent many happy hours there outside tourist season, freezing cold, just me and the manuscripts and the lovely stewards.

You have a time machine for 24 hours, where do you go?

Do I have to stay in one place? That’s a horrible question… I’ve spent the last four years almost obsessively thinking about the life of one woman, Elisabeth Parr, marchioness of Northampton.  She’s been almost left out of the narrative of the mid-Tudor courts but it seems in fact she was everywhere.  Despite her contemporary significance, however, there isn’t an authenticated portrait (although there is a convincing suggestion) so really I just want to know what she looked liked.  If I had to pick a specific moment, possibly the time she inscribed the Book of Hours that started my research.  It’s undated but I have a theory, and I would love to know if I were right.

You have a new research project and a deadline. What is your normal working pattern?

I would be nocturnal if I could – I’m a late riser and a coffee addict.  Even at the beginning of projects I work late into the night because I love the quiet and clarity of knowing I’m the only one up. Obviously I work more intensely as a deadline draws near but I’m quite consistent I think, even if I do lose hours to needlessly checking my email, twitter, and the ODNB.

Your period of expertise no longer exists. Which historical period would you research instead?

Slightly cheeky response as it’s rooted in my period, but I am doing some work on the Victorian editors of the Calendars of State Papers and the great female historians of the period at the moment because I’m looking at why women feature so little in the CSPs when the original documents highlight their extensive activity in court politics, for example, and there was clearly interest in women’s activity. I’d like to research c. 1840-1920 when the bulk of the Calendars were written, and when Agnes Strickland et al were writing, to try and better understand Victorian attitudes to Tudor women, as I really think the Victorians continue to shape our current understanding of the Tudors.

Why is history important today?

I’m terrible at this question and I come from a family of educators so we often have ‘my discipline is better than your discipline’ debates…for fun, obviously. To me, history is everything – as everything but sci-fi and predicting the future is some kind of history isn’t it? All knowledge, everything that informs us involves some kind of better understanding of the past.  It also seems that events repeat so by understanding what’s gone before we can see where we’re going, and although we can’t accurately predict everything, we can hopefully be better prepared and able to deal with what does happen.

Finally, what is your best historical fact?

That contrary to the ‘divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived’ rhyme, Henry VIII’s famous divorces were not actually divorces but annulments – they never happened.  Instead, to the best of my knowledge the first divorce than enabled a man to legally remarry while his first wife was still alive was actually granted to William Parr, marquess of Northampton (brother of Katherine Parr Henry VIII’s sixth queen – the survivor).  William’s arranged marriage to a woman named Anne was never successful and she committed adultery.  He secured a separation from her and years later bigamously married another women, Elisabeth.  The couple were separated but later rewarded for political loyalty by the rushing through of the Northampton Divorce Act in 1552, which meant that William and Elisabeth, were legally married even though Anne still lived.  Interestingly, after Elisabeth died in 1565 William tried to marry for a third time Queen Elizabeth I wouldn’t let him, saying he was married already (to Anne).  This was for a number of reasons, but partly I think because the Queen was close friends with Elisabeth Parr, and didn’t want her place to be taken by another woman so soon after her death.

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