Interview: Tracy Borman
Interview: Tracy Borman
As she heads out on tour with her show reflecting on 1,000 years of the monarchy, we chat to historian and author Tracy Borman about what Kings Charles’s reign might bring, and her favourite local history spots…
With King Charles’s coronation this spring, Tracy Borman thought it was the perfect time to look back on the history of the monarchy. On her new tour, which comes to Epsom Playhouse on 24 May, she will reveal the do’s and don’ts of being a king or queen and what over 1,000 years of history has taught us.
It is some feat to whittle down so much history, from William the Conqueror to Charles lll, into an evening’s show, so how did she approach it? The tour has been inspired by her book Crown & Sceptre and, having done a number of documentaries for TV, she is used to condensing history down to the highlights. “I’ve picked some themes such as putting duty ahead of love and, of course, that all good monarchs put on a good show.”
So, what advice would she have for King Charles? “It was said that a good monarch has to be always changing, but always the same. In other words, they have to keep up with the times, but they also have to uphold tradition, and I think that’s still true. It is something that the late Queen Elizabeth did brilliantly. She was a steady hand at the wheel for 70 years but also innovated – it’s thanks to her that we have equality for the first time in the succession to the crown.”
But it is another Elizabeth that Tracy cites as being her top monarch of all time: Elizabeth I. “Some of the most successful monarchs were never supposed to come to the throne. That was definitely true of Elizabeth I. She was made illegitimate when her mother Anne Boleyn was executed, and yet fate twisted and turned and she made it to the throne. Maybe it’s because she didn’t come with a huge sense of entitlement that she really worked hard at it.”
Elizabeth and Anne are the subject of Tracy’s new book, Anne Boleyn & Elizabeth I: The Mother and Daughter Who Changed History (out 18 May, Hodder & Stoughton). She hopes it will shatter a few myths, in particular that Elizabeth didn’t hold her mother in high regard. “She was less than three-years-old when her mother was executed. She hardly mentioned her. But what I found through my research is that you need to look at Elizabeth’s actions, not her words, and she revered her mother’s memory. Throughout her life, she tried to rehabilitate her mother’s reputation.As queen, she surrounded herself with Boleyn relatives, and she was much kinder to her mother’s family than she was to her father’s who she hunted down relentlessly. There’s also a beautiful locket ring that contains a hidden portrait of her mother, opposite one of herself.”
Tracy is a prolific author and is also joint chief curator for Historic Royal Palaces. She has been passionate about history from a young age. “I never really had a plan, except that I wanted to do something that involved history. Being based at Hampton Court, I’m basically surrounded by history on a daily basis. Bringing the past to life for people is just an endless privilege and I love to see that spark of interest when you say something that really resonates with them.
“As for getting children into history, she says that the likes of Horrible Histories are fantastic. “It is learning by stealth. It’s funny and it’s entertaining. The whole reason I do what I do is because of an amazing A-level history teacher I had, who brought it down to a very human level and made it all about stories and humour and fascinating facts – things you think couldn’t possibly be true. It’s definitely the case that truth is stranger than fiction when it comes to history.”
Tracy lives locally and says we are lucky to have so much history on our doorsteps. “Obviously we have Hampton Court but there is also the lost or hidden history such as the palaces of Richmond and Nonsuch. They would have dominated the local area and you still see little traces of them.
“Richmond Park has got a really rich royal history, particularly with the Georgians who’d come and spend summers there.” She loves the park and takes her dog – called Cromwell after Henry VIII’s minister Thomas – for walks there. She’s also a keen baker. “If I didn’t have a career as a historian, I would like to own a cake shop because I find baking so therapeutic.”
Tracy also writes fiction and has written a trilogy of novels that includes her debut, The King’s Witch, followed by The Devil’s Slave and The Fallen Angel. She is embarking on a new novel set in the Tudor period. “My fiction is based in history but there are often those frustrating gaps where we just don’t know what happened and that’s when you can really use your imagination.”
And finally, if she could go back in history for one day, what period would she choose? “May 2, 1536: the day that Anne Boleyn was arrested, because I would really love to know the truth and who set her up…. whether it was Cromwell or Henry VIII. I’d like to experience some of the drama because it was undoubtedly one of the most extraordinary moments in our history.”
How To Be A Good Monarch – 1,000 Years of Kings & Queens. Touring from 17 April to 25 May. Epsom Playhouse 24 May
Image: Lion TV