When Two Tribes go to…Conferences

To start with this week, some long-awaited and exciting news – The Rage of Fortune, the prequel to the Quinton series, has just been published as an e-book by Endeavour Press, and is available from the various Amazon Kindle stores! I’ve mentioned this a number of times in this blog (notably here and here), so won’t go into detail about the plot here. Suffice to say it’s an old-fashioned swashbuckler set against a backdrop of real historical events at the end of Elizabeth I’s reign, and that its protagonists are Matthew’s eponymous, larger than life grandfather, the eighth Earl of Ravensden, mortal foe of Sir Francis Drake, and his much younger, feisty French bride. I hope you’ll enjoy their adventures both in their own terms, and for the additional information they provide about the complex ‘back stories’ of Matthew and his family!

And now for this week’s post…


History is a pretty clannish world. Its practitioners define themselves, or are defined by others, as specialists in a particular period or theme, and even today, there are still hints of a barely definable ‘caste system’. (‘You’re a medievalist? Have you taken something for that?’ ‘You’re an art historian? Did you wipe your feet as you came in?’) As for me, I belong to the ultimate pariah sect, naval historians, who are still sometimes perceived by other branches of the subject as gung-ho retired admirals in blazers, endlessly refighting the minutiae of Trafalgar or Jutland. Now, like all stereotypes, this doesn’t bear serious scrutiny (I am not, and have never been, an admiral, the blazer recently went to a charity shop, and Hugh Evan-Thomas did absolutely nothing wrong, OK??), but it does provide ample material for both abiding misperceptions and jolly interdisciplinary banter. In my case, of course, I’m something of an oddity even within the world of naval history: not only do I specialise in the seventeenth century, the preserve of a small, beleagured band who have to spend much of their time explaining to lay audiences exactly where their period fits (‘No, it’s a long time before Nelson; no, it’s a long time after the Spanish Armada; and yes, seriously, the Dutch were the enemy’), but I also write historical fiction, which casts me well beyond the pale as far as some ‘serious’ historians are concerned – although are the likes of David Starkey and Niall Ferguson still considered as serious historians these days? It’s so hard to keep up…

So it was with some trepidation that, last week, I made my first venture into the world of court studies, by attending and speaking at a conference at the National Maritime Museum. This focused principally on Greenwich Palace, and was held to mark the reopening, and 400th anniversary, of the Queen’s House. Would this strange interloper from a different tribe receive a ‘Wicker Man’ fate, I wondered? Nothing could have been further from the truth. The court studies crowd were a friendly, welcoming, enthusiastic bunch, albeit quite an eclectic one, with a fair sprinkling of art and literary historians, plus one culinary historian. The papers were uniformly fascinating, and my own, on how Charles II’s plans for Greenwich fitted into his aspirations to ‘the sovereignty of the seas’, was very well received. Inevitably, there was quite a lot on Anna of Denmark, but that was OK with me as I’d developed an interest in her when writing Blood of Kings; and after all, any queen consort who can quaff beer with the best of James VI&I’s court is fine in my book. But the talks ranged widely, and it was equally interesting to hear the aforementioned culinary historian describe one astonishing feast consumed by Henry VIII and his court at Greenwich in 1527 (when ‘supper’ lasted until dawn), and Jacqueline Riding, whose book Jacobites hugely impressed me, talking about the political and cultural importance of ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’s’ court at Holyroodhouse during his six-week stay there in 1745. (I’ve got a distinctly left-field Jacobite series lurking in my ‘to do’ pile – or rather, in the ‘to pitch to publishers’ pile.)

One of the most important things I took away from the conference, though, was the exciting emphasis in court studies on ‘royal space’ – breaking away from a narrow focus on, say, the internal layouts of royal palaces, to consider the totality of the space used by the court, including parks, forests, factories, etc, as well as the lives and work of all those, no matter how humble, who worked for or otherwise were in direct contact with a royal court. This certainly fits well with my own work, and with some of the issues I’ll be exploring in my forthcoming book Kings of the Sea. The Stuart royal yachts were certainly prime examples of ‘royal space’, as were events like ship launches, which became elaborate court ceremonies, often attended by many of the most prominent people in the country. There was also considerable enthusiasm for my points about the naval nature of Charles II’s court – indeed, some of the other delegates had already come to that conclusion, having arrived at it from completely non-naval directions.

However, undoubtedly the highlight of my time in Greenwich was the opportunity to have a tour of the Painted Hall’s famous ceiling, which is currently being restored. So, doing my best George Osborne impression in hi-vis jacket and hard hat, I ascended the scaffolding, and for the first time had the chance to study close-up the glorious art that I’ve so often stared at from the ground. Our tour guide was entertaining and knowledgeable, and it was fascinating to learn just how big a job the restoration will be (quite a lot of it, sadly, making good some of the botched ‘restorations’ of earlier times). So here are a few of the pictures I took – enjoy!

Up close and personal with the ceiling of the Painted Hall at the Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich

The huge, but now sadly faded, stern of a man-of-war

Restoration under way- huge respect for all involved in this vast project!

A detail in one corner of the ceiling portrays John Flamsteed, the first Astronomer Royal

Queen Mary II, founder of the Royal Hospital Greenwich, at the centre of the ceiling. A naughty restorer has signed his name right in the middle of Her Majesty’s decolletage.

King William III

A detail from the decoration fringing the ceiling, showing just how great the need for restoration is

My personal favourite- John Worley, one of the first Greenwich pensioners (admitted in 1705, aged 81), who was used by the artist Sir James Thornhill to model for ‘winter’. Worley was Welsh, and is mentioned in ‘Britannia’s Dragon’. Despite his age, he was in trouble with the authorities several times for being drunk and disorderly – but even so, he lived to be 96!


  1. David Ewald says:

    Dear David,

    A very timely post for me, thank you!

    I am in the midst of attempting to determine if the Phoenix passenger, Richard Worley, in the 1608 first supply to Jamestown, was, as believed by some, to have been Sir Richard Worsley, first Baronet of Appuldurcombe, Isle of Wight, and certain patentee for lands in Isle of Wight County, Virginia in 1619. Southampton was the Governor of the Isle of Wight in England, and was likely responsible for planning and financing Bartholomew Gosnold’s 1602 pioneering voyage to New England, utilizing John Dee’s 1580 map to sail along the 40th parallel in hopes to re-discover Verrazzano’s Narragansett Bay. Southampton accomplished this while in the Tower of London, using the information on the back of Dee’s map stating England’s right and title to America as justification for his expedition. I look forward to researching the final entry on your post for John Worley, and reading your new book.

    Best wishes,


    Sent from my iPad


    • J D Davies says:

      Sounds like an interesting set of possibilities! I intend to do a bit more digging into John Worley when I have the time, although as mentioned, he was said to be Welsh.


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