High Street, St Kilda. Image © Philip Hughes The small archipelago of St Kilda, fifty miles west of Harris, has long attracted romantic attention for its remoteness, with the sense of deep strangeness and difference such remoteness implies. it is the last and outmost isle, the island on the edge of the world: a place... Continue Reading →
I have a poem – The Thing With Broken People – in the September 2020 Portrait issue of Dust magazine.
In Augsburg’s Staatsgalerie Altdeutsche Meister there is a three-paneled painting illustrating the life of St Paul, painted by local artist Hans Holbein the Elder in 1504. Commissioned for the city’s Dominican convent of St Katherine, it includes, in its left panel, a self-portrait of the artist with his two sons, Hans and Ambrosius – nicknamed,... Continue Reading →
With support for the EU significantly higher among those with a university education, it’s interesting to recall that well into the 20th century graduates could vote twice in UK general elections: once in their local constituencies and again through their universities, which at one point held fourteen seats between them. The idea that universities should... Continue Reading →
On the night of September 25 1828, a small group of armed men approached the presidential palace in Bogotá. Inside, Simón Bolívar lay in bed asleep beside his mistress, Manuela Sáenz. Bolívar – known as El Liberator – had led large parts of South America to freedom from imperial Spain, but his increasingly autocratic, anti-republican... Continue Reading →
I have a poem – The Oyster, Love – in the summer issue of Dawn Treader magazine.
A decades-long union of European countries is supported by the respective national elites; but its destruction comes through the ruthless exploitation of popular nationalism by an autocratic leader. Does that sound familiar? It is, of course, the Kalmar Union between Denmark, Norway and Sweden, which saw the three kingdoms being governed under a single monarch... Continue Reading →
It’s 10 September 1942. The German army is at Stalingrad. Bomber Command is sending 479 planes to bomb Düsseldorf. And Winston Churchill is writing to Brendan Bracken, his Minister of Information, about a British film already in production. “[P]ropose to me the measures necessary to stop this foolish production before it gets any further,” he... Continue Reading →
On 6 May 1939 the pioneering archaeologist Dorothy Garrod was elected to the Disney chair of archaeology at Cambridge. She was the first woman to be a professor at either Oxford or Cambridge; women were still not admitted to full degrees at the university – despite having been educated there since 1869. Her election brought... Continue Reading →
Five of the first six archbishops of Canterbury to be consecrated were not native to this country. None came from as far afield as the seventh: Theodore, born in 602, was a Greek-speaking monk from Tarsus – the modern Turkish city of Gözlü Kule – in what was then a Byzantine province. Educated in Antioch... Continue Reading →
Really pleased to have been asked to take over the regular Months Past feature in History Today. My first two pieces appeared in the May issue. I'll be posting them here in due course.
On Guy Fawkes’ Night in 1709, Henry Sacheverell, an Anglican minister, preached an incediary sermon in St Paul’s against religious non-conformity in the church. It was widely interpreted as a coded attack on the then Whig government, not least by the government itself, which attempted to have Sacheverell tried for sedition. Whatever his other talents,... Continue Reading →
For those who don't feel inclined to watch the film I made for A Bit Lit on life during lockdown, here's a rough transcript. My name is Mathew Lyons, and I am a freelance writer and historian. In practice, that means I am lucky enough to mostly work from home. Sometimes I work on the... Continue Reading →
A couple of weeks ago I was invited to contribute a brief film to the A Bit Lit YouTube channel, created by Andy Kesson and others as a forum for thoughts on literature, history and culture during lockdown. So here I am, talking about freedom and confinement, about emotional and spiritual spaces, about monasticism and... Continue Reading →
A couple of years ago I was lucky enough to hear legendary English folk singer Shirley Collins perform. One of the songs she sang was ‘Awake, Awake’, written by Thomas Deloney in 1580 but seemingly forgotten until Ralph Vaughan Williams heard it sung by an elderly Herefordshire woman in July 1909. Long dead on the... Continue Reading →
It is July 1571, and Elizabeth I is sitting for a portrait in “the open ally of a goodly garden”, almost certainly at Hampton Court. The portrait is “in little” – what we would now call a watercolour miniature, although the latter term didn’t enter the English language until Sir Philip Sidney introduced it from... Continue Reading →
Henry Fitzroy was born in the summer of 1519 – almost certainly in June – at the small Augustinian Priory of St Laurence at Blackmore in Essex. His mother was Elizabeth Blount, herself not yet 20, who came from minor Shropshire gentry. Elizabeth had entered service as one of Catherine of Aragon’s maids of honour... Continue Reading →
Map of Guiana by Hessel Gerritsz, 1625. El Dorado is at the western end of Lake Parime Not many people have the distinction of putting a non-existent place on the map, but Sir Walter Ralegh was one of them. That place was El Dorado, a legendary city of gold located in what is now Venezuela.... Continue Reading →
Pity the wryneck – a species of long-tongued woodpecker – in ancient Greece: it had the great misfortune to be considered an essential part of a sex toy. The poor bird was spread-eagled and bound to the four spokes of a wheel, which, when spun, whistled in a way thought sure to arouse desire in... Continue Reading →
It is a curious fact that when Sir Walter Ralegh was finally executed – on 29 October 1618 – he had been legally dead for 15 years. Even by 17th-century standards, that was unusual. But then, not many people face the death penalty twice in court – particularly when found guilty the first time, as... Continue Reading →