Living through lockdown: Julian of Norwich, TS Eliot and the life-shaped hole in our hearts

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 →

The life-shaped hole in our hearts: lockdown, solace and cultural memory

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 →

Mary, Countess of Pembroke: poetry, patronage and power

This is, more or less, the text of the talk I gave earlier this month at the Wilton History Festival. Mary, Countess of Pembroke, and her sons William and Philip, were the most influential patrons of the Elizabethan and Jacobean era. Let’s begin with a story to illustrate that assertion. For the moment, we will... Continue Reading →

Of God and Jonson: theatre history, new things and non-events

I was fortunate to be able to attend some of the superb Before Shakespeare conference at Roehampton last week. I came away with a range of thoughts and ideas, some of which I hope to pursue in one form or another. Perhaps the thing that struck me most, however, was Bill Ingram’s opening talk. Ingram... Continue Reading →

Thoughts among the noise: talking poetry with Rachel Stirling

Earlier this year I talked with writer and reviewer Rachel Stirling about the writing and reading of poetry. The conversation appeared on Rachel's blog in June, so I'm reposting here now on mine. RACHEL:  When did you know that you wanted to write? MATHEW:  Quite early on I think. I can’t really remember a time... Continue Reading →

Human remains: some thoughts on the funeral of Richard III

Over the course of this morning, thousands of people will gather in Leicester for the re-interment of the bones of Richard III. Many more – hundreds of thousands certainly – will watch proceedings on TV as Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the actor Benedict Cumberpatch speak at the ceremony. What does it mean,... Continue Reading →

John Lyly and Early Modern Authorship: an interview with Andy Kesson

Last week saw the launch of Andy Kesson’s brilliant new book John Lyly and Early Modern Authorship, which makes an eloquent and powerful case for both the quality of Lyly’s work and its importance to early modern literature as we understand it. It is full of fascinating insights into literary and print culture and commerce... Continue Reading →

Sex, money and morality: Thomas Middleton’s A Trick To Catch The Old One

Few people would disagree that Shakespeare's shadow has served to obscure a great number of superb plays and playwrights. But Thomas Middleton has a good case for being the most unjustly neglected of them all. I was delighted to discover, therefore, that Mercurius, the independent production company run by my friend Jenny Eastop, was planning... Continue Reading →

The borders of historical fiction and non-fiction: a conversation with Nancy Bilyeau

Last year I reviewed Nancy Bilyeau's excellent début Tudor thriller, The Crown which is set during the dissolution of the monasteries. Its sequel, The Chalice, is being published in the UK by Orion on February 28; and in North America by Simon & Schuster on March 5. Nancy has kindly agreed to take part in... Continue Reading →

Kipling’s shadow: Orwell, Rushdie and the critics

This piece follows on from my other post about Kipling here. Both first appeared as part of Norman Geras' Writer's Choice feature on his blog. If we are ever to understand and appreciate Kipling’s art, we have to discard all our preconceptions about him and his world view. It is surprising how hard many critics... Continue Reading →

The Dutch Church: the dissolution and its tragic aftermath

It is convenient for historians to conceive of history in neat discrete categories, but all too often that approach both obscures continuities and suggests that events are less brutally random than they are. There are, for instance, many ways of writing about the influence of the English Reformation and the dissolution of the monasteries on... Continue Reading →

Richard Topcliffe: the Queen’s torturer

There is no known portrait of Richard Topcliffe, the man most associated with the torture and persecution of Catholics in Elizabethan England. In some respects that is as it should be: those who break human bodies on behalf of the state are usually anonymous, ordinary figures, extraordinary only in the apparent disjunction between their personal... Continue Reading →

Richard Topcliffe and the capture and torture of Robert Southwell

The capture and torture of Southwell is a perfect example of Topcliffe’s full-service approach to persecution: it was his own handiwork through and through, and took extensive planning and thought. Southwell, a Norfolk man, had left England for the Catholic English College at Douai in the summer of 1576. He was not yet 15. Two... Continue Reading →

Ben Jonson: his early life and how it shaped him

Contrary as always, Ben Jonson could cast horoscopes – but didn’t believe in them. What, then, would he have made of his own? In some ways, perhaps, he was born lucky: winter offered the worst chances of survival for an Elizabethan baby; Jonson was born in midsummer. Even so, he was fortunate to survive. One... Continue Reading →

Shakespeare’s England: Stratford Journeys #2

Coming out of the birthplace I looked across the street, trying to imagine stepping across the threshold to see a row of late medieval or Tudor houses and workshops. It’s not too difficult: England is full of such survivals, after all. But of course it’s futile to try to dredge much meaning from the attempt,... Continue Reading →

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