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A salute to two new historical biographies

In March 2009 the Shadow Home Affairs Minister Andrew Rosindell, Tory MP for Romford, introduced a private member’s bill in the House of Commons entitled the Teaching of British History in Schools Bill.

His thrust was that the decreasing popularity of history as a choice of subject by pupils was unfortunate and that the prevalent tendency to play down, or even be embarrassed by, some of the achievements of ‘great’ British men and women was worse. In his introductory speech he told the House of Commons:

“Unlike in most European countries, the teaching of history is no longer compulsory in British schools after the age of 14, and evidence suggests that the history curriculum in our country is deeply flawed. The following findings from surveys conducted over the last few years offer some alarming insights into this matter. It was found that 70 per cent of 11 to 18-year-olds did not know that Nelson’s flagship at the battle of Trafalgar was called HMS Victory. More than 20 per cent of 16 to 24-year-olds thought that Britain had, at one stage, been conquered by the Germans, the Americans or the Spanish. Several children mistook Sir Winston Churchill for the first man to walk on the moon. He also joins King Richard the Lionheart and Florence Nightingale as being mistaken regularly by our youth as a creation of fiction …”

The current Education Secretary Michael Gove – perhaps depending upon your political viewpoint – is currently either fighting an uphill battle to restore educational standards against a tide of teaching union resistance, or else single-handedly seeking to destroy everything that British education stands for with his bone-headed presumption that life in 1950s Britain was pretty much perfect, and has been going downhill ever since.

Against this background it is perhaps ironic that – elsewhere in academia and non-fiction literature – some truly heart-stirring biographical research and writing has been coming to fruition since the turn of the 21st Century, not least upon two military titans of early 19th Century Britain – Admiral Horatio Nelson, victor of the Battle of Trafalgar (1805), and Arthur Wellesley, the first Duke of Wellington, who defeated Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo (2015).

SugdenStep forward, firstly, naval researcher John Sugden.

Holder of degrees from the universities of Leeds, Lancashire and Sheffield, he has previously published biographies of Sir Francis Drake and Tecumseh, the Native American chief, but his primary claim to fame of recent times is his magisterial two-part biography of Horatio Nelson.

The first – Nelson: A Dream Of Glory (2005) – was a towering achievement, covered the life of Britain’s greatest nautical warrior from his birth to 1797 in 960 pages, and received to great acclaim by critics and public alike.

The second – Nelson: The Sword of Albion (Bodley Head 2012, £30), took a mere 944 pages to follow the last eight years of Nelson’s life, up to and including death at his hour of greatest triumph.

MuirSecondly, though not necessarily in the merit stakes, comes Rory Muir, visiting research fellow at the university of Adelaide in Australia, who has spent the best part of the last three decades researching the life and time of the Duke of Wellington.

The first of his two offerings, the 672-page Wellington: The Path To Victory 1769 to 1814 has just been published (Yale University Press, 2013), also to a collective thumbs-up from the critics.

Just at a point in time when one might have assumed that there would be nothing left to uncover about these important historical figures, through diligent and prolonged painstaking research, Sugden and Muir can be said to have written the last word in definitive biographies of them.

That is, at least for the next ten to fifteen years, until the next ones come along.

In the meantime, hats off please to Messrs Sugden and Muir – and I know what I am hoping for at Christmas!


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About J S Bird

A retired academic, Jeremy will contribute article on subjects that attract his interest. More Posts