March 2018

Holbein Henry VIIIThe first topic on the early modern section of the course that I teach for Liverpool Hope is Renaissance kingship, and I like to start by getting the students drawing: first Henry VIII, then Henry VII.  The idea is that it brings home to them the power of the image – they all know what Henry VIII looks like because of the famous Holbein painting, but they struggle with Henry VII.  It’s only a quick exercise – a few minutes at most – but it gets them doing something a bit different and it makes them think about why it is they all know what Henry VIII looks like, but not his father.

I’d like to thank my 2017-18 cohort for again allowing me to share a photograph of their work.


The Research Whisperer

This article first appeared in Funding Insight on 7 December 2017 and is reproduced with kind permission of Research Professional. For more articles like this, visit

Photo by Wu Yi | unsplash.comPhoto by Wu Yi |

For as long as I’ve been in academia, one of the staples of scholarly life has been attending conferences. It’s traditionally how you cut your teeth as a researcher, test your ideas among peers and build those all-important networks for your career. Conferences are often held on fabulous sites in wonderful cities.

But there seems to be a turning of the tide when it comes to thinking about academic travel and conference mobility. Today, there’s a lot written about how conferences can be a waste of time and how they could be improved or shaken up to provide more value.

The imperative remains, however, that you must go to conferences.

But what if you don’t?

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Over the last few months, I’ve been doing a lot of travelling around getting to work.  I’m not fond of driving, it’s never been something I particularly enjoy, but living in the back of beyond means that there’s really little alternative.  When I wrote Over the Next Hill, I thought I would be doing a lot less commuting this year, but my life rarely turns out as I expect! What’s more, teaching at Edge Hill led to some early starts and I was lucky to see some lovely salmon-pink sunrises over the M6 – a lot more attractive than they probably sound.  On a good run, the drive to Edge Hill only takes 45 minutes, which is bearable.

My other morning commute is in the other direction and across country to do my GCSE tutoring.   One particularly frosty morning, I was rather early, so I pulled over to appreciate it.

Of course, it’s not all been sunrises and frost.  There was the 2 hour traffic jam one Thursday evening on the M6 and the truly horrendous 3 hour drive to Edge Hill in the snow – not the beast from the east, which largely missed us, but the pest from the west.  Grim.

DX2GYQrWkAAEtdkTeaching at Edge Hill gave me my first opportunity to take students on a field trip – we went to the Walker Art Gallery, where Elizabeth Newell, a blue badge guide from Liverpool Tour Guide Services, took us round several of the galleries.  Obviously, we concentrated on the sixteenth and seventeenth century galleries, because that’s the period we’ve been studying recently, but before Christmas the students were studying medieval history and it seemed sensible to look at what came after while we there too.

DX2HcbdXUAARqIzThe collection is based on the paintings collected by William Roscoe, one of England’s leading abolitionists.  He amassed a large collection of treasures but they were dispersed during financial difficulties which forced him into bankruptcy in the 1820s.  Thirty-seven of his paintings were saved by his friends and acquired by the gallery in 1819.  So we started our tour by looking at Martin Archer Shee’s portrait of the man himself.

Our next move was into the medieval gallery.  Elizabeth explained that medieval artists mixed pigment with egg albumen to make their paint, and painted on boards.  As the process was so slow and laborious, the paintings were very expensive and, therefore, the Catholic church was one of the few institutions that could afford to commission or buy them.  This explains why there are many, many Biblical themes: the paintings were used to tell Bible stories to the illiterate.


The medieval gallery is also home to some beautiful illuminated manuscripts and ivory carvings, as well as the most important painting in the Walker Art Gallery’s collection: a small piece painted by Simone Martini in 1342 called Christ Discovered in the Temple.  Although the gold relief-work is eye-catching and impressive, the vivid blues used for the Virgin Mary’s cloak were particularly expensive.  There was also a very interesting triptych from Cologne.  This trio of paintings tells the story of Christ’s Passion, from Pilate washing his hands of the blood of Christ, through the crucifixion itself, to the women grieving over Christ’s dead body.  Elizabeth explained that most of the time, the two wings would have been closed, so instead, for most of the year, the congregation would have seen the images of the painting’s patrons instead!


The medieval and Renaissance galleries also gave us a chance to talk about Reformation iconoclasm – the destruction of paintings, sculptures and stained glass, particularly during Edward VI’s reign.  Some Reformation thinkers, such as Calvin and Zwingli, objected to images in church because of the first and second commandments: “Thou shalt have no other Gods before me” and “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image”.  They were afraid that people were focussing their attention on the image, not the God that it represented – that in fact images encouraged idolatory.  By praying at images and leaving offerings before them, they were worshipping the image not God.  Although the word ‘iconoclasm’ often creates mental images of lynch mobs, in fact, Edwardian iconoclasm was state-sponsored and usually quite orderly.  Elizabeth then pointed out that one of the knock-on effects of the Reformation was to encourage a growth in portrait painting, as it undermined the role of the sort of Biblical images at which we had been looking.

Our next stops were probably the two highlights of the visit, given what we’ve been studying over the last few weeks.


The massive portrait of Henry VIII, from the workshop of Hans Holbein, was copied from the Whitehall mural.  Elizabeth noted that in its original setting, it must have been a terrifying sight.  It was also fascinating to hear about how expensive the carpet on which Henry stands would have been in the Tudor period.  Only a week before the visit, my students had been giving presentations on portraits of Elizabeth I and several of them commented on the opulence of the fabrics she wore.  None of us had paid a great deal of attention to the background fabrics, though. To us, a carpet is a carpet.  But the carpet on which Henry stands would have been made in a similar way to tapestry – time-consuming and expensive.

DX2QHB5WsAAVcJrThe students were particularly interested in the pelican portrait of Elizabeth I, which is attributed to Nicholas Hilliard.  In the portrait, Elizabeth wears a brooch of a pelican as a metaphor for her relationship with her people – the mother pelican was thought to feed its young with its own blood, sacrificing itself in the process.

Another fascinating portrait in the same room was of the Elizabethan courtier, Sir George Delves, and his late wife, whose face is partly obscured by a branch of myrtle, the symbol of everlasting love.




I used the newly-refurbished Virgin and Child in Glory, by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, to tell the students about the difference between English and continental art during the early modern period, and how Charles I went to Spain in 1623 to woo the Infanta and instead came back with crate-loads of continental artworks!  His trip ignited a life-long passion for art and started a collection which would later be broken up and sold off by the Interregnum regime.  Okay, so the Murillo is from 1673, somewhat later, but it’s such a glorious piece, it was worth spending some time in front of it!  We also stopped to look at the first Rembrandt to be brought into England – it was given to Charles I in the 1630s.

One of the final pieces we studied was William Hogarth’s David Garrick as Richard III, in which Garrick sits in a ‘lazy’ or ‘serpentine’ curve – the one which would become known as the ‘Hogarth curve’ or ‘line of beauty‘.


We had a really interesting and informative visit, which brought to life some of the things that we’ve been studying over the last couple of months. Our thanks go to Elizabeth for the tour.

IMG_20180216_085438655_HDRI’m pleased to say that since the beginning of the year, I’ve been covering the Dawn of Modernity course for the first year history students at Edge Hill University.  It’s been great fun so far, and I must send a big thank you to Nicky Tsougarakis and all the staff at Edge for making everything so easy for me.  One of the reasons that teaching at Edge Hill is such a pleasure is because it’s a bit of a nostalgia hit – it’s where I completed my PGCE in music back in 2000 under the watchful and supportive eye of Daren Murrall.  Back in those days, the music department was in some huts out the back of campus, but by a huge coincidence,  for the first few weeks I taught my Friday seminars in a state of the art music room in Creative Edge.  Which was actually a bit bizarre, because the students all disappeared behind great, big imac screens and could not be seen – even when I was standing up they are still quite effectively obscured!

The course covers all the things you’d expect of an undergraduate core module on eraly modern England: Renaissance kingship, Reformation, mid-Tudor crisis, Elizabeth I, Stuarts, radicalism, the Civil War and the Restoration, as well as witchcCharles a la Chasseraft and popular culture, which will be fun. I’m looking forward to taking my students on a trip for the first time, too.  We’ll be going down to the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool as part of the course to look at their excellent collection of medieval and Renaissance art.

2017-12-13 07.11.10The last session of teaching before Christmas on the Liverpool Hope Twentieth Century Europe course at Holy Cross College in Bury was on the Cold War.  It’s an interesting topic, and one of the primary sources set for the students to study is an extract from Churchill’s Iron Curtain speech, delivered on 5 March 1946 at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri.

I was looking for something a bit different to do with the students to get them to think and talk about some of the issues that worried the west after the Second World War – their distrust of what was going on in Eastern Europe in particular.  I decided to print out a copy of the source which was split into short sections, and ask the students to identify the different themes.  Next, they were to sort the slips of paper into those themes and then try to recreate a speech from the short sections.

2017-12-12 18.35.31

This is a very small class, with only 6 students, and one of the advantages of the task was that it made them talk about the themes and issues Churchill raised without me having to prompt and ask questions all the time.  It took the pressure of the spotlight off them, as they weren’t answering direct questions but talking amongst themselves.  It also made them think about how the ideas linked together.  Most importantly, they were on their feet, actively learning, rather than just sitting passively listening.

2017-12-12 19.15.23As it was the last session before the Christmas vacation, we brought along some supper to share, and one of the students had made each member of the class a personalised Christmas decoration based on the famous First World War recruiting poster of Lord Kitchener (There are moments when I love my job!).   Over the previous few weeks, the students had been completing an assignment on analysing the display of a museum artefact, and one of them brought along a replica of the suffragette Pank-a-Squith board game that he had researched.  It was something I’ve heard a lot about over the last few years – it seems to have an eternal fascination for students – so it was nice to see it in the flesh, so to speak.  Sadly, we didn’t have time to try it out!


BBC News has just noticed that many people working in our universities are on precarious contracts at several universities, as well as doing other low paid work for which they are massively over-qualified.  Hardly a shocker for anyone working in the sector, but it’s presumably come to light because of the UCU strike, which has gone into its second stage this week. It reminded me of my July 2017 post on One job at a time? when I calculated that in one week in 2017, I was combining 7 jobs, and that didn’t even include my own research – the sort of thing that in theory ought to lead to the chance of a permanent position but for which, of course, I don’t get paid at all.   And I’m in no better position now than I was then.  I have been lucky in the last few months, going from some teaching cover at Liverpool Hope to some more at Edge Hill.  But when this runs out, who knows? The one thing that you can confidently say about covering for someone’s research leave is that it will finish – it doesn’t translate into permanent work.  The only thing that I know will carry on is a single hour of private GCSE tutoring per week.  It would hardly pay the bills, so it’s hardly good for my mental health.

My twitter feed is made up mainly of other academics and university support staff, many of whom are stiking over significant, detrimental changes to their pensions.  The strike hasn’t really had an impact on my work because my teaching is mainly at post-’92 universities.  But my twitter feed has become a very depressing place to be. Not because I disapprove, you understand. My colleagues’ complaints are justified and I wholly support them.

No. It’s because day by day, it shows me the effect of the marketisation of education combined with the undermining and devaluing of the profession that I wanted to be part of.  I don’t think my students are my customers, despite what they’re paying for their degrees.  And I don’t know a single person working in the university system that doesn’t work massively over and above the hours for which they’re contracted (and the same goes for teachers in schools, too).   I’d have second thoughts, but I don’t seem to be having any better luck getting any jobs elsewhere.  It’s looking horribly as if I’m going to be looking for that one job for a long time yet to come.  But at the moment, it’s difficult to look forward to it.


I’ve spent a lot of time since the beginning of the year recording ballads for this website, to accompany my new book.  This is the third in a short series of posts about what I’ve been up to.

There are more than 30 musical examples in the book and my plan was to record all of them.  Some have been more fun than others, it has to be said.  Some of my favourites are in fact conjectural settings.  I borrowed the term ‘conjectural setting’ from Ross Duffin’s Shakespeare’s Songbook – it means that although I don’t know what the tune for the words actually was, because no tune name was given, I’ve found a contemporary one that fits.  There’s quite a bit of pleasure in finding a tune that matches the words really well.  After all, I maintain that if people in the sixteenth century didn’t know the tune for a ballad, they would make one up if they were able, or simply fit the words to a tune that they already knew.

There are several conjectural settings in the book.  One is a set of Cromwell ballads to a tune called ‘Half Hannikin’, which I think is a particularly good tune considering it’s association with clowns.  I sang extracts from one of them at a Reformation 500 event last year – it’s a real belter with a rollicking chorus which is really easy to pick up.

Another is one of my real favourites. It’s a setting of The Ballad of Joy to the tune of ‘Nancy’.  Long time readers of this blog might recall that I started out by looking at the ballads written during the reign of Philip and Mary (1553/4-8).  The problem I had with the Marian ballads was that none of them stated their tunes.  That meant that in the thesis, the only musical example in the chapter was of Richard Beeard’s Godly Psalm of Mary Queen, which isn’t a ballad in anyone’s book (actually, it’s not even all that easy to sing, and the thought of trying to maintain the 4 separate parts  for more than 40 verses was too much for me – we bottled out after the single one used as an illustration for Singing the News).  I didn’t want to leave it like that for the book, because for me it’s as much about showing that these songs could have been sung.  So I decided to find a tune to fit one of the ballads that I looked into in the chapter, and there was an obvious candidate.

The Ballad of Joy seems to have been written to celebrate Mary I’s quickening – the moment when she thought she felt the baby move in her womb.  Of course, with hindsight we know that it was some kind of phantom pregnancy, and the jury is still out on what exactly caused Mary to think, twice, that she was pregnant when in fact she wasn’t. But The Ballad of Joy celebrated the security of the succession and the prosperity of the marriage which had produced the promised heir to the throne, even though it seems that gossips wondered whether Mary was indeed pregnant. The tune ‘Nancy’ is like a cross between ‘The British Grenadiers’ and ‘Rule Britannia’!  It gives the song real oomph.  It’s a pleasure to sing and makes the words sound like an anthem – really celebratory, just as I imagine that the real tune would have been.