Author Interview with
John Ashdown - Hill
Dr. John Ashdown - Hill is the historian and genealogist whose discovery of Richard III’s mtDNA in 2005 led to identifying the king.
He is also the author of many Wars of the Roses books, including 'The Third Plantagenet: George, Duke of Clarence, Richard III’s brother', 'The Last Days of Richard III and the Fate of his DNA', 'Richard III's 'Beloved Cousyn': John Howard and the House of York' and his latest book 'Dublin King, The True Story of Edward Earl of Warwick, Lambert Simnel and the Princes in the Tower', has recently been released.
I am delighted to share with you my recent interview.
Your books have been described by many as ‘fresh, very detailed and well researched and written’. Could you share with us a little about the process of writing ‘The Dublin King’ and how long did it take you to write?
That’s quite a difficult question to answer. My interest in the true story of Edward, Earl of Warwick, was inspired in 2013, when I was writing my book THE THIRD PLANTAGENET, on his father, the Duke of Clarence. But I had begun exploring the story of Lambert Simnel earlier than that. And some of my research on the so-called ‘princes in the Tower’ – including the discovery of the 1483 Colchester document which refers to Edward V as the ‘the late’ - dates back to 2003/4! But once I had formulated the concept of THE DUBLIN KING, actually writing it took me about nine months.
What was the most difficult challenge in writing ’The Dublin King’?
There was new source material which I needed to access, including the fifteenth-century Irish and Burgundian/Flemish sources. Then there was the seal of the Dublin King, an image of which had been published in the 1980s - but without citing any source for it. I had to rediscover where that seal was today and have a new photograph of it taken. Also, there was the problem that Michael Bennett had published certain claims about Lambert Simnel’s relationship with Oxford – but once again cited no source for what he said. In the end neither I nor the ODNB (for whom Bennett’s article had been written) was able to solve that problem.
Have you traveled much to research your books? If so, which places did you visit for this book?
I visited Dublin. That was very interesting and provided important insight into the geography of the city, and regarding what medieval portions of the building of Christ Church Cathedral survived. It also led to my discovery of two surviving items which might well have been used in the 1487 coronation service.
I had also planned to revisit Oxford. But in the end I abandoned that, because it became clear that Lambert Simnel’s alleged association with Oxford was not really backed up by any solid evidence.
Who is your favourite person of the 15th Century and why?
Of the ones I know (and of course, I don’t know ALL of them) I think very highly of Elizabeth Talbot, Duchess of Norfolk, and of Margaret of York, Duchess of Burgundy. Both of them shared my faith, and I think both of them tried really hard to help people, and to do what they thought was right.
What sparked your interest in the 15th Century and the Wars of the Roses in particular?
The absurd and inconsistent use of the word ‘usurper’ by historians! In about 1990 I became amazed to see that Richard III was described as a usurper by historians and others, despite the fact that he was OFFERED the crown – while Edward IV and Henry VII (both of whom seized the crown in battles) were NOT described as usurpers. So my mind started to question what had become of the level playing field of history. Of course that led me to seek the key book on the story of Eleanor Talbot. To my absolute astonishment, there wasn’t one. No historian had seriously researched that vital lady. So I started hunting for the truth about Eleanor. That led to my publication of a number of articles about her, and finally to my first book, ELEANOR THE SECRET QUEEN.
If you had the power to change the past and re-write anything that happened during the Wars of the Roses, which event would you choose to change?
I’d plead with Richard II not to banish Henry of Bolingbroke (Henry IV) in 1398, but to execute him!
If you could ask any historical person a question, what would it be and who would you ask?
I’d love Eleanor Talbot to tell me all about her relationship with Edward IV!
Do you have a favourite ‘Wars of the Roses’ related place?
Yes, Clare, in Suffolk. Richard III’s mother lived in Clare Castle, in the 1460s, and we know that Edward IV visited her there and so did John Howard. Although there is no precise documentary evidence, I feel certain that Richard (as Duke of Gloucester) also went to see his mother at Clare. And the house of York were hereditary patrons of Clare Priory. One of the friars there wrote the poem which lists all the children of the Duke and Duchess of York. In the original priory church (only ruins of which now survive) key ancestors of Richard III, including Lionel, Duke of Clarence, and Edmund Mortimer, Earl of March, lie buried. But for me the most significant thing is that, despite the vandalism of that appalling monster, Henry VIII, Clare Priory is a functioning Augustinian Priory today. I know the Augustinian community there, and from time to time I greatly benefit from the peace of a short period of retreat with them, spending time in contemplative prayer.
What was the last book you read?
I re-read Dorothy L Sayers’ BUSMAN’S HONEYMOON. I love her style of writing.
What is your favourite book?
The Cloud of Unknowing. It’s a late fourteenth-century guide to Christian meditation.
What three new skills would you like to learn?
I can’t think of any NEW skills. But I would very much like to reactivate my knowledge of Greek. I love Greek literature.
What do you like to do outside writing?
I like gardening and cooking, and I love the theatre. Also it’s very important to me to spend time in meditation.
Describe for us a day in your life when you are writing?
I get up early. Soon after getting up, I open up the hen house where my re-homed ex-battery hens live, then I make a cup of black coffee and turn on the computer.
What does your writing space look like?
I use the dining room. On the mantel piece there’s a Victorian black and gold clock, with a large ebony elephant on either side. One of my great uncles brought the elephants back from Sri Lanka in about 1900. On either side of the fireplace there’s an alcove, filled with bookshelves. My computer sits on an eighteenth-century mahogany table, on top of a beautiful Indian table cloth. And I sit on one of the mahogany dining chairs. In front of me is the window, beyond which lies the garden, behind the house. There, while I’m thinking, I watch the chickens wandering about on the grass.
Your next book ‘The Mythology of Richard III’ is due to be released in April this year, are you presently working on a new project?
Yes, I’ve been asked to write a book on the ‘Wars of the Roses’, which is also due out later this year.
I was the leader of genealogical research and historical adviser on the ‘Looking for Richard‘ project, which led to the rediscovery of the remains of Richard III in August 2012. My Richard III work demonstrates, I believe, that I have a special interest in controversial topics, and a talent for taking a fresh approach, which can sometimes lead to significant new discoveries.I have currently had five history books and numerous historical research articles published. My sixth book – The Third Plantagenet, a study of George, Duke of Clarence, is due out in March 2014. Due out in 2015 is The Dublin King, the true story of Edward, Earl of Warwick, Lambert Simnel and the Princes in the Tower. My latest book Royal Marriage Secrets recently received an excellent review in The Spectator. As a result of my work on the Richard III project I participated in British, Continental and Canadian TV documentaries on the search for Richard III. Subsequently I have also participated in a general historical documentary on the life of Richard III for the USA, and interest has been expressed in the possibility of further TV work based on two of my books.
I am a freelance historian; historical researcher; writer and lecturer. I am a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, and a member of the Society of Genealogists, the Richard III Society, the Centre Europeen d’Etudes Bourguignonnes, and have recently been elected a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London
My doctoral research was centered upon the client network of John Howard Duke of Norfolk in North Essex and South Suffolk. Since 1997 I have regularly given historical talks, and published historical research, achieving a certain reputation in aspects of late medieval history.