History isn’t ‘more or less bunk’. It isn’t ‘what you know’ or ‘what you can remember’. It’s an endlessly fascinating, endlessly frustrating fabric of other people’s lives and stories, shot through with art and music, with literature, ideas and imagination; with hope, despair, courage and cruelty, good luck, bad luck and sheer stupidity. It’s us as we might have been. We’ll never fully understand it and we’ll never give up trying.
By the time my school rough books began to fill with sketches of medieval costumes, kings hiding in oak trees, Viking longships and doomed cavaliers I was caught and the journey through ‘O’ and ‘A’ level to reading history at university felt very natural, though if anyone had asked me what I wanted to be I would have said ‘an illustrator’. But history is full of pictures and you can draw them with words as well as pencils. I first understood how alive those words can be when, as a student, I was able to see and touch the actual sheet of paper on which, over three centuries before, a fourteen-year-old girl had described her last meeting with her condemned father. ‘He bid me tell my mother that his thoughts had never strayed from her, and that his love should be the same to the last.’ She never lived to tell her mother, dying in captivity a year later, but through paper and fading ink she passed his message on to the world, and to the unknown future.
For my first degree I concentrated on early history with a special interest in Dark Age Britain; my MA thesis looked at the role played by ambassadors and spies in building up the art collections of the ‘Whitehall Circle’ – Charles I and his courtiers in the 1620s and 30s. My first independent piece of research, undertaken for its own sake but also in the hope of eventual publication, was the biography of the First World War poet William Noel Hodgson, who died on the Somme in 1916. I paid my way while I was working on him by accepting commissions for miniature paintings – especially portraits – and for the scale models and dolls I had always made as a hobby. My first customers were friends and friends of friends but soon this became a career in its own right, with orders from around the world.
In 1991 a chance meeting led to an invitation to work a new monthly journal, Royalty Digest, which was to explore the history and bibliography of European royalty in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This was an intriguing prospect and an entry to the world of publication so I accepted. Royal history was a long-standing interest and I had besides a large and growing collection of early royal photographs which proved to be a valuable resource. For fourteen years I was the journal’s principal contributor, writing articles and reviews, researching and sourcing illustrations and, if all else failed, drawing them by hand.
Work on the magazine opened new doors, none more important or exciting than the chance to research and write my first book, a life of Leopold, Duke of Albany, Queen Victoria’s youngest son. A biographer’s dream, this – an neglected subject whose voice still spoke through an extensive and almost untapped correspondence. The book was well received and was chosen as The Daily Telegraph’s book of the week shortly after publication and I went onto write four more books for the same publisher, all on royal themes.
Books apart, my work on Royalty Digest has led to writing for other magazines and journals and to commissions to plan and speak on tours devoted to royal history, principally in Russia, but also in Germany and the UK. I also have other speaking engagements and contribute research and interviews to programmes on radio and television, in this country and occasionally further afield. The journal ceased publication in the summer of 2005 but I still write for its child and successor, Royalty Digest Quarterly, which has been published in Sweden since 2006.