So, which figures from the past would be your perfect dinner-party guests?
Sian Williams: Firstly I’d choose Boudica because she’d have no truck with gate-rashers, so I’d have her fairly near the door. I’d have Winston Churchill for great oratory, plus a fantastic put-down when required.
I’d have Oscar Wilde because you need someone with biting wit round the dinner table and because he was such a celebrity of his day, so he’d bring glamour and controversy to proceedings. Can I have Shakespeare for the after-dinner stories, too, plus Mrs Beeton in the kitchen with me?
Dan Snow: Nelson, Wellington, Voltaire, Oscar Wilde and Churchill. I’d like to ask them what they got up to, but they’ve all got a unique insight into the human condition so I’d like to know what they think about the world, leadership, motivating their followers, politics and ideas. They’ve all got individual testimony that, as a historian, I’d love to hear.
Wellington and Nelson met in 1805 when Wellington, or Wellesley as he was then, was unknown but Nelson was a big hero and celebrity. They had a private chat for 20 minutes and nobody knows what they talked about. Nelson died soon after and Wellington, at the end of his life, commented, “I don’t know that I’ve ever had a conversation that interested me more.” It’s so exciting to think what they might have talked about – perhaps they’d reveal all over dinner.
Which historical figure could you imagine walking down the aisle with?
SW: I love literature and I’m always wooed by a nicely turned line and somebody who’s a bit on the wild side, so I thought of Lord Byron, though I realise he’s an entirely unsuitable husband. A contemporary of his called him “Mad, bad and dangerous to know”, and that’s quite appealing. He upset a lot of women but maybe I’d be the one to tame him or change him, though probably not. He’s not good husband material though, I do acknowledge that. But at least I’d be a Lady.
DS: Bess of Hardwick [a 16th-century noblewoman who had four husbands, inheriting successively more wealth, land and titles on their deaths]. I like strong, highly intelligent women. I think looks are secondary. Bess had a habit of marrying them and then them dying in mysterious circumstances, so that might be a problem. But I like feisty women.
Which one historic event would you most like to have witnessed?
SW: I’d like to have been in London on VE Day. You had Churchill’s speech being broadcast on loudspeakers, and the royal family coming out on the balcony of the Palace. There were thousands in Trafalgar Square and Piccadilly Circus and it must have been an incredibly moving moment, with an extraordinary combination of relief and delight mixed with the sadness of people lost.
DS: The Battle of Trafalgar. To have a helicopter to hover over this ship-of-the-line battle, which definitely changed the course of history, would have been extraordinary, with the close-quarter fighting and the smoke and the horror of the combat, and the sheer scale of destruction wrought on the tall ships by each other.
When you work on TV, you might make a programme where you’re on a replica ship and you fire one cannon and go over one little wave, and that’s a quite overwhelming sensation, but at Trafalgar, fought in a near gale towards the end, with a ship crowded with men, the deck slippery with blood, hot splinters flying though the air, I’ve got no idea what that would have been like.
Whose life, prematurely brought to an end, would you like to extend?
SW: Creatively, I’d say Mozart. He died in his 30s, perhaps of typhoid. It would have been fantastic to see what he’d have produced had he lived longer. Politically, I’d go for JFK. He was a visionary, wanting to put men on the Moon, not because it’s easy, but “because it is hard”. You could argue that the Berlin Wall would have come down earlier and there would have been a disarming of nuclear weapons sooner if he hadn’t been assassinated.
DS: King Henry V, though no doubt he was a bloodthirsty tyrant. But it would have been fun still owning France [Henry, victor at Agincourt in 1415, would have ruled both France and England had he lived beyond 1422]. He died of dysentery in his 30s. I think he would have been a decent king if he’d lived longer. In the context of his time, strong kingship was absolutely vital in contributing to national happiness and wellbeing.
His predecessors, Richard II and Henry IV, weren’t particularly good and nor was his successor Henry VI, so there was a century of absolute bloodshed, including Britain’s bloodiest ever battle – Towton. The importance of having a strong leader on the throne in medieval France and England was paramount, even if such leaders were slightly unpleasant people.
Whose life would you have wanted to end prematurely?
SW: Obviously you don’t want anyone’s life to end prematurely, but if I have to choose, then Hitler or Stalin. That would have saved many millions of lives.
DS: I think the world would be a better place if Attila the Hun had died young. He was an absolute b*****d. The western Roman Empire could probably have staggered on if it hadn’t been for Attila, but he gravely weakened it. I think the western empire was probably better than much of what succeeded it, despite its slave-owning and Christian-burning aspects. Attila died having sex with his new wife. He had an aneurysm. If he’d died having sex with his first wife, it would have been better.
Which period would you most like to have plied your trade in?
SW: I’d have liked to have been a reporter in Victorian Britain. It was when Britain was the most powerful nation in the world, when you had all the sophisticated political debate between Disraeli and Gladstone. Creatively you’ve got Charles Dickens at the start and Arthur Conan Doyle at the end of the era, and of course you have the Industrial Revolution.
While all this is going on you’ve got incredible poverty, tens of thousands dying of tuberculosis, for example. I’d have wanted to be on the ground, exploring the two different strands of society running in parallel – extraordinary growth and extraordinary poverty – and finding out why it was happening.
DS: The 18th century. I would have been a swashbuckling ship’s captain. I’m incredibly lucky to live when I do – a world without painkillers, anaesthetic, antibiotics and all that would have been a miserable place. But if I could deal with the child mortality and the terrible diseases that swung through every so often, I think the 18th century was an exciting time to be alive.
It was when the map of the world was being redrawn, and when British and French explorers were going out and conquering and discovering and stealing stuff. I don’t admire that behaviour, but it would have been fascinating to be part of it.
Which is your favourite historic site in the UK?
SW: There are places that we’re going to in the series that I haven’t been to – Dover Castle, for instance – so they might become favourites. Mine at the moment is St Davids in the furthest western point in Wales. It’s the smallest city in Britain, set near to the lovely rugged Pembrokeshire coastline.
You come over the brow of a hill and there’s this amazing cathedral. It’s the very essence of Welsh culture and spirituality and history. “Land of Magic”, that’s what it’s called, and it feels like it to me. When you’re there, you sense you can hear Wales and generations of Welsh people.
DS: The Historic Dockyard in Portsmouth. Maritime history is such a key part of our national character, our place in the world, our wealth, our freedoms. Various stages of that history are preserved perfectly down there from the Mary Rose, the Victory and the Warrior and some modern stuff as well. It’s quite stunning.
Which historical figure’s life should be made into a film?
SW: I think Elizabeth Garrett Anderson. She was one of nine children, born in the East End in 1836, but she wanted to be a doctor, which was unheard of in the 19th century. She was denied entry into every medical school, so she went into Middlesex Hospital, attended nursing lectures and then sneaked into doctors’ lectures, but she was barred after complaints from the men. She passed the Society of Apothecaries exam, and gained a certificate that should have meant that she became a doctor, but she wasn’t allowed. So she learnt French and went to Paris to get a medical qualification there.
When she came back to England, she was allowed to practise though she wasn’t recognised. She was a visiting physician to the East London hospital in 1870 and it wasn’t until 60 years later that women were allowed to be doctors. She was also the first female mayor, in Aldeburgh in Suffolk, and became a member of the Suffragette movement. I think her story would make a great film, particularly as there are medics in my family going back 300 years.
DS: Prince Rupert of the Rhine, King Charles I’s cavalry commander in the Civil War, was an incredibly colourful character. He was a courtier, a womaniser, a fighter, a soldier, and a thinker. He fought for King Charles in battles like Naseby, then went abroad and ended up commanding the Restoration navy in big sea actions against the Dutch. He certainly had a bizarre life, but he was one of the great figures of the 17th century.
Interview by David Musgrove, editor of BBC History Magazine and author of 100 Places That Made Britain, from BBC Books.
Dan Snow previews each episode of National Treasures Live on the weekly BBC History Magazine podcast, available free to download here
More history shows coming this autumn:
THE REEL HISTORY OF BRITAIN (BBC2) Can we ever know what it was really like to work, live and love in 20th-century Britain? With the help of previously unseen film footage, Melvyn Bragg (below) certainly brings us closer.
BACK FROM THE DEAD (C4) Bravery, sacrifice, bloodshed: just some of the challenges faced by ancient armies. An exciting three-part series delves into the lives of warriors including the Samurai and the Spartans.
REBUILDING THE PAST (BBC2) In this architecture series Dan Cruickshank and Charlie Luxton turn detective to bring back to life — brick by brick — buildings that no longer exist.