Autobiographical Note (2008)
I wrote in my first book, The Greatest Traitor, that although a life may begin at birth, a life story begins much earlier. In my case there are quite a few beginnings.
The families which produced me and my two brothers were quintessentially English. My father, John Stephen Mortimer, was an architect from Plymouth, Devon. He worked for local authorities in South London from the 1960s to the 1980s, so he designed utilitarian buildings and box-like flats which gave him no great satisfaction. He began his career dreaming of designing churches on the principle of the hexagon, with spires coming down to earth as well as pointing to heaven, and he ended his career redesigning the playing areas of sports halls and swimming pools, and designing social housing. He inspired my love of history probably more than anyone else. Tragically he died in 1993 at the age of fifty-eight as a result of a hereditary disease, Fabry’s Disease, which had delivered him his first stroke at the age of forty-three. I often pause and reflect that, although we may think of ‘an inheritance’ as a parcel of land or an old possession, these are not real inheritances – we can lose them. Real inheritance is what you can’t lose, be it your colour, a disability from birth, or the genetic inability to produce an enzyme which results in your death at fifty-eight. My father's grandfather was forty-seven when Fabry’s Disease killed him.
My father was the son of John Stuart Mortimer, the last member of the family to have owned the firm of Mortimers (Plymouth) Ltd, founded in the eighteenth century by my great-great-great-great-grandfather, John Mortimer. From 1773 to 1933 they were all dyers and cleaners, employing 150 staff in about a dozen branches in the first decades of the twentieth century. When people from Devon and Cornwall ask whether I am descended from the noble medieval family which toppled Edward II, I have to smile, knowing that my ancestors were the people who did their ancestors’ laundry.
One of my father’s sisters became a champion tennis player. As Angela Mortimer she won several grand slam titles, namely the French singles title in 1955, the Wimbledon ladies’ doubles title the same year, the Australian singles title in 1958, and the Wimbledon singles title in 1961. That last victory was the biggest thing that had ever happened to our family. To say my father, grandmother and my other aunt were merely ‘proud’ would be a huge understatement. I was deeply affected by her success, even though it happened before I was born. If a member of your family is a world champion, then the benchmark by which you measure success is somewhat different from other people’s. I grew up with the knowledge that someone from my family could be the best in the world at something. That realisation, you could say, was another ‘inheritance’.
My mother came from Sussex. If my father inspired my love of history, then probably my mother inspired my fondess for poetry, reading poems to me every night as a child. Her father, an accountant, and mother lived for almost all their married lives in a little semi-detached in Patcham on the edge of Brighton. My great-grandfather, Horace Harvey, had been a gunner in the First World War and died in August 1975, just before I was eight. He left me his ten-volume Harmsworth History of the World to encourage me to be a historian. That might seem a little premature, but I see that my history master’s report for the spring and summer school terms 1976 reads ‘Here surely is a future historian in the making; he has a very sound knowledge and good understanding’. So, premature, yes, but not without some justification.
Education and Work
I was educated at Bickley Park School (London Borough of Bromley), and Eastbourne College (Sussex) to which I won an academic scholarship. Leaving school in 1985, I spent a year working in various odd jobs and busking with a guitar around Italy. At Exeter University, where I read history in 1986-9, I spent most of my time either practising the art of poetry or living a ‘poetic’ life, which largely involved doing everything to excess except studying. I lived with art-student friends in a semi-derelict, remote sixteenth-century farmhouse in East Devon, about a mile over the fields from the village of Whimple. Life there was a whirl of wine, women and song, plus open fires, motorbikes, very large parties, more wine, poems, delusions of grandeur, and a frantic burst of academic effort two weeks before the exams.
In 1990-91 I spent a year in the antiquarian book trade in Charing Cross Road. That too was an education. The tedium of selling the books ocasionally overcame me and my colleagues, and we would find more creative ways to get customers' attention. Among the more interesting ideas we carried out was that of nailing books to the floor: that gave rise to an extraordinary range of reactions. Another was to burn some sacrifical guides to Windsor when we heard about the calamity of the fire at the castle there. Shocked members of the public came into the shop yelling at us for burning books, and comparing us to Hitler's Nazis. There is something sacred about the very idea of a book, I realised, even in the minds of people who do not read.
On my return to Devon, a friend pulled a job advertisement out of a local newspaper. Archives Assistant. ‘If you apply for that, you’re bound to get it,’ he declared with utter confidence, as I stripped down my oil-covered motorbike. Luckily, he was right. I worked for Devon Record Office for a year before going up to UCL to read for a MA in archives studies. Still my main written output was poetry, mainly inspired by history (e.g. 'Family Portrait').
The old Devon Record Office was a wonderful place to work. Miles and miles of shelves of documents, from the medieval court rolls and episcopal registers to the modern records of the county and the parish registers detailing my family history. Working there taught me that there is intense drama to be found in the lives of even the least politically important men and women. One of the series of documents which most gripped me was the admissions registers for the local lunatic asylums. Here were the lost souls of Victorian England, their sad plights documented by the thousand in extreme detail. For example, take Elizabeth Chichester Adams, a fifty-three year-old from Wrafton in North Devon. You might think she was relatively lucky in life, being a gentlewoman. But when the physician entered her room he ‘found her on her knees with her hands firmly clasped, imploring her attendant to save her from the executioners. She repeated as fast as she could utter that she had been falsely accused of murdering her mother and that she had, in consequence, been sentenced to be cut in pieces, that her flesh was to be severed from her bones until she was reduced to a skeleton’. Or consider the case of Mary Jane Lerwill, aged thirty, the wife of a man in the coastguard service. She was constantly in tears, believing her husband intended to burn her alive. She had ended up trying to kill her infant child and several times had been seen running around the countryside in a state of nudity. So many women were in the asylum believing their husbands or families were trying to kill them. So many men wanted to marry Queen Victoria! You could almost hear the cries and moans echoing along the brick corridors of the asylum.
I have never regretted my background in archive work – it is, I think, an excellent grounding for a historian, both methodologically and in terms of direct access to accounts of the past. However, if you are a writer at heart, then being an archivist is a frustrating experience. I used to compare it to being a member of a racing driver’s pit crew: you are always looking after and preparing the tools with which someone else will get all the glory. So, having qualified as an archivist in the summer of 1993, I found I wanted to do something different. I took a year-long contract working in the history department at Reading University, editing two volumes of seventeenth-century documents for publication by the fledgling Berkshire Record Society. Therein lay more inspiration. When one of the scholars on the interviewing panel asked me what I had published in the past, I told him about my poems. 'Why do you want to work in archives then?' he asked. 'Because archives are full of poetry,' I replied. 'You won't find any poetry here,' he said. How wrong he was. Those probate accounts contain the cries of the dying as they were shut up in plague-infested houses, the bitterness of legal wrangles over estates. The despair of an old woman unable to execute her murdered husband's will after his body had been found wrapped in hides in a shallow grave.
By the summer of 1994, I knew I wanted to write history books, but history books of a more sympathetic and understanding nature than most academic tomes. So I started to work on the idea which became The Time-Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England. I met my future wife, Sophie, as a result on 5 January 1995, and four days later started work at the Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts. I was elected a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society in 1998. Sophie and I married and started a family, and moved back to Devon, to Moretonhampstead, in 1999.
The job market for historians in Devon has never been a large one. I took another year-long contract at Exeter University, working for the Centre for Medical History with a medical historian whose character was the very antithesis of my own. He was entirely concerned with academic research; I was entirely concerned with telling a story. Somewhere we had enough in common that, amid the tensions and sparks, I learned a great deal about historical methodology. I also learned a lot about the philosophy of history, and the history of anthrax, silicosis and trades unions' attitudes to industrial diseases. I also realised that I needed a PhD if I was ever going to get anywhere in this business. So I enrolled for one, thinking I would pay for it by combining a one-third-time job as the archivist in the university library with an AHRB grant and writing a popular book. Although I did continue working as the archivist in charge of the literary papers at Exeter University until March 2003, my life as a poet-cum-archivist really came to an end when I signed the contract for The Greatest Traitor in March 2001. From then on my poetic thoughts flowed into the historical writing. I have been listed in subsequent editions of the International Who’s Who in Poetry but I have written very few poems since then. One the of the last was a poem to mark the the celebrations of '31 December 1999'.
The Greatest Traitor occupied me for the rest of 2001 (see separate note About writing The Greatest Traitor). The following year I set to work on my PhD. In time-honoured fashion I burnt the candle at both ends. I read thousands of probate accounts, mapping out the last days of about 4,000 men and women from the sixteenth and seventeenth-centuries. The largest collection of these documents had been microfilmed, so I found an old microfilm reader, and obtained a grant to buy the necessary films. In this way I was able to work around the clock. I started research in January 2002 and handed in the first draft of my thesis to my supervisors (Dr Jonathan Barry, University of Exeter, and Dr Margaret Pelling, University of Oxford) twenty-two months later, in November 2003. I then drew up an essay based on it for the Alexander Prize, awarded annually by the Royal Historical Society. I was very pleased to be told in April 2004 I had won. That same month I heard that my essays demonstrating that there is no sound information basis for the death of Edward II in 1327 had been accepted for the English Historical Review. On 23 April I had my viva, and was effectively awarded my PhD. Shortly afterwards I was made an Hon Fellow of Exeter University. I had finally finished my formal education, aged thirty-six.
When I finished the first draft of my PhD (in November 2003) I began writing my second medieval book almost straight away (see the note about writing The Perfect King). It was hard work, covering the entire fifty year reign in a single year. Academics with stipends can take their time, and have the natural interruptions of students and teaching, and going to and from the university. I did not; I just worked. I felt I had to prove myself, if I wanted to be an independent writer; and that meant writing around the clock. In The Perfect King, I set myself the target of writing a book more exciting and dramatic than any academic could produce within the framework of higher education - and more carefully researched and original than anything by any other popular writer then dealing with the middle ages.
Between November 2003 and December 2008, I wrote about a million words. In addition to The Perfect King I completed The Fears of Henry IV and The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England, as well as the first 100,000 words of 1415: Henry V's Year of Glory and a 100,000-word novel for my son. I also rewrote my PhD for publication), wrote a large number of articles for the academic press, magazines and newspapers, and gave a number of talks to radio and television, academic audiences, history societies and literary festivals. At the same time I served as a parish councillor (2003-7), a Secretary of State appointed Member of Dartmoor National Park Authority (representing the Teignbridge parish councils, 2003-7), and Chairman of Moretonhampstead History Society (from 2005). I also initated and directed an archival project, 'Eighteenth Century Devon: People and Communities', for The Friends of Devon Archives (2004-7).
The years 2003-8 were busy, challenging, interesting and rewarding. I didn't waste my thirties, that is certain; even if the years in question saw less poetic wonderment than my twenties. At the end of 2008 I feel there are so many more things I want to say and do. I want to write a book of essays about the nature of information. I want to take periods of time and compare them for our perceptions of how they change. I want to write an Elizabethan Time Traveller's Guide. I want to write more biographies, more poetry, and even some fiction. There is so much to say about the poetry of history, and the many meanings of understanding the past. After all, history is not about the past; it's about humanity in time - understanding our own species over the course of centuries. That, surely, has to be the most inspiring thing in the world.