Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is a huge pleasure to be with you today, to open the 10th Chalke Valley History Festival, and I should like to thank Claudia Rothermere very much for inviting me to join you. Since 2012, you have more than surpassed your aim to “excite, enthral and entertain about the past” and, in so doing, you have become the largest festival in the world dedicated solely to history. Not bad for an event whose original intention was rather more modest - to raise funds for the local cricket club!
One of the Festival’s co-founders has rightly said that “an understanding of the past is essential: without that, it is impossible to make sense of the present or prepare for the future”. I am biased, I know, but I think that in Wiltshire, we are especially blessed with our history – or, perhaps I should say, we are fortunate to be surrounded by an abundance of ghosts… As Philippa Gregory and Alison Weir could tell us, Jane Seymour was born not too far from here, as were Sir Christopher Wren and Malmesbury barmaid Hannah Twynnoy, who has the dubious distinction of being the first person in Britain to be killed by a tiger, in 1703. To quote Alison - “it is people who make history”.
It is also people who write history and we are very lucky to have two of our finest historical novelists with us here today. Through their books, they have captivated literally millions of readers across the globe, including me, and they have given a voice to women who, for centuries, have been overlooked, forgotten or misunderstood, such as Elizabeth of York, Mary Boleyn and Margaret Beaufort. Thank you for being at the Festival – I much look forward to our discussion later today!
I know that also there are many fascinating talks and interviews to whet our cerebral appetites over the coming week. I am very envious of those who will be present on Saturday to listen to Nicholas Soames interview his sister Emma on her new biography of their late, lamented mother, Mary, which, I know will not be short of laughs! Then, of course, there is the nation’s “History Guy”, Dan Snow, who will speak about Shackleton in Antarctica; and in the wake of a triumphant Jubilee, Robert Hardman will give a talk about his recent book on Her Majesty.
Finally, I would like to thank all those who have contributed to the success of the Chalke Valley Festival over the past decade. To you, we can apply the famous words that the celebrated Wiltshire man Christopher Wren selected for his own epitaph in St Paul’s Cathedral.
I shall not attempt it in Latin, but it translates as: “If you seek his monument, look around”. As we look around today at our crowd of lovers of history and lovers of literature, we see the fruits of your vision and your labour, and we are deeply grateful to you all.
Ladies and Gentlemen, I am now delighted to declare the Chalke Valley History Festival open!