'She's very unusual for the 15th century': Historian Lauren Johnson on Margaret Beaufort
Royal Bastards: Rise of the Tudor's historical consultant, Lauren Johnson speaks to Sky History about her involvement in the show and why Medieval life wasn't as brown and drab as everyone assumes.
Lauren Johnson is a historian, writer and heritage interpreter who specialises in the Fifteenth and Early Sixteenth Centuries. She currently writing a biography of Margaret Beaufort.
Can you explain what does a historical consultant do and what was your role on Royal Bastards?
I talked to the production team about various different historical interpretations. What was really interesting about this project, is that the story was very much coming from the point of view of characters in the case of Margaret Beaufort or occasionally from the perspective of Margaret Anjou on the Lancastrian side. My role was about getting inside the minds of those people and offering kind of a historical interpretation, rather than just the history, going into much more speculative depth.
How do you get inside the mind of someone from the medieval period, that seems like quite a challenge?
The big thing you have to do is do a lot of wide research to get your head into that era, because, at first sight, everything was completely alien in the 15th century, particularly the experience of being a woman.
Understanding the limitations that were on people, socially, never mind economically, medically, legally, is a really important part of that research. How are women able to express power or individuality when they're not supposed to do that, really, in a public forum? How did they find a way to do it?
One thing I'm really interested in is finding some parallels with the 21st century. So, looking at the experience of Margaret Beaufort as a teen mother who probably has some measure of psychological trauma and lives through several plagues, how does that inform her psychology? Looking at those things from a 21st-century psychological perspective can be quite valuable.
What drew you to the 15th and 16th centuries as a field of study?
To be honest it was about the women in that era and how fascinating those individuals are. The Wars of the Roses is a 30-year conflict in which you have maybe a matter of months total of actual armed conflict. Most of it is a political war. It's a Cold War.
The Wars of the Roses gave noblewomen an unusual opportunity, in that, with men either being killed or exiled as a result of the wars, the women were the ones who had to piece everything back together.
The series focuses on the life of one such woman, Margaret Beaufort. Can you give us a bit of background on who she is and her historical importance?
It's through Margaret Beaufort bringing together lots of different political factions together at a crucial point in time in the reign of Richard III, that enables the Tudors to take this throne.
She's very unusual for the 15th century. At the beginning of the series, she's only 13, she's already been married twice. She has been widowed once and she is heavily pregnant in a war-torn territory in a time of plague. It could not be worse for her and yet somehow by the end of this story, she is the mother of a king and the most powerful person in the country, probably after the king himself. How do we get there? That's what's so fascinating about her story.
Do you hope the show and your book will make her more of a household name?
I hope so. What I particularly want is for her to be understood within the context of this time. I think there tends to be quite a negative view of her, that she's this sort of like Tiger Mother figure who was always trying to claw her way onto the throne which isn't the case at all. She is someone who is reacting to the events of her time, which are extraordinary and unprecedented. She is just trying to do what everyone in this period of history is trying to do. She's trying to protect her family and that is what I hope people will understand.
Do you have a sense of what she was like as a person?
What's amazing about her is that because she becomes a very important person, later on, we have surviving documentation about her. We even have two descriptions that were written by people who know her in this period which is incredible for a woman even of her status at this time.
What really comes out with those descriptions is not her as an ambitious figure or someone who would stop at nothing, that she's ruthless. She is very much a person who is cared about by the people who know her. She has a real sense of duty and responsibility to the people around her. She tries to look after anyone who works for her, she even knows her servants' names.
She is the first woman to be published in England. She writes translations that are published and she's doing that to disseminate knowledge. She really is someone who is trying to kind of pay it forward, who's trying to help other people as well. That is what comes out, and I think that is something that has not really been explored.
What do you think of the way the series uses the three principal storytellers to narrate the events of the Wars of the Roses?
The storytellers in particular are so valuable because it makes it very clear that there are certain angles of information that are presented. It really clarifies the fact that this is a period about which people have very divergent opinions. My role was to talk to the producers and provide information from these different interpretations. I think it really drops you into the middle of what was going on at that time.
It makes it really immediate and relatable in a way that sometimes the Wars of the Roses isn't because it can just seem like a period of history where you have loads of people called Richard hitting each other. Having the dramatic re-enactments that literally show you what's going on, and having the story told as a narrative, I think really helps.
As a historian, what's one thing that really infuriates you about the depiction of the middle ages on TV and film?
Almost every single adaptation you will see of anything set in the Middle Ages or a fantastical medieval-like world, like Game of Thrones is that everyone is just wearing brown or black. There's mud everywhere and no one is happy any of the time. But actually, the medieval period is incredibly rich and beautiful. Think about what survives: the illuminated manuscripts, cathedrals with incredible architecture, beautiful buildings, palaces and the descriptions of battles. This might seem a strange example but Medieval battles aren't just a load of people hitting each other in the mud. There are standards and banners and trumpets and drums. It would have been quite an extraordinary, sensory experience - confusing and very frightening but extraordinary to see. I think all of those elements of mediaeval life gets lost. It wasn't just all brown.
The brand-new and exclusive three-part series Royal Bastards: Rise of the Tudors premieres on Sky HISTORY, Sky Showcase and NOW on Monday 22nd November at 9pm. Sky HISTORY is available on Sky 123, NOW, Virgin 270 and TalkTalk 327. All episodes will be available on catch-up services.