A few days before telling Shami Chakrabarti to ‘shut up’ about the Human Rights Act, David Starkey gave a lecture on Magna Carta at the British Library. Asked his opinion on Hilary Mantel’s portrayal of Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall, he said that it was historically inaccurate and ‘lady novelists need a hero’. (Earlier this year he called the novel a ‘deliberate perversion of fact’.) To hear Starkey tell it, you’d think Wolf Hall was full of scenes of a shirtless Cromwell scything in the summer heat. His view isn’t only misogynist, but completely misses the point. It’s a bit like saying Shakespeare’s history plays are bad history.
The subject of the lecture was billed as ‘Magna Carta and Us’, but he said he was actually going to talk about ‘Magna Carta: the Missing Century’, because in his view the BL’s exhibition had missed out the Tudors in telling the story of Magna Carta’s reality and myth. So far, so ungracious.
The ‘missing’ material in the exhibition was never really explained. (The first printed edition of the charter, from 1508, is on display.) But Starkey seemed determined to hammer a Reformation-shaped peg into a Magna Carta-shaped hole. He went into a long explanation of the distinction between ecclesiastical and common law, without fully accounting for how Magna Carta fitted in.
For Starkey, the performance comes first. He goes in for low melodrama. ‘And then your private parts are cut off before your eyes,’ he said, describing hanging, drawing and quartering. Then he paused, surveyed the room: ‘It’s wonderful.’
‘I first took to the stage with the confidence you see here tonight,’ he said, ‘in my portrayal of Thomas Beckett in a school play of Murder in the Cathedral.’ (He didn’t comment on Eliot’s historical credentials.) The swaggering schoolboy was still evident in his snickering comments about Mantel.