Writer, TV presenter and historian Dan Jones on British history, journalism, new books, television presenting and London’s Battersea

Since the publication of his debut book about the Peasant’s Revolt, Summer of Blood, in 2009, Dan Jones has established himself as one of the most exciting new voices in history today. After studying under David Starkey at Cambridge, he worked in lifestyle journalism for a few years before devoting himself to the sort of epic page-turning books that delight both critics and readers alike; his 2012 book, The Plantagenets, was a bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic, and his most recent publication, The Hollow Crown, looks like repeating the trick. He’s also moving into TV presenting, with a couple of major new series, one about the Plantagenets, Britain’s Bloodiest Dynasty (which Jones describes as a ‘big, bloody, thrilling and edge-of-your seat’ programme, and dubbed by others as ‘the real life Game of Thrones’) and another one about British castles. Additionally, he has another book out in December, about the Magna Carta, and when he gets any time away from work, he is father to two young children.

For Dan, being a historian is something more than just poking about in libraries. When asked how he sees himself, he replies ‘I’m a writer, a storyteller and an author, but I’m also a social conscience, an archival curtain-twitcher and a truth-teller. It’s a myth that it’s only our generation that is interested in history. The Victorians were absolutely beguiled by medieval history, both in the ways that it affected society and how it was a mirror to their own,’ says the Battersea resident. ‘Look at the way that the pre-Raphaelites and the aesthetic movement celebrated medievalism in art. It wasn’t until I got to Cambridge that I could properly study medieval history, which is also uncharted territory in terms of popular readership – for quite a while there hasn’t been the same volume of mainstream historical writing about the middle ages as there has been about other periods – Tudors, World Wars, the Victorians and so on.’

One of the things that Dan is keen to do is to try and unpick myths. ‘We’ve been indoctrinated by Shakespeare to believe certain things, and the 15th century has huge resonance today, in our literary and historic heritage. Not that it makes all of it true, though. For instance, the famous ‘red rose of Lancaster’ was invented by the Tudors, purely as a symbolic way of being able to describe the so-called ‘Wars of the Roses’. They were propagandists before the word had even been invented.’
Dan is keen to view history not as a dry and desiccated collection of long-finished events, but as a living and vital thing. He owes this in no small part to his education, saying ‘I was incredibly lucky because firstly I had a great history teacher at school, and then when I went to university I was supervised by some of the best medievalists around today, such as Christine Carpenter, Helen Castor and Richard Partington.’ Starkey, of course, looms large as a mentor and influence, and he speaks warmly of his protégé, saying ‘he’s a very admirable man, doing really interesting work – he’s a good lad.’

The Plantagenets will air on Channel 5

The Plantagenets will air on Channel 5

As for TV, it’s been a baptism of fire, but an enjoyable one. ‘Revisiting the Plantagenets was probably more fun the second time around, because the process of making The Plantagenets into a TV show was partly of distilling the best stories, and partly of realising them on the screen. Channel 5 wanted the series to be as big and bold as possible and to tap into the guts – I mean that in more than one sense – of the historical drama. And I think that’s what we’ve achieved. These are four stories pulled out of the book and each one has its own life, its own flavour and its own thrilling narrative shape.’
When he’s not busy with a round of writing, filming, interviews, US publicity and research, he enjoys walking round Battersea with his family, saying ‘I grew up around green spaces, and I think I’d really miss them if I was to live somewhere unremittingly urban’, as well as lurking round the bookshops – John Sandoe is a particular favourite. ‘There is very little that I need that can not be obtained in this area, with the exception of the London Library, which I will venture east to visit occasionally.’

Britain’s Bloodiest Dynasty: The Plantagenets will air on Channel 5 this November

Words: Alexander Larman