It is not often one have the honour of doing interviews with some of the most prominent historians in English history, but on a very quiet afternoon in January 2012, we, Maddie and Karl, were so lucky to have an appointment with Professor Emerita Barbara Yorke, known from her books on the Conversion of Britain, and her interest in the Jubilee of King Alfred celebrated in 1901.
Both of us being students at the University of Winchester knew who Barbara is, seeing that she had been teaching there for many years, until she recently retired in 2011. Due to her recent retirement we found it the right time to approach her about an interview for the blog, and we were very happy when she accepted. Together with Barbara we approached some questions which we hope can give a good portrait of Professor Yorke. Dear Barbara, we were wondering where did you study? –I did a combined-honours degree at the University of Exeter in History and Archaeology, before I went away for a year to do a course in Archive administration at the University of Liverpool, though I did not take to Archives, I did pick up a husband who is an Archivist. Then I went back to Exeter and studied under the supervision of Frank Barlow, who has worked on Edward the Confessor and William Rufus, even though I did not study the same things he still took me on and supervised me through my Post Graduate studies.
How did you find Undergraduate life? Did you find it as you had expected it to be? – I loved it, especially in those days since I grew up in the country, miles from anywhere, so life was a bit restricted on the weekends and so on, so I really loved being in a town with all the people around and it was much more of a rite of passage in those days, than today, with a change between youth and becoming an adult. After all it was quite a big thing going away and mixing with people.
Did you have a history society at the University in those days? – Yes, we did, I ran the archaeology society and a friend of mine ran the history by the time we were in the third year. So yes, I was quite involved in that.
Why did you choose to do History and archaeology? – I wanted to do something that I hadn’t done for my A-level, but were related to my interests, I had always been interested in monuments and things like that, but I didn’t really know much of archaeology, though I liked the idea of something like that, since I was keen not to do what I had done for A-level again. I had done Tudors and Stuarts for A-level and 19th and 20th century for O-level as we had then. I also realised that if I did history and Archaeology I could concentrate on the earlier periods, and do a lot of the medieval history, and I could miss out on a lot of the modern history which I didn’t actually want to do. So… that’s not always the best of reasons for selecting it…
‘Well we think and know that it has gotten you as far as it has, so it must have worked at least’.
What sort of topics are you working on for the moment, without revealing everything, so no-one will steal your great ideas?- Haha…, well I don’t think there would be many people trying to snatch a good idea from me, but I got a number of things going; I am advising on a number of projects, mostly archaeology-based who want a historian to act as an advisor, for instance the Prittlewell Anglo-Saxon burial, which is being written up, and I am doing the history background, whereas other people are doing the archaeological parts of it. We are meeting about it and sharing ideas and then go away and write up each their own part, so I am doing things like that. And then I am writing up a lecture I gave at Manchester, called; the Toller Lecture which I did early last year on King Alfred and his background in traditional English heroic background, and how he relates to that. And then there is something that I am supposed to be working on, which I have told people that I am working on, which I really haven’t done much on yet, which is; the origins of kingdoms in Anglo-Saxon England, why they suddenly appear when they did in the 6th century, in a way as an extension on the book I have already written on the conversion of Britain, to see if the kingdoms naturally develop or if they were provoked or what stimulated the developments and settlements of the Anglo Saxon societies. And to look at the late Iron Age when the Romans get interested in Britain, and see if some clues to unravelling this mystery might lie there and to look into the stimulation of kingship and settlements under the Roman influence can reflect the development possible in the 6th century. And if something like that happens due to the growing powers of the Franks, perhaps as well as more of the Roman background as some people think, but I’m also interested in works done on areas like Scandinavia on origins of kingdoms there, and whether there are any kingdoms in places like Norway as early as the fifth or sixth century. If not, then why not, and what do they have instead, and why do kingdoms suddenly appear. So I really want the Anglo-Saxon kings and kingdoms to come out with a broader context and background, both Germanic, European and Roman, to be able to understand better the origins of them as well as why they appear when they did, and compare what happened in Britain in the fifth and sixth century with what happened in the late Iron Age. So, yes I have wanted to do it for some time, but I haven’t got around to doing it yet, although I might just do some aspects of it, it can still be interesting to see how it all developed.
Is there any topic, if the sources were there, you would have liked to do? – Well I think the origins of kingdoms fall under that, but since there isn’t then that’s why it has to be a kind of comparative approach.
Is that where you would have to draw upon archaeology as well as history? – Yes it would have to build upon archaeological evidence, because that is making the whole period much clearer. And in fact some of the archaeology projects I am involved in are dealing with what is happening in the sixth century. So I’m hoping that being involved with those will encourage me to get on with it.
Have you found this interview interesting so far? More is to come, log back on in a few hours and read the continuation of this interview. Barbara will be talking about King Alfred, challenges as a historian and the need for history and archaeology to work together for the early medieval period.