Empathy – Historical Sanitisation or Human Celebration?

Rosanna Heverin, co-editor of History Riot, museum educator and live int476604_10151472031725257_417221119_o - Copyerpreter, discusses the role of empathy in the presentation of two exceptional women, Anne Boleyn and Amy Johnson.

Whilst walking round the Museums and Heritage Show a couple of weeks ago, I came across the Association for Heritage Interpretation’s stall, and they were kind enough to give me a copy of their bi-annual magazine. The theme they were exploring was empathy, and it got me thinking.

In my professional life, outside of being a History Riot-er, I am a museum educator. I have been lucky enough to teach at a glorious range of sites on a glorious range of subjects, from a rather frantic demonstration of the Tudor great chain of being in the splendour of the Great Hall in Hampton Court Palace, to handling Second World War artefacts underneath the fuselage of a Lancaster. But the one thing that doesn’t change, whatever it is I am teaching about, is that it is my job to engage and enthuse people of all ages about history. And the best way I can do that – irrespective of what era I am teaching about or what age group I am teaching – is with empathy. Getting children to imagine what it would have been like to be in Dresden or Berlin and look up at the night skies and see hundreds upon hundreds of Lancasters in formation. Asking women to imagine a world where they exist legally as property, first of their father and then of their husband. It is both a brilliant way into subjects and ticks a National Curriculum box for those stressed school teachers who are heroes for organising school trips to these amazing heritage sites.

A Lancaster flying over Germany on a bombing raid

But I have been thinking – for more specific learning experiences or heritage interpretations that are centred around a historical individual – how should we be empathising with these people? Is there a wrong way and a right way to empathise? Is it hiding the more negative aspects of these historical peoples’ characters to promote the good?

“Historians don’t agree on whether Anne was guilty of treason or innocent, so it is no wonder it is difficult for popular culture and fiction to decide”

It is no secret that one of my favourite historical women of all time is Anne Boleyn. I believe she features on many peoples’ lists of favourite historical women (because I’m not the only one who writes these kinds of lists…right?). I have seen Anne interpreted myriad of ways. In Wolf Hall she was a rather sour faced, highly strung piece of work (played exceptionally by Claire Foy); in The Tudors she was ambitious and infatuated with the King (a hugely popular portrayal by Natalie Dormer). In The Other Boleyn Girl she is, brilliantly, a truly horrific human, bizarrely quick to decide sleeping with her brother is the only logical way to deal with the fact she has not yet given Henry VIII a son…Now I’m not saying these are wrong or right (although the last one is completely ridiculous). Historians don’t agree on whether Anne was guilty of treason (the Eric Ives school of thinking) or innocent (the Alison Weir version) – so it is no wonder it is difficult for popular culture and fiction to decide on an Anne. But a heritage site, and educators and interpreters at those sites, have a greater responsibility than novelists or screenwriters.

Natalie Dormer as Anne Boleyn in The Tudors_
Natalie Dormer as Anne Boleyn in The Tudors

 Last summer, I saw a portrayal of Anne Boleyn in which she giggled, simpered, snogged Thomas Wyatt and shouted a bit. On stage, on film or on the page, this could have been an interesting dramatisation of a character. The problem is that Anne was a real person, not a creation, and we weren’t watching a play, we were stood in a historical site with an incredible reputation.

This interpretation had been chosen – it had been written by a playwright commissioned by the management team of the heritage site, and directed to be this way. It will have been researched and discussed and selected by the department in charge of live interpretation. The interpretation formed a free part of the site’s regular daily offer – people did not buy tickets for their day with the expectation they would see some museum theatre. Instead it was placed alongside static interpretation and knowledgable guides, so for those visitors who may not know too much about Anne Boleyn, this interpretation had every appearance of researched, reliable, trustworthy interpretation.

Heritage sites have a high cultural capital. Visitors, quite rightly, expect heritage sites to deliver accurate research in an engaging way. Watching Anne flirt with Wyatt was faintly amusing, but almost certainly inaccurate (there is no documented proof that Anne and Wyatt had a physical relationship of any sort or at any time), which felt wrong to me, and utterly devoid of empathy. Listening to the murmurs of visitors around me (“ooh, she was a right madam, wasn’t she?” “you can see why she had to get her head cut off”) was difficult. I have taught about Anne and I have interpreted Anne, and whatever camp you fall into – innocent or guilty, Ives or Weir – the un-debatable truth is that she was a person. A woman who lived and breathed, and loved and danced, and argued and felt afraid and frightened. A woman who died when her daughter was only two years old.

“Empathy is as vital to me as research in creating balanced, accurate and intelligence interpretation at heritage sites.”

In creating Anne as a caricature, the portrayal lost humanity and so invoked no empathy in the audience. Every fascinating, engaging, controversial, thought-provoking aspect of her life, of Tudor Queens and of Tudor womanhood was ignored. And I realised – it is the pursuit of empathy for the historical people we discuss that helps create this vital dialogue between visitors and heritage interpreters, especially live interpreters. Empathy is as vital to me as research in creating balanced, accurate and intelligence interpretation at heritage sites.

There is, of course, a flip side to this. I am currently writing an education session for Key Stage 2 children about Amy Johnson. Amy Johnson was undeniably an incredibly fascinating woman. She was the first woman to fly to Australia, she was at one point the only woman in the entire world to be an engineer and she was the inspiration for many young women who took up flying in the 1930s, who would make up a part of that vital force, the ATA (Air Transport Auxiliary) in World War Two. Jane Cartwright, as a part of Spectrum Drama, does a lovely workshop about Amy when she completely enthrals children with the tale of Amy’s flight to Australia.

amy j
Amy Johnson

 What she doesn’t mention, and what I am not planning to mention in my session, is that Amy was also referred to as the ‘Gimme Gimme’ girl for her apparent love of freebies; that she was not necessarily a great pilot; that she had a sense of entitlement borne of her fame and that, simply put, she probably wouldn’t be the easiest person to sit and have a coffee with. Yet all these traits make her incredibly empathetic and are very understandable – she had worried about money most of her  life (hence the love of freebies), she had the guts to fly to Australia so who cares if she wasn’t great at landing, she had had to fight for every scrap of her fame and she had lost her sister at a young age and been treated horribly by men so yes, perhaps she was a little prickly. So why am I not going to mention them?

Primarily it is because we need more STEM role models for children, especially girls, so that is what I am going to focus on. It is also largely because it would be slightly ridiculous to try and get Year 4 pupils to consider the long-term ramifications of childhood austerity. But also because Amy, like Anne, was a real woman who lived and was brilliant. Empathy isn’t the sanitising of the aspects of history we don’t like. Empathy is the discussion and celebration of what made historical people just like us; it is a way of bringing a site to life; it makes research sing and sparkle from the page and it brings the past closer than any other skill heritage interpreters have.

Empathy is vital. Without it, we have a country of soulless and dull museums and historic houses, and the people who lived there once upon are relegated to being caricatures. But with empathy? Then we have something magical.

Rosanna Heverin is a museum educator, heritage interpreter and and co-editor of History Riot.

Follow her on Twitter: @RLHeverin

Right to fight? A female history of violence

Actor, director, voice artist and heritage interpreter Lucy Charles takes us through a brief history of women’s involvement in violence – whether as protest, war effort or martial art.

EWDHaving exercised my right to vote in yesterday’s elections, my thoughts wondered to fellow Royal Holloway alumna Emily Wilding Davison, and the violent means undertaken by the Suffragettes in order for us to be able to mark the ballot paper. (Emily Wilding Davison died as a result of injuries she received at the Epsom Derby in 1913, trying to draw attention to the women’s suffrage movement.)

Emily and I share the same university, the same belief in equal rights with men, but I would not have laid down my life for the cause, so how far would I have gone? Would I have smashed windows, chained myself to railings, fought with weapons against those who stood in my way? Throughout history women have had to fight, and overstep the boundaries of convention to be heard and to secure change. Boudicca in England, Nanny of the Maroons in Jamaica, Joan of Arc in France, Nzinga Mbande in Angola, Nakano Takeko in Japan – these are just a few examples of those who took up arms and led forces in combat for their cause.

Lucy Spitfire 2

Still from ‘Brodworth at War’. Women were not able to fly planes in active combat, only between domestic airbases. Their work as plotters were key in winning the Battle of Britain.

Women who fight continue to perplex those who promote the accepted view that women are the ‘fairer,’ ‘gentler’ sex.

There are countless deities dedicated to war from around the world, many of them goddesses, as well as examples of violent women in popular culture: Medea guilty of infanticide, Lady Macbeth inciting regicide, the White Witch guilty of terrorising Narnians and Buffy, on the flip side, on her nightly missions slaying the daemons of the west coast. The question of whether women can fight alongside men in the military is still a taboo for many, the recurring argument being that sex will get in the way and detract the attention from the task in hand. Sex and violence seem inextricably linked. Rape is a recognised ‘weapon of war,’ and is even mentioned in the Bible.




Empress Menen said in 1935, “women in this world are connected and have the same desires in maintaining world peace and love… In spite of the differences of colour, race, creed and religion between women in this world, they all hate war because the fruit of war is nothing but disaster.”

Empress Menen

Her words echo the plot of Aristophanes poignant comedy Lysistrata (written way back in 411 BCE ), an amusing, risqué plot that sees women reclaiming the power of sex. The play highlights the constant blight of the Peloponnesian wars. So fed up of losing their beloved menfolk, Lysistrata leads the women in a sex strike in order to achieve peace. The women further enrage the Athenean men by seizing control of the Acropolis and barring them, thus keeping them away from state treasure used to fund the fruitless wars.

In a similar vein, enraged by extortionate taxes used to fund years of war with France, Johanna Ferrour, an English commoner, was instrumental in what became known as the Peasants Revolt in 1381. She was ‘chief instigator’ of a mob of commoners who surged to London and, for the first time in its history, took the Tower of London. Convinced that the young King Richard II was being manipulated by the Lord Treasurer and Chancellor of the Exchequer, Johanna ordered their beheadings.

Women had to contribute in siege warfare, so as not to be seen as ‘useless mouths’, taking up valuable resources without contributing to the war effort. Operating siege engines from within the castle was imperative, as was the case in the death of Simon de Montfort, killed by women operating a mangonel at a siege in southern France. There is also evidence of active female participation in the Fechtbuch I33, Europe’s oldest known fight manual, circa 1300. Walpurgis is shown in combat with sword and buckler, one of the earliest visuals of women actively engaged in martial art form in the West.

I33 getty images.jpg
Still from a fight display with Matt Wood, at the Antiquarian Book Fair, for the modern reproduction of the medieval manuscript.

Frustrated with the lack of progress, Suffragettes resorted to more proactive, violent means. They were encouraged to learn Jiu-Jitsu by Emmeline Pankhurst. Peter Blewett, Chief Instructor of The Budokwai, Europe’s oldest Martial Arts Club established in 1918, states that, “Judo translates as the ‘gentle way,’ whereby you yield to your opponents’ force, effectively using it against them. Jiu-Jitsu works with the same principle, Edith Garrud who taught Jiu-Jitsu to fellow Suffragettes was a slight woman and fought off police officers who had a minimum height restriction of 5’10. It was paramount that the Suffragettes were able to protect themselves. They were so effective at it, the term ‘Suffragitsu’ was coined.”


Budokwai poster (2).JPG
Poster from 1919 by S. Begg. The bottom right reads, “Judo, gentle art of self dance. Lady throws man.”

The old adage says that the ‘pen is mightier than the sword,’ and I have the luxury to hold this view because throughout history, there have been women who have engaged in the physical language the ruling establishment understood: violence.

Lucy Charles



Writing Women into History

As it is Women’s History Month we’re looking at how women’s history is represented in different media. Here, our very own Lauren Johnson discusses why she didn’t include a chapter about women in her latest book…

So Great a Prince FINAL artBefore I started writing my latest book (So Great a Prince: England and the Accession of Henry VIII, out now, sorry, getting the plug out the way early) I made one big decision: it would not include a chapter dedicated to women.

This isn’t because I don’t think women deserve a chapter all to themselves – women deserve all the chapters. A chapter for every one, as far as I’m concerned. I bloody love historical women. I’ve been trying to fill the gender gaps in my knowledge of the past since I was a kid, and not always with the greatest of ease. At university I was met with mild bewilderment every time – at least once a term – I asked to do a paper on women’s or gender history as part of my period of study. One tutor was so startled at the prospect of teaching me about medieval women that he grasped about for a couple of female mystics and left it at that. Not tremendously representative of general experience, it must be said.

No, the reason I denied women this chapter is because it is my firm belief that:

History should – must – always did – involve both men and women.


Women deserve more than being relegated to a sparse twenty pages, in which all of them – from migrant apprentices to pawn princesses – are lumped together as a single entity. No queen in history would have considered herself comparable to a washerwoman. Female CEOs today still probably have more in common with other managers than they do with their cleaners. Obviously there are biological facts that remain common, but the experience of periods, childbirth and pregnancy would have varied enormously depending on a woman’s class and status.

Instead, I set out very deliberately to use female examples of general historical experiences. Looking for a middle class parent? Clear off John Middleton, I’ll use your wife Alice instead. Want someone who trained apprentices and kept servants? Hello Thomasine Percyvale (nee Bonaventure – she demanded attention for that brilliant name alone). In this age of burgeoning new learning and ‘heresy’, yes I will pay you attention, Joan Warde.

Alice Middleton wikimedia.jpg

Alice Middleton in later life (Wikimedia Commons)

I won’t lie, this made my life harder. Women’s identities are obscured in historical sources at the best of times and the late medieval period is far from the best (although it’s a lot easier than the early Middle Ages, so that’s a boon). Chronicles occasionally mention a queen or heretic but they were written by men about prominent public figures and so largely concern themselves with other men. Guild archives refer to women but often just as ‘so and so’s wife’. Married women could only write wills with their husband’s permission and many working class men and women were still dying intestate. Legal records brim with female criminals or those fighting for their rights, but these women pop into existence for the duration of the case and then promptly disappear again (and that’s if enough of the case survives to fully work out what was going on). Religious theory? Medical texts? Decidedly problematic.

After all this effort meticulously researching, carefully selecting and then writing my women into the wider narrative, it was with some dismay that I read the proofs of my index and found it’s full of bloody men! Flicking back through the book, my anxieties were slightly allayed. A number of women pop up alongside men, but are not indexed due to the brevity of their appearance. And the index entry for old Thomasine lists almost a dozen appearances. (As a wealthy widowed tailor who left a will, she provided me with an enormous amount of anecdotal detail – I even know her horse’s saddle was made of blue velvet.)

The relative sparsity of female figures in the final book – they make up less than half the total characters who appear – does not make me regret the approach I took. Without the often engrossing, occasionally frustrating, effort taken to dig out these women, I would have had an easier time but a much less rounded book. I also, whether I fail or (hopefully) succeed, feel it is my duty to try and find these women. Not because I am a woman or a feminist or because I personally find women’s stories fascinating – although all of these things are true – but because I’m a historian. History has always involved both men and women. If we only tell the story of one half of the population, we are missing a huge part of the picture. Let’s not just write women’s history in single chapters or consign it to the ‘women’s history’ corner of the bookshop. Let’s tell it in all our history books.

Let’s make all our stories History.


©Photo. R.M.N. / R.-G. OjŽda

©Photo. R.M.N. / R.-G. OjŽda (wikimedia commons)



This piece was originally posted at Lauren’s blog on International Women’s Day 2016.

Lauren tweets at @History_lauren and her website is Lauren-Johnson.com

History Riot on: LGBT Month

LGBT History Month, as an official annual event, was begun by Sue Sanders in 2004. Since

Happily Ever After
Happily Ever After, Action Transport Theatre

2015, LGBT History Month has also been accompanied by a National Festival, which is hosted by different towns each weekend in February. This coming weekend, the 25th – 27th February, the People’s History Museum (part of the Imperial War Museum North) in Manchester is hosting, a museum with the truly wonderful mission statement “‘to engage, inspire and inform diverse audiences by showing ‘There have always been ideas worth fighting for’”.

For those History Rioters in the North, we strongly encourage you to go to the Museum on the 27th for an incredible programme of family-orientated events!

Across February, brilliant events have taken place across the country, in universities, schools, theatres and museums. There have been talks, rallies, dance pieces, archive viewings, theatre shows, walking tours and music performances. Where interpretation and participation in LGBT Month has been less visible is at Britain’s historic buildings and homes.

May Morris


This, we think, is a great shame, but there is a very strong beam of hope shining into the heritage world.Both our interviewees this month, Claire Hayward and Sean Curran, have worked to introduce, encourage and include LGBT history into the heritage industry (to learn more about their projects, have a look at their interviews on our Interviews page). Heritage sites are full of fascinating stories of LGBT people from the past, and the potential to explore these stories is vast, and the ways in which these stories can be told and present are as varied and exciting as the histories they can tell.

In The West Wing, there was a scene in which two characters (Sam Seabourn and Ainsley Hayes for you Sorkin fans) debated the Equal Rights Amendment – a proposed amendment to the American Constitution which was designed to legalise equal rights to women. Ainsley, a woman, was against the amendment, arguing:

“A new amendment that we vote on declaring I am equal under the law to a man – I am mortified to discover there’s reason to believe I wasn’t before. I am a citizen of this country, I am not a special subset in need of your protection. I do not need have to have my rights handed down to me…The same Article 14 that protects you, protects me, and I went to law school just to make sure.”

(Want to see more of this brilliant scene? Check it here.)

LGBT historical figures should not need to have the right to have their stories told handed down to them; they should not have to fight to be visible and present in any form of heritage interpretation. LGBT history should be an integral part of any piece of interpretation at a heritage site, as much as the history of straight, white men. Historical sites fascinate and draw in tourists because they are filled with the history of people. These centuries-old people were as varied, passionate and individual as we are today – just because we don’t hear about them does not mean they were not present in these societies. Absence of evidence of these histories is not evidence of absence of these histories.

Audre Lorde

This is not to undermine the work of LGBT History Month. Whilst these histories are marginalised and forgotten, LGBT History Month is very very necessary, just as Women’s History Month and Black History Month are. The myriad of different events celebrating LGBT History that have taken place across the country demonstrate how useful a dedicated month can be in inspiring and showcasing art, theatre and histories of the LGBT community. But, “if I had my way, February 2016 would be a glorious swan song for LGBT History Month”, as Sean Curran says in his interview.

In her interview, Claire Hayward echoes this thought, saying that one of the most important changes that needs to be seen at heritage sites “will be incorporating LGBTQ histories the year round”.

As brilliant as LGBT Month is, we can’t help but feel it will be even more brilliant when LGBT histories are celebrated all year round, consistently and clearly, and LGBT Month can exist as well as daily heritage interpretation, not instead of daily interpretation for 28 days (29 if we’re lucky) once a year.


Want to read more about LGBT History Month? Why not check out this discussion with Claire Hayward about Pride of Place or our interview with Sean Curran about whether this month should even still exist!