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She has already recruited nearly 150,000 followers to her online book club. But if she could summon up any women from history for a chat about books over an evening drink, then the Duchess of Cornwall would include Queen Elizabeth I, Jane Austen, ‘a couple of the Bronte sisters’ and Anne Frank.
The future queen also revealed an unexpected literary heroine – Mrs Shakespeare – as she opened Britain’s biggest history festival yesterday in the company of two of Britain’s best-known historical novelists.
The Duchess was in Wiltshire to inaugurate the 2022 Daily Mail Chalke Valley History Festival and salute its mission to ‘excite, enthral and entertain about the past’.
There was almost every strand of that on display yesterday, as the Duchess discovered while meeting enthusiasts on subjects as varied as Egyptian meteorite jewellery, Iron Age hunting and Victorian quack medicine.
With the midsummer sun beating down on one of Britain’s prettiest festival locations, the Duchess mingled with the crowds and paused briefly for a restorative vanilla cone from an upmarket ice cream van called, appropriately enough, ‘The Duchess of Swirl’.
Keen reader: The Duchess of Cornwall at the festival yesterday
Royal tour: Camilla and Lady Rothermere
The largest of all the marquees on the 70-acre site was the setting for the main event as the royal guest of honour came to perform the opening ceremony. This was to be no ordinary royal ribbon-cutting.
The Duchess had arranged for it to be a ground-breaking collaboration between the festival and her online book club, The Duchess of Cornwall’s Reading Room.
It led to an hour-long discussion on the depiction of women in history with best-selling authors Philippa Gregory and Alison Weir. In her introductory speech, the Duchess added that she had been ‘captivated’ by both writers.
‘They have given a voice to women who, for centuries, have been overlooked, forgotten or misunderstood, such as Elizabeth of York, Mary Boleyn and Margaret Beaufort,’ she explained. As a proud local, having lived in Wiltshire for much of her life, the Duchess admitted that she was ‘biased’ when she reflected on the abundance of history hereabouts.
Henry VIII’s wife, Jane Seymour, was from just down the road. This was also home to Sir Christopher Wren and Hannah Twynnoy ‘who has the dubious distinction of being the first person in Britain to be killed by a tiger, in 1703’.
This, the Duchess added, was a reminder of the dictum that ‘it is people who make history’. She thanked the organisers and also festival patron Viscountess Rothermere, who had invited her, and reflected on the way that a small, dedicated team had completely transformed the Chalke Valley gathering in little more than a decade.
‘You have become the largest festival in the world dedicated solely to history. Not bad for an event whose original intention was rather more modest – to raise funds for the local cricket club,’ she said, quoting Wren’s epitaph beneath St Paul’s: ‘If you seek his monument, look around’.
Just outside the marquee, that view embraced displays of Civil War and Second World War gunnery, Roman fast food, a vintage fairground, Crimean cavalry and a living statue of Florence Nightingale, not to mention all the tents hosting talks, bookshops, bars and food.
The discussion was then thrown open to questions submitted by followers of the Duchess’s Reading Room. Asked how history might be different if it had been written by women and not (almost entirely) by men, Philippa Gregory pointed out we would know a great deal more ‘about incredibly interesting women and less about battles – which would be no great loss for me.’
Guest of honour: The Duchess and Lord Rothermere
The Duchess was in Wiltshire to inaugurate the 2022 Daily Mail Chalke Valley History Festival and salute its mission to ‘excite, enthral and entertain about the past’
Asked which of the wives of Henry VIII would have made the best queen in her own right, there was no contest. Both authors named Catherine of Aragon.
When the Duchess asked the writers which historical events had shocked them most, Philippa Gregory replied that she was still moved to tears, even today, by the disappearance of the young Princes in the Tower. For Alison Weir, it was the beheading of Anne Boleyn.
As the two authors switched the line of questioning towards the Duchess, she was asked about her ideal choice of an evening book club. Top of her list was Queen Elizabeth I: ‘She’d come out with some very good one-liners. Also, she was incredibly well-educated – and could speak five languages.’
Asked to name the historical female figure who had been the most enjoyable discovery through her book club, the Duchess opted for Shakespeare’s wife, Anne, as depicted in Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet. ‘She was always portrayed as a harridan,’ the Duchess reflected, ‘and she turned out to be a rather original, sympathetic character.’
Today, the Duchess will make history of a different sort as she embarks, with the Prince of Wales, on the first royal visit to Rwanda, where the leaders of the Commonwealth will meet for their first summit in four years.
- For more information about the festival, which runs until Sunday, visit www.cvhf.org.uk.