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Coda: History, time and social memory

Wood, A.

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Keith Wrightson


The dangers of writing history in twenty-first-century Britain are not profound. The academic historian might incur a stinging book review, find it hard to place articles in leading journals, fail to attract research funding or, worst of all, find a secure teaching position. These things can be disappointing. But, there are no government spies leaning over our shoulders, no overt political scrutiny of our work, no conviction on the part of the state that, as Nikita Khrushchev observed, ‘Historians are dangerous, and capable of turning everything topsy-turvy. They have to be watched.’ Yet it was not always so. John Hayward discovered the ideological limits of historical writing the hard way. When he published his history of the reign of Henry IV in 1599, he dedicated it to the earl of Essex. The following year, when Essex launched his attempted coup against Elizabeth I, Hayward found himself in the Tower, accused of sedition. The affinity between Elizabeth I and Richard II, whom Henry had deposed, was too great to be ignored. Over and again Hayward's interrogators – leading members of the Privy Council – returned to his authorial intentions, especially the possibility of a link to Essex and to his apparent intention to stir trouble amongst what they called the common people. What Hayward failed to recognise was that, when writing about certain historical subjects, he had to be very cautious. The next time that he wrote a study of a reign – this time that of Edward VI – he trod carefully. In particular, his presentation of the popular rebellions of 1549 was markedly hostile, depicting the rebels as irrational, base and senseless. This time, Hayward uncritically reproduced the dominant values of his age, scripted into the historical past. Richard Grafton's Chronicle (1569) provided a blunt statement of the intended effects of reading history. From the study of the past, Grafton wrote, Kings maye learne to depende upon God, and acknowledge his governance in their protection: the nobilitie may reade the true honor of their auncestours: The Ecclesiasticall state maye learne to abhorre trayterous practices and indignities done against kings by the Popishe usurping clergie: high and lowe may shonne rebellions by their dreadfull effectes, and beware how they attempt against right, how unhable soever the person be that beareth it.


Wood, A. (2017). Coda: History, time and social memory. In K. Wrightson (Ed.), A social history of England, 1500–1750 (373-391). Cambridge University Press.

Acceptance Date Jan 1, 2017
Online Publication Date Feb 23, 2017
Publication Date Feb 23, 2017
Deposit Date Aug 11, 2018
Publicly Available Date Aug 13, 2018
Publisher Cambridge University Press
Pages 373-391
Book Title A social history of England, 1500–1750.


Accepted Book Chapter (509 Kb)

Copyright Statement
This material has been published in A social history of England, 1500–1750 / edited by Keith Wrightson. This version is free to view and download for personal use only. Not for re-distribution, re-sale or use in derivative works. © Cambridge University Press 2017.

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