I grew up not far from the New Forest, in the south of England. Like everything with the word “new” in the name, the New Forest is actually pretty old – in Edinburgh where I live now, the New Town is about two and a half centuries old – and the name “the New Forest” dates back to the Domesday book in 1086. When I was eight years old, the BBC did an adaptation as its teatime drama of the book The Children of the New Forest by Frederick Marryat. And that, to the best of my memory, is the first time I properly clocked that there had once been a civil war in the country where I live.
Since then it’s felt like the civil war in England was just a sort of background hum, an irrelevance – there’s a statue outside the House of Commons in Westminster of Oliver Cromwell, and I knew that was controversial; I have a sort of mental image of what a Cavalier officer looks like and what a Roundhead looks like, and that was just about it.
And doesn’t that strike you as kind of odd? When I’ve told people I’m making a podcast on the civil war, quite often they assume I mean Abraham Lincoln. And I never studied history formally past sixteen but I remember spending months on the French Revolution, years on the Tudors, but practically nothing on the English Revolution. Even up here in Scotland, it seems like the Covenanters are often passed over in popular history for their grandchildren and great-grandchildren, the Jacobites.
The more I looked at it, the weirder it became, and the more fascinating it became to me – and I started to look it up, to read about it, and to want to talk about it to everyone in sight. And then not long after I started writing this podcast, the UK voted to leave the European Union. And the world, to use a phrase from the British civil wars, turned upside down, and suddenly there are echoes of the 1640s everywhere, from international relations to social movements to fake news.
So here we are! Past Tense is a new podcast about history – specifically, if you will, about bits of the past that are tense. This season is about the British Civil Wars, more or less, between the late 1620s and about 1660. The idea is that the season will go out in three volumes – the first one through to what I guess is the first major battle in England, at Edgehill; the second up to round about the declaration of the republic in 1649; and the third through to the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. My intention is not just to be very narrowly focused on England and Wales – a huge amount of the action, and the revolution, also took place in Scotland, in Ireland, occasionally in the Channel Islands and France, and it’d be a shame to miss all of that out. The plan at the moment is for each volume to be six episodes long, released every other week on a Friday morning UK time, starting on September 15th.
Now is as good a time as I’ll get to introduce the team: Past Tense is made by Feasibly Productions, from which the technical producer and sound engineer is Ali Alnajjar, and the producer is Emily Benita. The historical consultant for this season is Mary Jacobs, and the music was composed and performed by Harry Harris. I’m Fiona Barnett, and I’ve researched and written this thing, which I’m very excited to share with you over the next few months.
The first episode will drop in two weeks, on Friday 15th September, and you can find out more details about the podcast – including programme notes and full bibliographies for each episode as they appear – at pasttensepod.com. We’re on Facebook and Twitter as pasttensepod. If you’d like to support us making podcasts you can do that on our shiny new Patreon at patreon.com/pasttensepod – otherwise I’d love it if you could drop Past Tense casually into conversation among your most history-podcast-loving friends.
And we’ll see you on September 15th! Hear you. You’ll hear me. Either way, I’m looking forward to it.