The Tudor dynasty has captivated the imaginations of people for centuries, and for good reason. It was a time of great drama, intrigue, and change in England. And at the heart of it all was Henry VIII, the king who married and killed multiple wives. This is obviously all fertile terrain for a good history podcast, as host of Tudors Dynasty, Rebecca Larson tells us, “For me, personally, the thing that drew me to the Tudors was the drama and intrigue – not only did Henry VIII marry six times and had two of his wives executed,” but it wasn’t all about Henry or “Ol Bluff Hal” as Rebecca calls him, “there are so many other juicy stories in that 118-year” in that period that outshine him.
Tudors Dynasty really is a lot more than a podcast. It is a creative hub with Rebecca Larson, the presenter, at the centre of various endeavours. To wit, it is not a podcast with a website, it is a website with a podcast. As Rebecca says “I began the Tudors Dynasty podcast in February 2017 at the behest of the followers of my website. It began as just me telling the stories I learned from reading and research but eventually evolved into an interview format.”
This website is home to a wealth of content, including the Tudor Courses Rebecca runs for her patrons on Patreon (https://www.patreon.com/tudorsdynasty) and a number of book reviews.
But, of course, the podcast is central to the whole set-up. There are currently over 300 episodes available in audio format and they are also on YouTube. The interview episodes are the backbone of the episodes but Rebecca also runs various side threads such as Queenship, This week in Royal History, 5 Minute history.
Some of the most popular episodes include:
- The Disappearance of the Princes in the Tower
- Anne Boleyn with Prof. John Guy and Julia Fox
- Henrietta Maria: French Princess, English Queen
- Fascinating Tudor Women: Lady Jane Grey, Lettice Knollys, and Margaret Beaufort
- Who was the real Jane Seymour?
- The Myths Surrounding Kateryn Parr
As we can see from the list above, one of the things that attracts Rebecca to the Tudors is the prominent role women played in the era. For the first time in the history of England, Queens sat the throne and wielded true power. The Queenship of Elizabeth I was to shape the country, more than maybe any other reign – with Anglicanism embedded as the religion of the nation and the break with Rome confirmed and also seeing the first forays of what was to become the globe-spanning British Empire.
We always like to ask the podcasters featured in this blog which episodes they would recommend to new listeners. Like Maria, from The Sound of Music, Rebecca thinks the best thing is to start at the very beginning. However, she does add, “Personally I have a difficult time listening to the first year of podcasts because I can now see how much growth I’ve made and those early ones make me cringe now.” That is often the lot of the podcaster…
This blogger would recommend checking out some of the episodes about more obscure subjects. There are plenty of episodes that don’t just focus on the grand characters of the era, but on more earthy topics, most obviously Toilets in Tudor England. I particularly enjoyed The Speed of Information and Travel in Tudor England with esteemed historian, Ian Mortimer. It was fascinating to hear quite how long everything took back then; all the many intrigues of the time were carried out at what would feel like snail’s pace to us today.
We also like to know which episodes are the podcaster’s very own favourites, Rebecca has a couple.
“That’s a tough one for me! The most fun and exciting one for me was when I booked Dan Jones (historian, author, TV presenter) on the show. I have always been a fan of Dan’s and built up the courage to ask him. I’m glad I did because I somehow convinced him to come on the show. As far as I know no other indie Tudor podcast has had him. He was a lot of fun to talk to. My favourite has to be Dr Joanne Paul’s episode about the Dudleys – mostly because John Dudley, Earl of Warwick was a fascinating man, and to be able to discuss with her my thoughts on his involvement in the downfall of the Seymour brothers was absolutely wonderful for this researcher.”
We have to confirm that Dan Jones is a pretty cool historian and knows how to bring a subject to life – that would certainly be an episode to check out.
Rebecca doesn’t just have new episodes coming up, she has whole new podcasts. She is about to launch History Lair, which very much sounds like the place we would like to lurk and there’s another podcast being plotted, details to follow.
Rebecca will also be crossing the pond to take part in an event in the UK, “I was honoured to be asked to be a partner with the Wolf Hall Weekend next June in England. This event is to honour the late Dame Hilary Mantel – author of the acclaimed Wolf Hall trilogy. The event will feature actors, historians and people from the publishing industry who knew Hilary. It will be held at the beautiful Cadhay House in Devon.” Details for this event are available here: https://wolfhallweekend.com/
Rebecca will be covering a broad range of Tudor contingency plans, “because, let’s be real, nobody had more contingency plans than the Tudors. If you think about it, the fact that Henry Tudor (Henry VII) became king was a contingency plan.” The mind boggles at what she could include here – Henry VIII’s six contingency plans? The “let’s set up a new religion contingency” plan? Or maybe the contingency plan that relied on the weather to blow those pesky Spaniards away?
Whatever she does cover in her talk, it will certainly be gripping and entertainingly told. So roll up, roll up for Rebecca Larson who will be giving her Keynote talk on November 4th at 10 am Eastern Time.
It’s a Continent
It’s great to welcome some relatively new faces on the history podcast scene to Intelligent Speech 2023. But while It’s A Continent launched in March 2023, it already has an impressive back catalogue and a book, recently available in paperback, It’s a Continent: Unravelling Africa’s History One Country at a Time.
Chinny Ukata and Astrid Madimba are the powerhouses behind all this content. They both identify as African and British, Chinny is Nigerian, and Astrid is Congolese. Having both grown up in Britain, they realised how little they had learned about the other countries that they identified with and decided they would do something about it.
They describe how they had both studied history in the British education system, where World War Two is heavily covered but realised that they had not learned anything about the significant African involvement in the war.
“We met in 2015 on an internship… the black nod… we looked across the table, the only two black girls, you know how it is in white spaces… internships.” So they nodded at each and thus their story began.
They were encouraged to live together, which turned out to be a very good thing as they instantly forged a strong friendship, then they followed each other to the same companies, and this bond finally led to the creation of It’s a Continent.
And documentaries, of course! Watching documentaries is an important part of this story. They both love documentaries and they loved watching them together, over a glass of wine and pulling them apart – these were the kinds of conversations that made creating a podcast a natural next step.
During these conversations they say that, “We actually found out we didn’t know anything about each other’s countries. And we didn’t know enough about our own.” So, they decided to fix these gaps in their knowledge and to bring their listeners along as they learned.
Because, naturally, if Chinny and Astrid realised that they had significant gaps in their knowledge of Africa, then that lack of knowledge is much more widespread. The title of the podcast conveys a little of their frustration at having to explain that Africa is a continent and it is vast and massively diverse.
They do admit to enjoying the banter between each other but It’s a Continent is essentially an educational venture for Astrid and Chinny and for the wider world. And it’s working – they have been contacted by teachers who have included the podcast in lesson plans and assignments. “There are teachers who are interested in decolonising curricula who are looking for fairer ways of looking at people’s history. It’s those sorts of teachers who have reached out and are using our podcast as an educational tool.”
The podcast they have created is the kind of thing they would have liked to have learned about when they were at school, it’s not only African history that is missing from the school curriculum but also women’s history, Astrid says, “When it comes to African women… it’s really nice to be able to pull out those stories… when I was younger I would have loved to have heard more of these stories.”
Like all the best podcasts, It’s a Continent is a collaborative venture, not just between the two hosts, but also with their audience. As Chinny describes it, “It’s really nice to know that lots of people are learning along with us. We do topic polls on Instagram… and we get lots of suggestions… we crowd-source the topics from our audience.”
For instance their episode on the Chagos Islands, which Astrid recommends as a good place to start for new listeners, is a great example of how their audience can bring so much to the podcast. They were contacted by a listener who handed over all her notes and references and
requested that they pull it all together into a podcast episode and they got on with it. “That was definitely a revelation,” says Chinny.
The It’s a Continent book follows closely the tagline of “one country at a time” but the podcast format allows Astrid and Chinny to cover some countries more than once and cover topics that are more pan-African, such as Cocoa, the African Union and the impact of fast fashion on the continent.
The topics they cover for each country can sweep from pre-colonial times to the very contemporary, and from pure history to cultural aspects, such as the episode on West African cinema: a Francophone perspective.
They haven’t yet covered all the countries of Africa, and they give Mozambique as an example of a big one still to come. These and the episodes with a wider scope as well as repeat visits to countries, means that the podcast can run and run.
After returning from a mid-season break Astrid and Chinny will be inviting two guests to look at specific countries from a different angle, such as an episode on Sierra Leonean food with chef, entrepreneur, and author, Maria Bradford. And they will be going back to Nigeria, to explore Women’s Movements in the 1920s.
It’s a Continent – the book!
Astrid and Chinny admit that translating the banter that they have between each other on the podcast into the written word was a challenge. Even though they script the podcast, putting things into print and having to include footnotes and such like required a different kind of discipline.
Fortunately, the book retains the voice of their podcast so the reader naturally hears Astrid and Chinny’s voices in their head when they read. They use inset boxes and italics to signal to the reader that they are giving their own opinion and they also use these to link together various recurring tropes in African history, such as the “Coloniser’s Handbook” or the “Despot’s Manual”.
They managed to find a unifying tone to the book although they wrote each chapter separately and only collaborated to polish them off and this is where they made sure that they found a middle ground between their different writing styles. At times this sounds like it was a case of Chinny having to rein in Astrid’s desire to pen the dissertation she never wrote. The book is very much a product of teamwork, Astrid says, “I honestly don’t know how people write by themselves.”
Like many podcasters, Astrid and Chinny podcast for themselves first and foremost, because they enjoy their conversations, but also like many podcasters, they do like to hear positive feedback and words of encouragement. And there really was no greater validation of their work, than when they got a Facebook message from someone at the publisher, Coronet, expressing an interest in turning their podcast into a book when they were barely a year into the podcast.
At only five pages long, each chapter is necessarily short and punchy. Some chapters are highly contemporary like the chapter on the struggle at the only land border between Africa and the European Union in Ceuta and Melilla or the chapter on Professor Wangari Maathai, Kenya’s leading eco-activist. While other countries’ histories are examined at greater distance, such as Tunisia’s Carthaginian roots or sexuality in pre-colonial Uganda.
It’s a Continent, the book, is a great introduction to Africa and an excellent read. It’s one of those books that’s handy to have on you for when you are stuck somewhere dull and can only snatch a quick read and want to lose yourself in something interesting. But when combined with It’s a Continent, the podcast, you have a treasure trove of African-related media covering a whole range of aspects from which everyone and anyone will learn something. It’s a great pleasure to be able to welcome Chinny and Astrid to our Intelligent Speech 2023 conference.
Chinny and Astrid are very happy with their Intelligent Speech Conference talk title: Beyond Flags and Anthems: the Ongoing Effects of Incomplete African Independence and it does sound great and will doubtless explore a lot of the recurring themes of their podcast.
They will also be appearing with Andy from The History of Africa podcast on a roundtable panel with the topic to be announced.
Photos: © Joseph Osayande
Pontifacts is not the only podcast that focuses on the popes, but it is certainly the most entertaining.
It is presented by Bry and Fry, two very funny women who obviously have a great time creating the show, and their enjoyment rubs off on the listener.
Having been best friends for now well over a decade, when Bry, a history buff and podcast fan, decided she wanted to create a history podcast of her own, she naturally turned to her old chum Fry to co-host.
The popes as a subject matter were a natural fit with Bry’s historical interests, and the pair decided to follow a similar format to that used by the already successful Rex Factor Podcast, which rates all the Kings and Queens of England.
While developing Pontifacts, Bry had the opportunity to gain valuable podcasting experience by co-hosting The Lesser Bonapartes—one of the great lost masterworks of historical podcasting lore.
Interestingly, while Bry seems to be the keeper of knowledge about the popes and surrounding theology, it is Fry who has the Catholic background—not only is her father a deacon, but most of her family works for the church in one way or another, as well. Personally, though, Fry describes herself as “lapsed.”
Bry sees the popes mostly through an historical lens. History has been her passion from an early age, and she has studied it all her life. Her particular enthusiasm is for The Renaissance, specifically Florence and The Medici–she even got married in Florence in a beautiful, Renaissance-themed wedding. Bry does like dressing up!
Fry claims to be “just here for the ride.” This is not quite true, as she acts as the voice of the audience by expressing bewilderment at the mad goings-on of those crazy, crazy popes. Bry also points out that there is quite a clear division of labor—while she does most of the research and talking, Fry is the one making it all happen behind the scenes. Beyond that, Fry is the comic foil to Bry’s onslaught of deep research and illuminating quotes. Her humor is as dry as a well-made martini, and she never fails to amuse with her wry interjections.
The office of the pontiff holds fascination for anyone interested in history regardless of religious inclinations because, as Bry points out, “It is one of the longest-standing institutions in the entire world and one of the only roles in history that has survived every era… since antiquity. Kingdoms come and go… countries have come and gone… we have had empires and republics and nation-building… but the pope remains and continues to be a massively important figure. There’s no way to look at history and not wonder, ‘Hey, what was the pope doing?’ Because they were doing something.”
The all-important ratings
One of the most popular aspects of the show is its scoring system, which provides for a great deal listener engagement. The categories they use to rate each pope in what they describe as their invented “Harry Potter Latin” are:
- Papatum Infallium: Holiness
- Fructus Prohibitum: Scandals and Misdeeds
- Seculari Impactum: Worldliness and Mass Appeal
- Each provides up to 10 points each from both Bry and Fry. Popes can pick up extra points from other categories, including:
- Faciem Sanctus: Appearance. Here, the scores are divided by four, because… well, a pope shouldn’t really be judged on his looks.
- Tempus Pontificus: Length of papacy.
Popes also earn a “Cannon Bonus Point” if they have been made into a saint, and finally, the truly exceptional can earn themselves a Papal Bull:
“Popes who achieve a Papal Bull will go to the Pearly Gates and eventually be rated against one another in the ultimate showdown, to decide which was the popiest pope who ever poped. Will someone be popey enough to take the keys away from St. Peter himself? Time will tell,” Bry explains.
Pope Damasus is currently topping the leaderboard. His is a juicy story, as he presided over a slaughter of his rivals’ supporters when he took office, and he was also reputed as a bit of a lady’s man. But more crucially, he presided over the council that decided which books are included in the Bible as we know it. So, we can see that he would have scored highly in Papatum Infallium for his work on the Bible, in Fructus Prohibitum for the scandals, and in Seculari Impactum for the slaughtering.
Pope Honorius, from the seventh century, sounds great. He repaired aqueducts, fortified the city, and nourished the city, but unfortunately, has been excommunicated.
One of the very best episodes is Episode 137: Johannes Anglicus. In it, Bry ambushes Fry with the tale of Pope Joan. Bry keeps it very straight while describing how Johannes suddenly, mysteriously, started to get very fat. Fry’s screams of outrage upon discovering that he wasn’t fat, but rather pregnant, as Johannes was in fact Joan are much like those of the people of Rome at the time!
Fry might profess to be a non-expert, but when asked how many popes there have been, she quickly responded with 266. Each is included in the Apostolic Succession and in the main Pontifacts feed.
What will follow on for Pontifacts? Saints? Patriarchs? Bry and Fry don’t know yet for sure, but as they still have over 1,000 years of popes to cover, there will be plenty of Pontifacts to come, which surely keeps their devoted listeners happy.
Pontifacts came storming back after a hiatus in March this year and have got straight into some of the juiciest bits, well not so juicy in the case of Cadaver Synod (Episode 115). And as of Episode 121, they have just got into the “Pornocracy”–a period when the papacy became dominated by women, which does promise to be juicy. This should run to at least ten episodes, which will see us through to the end of the year pretty much.
Pontifacts has paid back the lead that they took from existing RexyPod podcasts in spades and have been a benevolent presence in the history podcasting community generally and specifically within the RexyPod set, where Bry has been a great support to many of the next wave of RexyPods. Last year at Intelligent Speech, we had a great RexyPod Panel featuring, Pontifacts, Totalus Rankium, and Rex Factor. This year there will a new set of RexyPodders on the Child of Rexypanel Panel, covering French Monarchs, Tsars, Tudors, and The American West.
Pontifacts will be speaking at IS and The History of the Popemobile––Responses and Innovations for Changing and Challenging Papacies, we will see where that takes us if you will excuse the pun. What we can be sure about is that it will be a lot of fun, like everything Pontifacts do and well worth coming along for the ride.
From the outset I should say that interviewing Sebastian Major was the absolute pleasure that I expected it to be. He is certainly one of the most affable history podcasters on the scene.
For those of you unlucky enough not to have yet listened to Our Fake History, and I urge you to remedy that situation promptly, this is the podcast that looks at historical myths and tries to “determine what’s fact, what’s fiction and what is such a good story that it simply must be told”. As a long-term listener and fan of the show, your correspondent did very much enjoy hearing Sebastian speak the tagline live and up close.
Including extras, Our Fake History boasts over 200 episodes and is now into its eighth season. The fake history approach allows Sebastian to delve into the great stories of history, right from the outset in Season 1, we had The Trojan War, Joan of Arc and Napoleon. As it became obvious that this podcast was going to run for a while, Sebastian has rationed his menu of biggies, so he managed to avoid The Knights Templar until Season 7, Galileo until Season 8 and he is only just got to Christopher Columbus and he very much enjoyed it even though he has had to research some fairly grim events.
The inception of Our Fake History has a legend of its own. At the time, Sebastian was a high-school history teacher in Toronto. As any good history teacher does he wanted to hook his students into the period that they were studying and thought that he would tell them the tale of Rasputin in all its salacious detail. He told them the well-known tale of how the mad monk survived poisoning, shooting and being thrown into a frozen Russian river wrapped in a blanket only to die from exposure. But on finishing, hoping to have inculcated these young minds with a life-long love of learning, he saw that one student had a hand up and said, “That’s not true. That’s a total myth. That didn’t really happen. Why are you lying to us in our history class?”
And sure enough, Sebastian went back to do his research and found that this tale though fantastical was widely believed but when he looked into it further he found that it was essentially based on one man’s account. And this man, Felix Yusupov, had skin in the game, he was the classic unreliable narrator, and unreliable narrators who would go on to become a stock character of the podcast.
So, Sebastian went back to the class with an entirely different Rasputin-based lesson, where the focus was reading multiple sources and questioning all of them. “What should we believe? How do we use these different sources? How do we weight them? How would we come to trust one over another?” And thus was born Our Fake History.
What became of that student who stood up and questioned his teacher, like so much of the historical record, is lost to the mists of time. But you can find the answer to his protests in the Who Killed Rasputin series as Season 2, Episodes 28-29.
Sebastian loves fake history because it tells us so much about real history. All myths are constructs of their time. Sebastian cites the example of the Titanic myth (Season 7, Episodes 151-153) as being a window on the British Edwardian cultural perspective and the expectation that the captain had been heroic, had shown the stiff upper-lip and had gone down with his ship as he should have done. Whether this is true or not is less interesting to Sebastian than what the belief in this myth tells us about those British Edwardians. Sebastian’s recent series on Christopher Columbus is worth checking out if you want to delve further into how myths evolve over time and what they tell us about the tellers of those myths.
As for those who actually invent the myths, those unreliable narrators, over the years Sebastian has built up a bit of Rogue’s Gallery who keep popping up that would include Geoffrey of Monmouth, Heinrich Schliemann and Graham Hancock. Schliemann even has his own guitar sting when he crops up yet again committing one more crime against archaeology. But for all his wanton destruction of the ruins of Troy, undoubtedly his greatest discovery, Sebastian confesses to a certain fondness for Schliemann… Hancock not so much. I sense that Sebastian has slogged through the collected works of Graham Hancock as an act of true altruism. He has done it so that we don’t have to – taken one for the team if you will.
Sebastian might be a lover the fakers and fakery, but he does believe that there is such a thing as real history. He says, “And so real history is when you look at all of the sources that you that you have in front of you and you go, okay, all of these sources agree on a certain number of things and where there is consensus and where there is agreement and where the things that are written match up with what’s in the archaeological record. Those are the things we can say are true. Those are the things we can say really happened or those are the places we can say there is no disagreement on this.”
So Our Fake History focuses on the historical events where these criteria are not met, where things are contested, where there are multiple perspectives that we cannot, from our distance in time say for certain which is correct. Over the years Sebastian has learnt to smell out fishiness, “I’m always suspicious of something that comes up in a historical source that that sounds a little too much like a fairy tale. Or sounds to a little too much like a story trope that we’ve heard before.”
That said, this does not mean that there is no truth in fairy tales. In fact, when asked to recommend a single episode for new listeners, he proposes the Was There A Real Pied Piper?(Season 4, Episode 77). He feels that it is a nice, concise introduction to what he does.
When it comes to recommending a whole series, he goes for something more personal to him as a Canadian, namely The War of 1812 (Series 6, Episodes 133-135). And he can’t help himself steering people towards the various episodes he has done on music, including Who Invented Rock ‘n Roll? (Series 3, Episodes 53-54).
Music is very important to Sebastian, and Our Fake History always opens with a fine, and supremely rock and roll, “1, 2, 3, 4” intro from a band called Dirty Church. But it was only after a few years that we found out that Dirty Church is one of a number of bands that Sebastian has been part of over time. He plays all the melodic interludes between sections of the podcast too.
And with his band background, Sebastian really enjoys suggesting concepts from history as potential band names, undoubtedly the best of these being the Boudiccan Destruction Horizon (a line in the substrata of London that marks the time that Boudicca burnt the city to the ground). He got into a bit of hot water with this recently when he thought there should be a Scandinavian band called The Ultimate Thule, after the mythic northern island, but it turns there is already a Swedish band of this name, unfortunately they turn out to be neo-Nazis.
Behind the scenes
As ever at Intelligent Speech, we do like to find out a little about the whole business of podcasting, this is particularly true of independent podcasters like Sebastian, who have taken the plunge and gone full time. Sebastian has given up his regular teaching work, though he is keeping his hand in with some supply teaching and envisages himself going back into it at some point.
It might not be the most profitable, but the Our Fake History merch really is exceptional and this is thanks to the input from Frank Fiorentino, an artist friend of Sebastian’s. Frank designs unique artwork for each episode of OFH. Originally Frank volunteered his services but Sebastian is now able to reward for his work, which he does diligently by insisting that Sebastian shares the topics and focuses beforehand, so that he can create a piece of art that really does reflect the episode in question. Your correspondent is the proud owner of a Plague Doctor covid mask, which felt all too apposite at the time.
Our Fake History also has a Patreon page with various rewards for different tiers, including bonus episodes, and the opportunity to vote on future episodes.
Sebastian is also now exploring the wilder shores of social media, well YouTube and something called TikTok, in order to bring the gospel of Fake History to the younger generations.
Then there is the advertising, Sebastian does sound a little sheepish about this, like so many podcasters but he recognises that this income helps him feed his family and to be a full-time podcaster, so he is actually quite comfortable with it. And if listeners are rabidly anti-advertising, they can join the ranks of the “beautiful people” on a tier of Patreon and get the ad-free versions. Seems very much fair enough!
- Hellfire Clubs
- Professional wrestling
- Buffalo Bill and the Wild West Shows (For the non-fake history of Sitting Bull’s involvement with Buffalo Bill, see History on Fire, episodes 55-56 from fellow Intelligent Speech Keynote, Daniele Bolelli)
- Lope de Aguirre (of Klaus Kinski’s Wrath of God fame)
We are very glad to be able to include Sebastian as one of our Keynotes at Intelligent Speech 2023.
He’s working on a contingencies-based topic around the idea of No Contingencies, i.e. when there was no back-up plan. He’ll be exploring questions along the lines of:
- Did Cortes really burn his boats?
- What to do when you are Columbus and you’ve told everyone, including two very bellicose monarchs, that you were going to be coming back from Asia laden with gold and you are clearly not in Asia?
- Did Tesla really deliver what he said he had?
Sebastian and Daniele Bolelli of History of Fire will be appearing together on one of Intelligent Speech’s Roundtables. Details are still to be firmed up but they are looking into discussing storytelling and history, which promises to be a great session.
So roll up to Intelligent Speech in November to hear a truly beautiful person speak and in the meantime feast yourselves on the riches that are available at Our Fake History.