Swordfights, Russian espionage and royal stories: ROBERT HARDMAN

Swordfights and Samurais, Russian espionage, Tudor romance and royal stories galore: ROBERT HARDMAN reveals what’s in store when the Duchess of Cornwall launches the Chalke Valley History Festival on Monday

Where better to see a spot of royal history being made than at the world’s largest history festival?

Although there have been occasional royal visits over the years to some of Britain’s great summer festivals, royalty has never actually been part of the line-up — until now.

On Monday, the Duchess of Cornwall will not only open the 2022 Daily Mail Chalke Valley History Festival, she will kick off the first event — a discussion entitled ‘Rediscovering women in history’ with the best-selling historical novelist Philippa Gregory and the historian Alison Weir.

At the end, the Duchess will switch to interviewer mode, chipping in with questions submitted via her online book club, The Duchess of Cornwall’s Reading Room. In due course, the event, sponsored by the Rothermere Foundation, will be uploaded to the Reading Room website which is now something of a virtual literary festival in its own right.

On Monday, the Duchess of Cornwall will open the 2022 Daily Mail Chalke Valley History Festival and will kick off the first event 

Originally conceived as a lockdown antidote in the early days of the Covid pandemic, the Reading Room has ballooned into a literary hub with a six-figure following on Instagram.

As well as regular discussions on a series of books — all of them hand-picked by the Duchess — it includes interviews with authors, readings by actors, booklists for children and much else.

It consolidates the Duchess’s increasingly high-profile role as the royal champion of all things literary. Her husband Prince Charles (along with her son-in-law, the Duke of Cambridge) might be best known for his deep-rooted devotion to the environment.

However, to an ever greater extent, the Duchess is to be found supporting any endeavour which encourages anyone of any age to open a book.

Just this week, she launched the Commonwealth Poetry Podcast with Gyles and Aphra Brandreth and Dame Joanna Lumley (discussing some of HRH’s favourites, including Rudyard Kipling’s A Smuggler’s Song).

A few days from now, she will be accompanying the Prince of Wales to the Commonwealth summit in Rwanda where she will be championing the work of one of her charities, Book Aid International, in delivering essential books to the developing world.

For many years, she has supervised the world’s oldest writing competition for children, The Queen’s Commonwealth Essay Competition. At the other end of the spectrum, she has been inside prisons promoting wider access to books via her National Literacy Trust.

Books and history, in other words, are now central to the working life of the future Queen. ‘She’s a genuine champion. She finds reading a great companion and she wants others to do the same,’ says Gyles Brandreth.

‘People sometimes ask how she can have read so many books, but she is one of the most well-read people I have met,’ says Vicki Perrin, director of the Duchess’s Reading Room.

‘You find piles of books all round Clarence House. The place is packed with them, from commercial thrillers to award winners to children’s favourites.’

Miss Perrin first met the Duchess when she was co-ordinating BBC Radio 2’s hugely successful 500 Words story competition.

‘We would whittle it down to a shortlist of 50 and she would make notes on every single one of them,’ she recalls.

Charge! The festival brings history to life for everyone

There will certainly be plenty to discuss throughout the week-long Chalke Valley History Festival, the biggest event of its kind in the world. Across seven days, the festival will draw tens of thousands to the stunning 70-acre site in the heart of Thomas Hardy country, on the Wiltshire/Dorset border near Salisbury.

The programme is aimed at everyone from schoolchildren and families to students of the most pressing current affairs.

Whether swordfights and Samurai are your thing, or whether you are more interested in Russian espionage or Tudor romance or the home life of the Churchill family, history is always more exciting than when you are living through it.

Some of the most popular tickets are for events touching on the current East/West crisis. These include a talk by Bill Browder, indefatigable campaigner against the corruption of the Putin regime in Russia (the infamous Moscow-sanctioned Salisbury poisonings are certainly not forgotten in these parts).

Similarly, Helena Merriman’s tale of a desperate attempt to escape Soviet oppression by tunnelling beneath the Berlin Wall is a sell-out.

There will be first-hand accounts, too, from the frontline in Ukraine and also analysis of the collapse of UK-Russian relations by former foreign secretary Lord Owen. Ahead of the 25th anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong, its last governor Lord Patten looks both forward and back.

They are just a handful of more than 600 events and attractions which stretch as far back as the Iron Age (complete with rebuilt Iron Age house) via lessons in ancient Roman cooking and ‘sword school’ for would-be knights in shining armour.

‘This is our biggest and best yet. The rush for tickets is testament to just how excited people are to be back at events like this,’ says festival director Jane Pleydell-Bouverie.

In recent years, a very popular section of the Chalke Valley History Festival has been a trench from a particular period in British military history. This year, visitors can sign up to experience conditions in a British Army trench in 1940 at Cassel, in Belgium, where the men of the Gloucesters and the Ox & Bucks dug in to give the British Expeditionary Force a fighting chance of reaching Dunkirk and a route home.

The week-long Chalke Valley History Festival is the biggest event of its kind in the world

During weekdays, several sections of the festival are aimed squarely at schools, including a day devoted to World War II. This features everything from live firing of a 25-pounder to fresh analysis of the German defeat in the East and the Allied campaign from D-Day through to Berlin, with both veterans and experts like the military historian James Holland.

Another familiar face is the television presenter Dan Jones, who will be discussing ‘all you need to know’ about the War of the Roses.

It is certainly not all about war, however. The programme is packed with events dedicated to social history, music, art and archaeology — plus generous helpings of nostalgia. Former home secretary Alan Johnson and the BBC presenter Justin Webb will discuss their best-selling accounts of growing up in the 1960s and 1970s.

Given that this year’s festival will commence with a royal visit, it seems appropriate that there is plenty of royal subject matter all week.

As well as several events devoted to the love lives of the Tudors, the historian Andrew Roberts will be discussing his multi-award-winning new biography, George III: The Life And Reign Of Britain’s Most Misunderstood Monarch. I must declare an interest since I am discussing my own biography of our current monarch, Queen Of Our Times.

Trumping us all, including even the Duchess of Cornwall, will be one royal speaker who knows what it is like to be a fully fledged monarch. Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, who will be speaking on the final Sunday, holds the unique distinction of having been both king and democratically elected prime minister of the same country.

As a boy, he was His Majesty Tsar Simeon II of the Bulgarians for three years before being deposed by the Soviets in 1946. Half a century later, he ended up serving as prime minister of Bulgaria from 2001 to 2005.

From HM to PM? That’s history for you.

Chalke Valley History Festival, June 20-26. For information, visit cvhf.org.uk

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