In Our Time: History

In Our Time: History

United Kingdom

Historical themes, events and key individuals from Akhenaten to Xenophon.


The Bronze Age Collapse  

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss The Bronze Age Collapse, the name given by many historians to what appears to have been a sudden, uncontrolled destruction of dominant civilizations around 1200 BC in the Aegean, Eastern Mediterranean and Anatolia. Among other areas, there were great changes in Minoan Crete, Egypt, the Hittite Empire, Mycenaean Greece and Syria. The reasons for the changes, and the extent of those changes, are open to debate and include droughts, rebellions, the breakdown of trade as copper became less desirable, earthquakes, invasions, volcanoes and the mysterious Sea Peoples. With John Bennet Director of the British School at Athens and Professor of Aegean Archaeology at the University of Sheffield Linda Hulin Fellow of Harris Manchester College and Research Officer at the Oxford Centre for Maritime Archaeology at the University of Oxford And Simon Stoddart Fellow of Magdalene College and Reader in Prehistory at the University of Cambridge Producer: Simon Tillotson.

Margery Kempe and English Mysticism  

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the English mystic Margery Kempe (1373-1438) whose extraordinary life is recorded in a book she dictated, The Book of Margery Kempe. She went on pilgrimage to Jerusalem, to Rome and Santiago de Compostela, purchasing indulgences on her way, met with the anchoress Julian of Norwich and is honoured by the Church of England each 9th November. She sometimes doubted the authenticity of her mystical conversations with God, as did the authorities who saw her devotional sobbing, wailing and convulsions as a sign of insanity and dissoluteness. Her Book was lost for centuries, before emerging in a private library in 1934. The image (above), of an unknown woman, comes from a pew at Margery Kempe's parish church, St Margaret's, Kings Lynn and dates from c1375. With Miri Rubin Professor of Medieval and Early Modern History at Queen Mary, University of London Katherine Lewis Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Huddersfield And Anthony Bale Professor of Medieval Studies at Birkbeck University of London Producer: Simon Tillotson.

The Gettysburg Address  

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, ten sentences long, delivered at the dedication of the Soldiers' National Cemetery at Gettysburg after the Union forces had won an important battle with the Confederates. Opening with " Four score and seven years ago," it became one of the most influential statements of national purpose, asserting that America was "conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal" and "that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom-and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth." Among those inspired were Martin Luther King Jr whose "I have a dream" speech, delivered at the Lincoln Memorial 100 years later, echoed Lincoln's opening words. With Catherine Clinton Denman Chair of American History at the University of Texas and International Professor at Queen's University, Belfast Susan-Mary Grant Professor of American History at Newcastle University And Tim Lockley Professor of American History at the University of Warwick Producer: Simon Tillotson.

Titus Oates and his 'Popish Plot'  

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss Titus Oates (1649-1705) who, with Israel Tonge, spread rumours of a Catholic plot to assassinate Charles II. From 1678, they went to great lengths to support their scheme, forging evidence and identifying the supposed conspirators. Fearing a second Gunpowder Plot, Oates' supposed revelations caused uproar in London and across the British Isles, with many Catholics, particularly Jesuit priests, wrongly implicated by Oates and then executed. Anyone who doubted him had to keep quiet, to avoid being suspected a sympathiser and thrown in prison. Oates was eventually exposed, put on trial under James II and sentenced by Judge Jeffreys to public whipping through the streets of London, but the question remained: why was this rogue, who had faced perjury charges before, ever believed? With Clare Jackson Senior Tutor and Director of Studies in History at Trinity Hall, University of Cambridge Mark Knights Professor of History at the University of Warwick And Peter Hinds Associate Professor of English at Plymouth University Producer: Simon Tillotson.

1816, the Year Without a Summer  

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the impact of the eruption of Mt Tambora, in 1815, on the Indonesian island of Sambawa. This was the largest volcanic eruption in recorded history and it had the highest death toll, devastating people living in the immediate area. Tambora has been linked with drastic weather changes in North America and Europe the following year, with frosts in June and heavy rains throughout the summer in many areas. This led to food shortages, which may have prompted westward migration in America and, in a Europe barely recovered from the Napoleonic Wars, led to widespread famine. With Clive Oppenheimer Professor of Volcanology at the University of Cambridge Jane Stabler Professor in Romantic Literature at the University of St Andrews And Lawrence Goldman Director of the Institute of Historical Research at the University of London Producer: Simon Tillotson.

The Sikh Empire  

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the rise of the Sikh Empire at the end of the 18th Century under Ranjit Singh, pictured above, who unified most of the Sikh kingdoms following the decline of the Mughal Empire. He became Maharaja of the Punjab at Lahore in 1801, capturing Amritsar the following year. His empire flourished until 1839, after which a decade of unrest ended with the British annexation. At its peak, the Empire covered the Punjab and stretched from the Khyber Pass in the west to the edge of Tibet in the east, up to Kashmir and down to Mithankot on the Indus River. Ranjit Singh is still remembered as "The Lion of the Punjab." With Gurharpal Singh Professor in Inter-Religious Relations and Development at SOAS, University of London Chandrika Kaul Lecturer in Modern History at the University of St Andrews And Susan Stronge Senior Curator in the Asian Department of the Victoria and Albert Museum Producer: Simon Tillotson.

Agrippina the Younger  

Agrippina the Younger was one of the most notorious and influential of the Roman empresses in the 1st century AD. She was the sister of the Emperor Caligula, a wife of the Emperor Claudius and mother of the Emperor Nero. Through careful political manoeuvres, she acquired a dominant position for herself in Rome. In 39 AD she was exiled for allegedly participating in a plot against Caligula and later it was widely thought that she killed Claudius with poison. When Nero came to the throne, he was only 16 so Agrippina took on the role of regent until he began to exert his authority. After relations between Agrippina and Nero soured, he had her murdered. With: Catharine Edwards Professor of Classics and Ancient History at Birkbeck, University of London Alice König Lecturer in Latin and Classical Studies at the University of St Andrews Matthew Nicholls Associate Professor of Classics at the University of Reading Producer: Victoria Brignell.


Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the early years of Bedlam, the name commonly used for the London hospital of St Mary of Bethlehem outside Bishopsgate, described in 1450 by the Lord Mayor of London as a place where may "be found many men that be fallen out of their wit. And full honestly they be kept in that place; and some be restored onto their wit and health again. And some be abiding therein for ever." As Bethlem, or Bedlam, it became a tourist attraction in the 17th Century at its new site in Moorfields and, for its relatively small size, made a significant impression on public attitudes to mental illness. The illustration, above, is from the eighth and final part of Hogarth's 'A Rake's Progress' (1732-3), where Bedlam is the last stage in the decline and fall of a young spendthrift,Tom Rakewell. With Hilary Marland Professor of History at the University of Warwick Justin Champion Professor of the History of Early Modern Ideas at Royal Holloway, University of London and President of the Historical Association And Jonathan Andrews Reader in the History of Psychiatry at Newcastle University Producer: Simon Tillotson.

The Maya Civilization  

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the Maya Civilization, developed by the Maya people, which flourished in central America from around 250 AD in great cities such as Chichen Itza and Uxmal with advances in mathematics, architecture and astronomy. Long before the Spanish Conquest in the 16th Century, major cities had been abandoned for reasons unknown, although there are many theories including overpopulation and changing climate. The hundreds of Maya sites across Belize, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico raise intriguing questions about one of the world's great pre-industrial civilizations. With Elizabeth Graham Professor of Mesoamerican Archaeology at University College London Matthew Restall Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Latin American History and Anthropology at Pennsylvania State University And Benjamin Vis Eastern ARC Research Fellow in Digital Humanities at the University of Kent Producer: Simon Tillotson.

The Dutch East India Company  

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie or VOC, known in English as the Dutch East India Company. The VOC dominated the spice trade between Asia and Europe for two hundred years, with the British East India Company a distant second. At its peak, the VOC had a virtual monopoly on nutmeg, mace, cloves and cinnamon, displacing the Portuguese and excluding the British, and were the only European traders allowed access to Japan. With Anne Goldgar Reader in Early Modern European History at King's College London Chris Nierstrasz Lecturer in Global History at Erasmus University, Rotterdam, formerly at the University of Warwick And Helen Paul Lecturer in Economics and Economic History at the University of Southampton Producer: Simon Tillotson.

Eleanor of Aquitaine  

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the life, times and influence of Eleanor of Aquitaine (c1122-1204) who was one of the most powerful women in Twelfth Century Europe, possibly in the entire Middle Ages. She inherited land from the Loire down to the Pyrenees, about a third of modern France. She married first the King of France, Louis VII, joining him on the Second Crusade. She became stronger still after their marriage was annulled, as her next husband, Henry Plantagenet became Henry II of England. Two of their sons, Richard and John, became kings and she ruled for them when they were abroad. By her death in her eighties, Eleanor had children and grandchildren in power across western Europe. This led to competing claims of inheritance and, for much of the next 250 years, the Plantagenet and French kings battled over Eleanor's land. With Lindy Grant Professor of Medieval History at the University of Reading Nicholas Vincent Professor of Medieval History at the University of East Anglia And Julie Barrau University Lecturer in British Medieval History at the University of Cambridge Producer: Simon Tillotson.

Thomas Paine's Common Sense  

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss Thomas Paine and his pamphlet "Common Sense" which was published in Philadelphia in January 1776 and promoted the argument for American independence from Britain. Addressed to The Inhabitants of America, it sold one hundred and fifty thousand copies in the first few months and is said, proportionately, to be the best-selling book in American history. Paine had arrived from England barely a year before. He vigorously attacked monarchy generally and George the Third in particular. He argued the colonies should abandon all hope of resolving their dispute with Britain and declare independence immediately. Many Americans were scandalised. More were inspired and, for Paine's vision of America's independent future, he has been called a Founding Father of the United States. With Kathleen Burk Professor Emerita of Modern and Contemporary History at University College London Nicholas Guyatt University Lecturer in American History at the University of Cambridge And Peter Thompson Associate Professor of American History at the University of Oxford and Fellow of St Cross College Producer: Simon Tillotson.

The Salem Witch Trials  

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the outbreak of witch trials in Massachusetts in 1692-3, centred on Salem, which led to the execution of twenty people, with more dying in prison before or after trial. Some were men, including Giles Corey who died after being pressed with heavy rocks, but the majority were women. At its peak, around 150 people were suspected of witchcraft, including the wife of the governor who had established the trials. Many of the claims of witchcraft arose from personal rivalries in an area known for unrest, but were examined and upheld by the courts at a time of mass hysteria, belief in the devil, fear of attack by Native Americans and religious divisions. With Susan Castillo-Street Harriet Beecher Stowe Professor Emerita of American Studies at King's College London Simon Middleton Senior Lecturer in American History at the University of Sheffield And Marion Gibson Professor of Renaissance and Magical Literatures at Exeter University, Penryn Campus. Producer: Simon Tillotson.

The Battle of Lepanto  

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss The Battle of Lepanto, 1571, the last great sea battle between galleys, in which the Catholic fleet of the Holy League of principally Venice, Spain, the Papal States, Malta, Genoa, and Savoy defeated the Ottoman forces of Selim II. When much of Europe was divided over the Reformation, this was the first major victory of a Christian force over a Turkish fleet. The battle followed the Ottoman invasion of Venetian Cyprus and decades in which the Venetians had been trying to stop the broader westward expansion of the Ottomans into the Mediterranean. The outcome had a great impact on morale in Europe and Pope Pius V established a feast day of Our Lady of Victory. Some historians call it the most significant sea battle since Actium (31 BC). However, the Ottomans viewed the loss as less significant than their victory in Cyprus and, within two years, the Holy League had broken up. With Diarmaid MacCulloch Professor of the History of the Church at the University of Oxford Kate Fleet Director of the Skilliter Centre for Ottoman Studies and Fellow of Newnham College, University of Cambridge And Noel Malcolm A Senior Research Fellow in History at All Soul's College, University of Oxford Producer: Simon Tillotson.

The Empire of Mali  

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the Empire of Mali which flourished from 1200 to 1600 and was famous in the wider world for the wealth of rulers such as Mansa Musa. Mali was the largest empire in west Africa and for almost 400 years controlled the flow of gold from mines in the south up to the Mediterranean coast and across to the Middle East. These gold mines were the richest known deposits in the 14th Century and produced around half of the world's gold. When Mansa Musa journeyed to Cairo in 1324 as part of his Hajj, he distributed so much gold that its value depreciated by over 10%. Some of the mosques he built on his return survive, albeit rebuilt, such as the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Great Mosque of Djenne. With Amira Bennison Reader in the History and Culture of the Maghrib at the University of Cambridge Marie Rodet Senior Lecturer in the History of Africa at SOAS And Kevin MacDonald Professor of African Archaeology Chair of the African Studies Programme at University College, London Producer: Simon Tillotson.

Holbein at the Tudor Court  

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the life and work of Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543) during his two extended stays in England, when he worked at the Tudor Court and became the King's painter. Holbein created some of the most significant portraits of his age, including an image of Henry VIII, looking straight at the viewer, hands on hips, that has dominated perceptions of him since. The original at Whitehall Palace was said to make visitors tremble at its majesty. Holbein was later sent to Europe to paint the women who might be Henry's fourth wife; his depiction of Anne of Cleves was enough to encourage Henry to marry her, a decision Henry quickly regretted and for which Thomas Cromwell, her supporter, was executed. His paintings still shape the way we see those in and around the Tudor Court, including Cromwell, Thomas More, the infant Prince Edward (of which there is a detail, above), The Ambassadors and, of course, Henry the Eighth himself. With Susan Foister Curator of Early Netherlandish, German and British Painting at the National Gallery John Guy A fellow of Clare College, University of Cambridge And Maria Hayward Professor of Early Modern History at the University of Southampton Producer: Simon Tillotson.

Alexander the Great  

Alexander the Great is one of the most celebrated military commanders in history. Born into the Macedonian royal family in 356 BC, he gained control of Greece and went on to conquer the Persian Empire, defeating its powerful king, Darius III. At its peak, Alexander's empire covered modern Turkey, Syria, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and part of India. As a result, Greek culture and language was spread into regions it had not penetrated before, and he is also remembered for founding a number of cities. Over the last 2,000 years, the legend of Alexander has grown and he has influenced numerous generals and politicians. With: Paul Cartledge Emeritus Professor of Greek Culture and AG Leventis Senior Research Fellow at Clare College, University of Cambridge Diana Spencer Professor of Classics at the University of Birmingham Rachel Mairs Lecturer in Classics at the University of Reading Producer: Victoria Brignell.

Frederick the Great  

Frederick the Great ruled Prussia from 1740 until his death in 1786. Born in 1712, he increased the power of the state, he made Prussia the leading military power in Europe and his bold campaigns had great implications for the European political landscape. An absolute monarch in the age of enlightenment, he was a prolific writer, attracted figures such as Voltaire to his court, fostered education and put Berlin firmly on the cultural map. He was much admired by Napoleon and was often romanticised by German historians, becoming a hero for many in united Germany in the 19th and 20th centuries. Others, however, vilified him for aspects such as his militarism and the partition of Poland. With Tim Blanning Emeritus Professor of Modern European History at the University of Cambridge Katrin Kohl Professor of German Literature at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of Jesus College And Thomas Biskup Lecturer in Early Modern History at the University of Hull Producer: Simon Tillotson.

Prester John  

In the Middle Ages, Prester John was seen as the great hope for Crusaders struggling to hold on to, then regain, Jerusalem. He was thought to rule a lost Christian kingdom somewhere in the East and was ready to attack Muslim opponents with his enormous armies. There was apparent proof of Prester John's existence, in letters purportedly from him and in stories from travelers who claimed they had met, if not him, then people who had news of him. Most pointed to a home in the earthly paradise in the Indies, outside Eden, with fantastical animals and unimaginable riches. Later, Portuguese explorers thought they had found him in Ethiopia, despite the mystified denials of people there. Melvyn Bragg asks why the legend was so strongly believed for so long, and what facts helped sustain the myths. With Marianne O'Doherty Associate Professor in English at the University of Southampton Martin Palmer Director of the International Consultancy on Religion, Education, and Culture And Amanda Power Senior Lecturer in Medieval History at the University of Sheffield. Producer: Simon Tillotson.


It is said that, in Britain from the 18th Century, copies of Josephus' works were as widespread and as well read as The Bible. Christians valued "The Antiquities of the Jews" in particular, for the retelling of parts of the Old Testament and apparently corroborating the historical existence of Jesus. Born Joseph son of Matthias, in Jerusalem, in 37AD, he fought the Romans in Galilee in the First Jewish-Roman War. He was captured by Vespasian's troops and became a Roman citizen, later describing the siege and fall of Jerusalem. His actions and writings made him a controversial figure, from his lifetime to the present day. With Tessa Rajak Professor Emeritus of Ancient History, University of Reading Philip Alexander Professor Emeritus of Jewish Studies, University of Manchester And Martin Goodman Professor of Jewish Studies, University of Oxford and President of the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies Producer: Simon Tillotson.

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