A tour of Restoration Britain: 60 seconds with Ian Mortimer

Restoration Britain was a time of sweeping change. The period, which began with Charles II’s restoration to the throne following exile, was marked by a joyful return to pleasures that had been banned under Cromwell’s Commonwealth and is known by many for the great disasters of fire and plague.

At our Winchester and York History Weekends this autumn, Ian Mortimer will share fascinating insights from human skull recipes to the behaviour of rakes in court, and take audiences on a tour of the objects that define the period as the tipping point between the medieval and the modern world…

Q: What can audiences look forward to in your talk?

A: I talk about Restoration Britain in the form of an A-Z of subjects. I cover themes that you need to know, and some which surprise people, or which surprised me when researching the book. I include some which are amusing, and some which still have an impact now. I vary the actual themes depending on how I feel at the time but normally you can bet on hearing about freezing temperatures, death by toothache, why champagne was inadvertently ‘invented’ in London, why coffee was mostly drunk by men, how far young ladies would go in the name of beautification, why you might drink powdered human skull in your alcohol, and so forth. 

 

Q: What do you think is the most important aspect for audiences to understand about this period? 

A: That it is the tipping point between the medieval world and the modern in terms of calculation and rational explanation. For example, if you were worried about losing your goods to fire in 1660, your best hope was prayer. Ten years later, it was fire insurance. Likewise, scientific problems came to be subject to calculation rather than supposition. People started to calculate life expectancy. Even the national budget began to be calculated. 


The Great Fire of London swept through London in 1666, with devastating consequences for the city. The act of praying to prevent fire was replaced with fire insurance during the Restoration period, says Dr Ian Mortimer. (Time Life Pictures / Getty Images)
 

Q: What was the most surprising thing you discovered in the course of researching the book? 

A: Charles II was not just immoral because he was ‘the merry monarch’. It was a kick against the moral rectitude of late 17th-century Puritanism. Like the rest of the aristocracy he had been deprived of his inheritance and titles by the Puritans; after 1660 he, like so many other rakes – Sir Charles Sedley, Lord Buckhurst and the earl of Rochester, to mention the most famous – wanted to rub the Puritans’ noses in filth. They revelled in bad behaviour for a decade and a half. 

 

Q: What is the hardest question you’ve ever been asked about your area of expertise?

A: As my ‘area of expertise’ is why we think we know what we claim to know about the past, the hardest questions I am asked are those which are raised by people who will not accept what I say due to their unshakable belief in the correctness of their own pre-formed opinions. I think this is generally true: the difficulty of a question depends on the obtuseness of the person asking it, not on the question itself. Academics tend to be the worst offenders, along with armchair generals. 


Charles II's immorality was a protest against the Puritanism that preceded the Restoration, says Dr Ian Mortimer. (DEA PICTURE LIBRARY/De Agostini/Getty Images)

 

Q: If you could go back in time to witness one moment in history, what would you choose and why?

A: There are too many moments to choose from. However, if I have to choose one, I would have been thrilled to have sat beside my dad, my aunt and grandmother on 8 July 1961, when my aunt Angela Mortimer won the Ladies Singles title at Wimbledon (her third and final grand slam title). Her achievement has been inspirational to me throughout my life. But most of all I would have loved to see the anticipation, doubt, despair and exultation on the faces of members of the family as she progressed towards that moment of victory. 

 

Q: What historical mystery would you most like to solve?

A: What did Pope Leo the Great say to Attila the Hun to cause him to call off his invasion of Europe and go home when all Italy lay open to him in 452. 

 

Dr Ian Mortimer is best known as the author of The Time Traveller's Guides: three have been completed to date, namely Medieval England (2008), Elizabethan England (2012) and Restoration Britain (2017). Ian will expand on his favourite Restoration themes at BBC History Magazine’s Winchester History Weekend on Saturday 7 October and York History Weekend on Saturday 25 November 2017.
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