On the Spot: Andrew Roberts
We ask 20 questions of leading historians on why their research matters, one book everyone should read and their views on the Tudors …
Why are you a biographer and military historian?
I went to work in the City but discovered I was functionally innumerate, so I chucked it in order to do what I loved.
What’s the most important lesson history has taught you?
I have a signed letter from Aldous Huxley that states: ‘That men do not learn from history is the most important lesson that history teaches us.’
Which history book has had the greatest influence on you?
They Made History, an encyclopedia I almost memorised when I was about seven.
What book in your field should everyone read?
Finest Hour, the sixth volume of Martin Gilbert’s masterly biography of Winston Churchill.
Which moment would you most like to go back to?
The Norway debate in May 1940, where I would like to have made a crushing speech.
Which historian has had the greatest influence on you?
Norman Stone, who taught me history at Cambridge.
Which person in history would you most like to have met?
Winston Churchill; and not just because I am writing about him.
How many languages do you speak?
Only one, to my eternal regret and shame. Though I can read and understand French, too.
What’s the point of counterfactualism?
To remind us that everyone always has a choice and that history is not on a train track to anywhere.
What’s the most exciting field in history today?
Battlefield archaeology is telling us a lot we didn’t know.
What historical topic have you changed your mind on?
I used to think Napoleon was a proto-Hitler, but now I realise he was nothing like him.
Which genre of history do you like least?
Marxist determinism; what
a lot of drivel all that was.
Is there an important historical text you have not read?
Libraries of them; it’s what gets me out of bed in the mornings.
What’s your favourite archive?
Please let me have two: Churchill College, Cambridge and the Liddell Hart Centre for Military Archives at KCL.
What’s the best museum?
Cabinet War Rooms.
Tudors or Stuarts?
Tudors, but only for Elizabeth.
Normans or Anglo-Saxons?
Rome or Athens? Athens.
Cromwell or Charles I?
Cromwell: right but repulsive.
Braudel or Gibbon?
Gibbon: the ultimate historian hero.