Four dramatic chapters of British history: Lucy Worsley uncovers witch hunts, black death, madness of King George III, and the princes in tower in her new show

Lucy Worsley's new show re-investigates 4 dramatic episodes in British history  Uncovering witch trials, Black Death, King George III and the princes in the towerThe British historian follows the evidence to bring a contemporary perspective 

Lucy Worsley re-investigates four dramatic chapters in British history in her new show – the 16th-century witch trials, the Black Death, the madness of King George III and the princes in the tower – and in doing so shines a modern lens on the past.

In each episode Lucy follows the evidence and brings a contemporary perspective to each story, exploring how changing attitudes to gender politics, class inequality and mental health can challenge our perceptions of the past and provide fresh answers to each mystery…

Lucy Worsley (pictured) re-investigates four dramatic chapters in British history in her new TV show

Lucy Worsley (pictured) re-investigates four dramatic chapters in British history in her new TV show

THE WITCH HUNTS

Behind the clichés of pointy hats and broomsticks lies a terrifying history that’s been largely forgotten. More than 400 years ago, thousands of ordinary people, mostly women, were hunted down, tortured and killed in witch hunts across Scotland and England.

Lucy begins her investigation in North Berwick, a seaside town near Edinburgh where the first witch hunts began. The story goes that in 1590 a coven of witches gathered here and cast a spell to try to kill the King of Scotland, James VI.

Lucy shine a modern lens on the 16th-century witch trials, the Black Death, the madness of King George III and the princes in the tower

Lucy shine a modern lens on the 16th-century witch trials, the Black Death, the madness of King George III and the princes in the tower

Viewing an account from the time called ‘Newes From Scotland’ and other first-hand sources, Lucy uncovers a web of political intrigue that led to a woman called Agnes Sampson, a faith healer and midwife, being investigated.

Agnes was accused of witchcraft and interrogated at Holyrood Castle by King James himself, before being tortured and executed.

Agnes was caught in a perfect storm of hardline Protestant reformers intent on making Scotland devout, a King keen to prove himself a righteous leader and a new ideology that claimed the Devil was actively recruiting women as witches.

Under torture, Agnes gave the names of her supposed accomplices, some 59 other innocent people, making hers the first successful large scale witch hunt in Scotland. Its brutal success became the model for witch trials that would be rolled out across Scotland and England for the next hundred years.

Lucy is pictured here viewing the bones of victims of the 14th-century pandemic. They are now stored in the basement of the Museum of London

Lucy is pictured here viewing the bones of victims of the 14th-century pandemic. They are now stored in the basement of the Museum of London

THE BLACK DEATH

For centuries it was unclear what caused the pestilence of 1348 until a vast plague pit was uncovered in Smithfield, London, in the 1980s. The find revealed the bones of hundreds of victims of the 14th-century pandemic.

Lucy discovers how the skeletons, now stored in the basement of the Museum of London, yielded DNA that enabled scientists to finally identify a bacteria called Yersinia Pestis – a pathogen to which the medieval population had no immunity.

In little more than a year, almost half the population had been wiped out by the Black Death. Lucy investigates what this sudden loss of life meant for the church, landowners and for those who survived.

Exploring the social structure of medieval England, made up largely of rural peasants indentured to landowners, Lucy finds a rare and remarkable set of documents – the Court Rolls of the Suffolk village of Walsham the Willows – which reveals a perfect microcosm of life across the country before, during and after the pandemic.

Lucy begins her investigation in North Berwick, a seaside town near Edinburgh where the first witch hunts began

Lucy begins her investigation in North Berwick, a seaside town near Edinburgh where the first witch hunts began

Lucy discovers how the unfolding apocalypse, rather than shaking people’s belief in God, entrenched their faith. Many went on devotional pilgrimages to sacred sites like Canterbury Cathedral.

Despite the devastation, the plague propagated a shake-up of the status quo. Workers were in short supply and could demand higher wages, shifting the balance of power.

Women occupied professions and roles that were previously closed to them and acquired an independence and status that would previously have been impossible.

THE PRINCES IN THE TOWER

What really happened to the princes in the tower? Lucy uncovers the story of the two boys whose disappearance in 1483 has led to centuries of speculation.

In the Royal Archives at Windsor Castle, Lucy gains access to the Georgian Papers and the private diary of Robert Greville

In the Royal Archives at Windsor Castle, Lucy gains access to the Georgian Papers and the private diary of Robert Greville

The two princes, Edward and Richard, lived during the Wars of the Roses, a decades-long battle over the English throne between the House of Lancaster and the House of York. Edward IV, the boys’ father, was the first Yorkist King. His eldest son, Edward, was destined to inherit the throne – and this fact entirely shaped his young life.

Edward was just 12 when his father died, and he was considered too young to rule. Edward IV had appointed his brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester, to be the young King’s protector, but not everyone was happy with this arrangement. What followed was a tussle for control between Richard and the Queen’s family, the Woodvilles.

The princes were taken to the Tower of London ‘for their own protection’, but when a priest declared the boys illegitimate and Gloucester next in line to the throne, he was crowned King Richard III and the young princes disappeared.

Gaps in the historical record have fuelled 500 years of speculation, so Lucy speaks to Tim Thornton, Professor of History at the University of Huddersfield, who has found evidence of one account of what happened written by Thomas More; and Matthew Lewis, Chair of the Richard III Society, for his views on the events.

Lucy speaks to many historians when looking into the princes in the tower including Tim Thornton, Professor of History at the University of Huddersfield

Lucy speaks to many historians when looking into the princes in the tower including Tim Thornton, Professor of History at the University of Huddersfield

The enduring story of the Princes in the Tower not only reveals fascinating insights about childhood and the nature of politics and power in medieval England, but how interpretations of events are never fixed, with new evidence ensuring this story continues to fascinate.

THE MADNESS OF KING GEORGE

How did George III’s mental illness change Britain? Lucy uncovers royal papers and explores how an attempt on his life by a mentally ill working-class woman changed psychiatry forever.

Lucy begins her investigation with a crisis in the winter of 1788, when the 50-year-old King became unwell, and explores the stresses in George’s life that may have triggered his mental illness.

In the Royal Archives at Windsor Castle, Lucy gains access to the Georgian Papers and the private diary of Robert Greville, George’s equerry, which reveals the King would talk for 19 hours at a time and become violently agitated and angry. Doctors were at a loss to understand the King’s illness and the country was on the brink of a constitutional crisis.

In each episode Lucy follows the evidence and brings a contemporary perspective to each story, exploring how changing attitudes to gender politics, class inequality and mental health can challenge our perceptions of the past and provide fresh answers to each mystery

In each episode Lucy follows the evidence and brings a contemporary perspective to each story, exploring how changing attitudes to gender politics, class inequality and mental health can challenge our perceptions of the past and provide fresh answers to each mystery

Using a 21st-century understanding of George III’s condition as bipolar disorder, Lucy follows the clues and accounts of his hallucinations. She hears suggestions that grief over the deaths of his two young sons may have played a part in his illness, alongside ideas of democracy spreading across Europe, making this a challenging time to be a king.

One of the innovations of George’s reign, the direct petitioning of the King by his subjects, led in 1786 to a woman called Margaret Nicholson attempting to stab him as she presented him with a petition. George, himself only two years away from his major mental health crisis, declared, ‘Poor woman, she is mad, do not hurt her’ and these words became iconic.

The King’s own illness was widely rumoured and whispered about, and he and Margaret Nicholson became the most famous ‘mad people’ of the time, stimulating vital debate about the nature and treatment of mental illness.

George’s condition in 1788 forced the Royal Family to consult a medical outsider, a so called ‘mad doctor’ or early psychiatrist, called Francis Willis. Willis’s papers reveal that he prescribed a combination of treatments for the King, including walking in the grounds of the palace. George recovered – temporarily – and the country celebrated.

Lucy Worsley Investigates will show on BBC 2 from Tuesday 24th May at 9.00pm and will run for four weeks

Lucy Worsley Investigates will show on BBC 2 from Tuesday 24th May at 9.00pm and will run for four weeks

However, Margaret Nicholson, would remain incarcerated at Bethlem asylum for the rest of her life. An MP friend of the King’s, who’d seen his illness first hand, began a public enquiry into the scandalous conditions at Bethlem, leading to the beginning of reform in public asylums around the country.

  • Lucy Worsley Investigates, BBC Two, Tues 24 May at 9.00pm for four weeks
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