An amazing group of historians will be coming to the city this month for the Gloucester History Festival's Spring Weekend , plus you’ ll find lots of other treats in store for 2024 , including the return of the brilliant Tall Ships Festival …

I often think that history is like the London underground map as it is full of interesting stops, with fascinating names and places, and you can travel backwards and forwards at speed from one era to a next depending on what story line you are on. You choose where you want to go and when you want to get off. Connections are made and not necessarily the ones you expect.

My conversation with Sarah Smyth, curator of the popular Gloucester History Festival, reflects this extraordinary phenomenon. One minute we are talking about Elizabeth I’s life as a child, the next we are discussing midwifery in the 1960s or the history of Goth. It’s a rich and exciting discourse and one which leads to more questions, and this indefinitely leads to a thirst to find out the answers.

And maybe that is what you need to be a historian? A nose for a story, a desire to dig deep and find out whether the source you have is correct and a determined disposition to solve some clues and unearth something fresh about the past.

This month marks the exciting launch of Gloucester History Festival’s Spring Weekend, an eclectic programme of events over the weekend of Friday, April 12 until Sunday, April 14.

Great British Life: Another full house at Gloucester History Festival. Photo: Gareth JayneAnother full house at Gloucester History Festival. Photo: Gareth Jayne (Image: Gareth Jayne)

It’s an invitation to join the country’s leading historians, broadcasters, and thinkers for three days of 20 different compelling talks and controversial debates in the intriguing Blackfriars Priory, built in 1239 and is home of Britain’s oldest surviving library. And, as mentioned, be prepared to hold tight for those attending will be fast-tracked back to the past, present, and future, and not necessarily in that order! The Princes in the Tower, funny and quirky conspiracy theories, empires, hidden histories, unknown historic heroes, Royal childhoods, and local place names are all on the agenda.

‘We will be launching the theme of the year ‘Routes and Rebels,’ which celebrates the maverick, the pioneer or the first to do something. We are excited about the history of large and small, local and international, and history that is quiet as well as loud,’ Sarah explains.

‘The programme will cover some of the most intriguing stories of Gloucester’s history and Cotswold connections. We will cover current affairs, too, and will be marking significant anniversaries. In April it is the 75th anniversary of NATO and we look back at 75 years of foreign policy, with former Defence Secretary Ben Wallace and former NATO Deputy Supreme Allied Commander General Sir Tim Radford.

‘In 2024 it’s 700 years since the death of Marco Polo, the most famous traveller of the Middle Ages, and 100 years since both the death of Lenin and the first Labour Prime Minister in 1924.’

Great British Life: Theresa May arrives at Blackfriars with Richard Graham for Gloucester History Festival, September 2023.Theresa May arrives at Blackfriars with Richard Graham for Gloucester History Festival, September 2023. (Image: Paul Nicholls)‘Last year, we had former Prime Minister Teresa May and Robert Plant in the same room. We looked at ‘From Bridgerton to Poldark,’ and how history is portrayed through drama. We do make it fun and celebratory,’ adds Sarah.

‘History is not local, national, or international; rather it is ‘glocal’ history. The history festival is for everyone; it is a mix of the best scholars with the most popular. It’s rooted in Gloucestershire, but it draws on connections all over the globe.’

‘History is not a balance sheet: sometimes it requires that we hold multiple truths in our mind simultaneously. Nations – and individuals – can do great evil at the same time as doing good. And that’s where it gets complicated: sometimes doing what’s considered evil can lead to good, and vice versa.’ Sathnam Sanghera

One of the speakers at the festival’s Spring Weekend, is award-winning author Sathnam Sanghera. This extract from his new book, ‘Empireworld: How British Imperialism Has Shaped the Globe,’ offers hope in the scary and uncertain times we live in. Sathnam’s latest book is a powerful sequel to ‘Empireland: How Imperialism Has Shaped Modern Britain.’

Great British Life: Nicola Talls at Gloucester History Festival.Nicola Talls at Gloucester History Festival. (Image: Gareth Jayne)He joins a high calibre offering of historians and speakers who will share their insights from April 12-14. This includes Jeremy Bowen discussing the complex past and troubled present of the Middle East; bestselling historian and broadcaster Michael Wood travels in the footsteps of China’s greatest poet; whilst Call the Midwife actor Stephen McGann and Estelle Perenque join Janina Ramirez to explore women – medieval and modern – hidden from history. Suzannah Lipscomb and Nicola Tallis will be revealing the extraordinary lives of Tudor Queens. Nicola’s colourful and detailed biographical talk focuses on the turbulent and unstable upbringing of Elizabeth I and draws on primary sources including Elizabeth’s own writing and accounts from those close to her. This fascinating insight looks at the humanness of Elizabeth as opposed to viewing her as a political chess piece. Meanwhile bestselling historian and broadcaster Michael Wood travels in the footsteps of China’s greatest poet, whilst adventurous comedian Dom Joly (Cotswold Life columnist and of TV series Trigger Happy TV fame) talks about his latest book, The Conspiracy Tourist, and shares his global travels where he looks at some of the strangest and weirdest conspiracy theories in existence. Some of the questions he considers are: is the Earth flat? Does Finland actually exist? Are UFOs piloted by lizards? He might even say hello to audiences with that oversized mobile phone of his!

Over the same weekend, Philippa Langley, whose commitment to righting a historical wrong led to the discover of Richard III’s remains in a Leicester car park, will be talking about her latest book, The Princes in the Tower, this time arguing against the King’s most famous alleged crime. Did he really murder Edward IV’s sons, his two nephews? Did they survive and was Richard framed?

It shows the eclectic range of speakers and topics on offer at this year’s festival. This includes Gloucester History Festival patrons Michael Wood, David Olusoga and Bettany Hughes, as well as festival president Dr Janina Ramirez.

Great British Life: Gloucester History Festival brochure, spring 2024Gloucester History Festival brochure, spring 2024 (Image:

At a glance:

Gloucester History Festival Spring Weekend

April 12-14, 2024

A weekend of compelling events at Blackfriars Priory featuring over twenty top historians and speakers including Jeremy Bowen, Sathnam Sanghera, Michael Wood, Dom Joly, Will Hutton and Philippa Langley. Bookings open now.

Gloucester History Festival

September 7-22, 2024

Two weeks of talks, tours, exhibitions, performances, and historic buildings open for free, featuring 200 events and 100 of the nation’s top historians. The festival launches with Gloucester Day on 7th September.

The Kings Talks

March 2024 onwards

Year-round events exploring Gloucestershire’s history from March onwards at the historic Ivor Gurney Hall next to Gloucester Cathedral.

The Winstone Talks

Cirencester Parish Church

Saturday, November 2

An evening of talks with Britain’s leading historians in Cirencester’s magnificent medieval church.

More details at NB. Free access tickets are also available for young people who have a valid student ID card.

Great British Life: Janina Ramirez at Blackfriars for Gloucester History Festival. Photo: Gareth JayneJanina Ramirez at Blackfriars for Gloucester History Festival. Photo: Gareth Jayne (Image: Gareth Jayne)

Dr Janina Ramirez

The Oxford and BBC historian specialises in interpreting symbols, medieval art and examining visual culture and has published extensively including non-fiction, monographs, children’s novels, and documentaries for the BBC. Janina’s best-known series is the recent BBC2’s Raiders of the Lost Past and her bestselling book Femina was published in 2022. During the Spring Weekend, Janina will be talking about her latest travels and research which are about ‘The Incense Route’ – a network of trails extending over two thousand kilometres, to facilitate the transport of frankincense and myrrh from the Yemen and Oman in the Arabian Peninsula to the Mediterranean. Janina explains why she is looking forward to the Spring Weekend.

‘Firstly, because we are all in need of some springtime fun after the dark winter, and Gloucester always looks so beautiful, particularly around Blackfriars, in the spring. But mainly I'm looking forward to it because we now have two chances a year to spread our passion for all things history-related,’ says Janina.

‘The festival is a gateway to all the incredible work taking place around the city encouraging communities to come together and celebrate what it is to live in Gloucester. By inviting big names, creating unique and inclusive events, and promoting discussion on all areas of history, the spring festival has so much to offer to so many.’

‘Our history festival has, from the very off, tried to push the boundaries of how we engage with the past. Of course, Gloucester benefits from having some of the richest history in the UK spreading beneath our feet and above our heads wherever you walk, but we also have such a rich, diverse tapestry of communities, each of whom bring their history and heritage to the city,’ she adds.

‘History festivals, if done well, can create conversations that continue long after a talk has finished. They bring people together through shared love for exploring our pasts, and through that, hopefully shaping better, more inclusive presents and futures for everyone.’

Great British Life: Blackfriars Priory during Gloucester History Festival. Photo: Priory during Gloucester History Festival. Photo: (Image:

As I write this, I realise my earlier reference to the underground is more connected to this history festival than I thought. Isn’t there a Blackfriars Underground Station, I ask myself? As I spot it on the Circle and District lines, metaphorically I jump on a tube and get off at the said station. As forementioned all the events for the Spring weekend will take place in Blackfriars, a stunning example of a 13th-century medieval priory site. Founded in 1239 on a site that was once part of a Norman castle, Blackfriars was home to up to 40 Black Friars who were of the Dominican order founded by St Dominic in 1217. King Henry III, a major benefactor, and patron of Blackfriars, decided to grant timber for the roofs from the nearby Forest of Dean.

Now an International Wedding Award winner, the Priory continues to host special events and houses a Scriptorium, considered Britain’s oldest and most well-preserved medieval library. Sarah Smyth says it helps bring the past alive when they host events in such historic landmarks.

‘What is amazing is that technology today can now identify where in the Forest of Dean the beams in Blackfriars came from,’ says Sarah. Instead of modern life moving far away from history, it proves that advances in digital technology can help solve mysteries of the past so fresh evidence is brought to light. For some historians it means their jobs are being refreshed all the time.

Incidentally, Sarah’s own job history is interesting. She moved to Cheltenham when she took the role as director of Cheltenham Literature Festival in 1999 as it celebrated its 50th anniversary. Within her 15-year stint as director, as well as having two children, audiences grew by 500 per cent, from 28,000 to 160,000. Sarah also helped launch Cheltenham Science Festival, which is also a great success. So, what prompted her career move?

‘I felt it was time for a change. I saw the Gloucester History Festival as very different. It’s an area of great expansion and it’s about sharing and synthesising ideas in the context of beautiful architectural buildings which helps bring focus to the history and heritage.’

‘I think the history festival is powerfully rooted in place; it’s about people and objects. I find it a lot harder to get a treasured and valued object on stage than a world-famous speaker! It is harder to get a medieval object out of a museum and on to stage than it is to get Donna Tartt (author of The Goldfinch) from New York!’ admits Sarah.

Before unpacking what else is happening in 2024 under the umbrella of Gloucester History Festival, it’s helpful to unpack its own historic origins.

Great British Life: Town crier Alan Myatt at Gloucester Day 2023. Photo: Gareth JayneTown crier Alan Myatt at Gloucester Day 2023. Photo: Gareth Jayne (Image: Gareth Jayne)

Gloucester Day

It’s 14 years since Gloucester History Festival began. Since then, it has stayed true to its objective which is to raise the city’s profile, welcome world-class speakers and provide opportunities for history-lovers of all ages to explore the past and debate compelling issues of national and international importance. The main two-week festival takes place in September but over the years, more events have appeared on the agenda to support this, such as the Spring Weekend, The King’s Talks at the Ivor Gurney Hall in the shadow of Gloucester Cathedral, and the Winstone Talks at Cirencester Parish Church. Gloucester History Festival is also the first history festival to publish its own book. Gloucester: Recreating the Past was published two years ago by The History Press.

‘What makes the history festival special is that it very much grew out of Gloucester. At the heart of it is Gloucester Day which takes place every year on the Saturday nearest September 5, which commemorates the lifting of the Siege of Gloucester in 1643. It’s a day full of frivolity, parades, music, street stalls, and a Mock Mayor-making ceremony with town crier Alan Myatt,’ says Sarah.

This year Gloucester Day is September 7. It marks the beginning of the Gloucester History Festival, which runs until September 22 and is a jam-packed programme featuring more than 100 of Britain’s top historian and authors and over 200 events taking place in the city. It includes the unique tradition of Gloucester Day as well as the Heritage Open Days, which makes stunning historic buildings accessible to all. Blackfriars Talks take place for 10 days at the iconic Blackfriars Priory from Saturday, September 14 to Sunday, 22. A full programme will be announced in July.

Some of the world-class speakers who will be making an appearance in September include Max Hastings, Dan Jones, Bettany Hughes, Kate Mosse, Robert Harris, Tracy Borman, Jonathan Dimbleby and Alison Weir. A fun online event also takes place, whereby historians are given an historic Gloucester object and share their research and findings.

But for now, the Spring Weekend sets the scene for Gloucester History Festival’s exciting year celebrating ‘Routes and Rebels’.

‘There’s something very special about speaking in a Priory built over 850 years ago. It’s a perfect platform for history, ancient and modern, in the heart of a magnificent Roman city,’ says historian, author and broadcaster Bettany Hughes, who is a festival patron.

But as Dr Janina Ramirez reminds us, history is about exploring those living their day to day lives, not just kings and queens.

‘History has been in the hands of a few for so long,’ she explains. ‘Those historians that could have their opinions shared widely in previous centuries would often promote narratives that supported those in power. But we don’t need to be led solely by these selective stories any more. Through technology and scientific advancements, we can recover the lives and times of those that lived before us like never before.

‘We cannot be what we cannot see, and the way history as a subject is changing is thrilling, as we’re opening up the windows and throwing light on so many ignored, overlooked and supressed voices from the past.’

So, I encourage you to hop on to this historic tube ride and metaphorically jump off at Gloucester Road Station and join an amazing group of historians as they journey the city’s timeline. Find new connections, discover fun and interesting facts about every aspect of the past, find parallels in modern day life and be prepared to be challenged and enthralled by untold stories against the stunning historic backdrop that is Gloucester.