Interview with Author and Costume Interpreter Lauren Johnson
Lauren Johnson is the Research Manager for Past Pleasures Ltd, the United Kingdom’s oldest running costumed interpretation company. She has portrayed a range of fascinating women throughout history including Katherine Parr, Henry VIII’s last wife, Mary Tudor, sister of Henry VIII and the famous Lady Jane Grey, Queen for only nine days. Lauren has a Double First in History and a Masters in Medieval Historical Research and is also the author of ‘The Arrow of Sherwood’ a novel about Robin Hood.
It was my pleasure to meet Lauren in 2009 when I visited Hampton Court for the festivities of Katherine Parr’s marriage to King Henry VIII. Lauren’s portrayal of Katherine Parr was compelling, entertaining and extremely informative. For a moment I almost felt as though I was swept back into the 16th Century! She was also a very kind woman who was happy to answer any questions asked of her.
I was lucky enough to be able to interview Lauren and ask her a few questions about her costume interpretations, her interest in women of the 16th century and about her book ‘The Arrow of Sherwood’.
How did you get involved with live costume historical interpretation?
At University I did a lot of improvised comedy wile studying History (it was a great way to get out of libraries and use a completely different bit of my brain), and after my Masters I was trying to find a way to work in History without just being an academic. I heard through the improv grapevine about Past Pleasures and after applying, having training and spending a month working for them got taken on to work for them. Since 2009 I’ve also been the Research Manager for the company, so I both perform and do the background research for the rest of the team to use in their interpretation.
How do you go about researching the person you are interpreting?
I like to start with a quick overview of the person, and the best resource for that tends to be Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (in the UK you can access this through local library subscription). As well as giving you a brief biography it also has a bibliography at the end, which gives you an idea where to go for further reading.
Katherine Parr was the first person I played during my training and I spent a whole weekend in the library combing through books, trying to get to original sources – in her case we’re very lucky that some of her writing survives, which is very unusual for a woman of that era. I love the biography of her by Susan James. It’s more than six years since that training and I’m still discovering more about her and the world she lived in – I love that aspect of returning to the same characters and periods of history, constantly topping up my knowledge.
I’d love to visit more of the places connected with the people I interpret – I went to Sudeley, where Katherine is buried, and it was a beautiful place. Unfortunately, having by now played women from the seventh century all the way to the twentieth it’s not always possible to go that indepth!
Who is your favourite Tudor person to portray?
Katherine Parr was an astonishing woman, and I feel a real duty to portray her as she was: interesting, educated, intelligent, savvy, dutiful and loyal. But I’m nowhere near as well educated (my Latin is minimal, my French is only OK) so it can be a little daunting! I have also played Katherine Howard and Mary Tudor, Henry VIII’s sister, and I enjoyed them because they were more transgressive so you can push things a little further when playing them. Either Katherine Parr or Mary would top my list.
Lauren Johnson (as Katherine Parr) and myself at Hampton Court
Who would you like to portray that you have not had the chance to yet?
Margaret Beaufort. Without a doubt. I first got really interested in the Tudors through reading about the Wars of the Roses, and Margaret is another fascinating, complex, intelligent woman. I like to remind people that even though Henry VIII is remembered for being obsessed with finding a male heir, his claim to the throne came through Margaret, a woman, in the first place.
What is one question that you would like to ask Katherine Parr?
That’s really hard to narrow down to a single question… I suppose it would be: what was it like to be Henry VIII’s Queen? We know why she married him, because she later wrote about it to her fourth husband, Thomas Seymour, but I wonder how she actually got through being with a man so mercurial and powerful. It must have been extremely challenging. And she was also regent in 1544, so she effectively ruled the country – setting an example for Mary and Elizabeth, I believe. I’d like to know how she felt about that.
What inspired your interest in the history of women in the 16th century?
I’ve always wanted to know more about women in the past. It just seemed an area that we didn’t cover at school. It was always discussions of men’s actions in history – kings and industrialists and soldiers. But throughout all history, women have made up half the population. I don’t remotely believe that they just sat around silently sewing while the men made all the decisions about their lives. To be completely honest, the sixteenth century came to me later than my interest in women’s history. When I was about ten I was very into Henry VIII and his wives, but it was over ten years later, when I actually started working at Hampton Court Palace, that I really got interested in that period of history and the people involved. Now I find it all fascinating.
Can you please tell us about your book ‘The Arrow of Sherwood’?
The Arrow of Sherwood is not so much a new spin on Robin Hood as it is an old one. I wanted to take this story we think we know so well – the adventurous outlaw, the mythical hero and his band of friends – and properly immerse him in the world of the Twelfth Century. That era of history, when Richard the Lionheart was on the throne and ‘bad’ Prince John was causing trouble in England, would be full of fantastic stories even if we didn’t tend to assume Robin existed then. But the combination of the myth of Robin with real history is what interested me. So in The Arrow you’ll find a complex, messy historical world where the law is not living up the expectations of the people and men like the Sheriff of Nottingham are just trying to make the best of a bad system.
What inspired you to write a book about Robin Hood?
Like I said, I really wanted to set this story in a vivid, historically accurate medieval world. I’ve loved the story of Robin Hood since I was a kid running around woods, imagining outlaws behind trees, and as I’ve studied the Middle Ages more (particularly the Twelfth Century, which I have interpreted a great deal at Dover Castle among other sites) I was really keen to combine the excitement of the myth with the reality of daily life in the medieval period. Fairly early on I decided that Robin and Marian’s relationship would be different from previous, overly romantic versions of the story and once I weaved that into the setting, I couldn’t wait to write it.
Are there any future plans to write another book? If so who/what would it be about?
I’d love to write a sequel to The Arrow of Sherwood, but currently I’m immersed in the sixteenth century again. I’m writing a history book (non-fiction this time) about daily life in 1509 – the year that Henry VIII came to the throne. I’m hoping that like The Arrow I can combine the political story of that year with the reality and nitty gritty of how people lived their lives, both rich and poor, men and women. Having had so much experience of ‘living in the past’ I want to really immerse a reader in the world of 1509. Head of Zeus will be publishing it in early 2016.
How do you manage being Research Manager for Past Pleasures Ltd, writing and other commitments?
Extreme compartmentalizing! And not that much sleep. I work on both projects three days a week, and then have one day off. It’s pretty hard work but I love both jobs, and feel very lucky to be able to pursue them, so I’ll keep going as long as my brain can take it!