‘Look, I know I’m incredibly privileged,’ says the historian Dan Snow. ‘I married into money. I went to a good school. You can’t say anything to me about it that hasn’t already been said.’ We’re in Snow’s favourite West End coffee bar and while we’re here today to talk about his new book, what he’s really in the mood to justify is the many blessings that life has given him.
He starts with the three children from his marriage to Lady Edwina Grosvenor, daughter of the late Duke of Westminster and sister of the present Duke, controller of an estimated £8.5 billion fortune. ‘I hate being away from my kids,’ he says, looking genuinely glum after leaving Zia, seven, Wolf, four, and Orla, two, at their New Forest home this morning.
Dan Snow with HMS Daring. Snow was fascinated by World War II as a child. ‘I had a very traditional upbringing in a way,’ he says. ‘My parents were liberal but I had toy soldiers and tanks all over the floor and Spitfires on the walls’
We’re going to talk about fathers and sons a lot. About daughters as well, and the problem of your children potentially being fantastically well off. Should, for instance, he and Edwina leave them all their wealth? Should they send them, like their parents, to public school? ‘Eventually there will be a money advantage for them,’ Snow says, as if he’s not entirely sure it’s a good idea. ‘My wife and I have these discussions all the time. But my school was extraordinary, it propelled me.’
Snow, now 39, went to the prestigious St Paul’s, as did George Osborne, but he thinks the real privilege in his childhood was the abundance of love and adventure provided by his parents. ‘On holiday, we would walk around castles, Dad telling us stories, and Mum would read us books all night,’ he says. ‘They came home from long days at work and taught me how to read and love history. They taught me how to be curious.’
His mother is the Canadian television journalist Ann MacMillan, by which route he is the great-great grandson of the First World War prime minister David Lloyd George. ‘If I had trouble with my history homework,’ he says, ‘I’d ask Auntie Margaret.’ Auntie Margaret is the Canadian historian Margaret MacMillan. ‘She has just given the bloody Reith Lecture!’ he points out. His father is former Newsnight presenter Peter Snow, his father’s cousin the Channel 4 News presenter Jon Snow.
He is, I say, fantastically well connected. ‘It’s not like Dad’s Paul McCartney,’ he replies. ‘I would never count myself as a kid of a celeb, but you do think, Am I going to be as good as he is?’
Snow was fascinated by World War II as a child. ‘I had a very traditional upbringing in a way,’ he says. ‘My parents were liberal but I had toy soldiers and tanks all over the floor and Spitfires on the walls. I was a bit pretentious, so there was a picture of the Duke of Wellington with a quote on the wall. Which, now I look back, was a bit weird.’
Then the hormones kicked in, and the ‘slightly weird’ Snow turned his mind to other things. ‘I put a Kylie Minogue poster on the wall next to Wellington. I was so geeky in my early teenage years, and my family all laughed at me, so I responded by kind of going to the other extreme, radically. At 14 I was very tall and not cool, I was just into studying. By 18 I was a completely different person. Extrovert, confident, swaggering and incredibly excited to find I was suddenly attractive to girls.’
The new cool Snow doesn’t sound entirely charming. Did he hide the fact that his dad operated the BBC swingometer on election nights? ‘No, I didn’t get any problems about that,’ he says. ‘It wasn’t other people going, “Your dad is on the telly, I am going to glass you.” I made my own problems by being a tall, rugby-playing idiot.’
A square-jawed version of his father, in chinos and a blue shirt, he is charming and, as several wistful glances from other patrons of the café suggest, good-looking. He walks everywhere – ‘Almost no one has been to more historical sights on this island than I have’ – and still has the biceps and broad upper-body frame from years of rowing. In 2000 Snow was in Oxford University’s victorious Boat Race crew, but he was twice on the losing side, most devastatingly in 2001, when he was the president. ‘Defeat is the worst. It just ruins you,’ he says, sadness crossing his face again. ‘It could break you if you let it.’
From the outside things seem to have gone well for Snow since that disastrous day by the river 17 years ago. As well as the advantageous and very happy marriage in 2010, he has written six books, often about military history. The first, Battlefield Britain in 2004, accompanied the television show he made with his father. He has made a hatful of history documentaries on subjects as diverse as the Norman Conquest, the Winter Olympics and lost Nazi gold trains. His one-man show An Evening With The History Guy continues to tour and his @TheHistoryGuy Twitter feed has 249,000 followers.
Dan Snow and his wife Edwina at the Royal Wedding in May. In June 16, 2013, Edwina suffered a miscarriage. ‘It was Father’s Day,’ Snow says, his eyes a little wet at the memory. ‘So, we remember it every year. We didn’t name him but he’s buried in the garden. On that day, I just pause and go and spend a couple of seconds there reflecting’
For now, Snow has his new book. On This Day In History retells a moment in history for every day of the year, ranging from a meteor destroying 80 million trees in Siberia on June 30, 1908 to the unpleasant death of King Henry I on December 1 1135, caused by eating too many lampreys. ‘I’ve always been fascinated by how we got here,’ he says. ‘Explaining why the world is the way it is, that’s my passion.’
Perhaps Snow keeps so busy in part to stop a deeper sadness catching up with him, for, as he reveals, there is one day in his own life he will never forget: June 16, 2013 when his wife suffered a miscarriage. Edwina was six months into a pregnancy with what would have been their second child. ‘It was Father’s Day,’ Snow says, his eyes a little wet at the memory. ‘So, we remember it every year. We didn’t name him but he’s buried in the garden. On that day, I just pause and go and spend a couple of seconds there reflecting.’
Did he deal with his loss well? ‘I find doing a lot of walking helps and being with my kids. I’ve been an involved father. I know where the wipes are, which drawer the snacks are in. I just started doing the nappies from day one. But I wasn’t very good at it. My kids all preferred their mum.’
Losing a child has made him protective of those he has left, that and the ‘horrible things’ he saw when filming A History Of Syria, broadcast in 2013. ‘It was the scariest bloody thing I’ve ever done in my entire life,’ he says. ‘I was terrified for every second of it. I remember a girl about my oldest daughter’s age, she was with her family and they had been burnt out of their home. That has made me quite risk-averse. When we’re in a pub and the kids are out in the garden, me and my wife play chicken and I lose. I’m always the first to go outside and check. I do a lot of the school runs, I’m there a lot. In relationships only ten per cent of men take the lead on literacy, but I make sure mine have got the reading at the right ages. I’ve done Harry Potter with Zia, now she only wants books with female lead characters in.’
On this day in history…
Today in 1555, Parliament passed the Second Statute of Repeal abolising all religious legislation passed in the previous 25 years since Henry VIII had begun dismantling the Catholic Church in England. Henry’s zealous daughter Mary and her husband, King Philip of Spain, now also King of England ‘by right of his wife’, regarded this as the most important task of their reign. With Catholicism restored, Mary actively began to persecute Protestants. She revived former heresy laws and started to burn Protestants at the stake, beginning with Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury. During her reign, almost 300 Protestants were declared heretics and burned to death. Many more died in prison and her persecution led to an exodus of Protestant refugees fleeing to the continent. Somewhat unfairly, given the brutal proclivities of all her royal relatives, Mary alone is remembered as ‘Bloody’.
After decades of relative tranquillity, the Viking longships were once again prowling the coasts of England. Vicious raids in Cheshire, Devon, Cornwall and Hampshire were followed in the summer of 991 with a sizeable force landing at Northey Island in Essex. The young English king, Æthelred, who had only just established himself on the throne, agreed to pay a large sum to buy off the Danes. They took the money and, unsurprisingly, returned the following year. Today in 1002 , Æthelred unleashed the closest Britain has come to genocide in recorded history. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, he ‘ordered slain all the Danish men who were in England’. In Oxford, the town’s Danes ‘striving to escape death’ entered St Frideswide’s Church to ‘make refuge and defence for themselves therein’. Then, ‘when all the people in pursuit strove, forced by necessity, to drive them out, and could not, they set fire to the . . . church’. It was a monstrous crime, and worse, a mistake. The massacre had no effect on the Danish raiders, other than enrage them.
On this day in 1666, an experiment took place at Gresham College, an institute of learning in Holborn, London. The experiment was a blood transfusion between two dogs; one of the first successful transfusions that took place in the seventeenth century. This was recorded by an onlooker, from the corner of the room, as he watched medical history made. His name was Samuel Pepys. Pepys was a naval administrator, MP and Londoner, who kept a detailed diary of life and society. He filled its pages with colourful descriptions of everyday life, noting key events of the time. Pepys’s diary combines the events of his time, with the more mundane aspects of the everyday. The diary ends in 1669, possibly after his eyesight began to fail, and Pepys died four years later. His diary is a timeless masterpiece.
On this day in 1492, Christopher Columbus made the first reference by a European to the plant that we know as tobacco, and which has had such a momentous, and damaging, impact upon the modern world. Columbus was keen to explore the island we know as Cuba, so he sent men to investigate it. When they came back they reported, with appropriate bemusement, seeing men with burning sticks clamped in their mouths. By 1614, in London, there were reputed to be around 7,000 shops selling tobacco. Thousands of tons were imported, and it was noted early on that the habit was hard to stop. King James I famously disliked it, but hostile voices were few – and the studies that showed it to be harmful rather than beneficial had to wait for over three centuries to be recognised.
When Henry III died today in 1272 in Westminster, for the first time ever the crown passed automatically to his oldest son without a fight. There was no violent struggle for the succession. It made a pleasant change. Since the accession of Edward the Confessor in 1042 there had been ten English kings, and plenty of claimants. Remarkably every single one of those ten monarchs had used violence to enforce their right to wear the crown. This smooth transition to Edward I must have been a welcome relief to the people of England for whom the death of a monarch was always a time of acute danger. So confident was Edward that even though he was abroad, travelling home from a Crusade in the Holy Land, he took his time and did not arrive in England until August 1274.
Today in 1603 – in the old capital of Winchester – one of the most famous men in Elizabethan England, the courtier, explorer, soldier, spy, and writer (of prose and of poetry), Sir Walter Raleigh, was put on trial for treason. He remained dignified while interrogators lost their temper, turning him almost overnight into a popular hero. ‘Never,’ wrote one contemporary, ‘was a man so hated and so popular in so short a time’. Though pardoned by the king, Raleigh was not released and spent years in comfortable imprisonment – with access to a garden, visited by his beloved wife and children – though incarceration scarcely suited him. No sooner was he released, in 1616, than he embarked upon another voyage in search of gold in El Dorado: a final, but doomed, gamble. Having failed in his mission he returned to England where he was finally beheaded.
Jean-Jacques Dessalines worked as a slave in the sugar plantations of Saint-Domingue as a child but, today in 1803, he led an attack on his French colonial masters which brought a decisive end not only to slavery on the island but to the colony itself. Henceforth it would be the free Republic of Haiti. It was the only time that a European colony was overthrown and replaced by its enslaved people. The conflict was unimaginably brutal. Both sides carried out atrocities as the war became one of racial annihilation. In the early hours of November 18, a ferocious frontal assault shattered the will of the French to go on. The next morning they surrendered and were given ten days to leave the island for good. Dessalines declared the Haitian Republic two months later. Europe’s dominant military power had been defeated by a force of black former slaves.
Abridged from On This Day in History, © Dan Snow, 2018
Earlier this year Snow attracted criticism when he admitted telling Zia that women flew combat missions in Spitfires during the Second World War. Although female pilots did deliver planes, and several gave their lives, it wasn’t actually true. ‘I wanted to introduce her gently to the idea that it is pretty hard to be a woman,’ he says. ‘And I didn’t feel that age six in that aviation museum was the time to do it.’
So, should we lie to our daughters for their own sake, to make them stronger, more confident people? ‘I asked Mary Beard the same thing,’ Snow says. ‘“Do you like this new fad of saying there have always been these amazing women in history?” And she said, “No, I don’t. Women were basically enslaved and people’s property. By saying let’s focus on one woman who managed to become a scientist or a queen you are actually lying.” I was like, “Listen, you’re Mary Beard, I’m not going to argue with you.”’
A family problem caught up in history and then sprinkled with a touch of media celebrity. Stories really don’t come any more Dan Snow than that.
‘On This Day In History’ by Dan Snow is published on Thursday by John Murray, priced £14.99. Offer price £11.99 (20 per cent discount) until Nov 25. Order at mailshop.co.uk/books or call 0844 571 0640, p&p is free on orders over £15. Spend £30 on books and get free premium delivery. ‘An Evening With The History Guy’ runs from Jan 22 – ticketline.co.uk/dan-snow