Anna Keay is a historian who specializes in the cultural heritage of Great Britain. As the director of the Landmark Trust, she has overseen the restoration of numerous historical buildings and monuments, while also serving as a prolific author and commentator on the country’s architectural and artistic traditions. Her book, The Restless Republic: Britain Without a Crown, was one of Tyler’s top picks for 2022.
Tyler sat down with Anna to discuss the most plausible scenario where England could’ve remained a republic in the 17th century, what Robert Boyle learned from Sir William Petty, why some monarchs build palaces and others don’t, how renting from the Landmark Trust compares to Airbnb, how her job changes her views on wealth taxes, why neighborhood architecture has declined, how she’d handle the UK’s housing shortage, why giving back the Koh-i-Noor would cause more problems than it solves, why British houses have so little storage, the hardest part about living in an 800-year-old house, her favorite John Fowles book, why we should do more to preserve the Scottish Enlightenment, and more.
Watch the full conversation
Recorded February 23rd, 2023
Read the full transcript
TYLER COWEN: Hello, everyone, and welcome back to Conversations with Tyler. Today I am honored to be here with Anna Keay. Anna is truly a British institution. She is director of Landmark Trust, an architectural historian, historian of the Crown Jewels, an expert in 17th-century history, a TV personality, and I’m a big fan of her latest book, called The Restless Republic: Britain without a Crown. Anna, welcome.
ANNA KEAY: Thank you.
COWEN: Very simple question: What’s the most plausible 17th-century scenario where England remains a republic ongoing?
KEAY: [laughs] Well, it could easily have happened. I think a lot of people have forgotten that there was a revolution in the British Isles, and it was a republic for 10 years. The trouble was, really, that this is a classic situation where there was a lot of unhappiness with what had been the case — the monarchy — but the formulation of a stable republic had yet to be worked out.
I think, if Oliver Cromwell had lived longer or named a better successor than his son, Richard, it could have endured. Fundamentally, it was before its time, I would say, and it was not sufficiently deeply rooted. Fundamentally, the people didn’t want a republic even though one was brought about. That meant it was always fragile.
COWEN: Would there have been a way, without a crown, to have put a lid on all the religious disputes? Wouldn’t they have just simmered, led to more civil wars and some kind of consolidation into autocratic power? And in that sense, there is no counterfactual where the republic just keeps on running.
KEAY: Well, you could say that. But of course, there is a kind of counterfactual parallel because in what’s now the Netherlands — what was then called the United Provinces — there had been a revolution, sometimes called the Dutch Revolt, that had happened 100 years earlier in the 1560s, which had both rejected Catholicism and rejected monarchy. It became something that was governed by a series of states that had some institution called the States General where their representatives met.
It wasn’t so much that religious turmoil and republicanism were irreconcilable, but in the case of England, the revolution — the throwing off the monarchy — didn’t have sufficient buy-in from the political nation, let alone the nation as a whole. It was really brought about by an army coup. I think that meant it was fragile.
It was also linked to a strong view, held by a minority and very much represented in the army, that a very strictly Puritan regime was what was needed. I think that was incompatible with a peaceful set of circumstances because it wasn’t widespread enough. But you’re right, which is, these counterfactual avenues — they take you into so many other what-ifs that it becomes a bit fruitless after a while.
COWEN: An even simpler question: If the English Civil War of the 1640s wasn’t about having a republic, what exactly was it about? What’s the stupid answer to that question?
KEAY: Well, yes, not a stupid answer. I think the answer is, it was really, in my view, overwhelmingly about religion. There’s a historian who works on this period who talks about it and says you shouldn’t think of it as a revolutionary war. It’s really one of the last wars of religion. That was the biggest of the issues. There was a related secondary issue about the extent of royal power. That was in the mix, but it wasn’t the first issue.
Really, it was about Charles I, who was the king — who was being fought against by the parliamentarian forces — wanted the Protestant religion of England to be more elaborate, more like Catholicism in terms of the way it was performed in the liturgy, and so on. That was something that was anathema to a lot of very committed Protestants in that tension.
COWEN: How much of that was sincere belief, and how much was that simply an arbitrary marker that different interest groups struggling for power fixed upon, and actually, the Civil War is about the interest groups struggling for power?
KEAY: Well, it’s an interesting point. I think, if you’d ask that question of a lot of historians working a generation or two ago, they would have said it’s all about economic forces. It’s all about the class struggle, if you like. I don’t think that’s my view.
We live in such a secular age, and I would say in the UK much more so than in the States, where, really, church-going and religious conviction is very much a minority pursuit. To reimagine ourselves or to imagine the world of 17th-century England where religion is such a strong force, it involves a mental leap that I think sometimes people have been reluctant to do.
Historians working on this period, particularly in the mid-20th century, were really influenced, actually, by Marxist approaches to understanding the past. It was all seen as, this is the rise of this class. This is the mercantile urban strand of society trying to assert authority, to climb the ladder, and so on.
I’m just not at all convinced by those arguments myself. I think religion was a very, very strongly held factor in people’s lives. You read contemporary diaries and so on, and it really is clear that people felt very strongly that wherever they were on the spectrum between absolutely Calvinist Puritan or a Catholic, in terms of the range that was around at the time, that personal conviction about what was right was really, really a big factor. I don’t mean that it was the only factor, but to treat it as somehow a cover for other motives is to do a disservice, I think, to the people of the age.
COWEN: Given how central the 17th century is, in your mind — including disputes over the Book of Common Prayer, does it go to Scotland, James as an absentee monarch — when you look at the disputes today over Scotland becoming independent, how do you see that differently than, say, someone who doesn’t obsess over the 17th century?
KEAY: [laughs] First of all, I do have to declare an interest because I am a Scot. I was born and brought up in Scotland. But I think that if you’re interested in the 17th century, the additional perhaps emphasis or lens that it gives you is, first of all, the memory of how the union came about in the first place. Great Britain, as a unit, was only, in our historical time depth, a relatively recent creation.
It was there for a long time — 300 years, whatever it was, or is — but of course, what happened was that a sovereign acceded to two kingdoms. This happens quite often historically. It happened quite often with other kingdoms or countries in British history. William III was the king of Great Britain and Ireland, but he was also the overlord of what’s now the Netherlands. George I was the elector of Hanover.
None of these things involved a political union. They were just two countries that happened to share a sovereign. That’s the reason why, of course, although England and Scotland have been part of Great Britain as a political union since 1707, it was never a complete one. The legal systems have always been completely separate, completely distinct, the education systems, much else besides.
Although, personally, I would be very sad to see the end of the union and very sad to see a breaking apart between England and Scotland, if you think about the 17th century, it does really underscore how much independent identity has always been there in those two nations, and how long a history each had before they became a whole.
COWEN: What did Robert Boyle learn from Sir William Petty?
KEAY: [laughs] This is real, like, quick-fire questions. What did Robert Boyle learn from Petty? Robert Boyle, obviously, as a young Irish nobleman, was a student of the new science in the 17th century. William Petty was also. They came from very different backgrounds.
Robert Boyle had been brought up — he was the son of an Irish nobleman — in great comfort and grandeur in Ireland. Silver spoon in his mouth and silks to wear. William Petty had been born the son of a very poor clothier in a town on the southeast coast of England. They met both in Oxford and in Ireland in the mid-17th century.
William Petty was an older man, senior to Robert Boyle. Robert Boyle came to Oxford as a student in his early 20s, but he was rich and had friends. William Petty was already a very well-regarded member of the establishment in Oxford University. He was the older man in terms of experience and in terms of scientific experimentation, which is what was their great obsession. But on the other hand, Robert Boyle was the man with money and with the ability to commission and fund activities and so on.
Robert Boyle learned from William Petty a lot about what was being embarked upon by this group of young men in Oxford in the 1650s, which was utterly revolutionary, really, which was the beginning of what we would regard as proper scientific process and scientific inquiry through experimentation.
They were a group who would form the Royal Society when it was reformulated in the early 1660s. At William Petty’s rooms on the High Street in Oxford — rooms that still exist — this group of men gathered. Christopher Wren was among them, and they carried out experiments. Boyle learned from William Petty all sorts of things about the circulation of the blood, about vacuums, about the different characteristics of the human organs — all sorts of things, because they had these amazing broad areas of inquiry.
Of course, this is an age where, until now, really, the job of anyone who we would consider to be a scientist in modern terms was to read the works of classical antiquity and to understand what Aristotle, or whoever it was, had said about the nature of the world. It was a new dawn. Boyle learned from Petty an approach, I suppose, to inquiring and looking for yourself to understand — from how things behaved when you cut them or inflated them or exposed them to light — what the properties of the world were.
COWEN: It seems Petty understood Ireland pretty well, and he had some sympathies for Ireland. If he had been allowed to simply rule Ireland unconstrained, could he have done much better? Or is the actual problem one that there’s simply no way you can rule Ireland at all without cementing in this external elite, which is then going to lead to trouble?
KEAY: Yes. William Petty is a scientist and an economist, as we would term it now. He went to Ireland as a doctor. Because he had this very brilliant brain and analytical scientific mind, he diagnosed what he saw as not so much the problems, but as the nature of Ireland. How many people lived there, how many had been dispossessed by the wars and conflict of recent times. He undertook this remarkable business of mapping Ireland as part of the redistribution of land, which was an extraordinary and horrific undertaking in many ways.
But he wasn’t a person who had any experience of governing a place. He was hopeless with people. He was rude and abrasive and direct and would tell them that they were ignorant and absurd, in which he may well have been right. But as we know, in society, governing a place — it doesn’t necessarily work well if you tell . . . So, I don’t think he was temperamentally in any position to be a good governor.
What he absolutely was, was somebody who saw past — because it didn’t interest him — prejudice and traditional English dislike of the Irish because he was interested in things empirical. And he’d also been trained by Catholics, so he didn’t share most English people’s horror of Catholics.
I think he was well placed to advise on the business of running Ireland. He wouldn’t have been good at doing it himself. Had Henry Cromwell — to whom he gave this advice, and who had been given the job by his father, Oliver Cromwell, of governing Ireland — had he been given more time to do that, I think it could have been very successful. But it was very short-lived because when Oliver Cromwell died in 1658, Henry Cromwell lost his position, effectively.
The period of time when Willam Petty and Henry Cromwell were together working on the business of the reconstruction of Ireland was very short. But I think the evidence is their aspirations — you could found a university, you could make it this great forward-looking nation that could be a model for modernity — could potentially have been very productive.
COWEN: It seems there are some monarchs — they don’t do much in the way of building palaces: Edward VI, Mary, Elizabeth. Is that just random, or is there some systematic political economy reason why some monarchs are building palaces and others aren’t?
KEAY: Well, it’s usually a pretty practical reason. Well, two. One is to do with money, and one is to do with the scale of your court. Henry VIII famously, by the time of his death, had something like 60 palaces. That was partly funded, of course, by the dissolution of the monasteries, which involved the state raking in huge amounts of money, which meant you could build and acquire on a huge scale. Secondly, he had a big family and a big court.
You needed to have palaces for the queens, for the Prince of Wales, and for your other offspring and so on. Henry VIII built palaces on a great scale. He then passed the palaces on to his successors, who, to begin with, had inherited a huge patrimony, so the requirement or the need for more buildings had been sated.
Also, of course, you go on to a series of singleton sovereigns. Edward VI is, obviously, basically a boy. He never gets beyond his teens. Mary Tudor is an adult woman. She’s married but has no children. Her husband is king of Spain, so he’s not really around very much. Then of course, famously, Elizabeth I is a singleton sovereign, unmarried and with no children. I think a lot of it is about practicality.
You can add into the mix the extent to which you see — and there are obviously people who did — on top of those more practical issues, building as a way of expressing your status. If we think of somebody like Louis XIV in France, it’s clear that over and above any of those practical requirements or questions of means, the magnificence of the monarch, and therefore of the institution of monarchy and so on, was something that he realized and expressed in buildings on a massive scale.
COWEN: Why, concretely, do the monarchs wear crowns?
KEAY: Well, it’s an interesting point because, of course, there’s no actual practical job that a crown does. It doesn’t —
COWEN: Sure. It could be a scepter. There are many different symbols of status you could invoke. Why a crown?
KEAY: Well, of course, there are also all those other symbols of status. There are several scepters, there’s an orb, there are spurs, there are rings. There’s a whole wardrobe of regalia, as it’s known. Essentially, it’s about the echoing — with this amazing sense of continuity — of what was done by your ancestors, back to the origins of your institution. It’s very interesting that if you look at images of monarchs of England or within Britain going right back into the early Middle Ages, they all are wearing a ceremonial thing on their head.
Then, even if you look outside the British tradition, you see it in other nations. You see it in other traditions which had no connection to and no kind of interaction. For example, in traditional African societies, where you see headdresses and the wearing of some ceremonial thing which denotes a person as being other than those around them — more important, more special, elevated. You see it in archeology. The earliest English crowns have been excavated from Iron Age graves.
This is before the advent of the written word. There seems to be an almost anthropological universality of the idea that doing something special on your head is a way of setting you apart. This is very, very clearly monarchs doing it because their predecessors do it. We see it in the Middle Ages. Henry III, who was a great, long-lived, and successful medieval monarch, really lionized his predecessor by several generations, Edward the Confessor, who’d been canonized by the Catholic Church — there was a saint. And the graves were opened of previous monarchs. Crowns which had been buried with them were got out, and so on.
Of course, for all monarchies . . . nowadays, we have essentially a ceremonial monarchy in this country. But when you trace them back to a time when monarchs were actually in charge and had executive power, always the challenge was, how did you pass it on to your children? How did you make sure that on your death . . . Although you might be a powerful and successful king, as soon as you die, all your enemies come in and grab everything.
You have to create this sense that somehow it isn’t just about you and your body, and when you are dead, it’s over. There’s some continuity. There’s some kind of heredity that carries your aura and power and ability to command down through the generations. Anointing is part of this, which is a big thing. This is a business of a holy endorsement of your line — but also the passing on of all these objects, which, when you breathe your last on your deathbed, are still there, and attention can be drawn to them. Then they’re put on the head of your successor, and your aura passes to him or her.
It’s an interesting cocktail of history and anthropology and sociology, in a way.
COWEN: Why is the British monarchy so extremely successful as a global institution, including in the United States? When Elizabeth passed, many people said, “Oh, this is the end of the line.” That seems clearly untrue. The thing is just going to continue. It’s extremely popular, draws a wide spectrum of interest. What’s the marketing genius behind what’s going on? Why is it so well known? You look at the royal families of the Netherlands, Norway. They can speak English, but no one seems to care.
KEAY: It’s interesting, isn’t it? I guess it’s probably a cocktail of things. I suppose the balance that’s been struck between a nonexecutive head of state in the form of the monarch and the executive in the form of the government, the prime minister, and so on — but without dialing down much of the bling and the splendor and the ceremony of the monarchy, even though the power has gone — has turned out to be a very successful formulation.
It’s interesting, because I don’t know that it would necessarily have been obvious that that would’ve worked. There might have been a feeling that it would be absurd to continue to have all these palaces and grounds and state coaches and all this kind of stuff when you are looking at something which is fundamentally part of the ritual of state, but it isn’t actually exercising any executive authority.
But it happens to have come to pass that, actually, that seems to be quite a satisfying separation. There’s something about the apolitical nature of the monarchy, and how incredibly careful they have to be about that in a world where everything seems to endlessly be in turmoil in terms of electoral politics and so on, to have a certain sense of reassurance about it.
I also think that it changes. If you’d been talking about the success of the monarchy 30 years ago, it might have been a different conversation. I think there have been moments where the monarchy has felt very successful, others where it’s felt more fragile.
And then, I suppose, you have to layer into that the fact of some quite practical things, like the monarchy in this country is in an anglophone country, so the language that is spoken and the traditions — the Anglo-Saxon traditions, if you like — have a certain familiarity around the world, which makes a connection.
Obviously, also long past now, but the skeleton, if you like, of a monarchy which was once an empire that stretched around the world still has connections and associations that make the British monarchy of interest in places where the Swedish monarchy might not be, as it were.
COWEN: You’re director of Landmark Trust. How should we as outsiders think about where the revenue comes from? How does it work financially?
KEAY: We’re a charity, historic buildings charity. Our job is to rescue historic buildings that are in a derelict or in a bad way, to raise the money to restore them. Then we rent them out for people to stay in. We have 200 buildings across the whole of the British Isles: castles and dairies and lighthouses and all manner of things, artillery forts. And we are self-financing. The money that runs the charity comes from letting the buildings. If you were just —
COWEN: So, you make money.
KEAY: Well, we don’t . . . We generate money, but —
COWEN: You plow it back into the mission of the institution?
KEAY: We plow it back in. If you were staying in London this week and you weren’t staying in a smart hotel, you could be staying in a silk worker’s house in the East End, built in 1707, or John Betjeman’s apartment, which is in Clerkenwell, both of which we own.
You would be staying in a wonderful historic building, sleeping in comfortable beds and everything. But as well as your money being a way of paying for your stay, it also helps us to run our charity and then to go on to acquire more buildings that would otherwise be lost. We have this amazing stock of buildings in this country.
COWEN: Do you grade your renters the way, say, Airbnb does? Or anyone can come in and stay in the castle?
KEAY: We love them all, and we don’t grade them. If you did something really awful, like made a pile of the furniture and set fire to it, we might not rent you another building, but we don’t grade them. We are open to everybody, and as I say, we are a charity. We don’t price ourselves in a way that makes us available only to the super-rich. It’s all sorts of people come and stay in our buildings, and anyone can do it. You just go on our website, landmarktrust.org.uk, and you can choose from any number of wonderful follies and mini castles.
We’ve just finished restoring an amazing castle near Inverness for people who go to Scotland, maybe following their own roots. Beautiful building, built in 1550, which had no roof and no floors until two years ago. We raised the money through people giving money philanthropically and also through grants and so on, to re-roof it, re-floor it, and put heat and power in, and now you can have your own castle for the weekend.
COWEN: Is it socioeconomic status that, in essence, stops your renters from trashing the places? Because if Airbnb had no star system, I would be quite worried. Whereas presumably, you have a narrower set of renters, if not higher in income, higher in education or historic understanding.
KEAY: I think it is a self-selecting group of people. The nature of our buildings — I think you are right, which is that, on the whole, people go to them because they’re really interested in that kind of thing, and so it would be a counterintuitive thing then to trash it. We occasionally have people who make a bit of a mess, but it’s pretty rare.
People respond to somewhere that feels really special and that you know is run by a charity and looked after with great care, and there’s a nice member of staff who gives you the key or gets in contact with you. I think people’s good nature and recognition, I suppose, of the specialness of what they’re experiencing is pretty good. A pretty good force for keeping them behaving themselves.
COWEN: Did the income tax and estate tax lead to the end of the era of great country homes? Because all of a sudden, they became a lot more expensive, right? The carrying costs are suddenly much higher.
KEAY: Yes. It was definitely a big factor at the rise of inheritance tax and various other land taxes. It didn’t bring an end to them. You don’t need to go very far in this country to see that.
COWEN: But many more are turned over to groups like Landmark Trust, right?
KEAY: Yes, it’s true. A lot of them were sold off, the interiors stripped out — a lot of the interiors sold to the States, actually. It’s a very interesting phase in the history of British country houses, really, in the first 20, 30 years of the 20th century, where whole rooms . . . The house that I live in — this happened to whole rooms — beautiful paneling from the Tudor period prized off the walls, put in packing cases, and dealers would sell them to the Randolph Hearsts of the world, who were recreating an idea of old Europe in new buildings.
There were a series of factors at play, but it also has to do with the First World War. The extent of the death toll taken by the First World War, the impact that had on these great estates in terms of the workforce — not just of the owners of the houses, but also the people who were working on the estates — was enormous.
It did make for a big shift. But there’s something called the Historic Houses Association in the UK, which is a kind of club, a trade association for people who are private owners of big historic houses and open them to the public or do public events in them, and they have an annual conference. If you go to it, you really wouldn’t think the English or British country house is in trouble. There are thousands of people there.
There are buildings up and down the country where they’re busy putting in farm shops and glamping, which is a very big thing in the UK, and amazing eco projects, and so on. The taxation system and essentially the rise of the state as an institution that needed resources to be able to fund things like universal healthcare, which is obviously a wonderful thing, required the growth of taxation. And that definitely, particularly in the mid-20th century, took a big toll on landowners and big houses.
COWEN: Given the standpoint of your job, how is it you think differently about, say, a wealth tax?
KEAY: I don’t know that I do think differently about a wealth tax. I suppose —
COWEN: But it’s discouraging the creation and maintenance of the asset you’re dedicated to popularizing and preserving, right?
KEAY: Well, not necessarily. A lot of people who have big historic houses — a lot of them have them in charitable trusts and do things which mean there is public benefit, more generally, from them. It depends what sort of wealth tax and how it’s calculated, what the basis of it is. But I think there are lots of ways you could formulate something that didn’t penalize those who were clearly taking a very responsible attitude to historic buildings.
I also think that sometimes too much money is an absolute killer of historic buildings. You see the absolute ruination of wonderful buildings in, for example, the wealthier parts of London, where every corner has been stripped out, the plaster has been hacked off to be redone every 10 years by the next owner, and all character and pattern has been lost for them. I think there’s something to be said for poverty as a preserver as well as wealth.
COWEN: Should Britain fund heritage through lotteries, which are generally regressive? They don’t offer fair odds. Poorer people buy the tickets.
KEAY: Well, that does happen in this country now.
COWEN: Sure, but should it?
KEAY: Well, it’s a good question. The Heritage Lottery Fund — actually, I think it’s now called the National Lottery Heritage Fund — receives a significant sum of money each year from the National Lottery, which was set up in the ’90s to fund various things, including a lot of sports, including a lot of community work. It’s very broadly based.
I think you’re right to say that you have to be very alive to the demographics of those people who are buying lottery tickets. I buy them myself. It’s a broad community. The way that money is allocated by the Lottery Fund is acutely conscious of that. Each project that you do — and I’ve done a number of them — where you receive money through the Lottery Fund, you have to demonstrate how you are making a difference to the lives of the people who are buying the tickets.
But so much of the work that is done through that program is amazing. Grassroots work, for example, in the town I live in, King’s Lynn — the local Fisher Folk Museum, which documents the lives of the fishing people of that town through generations: their livelihoods, their communities, their way of life. That wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for the Lottery Heritage Fund. That seems, to me, to be a wonderful thing and something that we should be really proud of.
COWEN: Which are the old buildings that we have too many of in Britain? There’s a lot of Christopher Wren churches. I think there’s over 20.
KEAY: Too many?
COWEN: What if they were 15? They’re not all fantastic.
KEAY: They’re not all fantastic? Tell me one that isn’t fantastic.
COWEN: The Victorians knocked down St. Mildred. I’ve seen pictures of it. I don’t miss it.
KEAY: Well, you don’t miss something that’s not there. I think it’d be pretty hard to convince me that any Christopher Wren church wasn’t worth hanging on to. But your point is right, which is to say that not everything that was ever built is worth retaining. There are things which are clearly of much less interest or were poorly built, which are not serving a purpose anymore in a way that they need to. To me, it’s all about assessing what matters, what we care about.
It’s incredibly important to remember how you have to try and take the long view because if you let things go, you cannot later retrieve them. We look at the decisions that were made in the past about things that we really care about that were demolished — wonderful country houses, we’ve mentioned. It’s fantastic, for example, Euston Station, one of the great stations of the world, built in the middle of the 19th century, demolished in the ’60s, regretted forever since.
So, one of the things you have to be really careful about is to make a distinction between the fashion of the moment and things which we are going to regret, or our children or our grandchildren are going to curse us for having not valued or not thought about, not considered.
Which is why, in this country, we have this thing called the listing system, where there’s a process of identifying buildings which are important, and what’s called listing them — putting them on a list — which means that if you own them, you can’t change them without getting permission, which is a way of ensuring that things which you as an owner or I as an owner might not treat with scorn, that the interest of generations to come are represented in that.
COWEN: Why were so many big mistakes made in the middle part of the 20th century? St. Pancras almost was knocked down, as I’m sure you know. That would have been a huge blunder. There was something about that time that people seem to have become more interested in ugliness. Or what’s your theory? How do you explain the insanity that took all of Britain for, what, 30 years?
KEAY: Well, I think this is such a good question because this is, to me, what the study of history is all about, which is, you have to think about what it was like for that generation. You have to think of what it was like for people in the 1950s and ’60s, who had experienced, either firsthand or very close at hand, not just one but two catastrophic world wars in which numbers had been killed, places had been destroyed. The whole human cost of that time was so colossal, and the idea for that generation that something really fundamental had to change if we were going to be a society that wasn’t going to be killing one another at all time.
This has a real sort of mirror in the 17th century, during the Civil War in the 17th century. There’s a real feeling that something had to be done. Otherwise, God was going to strike down this nation, this errant nation. I think for that generation in the ’50s and ’60s, the sense that we simply have to do things differently because this pattern of life, this pattern of existence, this way we’ve operated as a society has been so destructive.
Although lots of things were done — when it comes to urban planning and so on — that we really regret now, I think you have to be really careful not to diminish the seriousness of intent of those people who were trying to conceive of what that world might be — more egalitarian, more democratic, involving more space, more air, more light, healthier — all these kinds of things.
We can see lots now that we say, “Well, that’s ridiculous. This is not how society works.” But we didn’t experience what they experienced. I actually have real respect for a lot of that. I think a lot of things that were done . . . I’m going tomorrow to see a place somewhere called Letchworth, the world’s first garden city, which was planned and laid out north of London in the 1910s, which was completely about saying we’ve got to design a new world.
I think it’s good to have a bit of humility in considering these decisions because people don’t go around wantonly trying to destroy the environment. They think that they’re doing the right thing.
COWEN: If we look at most of the Western world, it seems to me that after World War II, there are very few, really very few beautiful new neighborhoods created. A lot of spectacular individual buildings, but it’s very hard to find neighborhoods that are as nice as what was built in the 1890s, the 1910s. Depends on the country, the era. What happened to neighborhood architecture? Why did it so radically decline in wealthier societies?
KEAY: Such a good question. I was talking about this with somebody only the other day. I think there are clearly places where you do see it and you do see it work now, but they’re pretty few and far between. I think there’s a lot of work going on with young architects in the field and really trying to crack this business about neighborhoods and housing, not least because, in this country, there’s a real housing crisis, because we’re a small country with a lot of people, and challenges of building are very great.
But it is really stark. I don’t know the answer to it. I think there are observations I would make. One, I would say that the idea of the philanthropic neighborhood development scheme has really gone, but there was a lot of that that happened in the late 19th, early 20th century, with landowners — and also company directors, and so on — doing things that were going to be beautiful.
There’s a wonderful place up near Liverpool called Port Sunlight, which was all laid out by a great industrialist — absolutely the most beautiful place that you could imagine — for people who would be working for him. There’s something about the aspiration of beauty and a sense of responsibility for creating it.
It feels like that has really diminished in the world of either the state does it, and they’re trying to do it as cheaply as possible, or developers do it, and they have another reason to do it as cheaply as possible. I agree, it’s something to really regret. It’s something we have to decide we care about, or we’re not going to make it any better.
COWEN: If the House of Lords were abolished, as Labour has proposed — as you know — would that make it harder for policy to protect heritage in Britain?
KEAY: No, I don’t think so.
COWEN: You don’t think they’re a net force one way or the other? Because they do slow down legislation. They slow down change. It’s part of being —
KEAY: I’m all for abolishing the House of Lords myself, personally. I think it’s totally past its sell-by date as an institution. The fact that we still have nearly a hundred members of the House of Lords who are hereditary peers, who are, by definition, all men, I find extraordinary.
COWEN: But they’re being replaced, right? They’re literally grandfathered in, in some ways.
KEAY: Yes, but there are still a hundred of them. There’ll be a hundred —
COWEN: But they’re going to die.
KEAY: Then they get replaced by others.
COWEN: But they’re not hereditary, are they? They’re replaced.
KEAY: Except that they’re from a pool, all of whom are hereditary. When the House of Lords reform happened in 1997 or thereabouts, it was a compromise. Instead of all the hereditary peers being able to sit in the House of Lords, they said they’ll only be a hundred, and they can nominate among themselves who they are. But it seems to me absurd that there should be a hundred. I mean, they’re all men, apart from anything else.
It’s not that they aren’t great people. A lot of them are; they’re wonderful people. But to me, it’s an utterly absurd basis on which to involve somebody in the process of legislation.
When it comes to your point about heritage, I think it’s good to have a second chamber. I think there’s a debate to be had about what the basis of that is, in terms of how you would come to have a seat in it. But I believe that a concern for our environment and the buildings and places in which we live and were built by our ancestors is a really universal one, and it doesn’t require you to have a particular social slice of society in the House of Lords to ensure it’s protected.
COWEN: My British YIMBY friends claim to me that the cost of living is too high here, and we need to build at least 2 million new homes, mostly in the south of England. Do you agree, and would that threaten heritage?
KEAY: I definitely agree that we need a lot more places for people to live, but my contention would be we have an incredible stock of buildings which are unoccupied. You go into any British market town, and you will see half the shops are empty. If you look above the shops, these are, generally speaking, 19th- and early 20th-century buildings. The buildings are completely empty. These could all provide wonderful places for people to live.
I live in a town center, in a market town myself, with a bit of will to say, “Let’s use the things we have. Let’s adapt them.” Apart from the interest and the beauty, in my view, these buildings are all embedded carbon. The environmental cost of building them has already been incurred, and then they bring people to live in towns near where other communities are.
It’s not that I don’t think there’s a role for building new houses, but I think it’s an easy choice that suits the developer very well, thank you very much, to get a field and build some houses on it and sell it off. The task of saying, “How do we make sure our geography and our wonderful towns and villages are full of life, and how do we use what we’ve got?” requires a bit more imagination. But I think that the opportunity there is absolutely enormous, and I long to see somebody really grasp that.
COWEN: What should policy do to enable that? What has to happen?
KEAY: Well, I don’t know. I’m not enough wired into the way the system works, but I think there needs to be a clear national policy of exploring that. And then there needs to be the will and the resources for local government to demonstrate that they have exhausted those possibilities before permission is given for new builds in many cases.
COWEN: The aesthetic history of jewelry and the Crown Jewels, and the aesthetic history of architecture in England — do they run on parallel tracks, or are they very different stories?
KEAY: Well, through time, the ages have different stylistic tastes, if you like. We might think of the 1920s and ’30s and art deco architecture, and if you look at jewelry and jewelry design, you see that similarly in favor of square-cut stones and very rectilinear things.
Similarly, if you look at the late 17th century with baroque buildings, and then you look at the design, for example, of our Crown Jewels, which were made — most of them — in the late 17th century, you see common motifs in terms of decoration, in terms of floral devices, in terms of the massing of objects, and the relationship between different elements.
Whether it’s an age of ornament or an age of minimalism, you see that across different artistic forms in jewelry and architecture, like clothes and other things, are all part of that.
COWEN: Will there be a new age of Crown Jewels that are designed today, produced today, viewed as important? Or do they somehow have to come from the 17th century, and they have to be old? But that wasn’t the case in the 17th century, right? No one said back then, they all have to be old. That’s why they produced new ones.
KEAY: Well, they produced new ones because the old ones had been melted down. It was a bit more of a necessity than a desire for novelty. There wasn’t any desire for novelty. If they could have had the old ones, they would have had them. When the new ones were made in the 1660s — which is the collection that we now have — the instructions were they should be exact replicas of the things that were destroyed.
That said, there has always, alongside this idea that you should be using something very ancient that speaks of the ancientness of your lineage and so on — new pieces have, in the past, often been made to accompany the older ancestral pieces, quite often for queens or queen consorts.
That’s not the appetite of the age. It would be very hard to imagine anyone feeling that it was a good use of money to spend a lot of money buying new diamonds and making a new crown at the moment, not least because there’s quite a lot in the collection. I’d be quite surprised if we see many more pieces made in my lifetime.
COWEN: Since they’re not using the original jewel of Koh-i-Noor anymore, why not just give it back? It was taken in wartime, 1849, Second Anglo-Sikh War, East India Company. India, Pakistan — they want it back. Why not just give it back?
KEAY: Well, it’s a very interesting point. The trouble is that the Koh-i-Noor diamond has been a stone that was taken in conquest through a whole series of conquests. As you say, it came to Britain following the Anglo-Sikh wars in the middle of the 19th century, and it was given a legal status, but it clearly was a spoil of war.
But of course, it had only been in the hall, which is where it was taken from for — I can’t remember how long there, but decades — and had been taken before then by Ranjit Singh, who’s the Maharaja, from somebody that he had conquered, who had previously taken it. It had been through Persia, it had been to the Mongols, been through Pakistan.
Where do you choose your moment? It could be given to Lahore, given back to Pakistan, but then the Indians would say, “Well, hang on a second. You should have given it back to us because Babur, the Indian Mughal emperor — ”
COWEN: Flip a coin if you have to.
KEAY: Well, yes, you could do that. You could do that, but I’m not sure where it gets you, really. Then you start saying, “Well, what about all the other things?” Do you go for a massive repatriation? You’d empty a lot of museums, and I’m not sure you’d solve a lot of problems, really. It’s been there for a long time.
I don’t think there’s an easy solution. I don’t think there’s a kind of act that you could take in relation to that stone, which would involve Britain saying, “Well, that’s fine. We don’t need to have it anymore,” that would do anything other than cause infinitely more conflict and aggro because it would open up the whole question of all these other moments of conflict when the stone was taken.
I just don’t see that gets you very far. It’s not being used in the coronation, which I think is very wise, and it’s an object which can be seen and viewed and discussed by all of us. But I wouldn’t start passing it around the world, myself.
COWEN: Here’s a reader question: “Why do houses in Britain have so little storage?”
KEAY: [laughs] Oh, that’s a very funny question. I didn’t know that they did. Do houses in the States have lots more storage?
COWEN: I think they do.
KEAY: Yes, well, probably part of the reason is that houses in this country are, on the whole, very old houses. The vast majority of our building stock in this country was built before the Second World War, in a time when the amount of garages and skis and snowboards and things that everybody needed to keep was considerably less. And they were built for people who were used to living less expensive lives, less wealthy.
It’s probably a facet of that, really, as much as anything else, but it’ll make me look — when I next go to the States — look in some cupboards and see what the storage levels are.
COWEN: Now you live in Clifton House. It’s, what, an 800-year-old house in Norfolk?
KEAY: In parts, yes.
COWEN: What’s the hardest thing about living in a house that old?
KEAY: Keeping warm. It’s not always straightforward.
COWEN: Space heaters? That’s what they did in New Zealand. What do you do?
KEAY: We light some fires. That’s nice.
COWEN: Light fires.
KEAY: We wear a lot of socks and jumpers, and we also have a thing in this country — I don’t know if people go in for them in the States — which is called an electric blanket. Have you come across an electric blanket?
COWEN: Sure, of course. Again, a New Zealand thing as well.
KEAY: We love an electric blanket because you don’t need to heat your bedroom because you don’t need your bedroom too warm, but it doesn’t mean when you get into bed, you are not freezing. Keeping warm in the winter is a bit of a challenge, but mostly, it’s the most wonderful, delightful thing you could possibly imagine and a massive, massive privilege to live in a very old and beautiful building.
COWEN: Do you have a dishwasher?
KEAY: We do have a dishwasher. We didn’t for a long time because my husband, who’s a bit puritanical, said that he thought we shouldn’t, but I said, “Let’s put the plumbing in.” And he’s pretty grateful now.
COWEN: How practical are thatched roofs?
KEAY: They’re pretty practical. If you see a thatched roof, the thickness of the thatch is absolutely enormous, so it has very good thermal properties. It’s very good for biodiversity; lots of beetles live in them. But they’re not cheap. You need a wonderful thatcher to replace the thatch on a cycle every generation or so. They keep you very warm, and they’re very sustainable. They’re very low carbon, but they’re not cheap.
COWEN: What could you tell us about windows in old homes that maybe we wouldn’t know?
KEAY: Well, what I would say is that you must never underestimate just how much our ancestors cared about keeping warm. You think we care about it, and the cost of warming our houses, but if you had to chop every log that warmed your sitting room, you’d pretty much be focused on it, too.
But we often forget about the things that they did — which we ought to do, too — to keep warm: for example, really thick curtains with lining, which means that when you draw them, they really exclude all the heat, not something very flimsy. A lot of old buildings have shutters, which are also very, very good. You use those in conjunction with the windows. I think those things are really, really worth doing in your house.
As far as making sure that old windows are doing their job and keeping you warm, because there’s a real, real risk at the moment — with the completely correct focus on insulation in buildings — that all our beautiful old sash windows, with their wonderful handmade glass, get put in skips, and UPVC windows get put in instead.
I think that it’s very important for all of us who care about this stuff to remind ourselves and remind each other about the things you can do that enable you to keep your beautiful windows, but also to make sure that you are not wasting energy.
COWEN: What makes the historical architecture of Norfolk so special?
KEAY: One of the things that’s really interesting about Great Britain is, if you ever have one of those maps that you can get, which show the geology of the place that you live in, the country or the state you live in. It shows the stripes or the bands of different kinds of geology, whether it’s limestone or granite or chalk or whatever.
If you look at one for Britain, it is amazing because there are so many different stripes of geology just to do with the way the world evolved geologically, which means that places in Britain that are very close to each other have completely different geology. The reason that is interesting and relevant is, places are built overwhelmingly from the materials that you find locally. When you have an old building stock like we do, that’s very vivid. It’s expensive to transport materials, and so on.
One of the great pleasures, I would say, of traveling around the UK is that places that are maybe only 15 miles apart can look completely different because of that. In the case of Norfolk, what it means is that Norfolk has no building stone. It has a lot of chalk, which has seams of flint in it. What you get are buildings in our part of the world which are overwhelmingly brick, very beautiful red brick that’s been fired locally from local brick earth. Then you get dressings of napped flint, which is a very beautiful black, knobbly stone.
If you go 20 miles east from us to get to Northamptonshire, there’s wonderful limestone, and everything is built of honeyed, beautiful stone. It’s such a lovely thing about your connection with your environment. I feel that in this country, we are very lucky in this, that you have this tremendous local distinctiveness. You could open your eyes if you know about this stuff, and you could see, just by looking, which county of England you are in, and given all these places are very close together compared to the States, and quite often, which part of which county.
Norfolk is very, very strongly brick. It has beautiful brick merchants’ houses and buildings of the 16th, 17th, 18th century. It has also some wonderful medieval churches because Norfolk was very, very wealthy. It’s the bulgy bit on the side of England, if you look at the map of England, on the right-hand side. It was the wealthiest part of England all the way through the Middle Ages because it was where all the sheep farming happened, and all of England’s wealth in the Middle Ages really came from the export of wool.
COWEN: It had less of a 19th century also, right? In the sense of less of an Industrial Revolution.
KEAY: Yes. Prosperity was in the Middle Ages, and then it essentially disappeared from the league table of affluence in the UK, as the industrial towns of the north, which is where big-scale cotton production and so on really took off. As a consequence, as a part of the UK, it is very, very beautiful. It’s not very wealthy at all, and it’s very unurbanized because it essentially still has its kind of medieval and early modern landscape, both in terms of buildings and topography.
Whereas, if you go — equally interesting, but just very different — somewhere like Manchester, which is amazing — world’s first industrial city, had this extraordinary explosion in the 19th century. The railways were invented there. Everything was developing in a very different direction.
COWEN: Three final questions. First, which is your favorite John Fowles book, and why?
KEAY: I think it is The French Lieutenant’s Woman. I think it’s just an amazing novel. It really, really bears rereading. It’s less fashionable now than it was maybe 20, 30 years ago, but it is tremendous. He wrote some pretty creepy other novels, one called The Collector, which I wouldn’t particularly recommend, amazing though it is. I think The French Lieutenant’s Woman, as a love story and as a dialogue with Victorian literature, is peerless.
COWEN: Who’s your favorite British composer, and why?
KEAY: I think Handel, whose music, I hope, we will be hearing at the coronation, which is coming up next year.
COWEN: And you count him as a British composer.
KEAY: I do, yes.
COWEN: Okay, that’s fine.
KEAY: We claim him.
COWEN: Can you claim Haydn?
KEAY: Shaky, I would say. [laughs] He composes wonderful court music, which I love because that’s great. It’s an area that I’ve worked on.
COWEN: Before I ask you the last question, just to repeat for our listeners and readers, Anna’s book, which I’m a big fan of, is called The Restless Republic: Britain without a Crown. If you type her name into Amazon, it’s pronounced Anna Kay, but you spell it K-E-A-Y. Last and final question: What is it you will do next?
KEAY: I’m trying to save an amazing building outside Edinburgh, a house called Mavisbank, which was built in the 1720s for a man who was one of our great renaissance figures, the great pioneer of the Scottish Enlightenment. It’s the most beautiful, beautiful house. It’s derelict, just walls standing, but the ceilings and the roofs have fallen in, and it’s clinging onto life by its fingernails. My great hope for what I’m doing next is being able to raise the money to save it from collapse.
COWEN: Are we doing enough to preserve the Scottish Enlightenment?
COWEN: What else should we do? Extra questions.
COWEN: Everything, but what concretely?
KEAY: Well, there are all sorts of things. The Scottish Enlightenment is such a completely gripping, extraordinary phenomenon that this tiny little country — my birthplace but micro little place on any worldview — through the course of the early and into the later 18th century, had such incredible influence around the world. I think the buildings of that period, the political thought, the poetry — all these things we should all know more about, we should teach it more to our children, and we should celebrate it.
COWEN: If you’re recommending one thing for people to read on the Scottish Enlightenment, what is it?
KEAY: Well, there’s a very good new book that your listeners might be interested in, called Scotland: The Global History, written by someone called Murray Pittock, that came out early this year. It is a wonderful account of how, from the mid-17th century, Scotland — as I say, a tiny little country with a minuscule population — came to have such incredible global reach in terms of science, technology, thought, politics, music, so much. Yes, that’s a good place to start.
COWEN: Anna has numerous other books, all of which I’ve enjoyed. Anna, thank you very much.
KEAY: Thank you.