Passed/Failed: An education in the life of Saul David, historian and broadcaster

'At my school, 20 of us were cousins'


Professor Saul David, 42, is the author of, among other books, Zulu and Mutiny at Salerno, which were turned into BBC2 documentaries. He presented The Greatest Knight for Timewatch in January, and is now filming Secrets of Elizabeth's Armada for the autumn. He will discuss Victoria's Wars, his latest book out in paperback, at this weekend's Althorp Literary Festival in Northampton

To get to Welsh Newton Primary School, which was (just) in England, my cousins and I would walk over the fields in a straggling line, across the border into Wales, and back again into England. We lived near Monmouth in lots of different buildings on my grandparents' big farm. At school there were more Davids than any other name: more than 20 of us cousins out of 40 pupils. When my older cousins moved on, the school had to close.

It was very old-fashioned. My brother was dyslexic and the headmaster was pretty tough on him: "He's not really trying." When I was six or seven, we went to the nearest English primary school, St Weonards, about seven miles away. The teaching was good and this was the start of my beginning to shine as a student. I can trace my love of history to that school thanks to the fascinating classes of Mrs Tabor – history was her favourite subject. I think I also got the telly bug at that time when two series of The Survivors [a cult TV sci-fi] were filmed at my house and we all appeared as extras. I felt I was a star!

I passed the 11-plus but it was decided that I should take the Common Entrance exam to Monmouth School, the nearest independent. I was never entirely comfortable there as they didn't have girls and they played rugby instead of football. After two years, I made a deal with my dad that if I went to the local comprehensive for three years, I would then go to his old boarding school, Ampleforth, for my sixth form.

My aunt was deputy head of John Kyrle High School, and she has always been slightly miffed that I don't mention it in my CV. I had a great time but it was the early days of it going comprehensive and, in retrospect, I realise that the education was pretty poor. It has improved hugely, I gather. I left with only seven O-levels, yet had the second- best results. I got an A in English language, but failed literature: a D. I asked for it to be re-marked and the report said: "We think we marked you too highly."

I died my hair blond in the summer, and at Ampleforth they said, "You look like the guy in Bucks Fizz", so that became my nickname. Once I'd adapted to being away from home, I loved Ampleforth. I thought then that the best history master was the one who spoon-fed us, but in fact the other master was the clever one: he made us think for ourselves. I got ABC in my A-levels and distinction in my history S-level.

I got in to Trinity College, Dublin, but my LEA changed its policy of paying fees at "foreign" universities, so I chose Edinburgh instead, another Celtic capital. I was slightly disappointed with the quality of the teaching, although it had some fabulous historians. I worked hard at my four-year MA, but got a 2.1. That was a big disappointment as I wanted to write about history and thought I needed a First.

But I did it anyway, and at 31 I got fantastic reviews for my fourth book, The Homicidal Earl: I was a "rising star". On the same day I was offered a scholarship for a doctorate at Glasgow University. My best book came out of the research I did there, The Indian Mutiny. Now that I'm Visiting Professor in Military History at Hull University, I'll be telling my PhD students, "Choose an original subject – but one that you can also sell as a book."

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: Management Trainer

£30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Exciting career opportunity to join East...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Scientist / Research Assistant

£18000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An ambitious start-up company b...

Reach Volunteering: Chair of Trustees

VOLUNTARY ONLY - EXPENSES REIMBURSED: Reach Volunteering: Do you love the Engl...

Day In a Page

Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

The last Christians in Iraq

After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Britain braced for Black Friday
Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

From America's dad to date-rape drugs

Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

Flogging vlogging

First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

US channels wage comedy star wars
When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible
Look what's mushrooming now! Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector

Look what's mushrooming now!

Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
Neil Findlay is more a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

More a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

The vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Tenderstem broccoli omelette; Fried eggs with Mexican-style tomato and chilli sauce; Pan-fried cavolo nero with soft-boiled egg

Oeuf quake

Bill Granger's cracking egg recipes
Terry Venables: Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back

Terry Venables column

Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back
Michael Calvin: Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

Those at the top are allowing the same issues to go unchallenged, says Michael Calvin