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ROBERT HARDMAN watches as Duchess opens Mail-backed festival 

She has already gained nearly 150,000 followers for her online book club. But if she could summon women of history to chat about books over an evening drink, the Duchess of Cornwall would include Queen Elizabeth I, Jane Austen, ‘a couple of the Bronte Sisters’ and Anne Frank. .

The future Queen also revealed an unexpected literary heroine – Mrs Shakespeare – when she opened Britain’s biggest history festival yesterday in the company of two of Britain’s best-known historical novelists.

The Duchess was in Wiltshire to inaugurate the 2022 Daily Mail Chalke Valley History Festival and greet her mission to ‘excite, captivate and entertain about the past’.

There was almost all of that on display yesterday, as the Duchess discovered as she met enthusiasts on topics as diverse as Egyptian meteorite jewelry, Iron Age hunting and Victorian quack medicine.

As the midsummer sun shone on one of Britain’s most beautiful festival venues, the Duchess blended into the crowd and paused for a restorative vanilla cone from a swanky ice cream truck aptly named, ‘The Duchess of Swirl’.

Royal Tour: Camilla and Lady Rotherere

Royal Tour: Camilla and Lady Rotherere

Passionate reader: The Duchess of Cornwall at the festival yesterday

Passionate reader: The Duchess of Cornwall at the festival yesterday

The largest of all the marquees on the 70-acre site, it set the stage for the main event when the royal guest of honor arrived to perform the opening ceremony. This was not to be an ordinary royal ribbon.

The Duchess had made it a groundbreaking partnership between the festival and her online book club, The Duchess of Cornwall’s Reading Room.

It sparked an hour-long discussion on history’s portrayal of women with bestselling authors Philippa Gregory and Alison Weir. In her introductory speech, the Duchess added that she was “fascinated” by both writers.

“They have given a voice to women who have been overlooked, forgotten or misunderstood for centuries, such as Elizabeth of York, Mary Boleyn and Margaret Beaufort,” she explains. A proud resident who has lived in Wiltshire for much of her life, the Duchess admitted she was ‘biased’ as she reflected on the wealth of history here.

Henry VIII’s wife, Jane Seymour, came from further afield. This was also the home of Sir Christopher Wren and Hannah Twynnoy ‘who has the dubious distinction of being the first person in Britain to be killed by a tiger in 1703’.

This, the Duchess added, was a reminder of the saying that ‘it is people who make history’. She thanked the organizers as well as festival beneficiary Viscountess Rothermere, who invited her, and reflected on how a small, dedicated team had completely transformed the Chalke Valley gathering in just over a decade.

“You have become the largest festival in the world devoted solely to history. Not bad for an event whose original intent was rather modest: to raise money for the local cricket club,’ she said, quoting Wren’s epitaph under St Paul’s: ‘If you’re looking for his monument, look around’.

Just outside the tent, that view included displays of Civil War and World War II artillery, Roman fast food, a vintage funfair, Crimean cavalry, and a living statue of Florence Nightingale, not to mention all the lecture tents, bookstores, bars and to eat .

The discussion was then opened to questions from followers of the Duchess’s reading room. When asked how history would be different if it had been written by women and not (almost entirely) by men, Philippa Gregory pointed out that we’d know a lot more about incredibly interesting women and less about battles – which wouldn’t be a great loss for me.’

Guest of Honor: The Duchess and Lord Rotherre

Guest of Honor: The Duchess and Lord Rotherre

The Duchess was in Wiltshire to inaugurate the 2022 Daily Mail Chalke Valley History Festival, paying tribute to her mission to 'excite, captivate and entertain about the past'

The Duchess was in Wiltshire to inaugurate the 2022 Daily Mail Chalke Valley History Festival, paying tribute to her mission to ‘excite, captivate and entertain about the past’

When asked which of Henry VIII’s wives would have been the best queen in his own right, there was no contest. Both authors mentioned Catherine of Aragon.

When the Duchess asked the writers what historical events had shocked them the most, Philippa Gregory replied that she was still moved to tears even today by the disappearance of the young princes in the tower. For Alison Weir, it was the beheading of Anne Boleyn.

When the two authors shifted the question to the Duchess, she was asked about her ideal choice for an evening book club. At the top of her list was Queen Elizabeth I: “She was going to come out with some really good one-liners. Plus, she was incredibly well educated – and spoke five languages.”

When asked about the name of the historical female figure who had been the most fun discovery by her book club, the Duchess chose Shakespeare’s wife, Anne, as depicted in Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet. “She was always portrayed as a harridan,” the Duchess mused, “and turned out to be a rather original, likeable character.”

Today, the Duchess will make a very different history as she and the Prince of Wales embark on the first royal visit to Rwanda, where Commonwealth leaders will meet for their first summit in four years.

  • For more information about the festival, which runs through Sunday, visit www.cvhf.org.uk.

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