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Top 5 episodes – History Café


Top 5 episodes – History Café

Spotted a podcast you want to try from a Pod Bible recommendation, but not sure how to dive in? We asked Penelope Middelboe of History Café to share five podcast episodes and why they’re important to check out for new listeners.

Spotted a podcast you want to try from a Pod Bible recommendation, but not sure how to dive in? We asked Penelope Middelboe of History Café to share five podcast episodes and why they’re important to check out for new listeners.

We’re always chatting to each other about history. ‘Why did that happen?… was it really that way?’  And as one fantastic story turned up after another we just had to share what we were finding. So History Café was born. Jon has a background in academic history and we both worked for years in TV. So you get stories that are fabulously researched (in Oxford’s best libraries) but it’s easy listening. Our fans say it’s fun – often out-and-out funny – and at the same time it’s thought-provoking, crisp and historically tight. And it’s always new. You will not have heard this material anywhere else.

Who really won the Battle of Britain?
In the summer of 1940 the RAF saved Britain from a German invasion. It’s what Churchill told the public. It’s what most of us think. But the German documents tell a different story. This is a much bigger story than stuffy arguments about how many planes went down on which side. Facing the superiority of the British Royal Navy, the German generals and admirals never come close to a plan for landing an invasion. Cue Herman Göring, head of the Luftwaffe, and his own personal scheme to force Britain to negotiate. What we discover is that Churchill understood most of this, but still told the Brits and the Americans that the Germans were about to invade. So who was bluffing who? What’s extraordinary is that Hitler turns out to be bluffing Stalin and the German commanders are bluffing their Führer. So in the end of all that, who really won? 

How Kennedy loses the Cuba Missile Crisis
Everybody knows that President Kennedy brilliantly defused the 1962 Cuba Missile Crisis by holding his nerve. We believed it ourselves, until we came across a memo to Kennedy dated 16 October 1962, Day 2 of the crisis. His own security chiefs state that the new Soviet missiles on Cuba “do not significantly alter the balance of power.” What? Wasn’t Cuba 1962 the closest we’ve ever come to nuclear war? So how does that add up? A whole lot of historical digging later we turn up another reality. Private backchannels, deals and disinformation. Noam Chomsky was right. President Kennedy had chosen “to play Russian Roulette with nuclear missiles.”

Blowing up the Gunpowder Plot
We could never have imagined how involved we’d become in this. As a child each November 5th, Penelope stuffed straw into her father’s old clothes to make a guy for their bonfire. We were perfectly happy with the stories about Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators. But then we realised that all the evidence for the plot was extracted under torture in the Tower of London. So … that leaves us with … no credible evidence. Time to pull up some more chairs and look around the room. We found ourselves in the courts of Queen Elizabeth I and King James I and a whole long history of framing political enemies. All the fingers were now pointing (even at the time) to Robert Cecil, who ran the secret service. Did he have a motive to invent the whole thing? Yup. 

World War One: how much was it Britain’s fault?
We can’t help getting a bit emotional about this one. Britain sent its soldiers to war without the approval of the cabinet or of parliament. And that turns out to be a seriously significant reason why 20 million died and 21 million were wounded. This is about the British army thinking that a quick sortie to Flanders, fighting alongside the French to see off the Germans, will restore reputations tarnished after the Boer war. And then there’s the Persian story, and finally the shocking anti-semitism and anti-German hysteria that gripped London’s top civil servants and military. So you thought the First World War started because of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo? Pull up a chair and get yourself a coffee.

Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn: it’s all about the French
We’d grown up with the traditional story that Henry VIII split from the Church in Rome so that he could finally land Anne Boleyn in his bed. And then we read the evidence, published in 2010 that Henry was sleeping with Anne all along. So we thought we’d better take another look. And boy, were we surprised by what we found. It turns out that the French King, Francis I, has much more to do with the campaign to divorce Henry’s Spanish queen, Katharine of Aragon than we ever realised. It’s a world of blackmail, coded messages and sabotaged messengers, sieges and disguises, and outbreaks of malaria. And a star cast, with walk-ons from Barbarossa and Thomas Cromwell. Oh, and a pope who puts his Medici family’s precious city of Florence above the unity of Christendom. Enjoy.

Check out History Cafe on their website, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. You can also follow them on Twitter and Instagram.


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