Have you ever come across something that overturned all your preconceived notions about a subject? I do frequently – partly thanks to a teenage son who is a firm fan of QI, but also because I have been researching historical periods that I thought I knew well – then discovered I didn’t. Here are some that have come to me recently; perhaps you can add your own?
1. Napoleon was short. That made him angry and decide to take over Europe.
In fact, he was a respectable 5’ 7”. I suspect it was the cartoonists that gave us the idea he was tiny. Bang goes the Napoleonic complex.
2. Richard the Lionheart was the good king, John the bad one.
Sorry Disney and Kevin Costner, Richard was pretty horrible, only good if not setting foot much in England is counted as good. He has the usual sins of a Medieval king to his name (high taxes to pay for his armies pursuing interests that had nothing to do with England, war crimes during campaigning) and certainly was no hero. I’ll never cheer at the end of a Robin Hood film again. John wasn’t great, but he neither was he so much worse than his brother. He made the mistake of staying in England perhaps?
3. The Bayeux Tapestry is a tapestry.
No, it is an embroidery.
4. The Great Plague ended with the Fire of London.
The part of London destroyed was not the hotbed of the plague and it is not know why the disease faded away eventually.
5. Vikings wore horns on their helmets.
Apparently we think they did because some horned helmets were dug up in Scandinavia by Victorian archaeologists. They assumed a connection to the Vikings when in fact they were much older (Bronze Age) and possibly ceremonial. Now I stop and think about it, horns are not a great idea, are they, in a fight? Why give the enemy something with which to yank your helmet off? And what about the poor guy sitting next to you in the boat when you are pulling on the oars?
6. Pirates made enemies walk the plank.
A real life example was found in 1829 but this is not the era of the pirate of our imagination. I think this is one of those things that should be true.
7. Shakespeare wasn’t Shakespeare.
Yes, you’ve read it too (and the idea is being revisited in the film Anonymous as I write), but the best and simplest proof that Shakespeare was the Stratford man I’ve read is in John Bate’s Soul of the Age. He takes a close look at the local references cross-checked with parish records and finds bags of proof that we are reading the work of a man from Warwickshire. Of course there’s also the argument that his contemporaries who knew him, including Ben Jonson, all agreed it was him. Unless the conspiracy was huge (and for what purpose?) there seems little point arguing against them.
8. Bronze age tools were bronze.
Actually, the majority were stone.
9. Cornish wreckers regularly lured ships on to the rocks with false lights.
Only in novels. There is no known case of the trick lighthouse as in Jamaica Inn. Wreckers salvaged stuff washed up on the shore, which was regarded as theft, possibly failed to save sailors trying to get ashore, but not quite the mass murder of the literary imagination.
10. Julius Caesar declared ‘Veni Vidi Vici’ on stepping ashore in Britain.
This announcement refers to his victory in the quite different Battle of Zela 47 B.C. He didn’t do anything very memorable in Britain but visit a couple of times and give it up as a bad idea. He probably took one look at the cold, soggy coast of England and decided he was too early for tea so might as well go home.
(with thanks to Wikipedia for images that are not author's own)
Please visit my website for more news on my writing.
The Rogue's Princess out now in the UK
The Other Countess out now in the US