And very good they were too but this is not a review of them. I want to talk about the scene in the Temple Gardens (Henry Sixth, Part One, Act ll, scene iv)). In this production, the characters pluck roses of different colours not from bushes in bloom but from the floral St. George's cross on the coffin of King Henry V that has been conveniently left onstage to house swords needed for battles with the French.
The white rose of York is an ancient symbol thought to date back to its adoption by Edmund Langley, the first Duke of York, in the fourteenth century. The red rose of Lancaster on the other hand might not have been used symbolically till Henry Vll copied the York idea a century later after Bosworth Field (1485) and immediately united the two colours in the one Tudor rose - a brilliant piece of political spin.
However, the persistence of both symbols owes a lot to this scene by Shakespeare (and possibly other hands) in which members of the two factions identify themselves by their choice of flowers. By dating it to a generation before Henry Tudor won the crown on rather shaky hereditary grounds, Shakespeare did a lot to popularise the notion of The Wars of the Roses - a phrase not adopted till the nineteenth century, thanks to Sir Walter Scott.
According to Philippa Gregory, whose White Queen sequence of books has been recently televised, it was known before that as The Cousins' War, for obvious reasons, since all the quarrels began from disputes about the hereditary rights of descendants of Edward the Third's many sons.
The nineteenth century was very good at producing ideas that stuck and became facts. Take the ravens at the Tower of London.
|Me, researching, with Merlin
I have nearly finished writing the first draft of a novel featuring ravens at the Tower of London. It is set January - May 1536 (months that will ring - or toll - a bell with anyone familiar with Tudor history). And there were almost certainly no ravens kept in the Tower then. In fact there is a whole book about it - City of Ravens by Boria Sax, Duckworth 2012.
Wait a minute, I hear you say. What about the legend that if the Ravens desert the Tower, the city of London will fall? Or the one about the head of Bran (though you might be a bit hazy about that one). Or Charles the Second's charter to protect the birds? Well, they are all still there for you to hear in the famous Warders' Tours of the Tower.
But Sax has trawled through all the possible sources and there is absolutely no authenticated reference to ravens at the Tower till - you've guessed it - the nineteenth century.
Of course I shall add a historical note to my novel saying what liberties I have taken. But will that be read or remembered or will I merely have added to another legend-as-history?
So, did King Alfred burn any cakes? Did Cnut command the waves to fall back (or was he demonstrating to his followers that he had no such powers?) Perhaps the Pope is not really a Catholic after all and bears defecate in tiled bathrooms?
Thomas Browne called widely-believed but erroneous ideas "Pseudodoxia Epidemica" or "Vulgar Errors" and wrote a book of that name in 1646. Some of the beliefs demolished therein were that the human heart is found on the left-hand side of the chest; that swans sing before dying and that salamanders live in fire.
Here are some more:
Viking helmets had horns
Marco Polo brought pasta to Italy from China
Marie Antoinette said "Let them eat cake."
Bulls are enraged by the colour red
Jesus was born on December 25th
I'm sure you can think of many others!