"What is history, but a set of lies agreed upon?" is a quotation usually attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte, although ironically it's not clear whether or not he ever actually said it. In the course of researching my new book, The Not-So-Nude Ride of Lady Godiva, I came across many more examples of the myths, misunderstandings and outright fictions which pervade our general knowledge of history.
From every age of history, I found that the received wisdom often leaves much to be desired. Helen of Troy was actually a Spartan, who probably never set foot in Troy. The Great Wall of China is not nearly as ancient as it seems, and much of it isn't even made of 'wall' at all. The story that the Great Wall of China is the only man-made structure that can be seen from space is also a myth (it can't). Julius Caesar wasn't born by Caesarean section. William the Conqueror arguably wasn't a conqueror at all, and the famous nude equestrian Lady Godiva never actually rode naked through Coventry.
Our knowledge of more recent history is often equally flawed. The Dutch craze for tulips in the early 17th century, known as Tulip Mania, bears some similarities to more recent speculative bubbles, but it didn't actually cause an economic crash. Despite serving as the founding myth of English naval supremacy, the defeat of the Spanish Armada was largely the result of incompetence and bad weather, rather than English superiority. Far from being impregnable, England was successfully invaded as recently as the 17th century. Queen Victoria was not quite the prude she is thought to have been; in fact in her youth she was quite saucy. The First World War wasn't really the first world war, nor was it called the First World War. The Maginot Line wasn't actually a line. And so on...
In this slideshow, I provide a few examples of the myths and follies that make up much of our popular understanding of history.
The Not-So-Nude Ride of Lady Godiva is published by Penguin, and out now.
The Great Wall of China is an extraordinary feat of construction, first begun in the 5th century BC, which stretches for more than 5,500 miles. However, many aspects of this description are quite misleading. The only sections of the Wall surviving today have been continuously renovated and rebuilt, and are therefore in fact modern constructions. Furthermore, the Great Wall is not a continuous barrier at all - there are enormous gaps between sections, while others run parallel for many miles. Much of the Great Wall isn't even made of 'wall' at all - instead it consists of geographic barriers: mountains, hills, rivers, valleys and trenches. There is also a myth that the Great Wall is the only man-made structure that can be seen from space, and this too is false. To be visible from the moon, the Great Wall would have to be about 70 miles wide, whereas in reality it is no more than 10 metres wide at any point.
The Roman emperor 'Constantine The Great' is generally regarded as having been a merciful and enlightened leader. As the first Christian emperor, Constantine made a number of laws which improved conditions for slaves. He banned crucifixion and branding on the face as punishments. Gladiatorial games were banned, and prisoners were no longer kept in total darkness, but instead were given time outdoors. So does Constantine deserve his reputation as a kind, benevolent leader? Well, not quite. Constantine only disapproved of branding on the face because of a Christian belief that the face had a special religious significance; branding anywhere else on the body was still fine. Similarly, crucifixion was banned only because of its association with Christ, but slaves could still be forced to drink boiling oil or molten lead, and slave owners were free to murder their slaves.
As every English schoolboy used to learn, in 1066 England was invaded by William the Conqueror, who defeated King Harold II at the Battle of Hastings. This period is of course traditionally deemed the 'Norman Conquest', with William being known as 'William the Conqueror'. However, the implication that William was a foreign invader with no rightful claim to the throne is incorrect. In fact, William arguably had a better claim to the English throne than any of the other contenders, including King Harold himself. William was a blood relative of the previous king, Edward the Confessor, while Harold was only related to Edward by marriage. More importantly, Harold had previously sworn to support William's claim to the throne, albeit under duress.
In 1165 a very exciting document arrived in Constantinople. It was a letter to the Byzantine Emperor Manuel I, written by Prester John, the leader of a great Christian nation in the East. Prester John apparently ruled the enormous, peaceful kingdom of the 'three Indias', where there was no crime or vice, and 'honey flows in our land, and milk everywhere abounds'. Prester John's kingdom was a magical place, where rivers ran with gold, and a fountain of youth existed. It was said to have bordered the Garden of Eden itself, and its treasures included a mirror in which every one of the provinces could be observed. Prester John was of course a hoax, but the story was widely believed, and the letter continued to circulate for centuries. Prester John's kingdom even appeared in maps as late as the 17th century.
Who was the pope in 1409? It sounds like a simple question, but in fact the answer is far from clear. From 1409 to 1415 there were three people who simultaneously had a credible claim to being pope, all holding their own rival Papal Courts. In Rome, there was Pope Gregory XII, who is now considered to have been the valid pope. In Avignon in southern France, a rival papacy had elected Benedict XIII in 1394. Meanwhile in Pisa, Italy, there was a third pope, Alexander V. Of course, in principle the pope is God's sole appointed representative on earth, but among Catholics at the time there was disagreement about which pope was legitimate, while the others were deemed 'antipopes'. The interesting fact is that even today the Catholic Church's list of historical popes suggests that at certain points there were two simultaneous, legitimate popes.
For centuries, the British have proudly sung 'Rule, Britannia! Britannia rule the waves!', as Britain's naval dominance is a key part of our national myth. One of the cornerstones of this belief is England's defeat of the Spanish Armada, which was the largest sailing force that had ever been seen, being composed of 151 ships, 8,000 sailors and 18,000 soldiers. However, the truth is that England's naval strength seems to have actually played very little part in the victory, as none of the main reasons for Spain's defeat can be credited to England at all. The Spanish plan was disastrously mismanaged, but even after losing five ships at the Battle of Gravelines, the Armada were poised for victory, as the English had run out of ammunition. Instead, the Spanish fled north, and were shipwrecked in powerful storms off the west coast of Ireland.
It is a well-known fact that, despite various attempts, England hasn't been successfully invaded since the Norman Conquest of 1066, led by William the Conqueror. However, the truth is that there was a much more recent conquest, when the Dutch leader William of Orange invaded in 1688, ousting James II, to become King William III. So why do we not talk about the Dutch Conquest of England? The reason is that it is generally considered to have been a revolution rather than an invasion, because William was invited to invade by parliament, and although he arrived with a considerable army and navy, there was hardly any actual fighting. As a result, the invasion is usually described as The Glorious Revolution.
When was the First World War? The sensible answer is of course 1914-1918, but that conflict was not in fact the first 'world war' to take place. According to Winston Churchill, the first world war was actually the Seven Years' War of 1756-1763, which was a conflict fought primarily between the empires of Britain and France, but which also involved a great many of the world's other powers, and was fought over an unprecedented, global canvass. Confusingly, the war we now call the 'First World War' wasn't known by that name at the time - it was known as 'The Great War'. It was only in the late 1930s, when war with Nazi Germany became imminent, that people began to describe this new war as 'World War Two', making the Great War retrospectively by definition 'World War One'.
In 1773 a group of around 40-50 early American patriots stormed onto the three tea ships which were waiting in Boston Harbor, and dumped 343 chests of tea into the sea in protest. This iconic 'tea party' is today associated with the tax-cutting Republican right wing, which is ironic in that the Boston Tea Party was incited not by a tax increase, but by a massive tax cut. The protest was a response to Britain's 1773 Tea Act, which effectively cut the tax on tea coming into the colonies by a massive 75 percent, from 12 pence per pound to just 3 pence per pound. So why were the patriots so outraged by a tax cut? The answer is that the Boston Tea Party was not about the level of taxes at all, but about Britain's right to levy them.
Queen Victoria is well known to have been a narrow-minded prude, whose repressive attitude to sexual matters had a dramatic effect on English culture which is still powerfully felt today. Victoria is even believed to have refused to pass a law banning lesbianism, not because she was liberal-minded, but because she didn't believe lesbians existed, stating, 'Women do not do such things.' However, Victoria was not always the straight-laced figure that she came to embody. As a young woman, she was keenly interested in sex, with a particular weakness for good-looking men. On Albert's first visits, Victoria would watch him arrive from the top of the stairs, confiding to her journal, 'It was with some emotion that I beheld Albert, who is beautiful.' Another night, after they were married, she simply wrote, 'We did not sleep much.'
Since the reign of George V, the British royal family have been known as the House of Windsor, but the origins of this name tell an interesting story about the flexible nature of royal protocol. When George V became king in 1910, he did so as a member of the German House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. In fact, the British royal family had been predominantly German in descent since 1714. However, the First World War polarised the question of the King's loyalty as never before. It was therefore imperative that George clarify his allegiance, and so George issued a royal proclamation declaring that henceforth he and his descendants would be known as the House of Windsor. So why did George choose the name 'Windsor'? The answer is simply that it sounded appropriately English, with the right whiff of tradition and heritage.