"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.