The 3 biggest myths in British History, according to Lucy Worsley

The TV historian dresses up as she dresses down the biggest fibs of the our past

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Lots of people remember their history lessons from school as dates and battles, facts and figures, kings and queens. But as soon as you start digging, it becomes more complicated. Rather than one single agreed version of “what happened”, history is really a tapestry of rival stories, and the people with the most power get to rewrite it. So how do we separate fact from fiction? Let’s bust some myths… 

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The Wars of the Roses

As “everybody knows”, Henry Tudor, the plucky underdog, beat the villainous Richard III at Bosworth in 1485, bringing to an end the terrible 30 years of fighting known as “the Wars of the Roses”.

This is the story that Henry himself wanted us to remember, but it’s full of holes. Henry’s own historians painted Richard III as an indisputably “bad” king, who murdered his own nephews to get the throne. We’re told that you could see Richard’s evilness in his own body.

John Rouse, a historian writing for Henry Tudor, described how Richard was born with shoulder-length hair, and even with talons. When William Shakespeare turned to the Tudor history books to seek inspiration, he found the materials to create the Richard III we love to hate today.

Yet the very same historian, John Rouse, had made an earlier description of Richard III at the time when he was still king. Unsurprisingly, this version has him down as a superb ruler, with nothing physically wrong with him at all.

Henry also emphasised his own achievement in ending the Wars of the Roses. This period certainly contained some dark moments, such as the Battle of Towton in 1461. Skulls from the field show the horrible square holes left by hammers, rained down upon the heads of fleeing soldiers by mounted pursuers.

But modern historians have pointed out that, far from being an all-consuming, 32-year conflict, the actual fighting only lasted for a total of 13 weeks. And what about the “roses”, said to represent the two warring sides? Shakespeare again, I’m afraid. Henry only adopted the red rose as his symbol once the fighting was over. Shakespeare’s celebrated scene in Henry IV Part I, where noblemen pluck either a red (Lancaster) or a white (York) rose to show which side they’re going take in the Wars of the Roses, was entirely imaginary.

It is true, though, that Henry cleverly used the idea of the roses to stand for peace and reconciliation after the war, and after his marriage to Elizabeth of York. The red-and-white Tudor rose, representing their union, is one of history’s most powerful bits of branding. Events in a Leicester car park have led to a revival in Richard’s reputation. One story turned out to be true. When his skeleton was uncovered there, it did have a slightly curved spine.            

The Glorious Revolution

In 1688, a Dutch prince named William landed with an army in Devon. Britain’s Protestant aristocracy had invited him to take the crown in place of the Catholic, absolutist, unpopular James II. Parliament offered the throne jointly to the new King William III and his English wife Mary, once they’d agreed to a contract limiting their powers.

It was a defining moment for our democracy. In 1988, 300 years after the “Glorious Revolution”, there was a debate in the House of Commons whether the anniversary should be celebrated. The then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher argued that it was a “peaceful transfer of power which gave rise to the title of the bloodless revolution in England”.

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Lucy Worsley dressed as William of Orange in Exeter.

Yes, it was peaceful in England, but not in Scotland or Ireland. There, William had to enforce regime change with brutal tactics like the Battle of the Boyne (in Ireland) or the massacre of the Clan MacDonald at Glencoe (in Scotland). This left a bitter legacy of sectarianism.

William himself didn’t have all that much interest in Britain. He only wanted the throne because it would help him to assist the Dutch republic in its struggle against the Catholic King Louis of France. What’s the real truth? Economic historians point out that William’s invasion was funded by the merchants of Amsterdam, who wanted to protect their own financial interests by bringing the Netherlands and Britain closer together. Don’t tell Nigel Farage. 

The Indian Mutiny

If you’re of a certain age, your history textbook would have described the violent rebellions of 1857 in British India as “The Indian Mutiny”. If you’re from India, you’ll call the same events “The First War of Independence”. But what’s certain is that at the time the British wanted to define it as a straightforward military matter.

The best-known mutineer, Mangal Pandey, was a sepoy, or Indian-born member of the British Army in India who was based in barracks near the British capital of Calcutta, or Kolkata as it’s now known.

There was widespread unrest among the Indian troops, both Hindu and Muslim, who’d been commanded to use cartridges that they feared had been greased with animal fat that, to them, was religiously offensive.

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Dr Worsley by Victoria Memorial, Kolkata.

Pandey tried to incite his fellow soldiers to rebellion and, while they didn’t join him, they notably failed to help the British officers who subdued him. He tried to shoot himself, but he was overpowered, court-martialled, and hanged from a banyan tree.

The British at the time said variously that Pandey was drunk, or in a religious “frenzy”, and presented it as a case of military insubordination punished according to the rulebook.

Of course, with hind sight the rebellion of 1857, savagely crushed by the British, looks like a staging post along the path to Indian independence, and Pandey is now seen as a martyr, his face appearing on stamps and in schoolbooks.

Could it be, though, that even the Indian nationalists have exaggerated the rebellion of 1857, describing it as widespread and politically motivated because that was the story that suited them best? Historians more recently have argued that the violence was confined to just a few areas, and not coordinated: in other words, a lot of smoke caused by very little fire. After all, the victorious never let the facts get in the way of a good story. 

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British History’s Biggest Fibs with Lucy Worsley is on Thursday 9.00pm BBC4