The Kings of Post-Truth
OK, right, all this ‘post-truth’ malarkey, then.
Now, you know you’re never going to get out-and-out politics in this blog, for reasons I might fully elucidate one day. But for various reasons, I’ve been getting a little peeved with all this media hype about ‘post-truth’, ‘fake news’, and so on and so forth. To me, much of it seems to be, to a certain degree, yet another case of historically illiterate journalists (and even more historically illiterate users of social meejah) suddenly waking up to a phenomenon that they assume to be new, but which has actually been around forever and a day. The always fascinating Many Headed Monster blog recently demonstrated how fake news was endemic during the British civil wars, for example, while the dear old Daily Mail has been shamelessly peddling colossal whoppers (and influencing the outcomes of elections with them) since at least the Zinoviev Letter in 1924. Back in my previous life, I used to show my GCSE students the famous ‘before and after’ pictures of Trotsky alongside, and thus clearly both physically and politically close to, Lenin – a fact so inconvenient to Stalin that he got his proto-photoshoppers to simply remove Trotsky from the picture, long before an icepick removed him from the bigger picture too. So the principle has been around since the serpent spun a bit of fake news to Eve; the only thing that’s ‘new’ is the method of delivery (after all, as vehicles for news delivery and political debate, Facebook and Twitter are little more than shiny versions of 1640s newsbook-fuelled pub arguments), its potential reach, and arguably, the greater gullibility of its audience. All of this was grist to the mill of a man who would undoubtedly nod sagely and mutter plus ça change about all this ‘post-truth/fake news’ debate, namely the genius who literally wrote the book on the subject, Mr George Orwell.
But there needs to be one big caveat to all this: what we assume to be absolutely cast-iron ‘facts’ often turn out to be anything but. To demonstrate my point, I want to look at one seemingly unassailable set of ‘facts’, namely the names and dates of the Kings and Queens of England.* How on earth can these be ‘dodgy’ in any shape or form, you might reasonably demand?
The catalogue of English monarchs is probably the best known chronological sequence of heads of state in the world – so much so, indeed, that there are sad people out there who have, as one of their claims to alleged fame, the ability to reel off the names and dates of all the monarchs since 1066. (Raises hand tentatively, then swiftly puts it back down again.) But once you start to unpick it, these supposedly certain ‘facts’ look rather more shaky than they might first appear to be. Take, for example, the civil war during the 1130s to 1150s, known to history as ‘The Anarchy’ (and just how subjectively loaded a description of an epoch is that?). Just who, exactly, decided that only King Stephen would be regarded as the true monarch for the entire period between 1135 and 1154, despite the arguably superior claim to the throne of the Empress Matilda – who, indeed, effectively controlled most of the country for some of that time? How is it that Matilda’s place in the list, and thus her claim to be England’s first female monarch, has always been denied, while the ‘readeption’ of Henry VI in 1470-1 – which is probably just as debatable as her ‘reign’ – has usually been included? Might we be dealing with a teeny weeny bit of Victorian misogyny here, heavily influenced by a large dash of Shakespeare?
(Similarly, Lady Jane Grey was once left out of the list entirely, but now seems to be a permanent fixture. But just about the one thing that distinguishes her from other so-called ‘pretenders’ who were proclaimed monarch in opposition to the supposedly rightful heir – say, Lambert Simnel, Perkin Warbeck, or the Duke of Monmouth – is that, unlike the others, she and her supporters controlled London, if only for nine days. So is the inclusion of Jane in regnal lists merely yet another blatant example of metrocentric bias?)
The regnal list fascists have also struggled with the notion that it might be possible to have two monarchs simultaneously. True, they make grudging allowance for William and Mary, although I seem to recall that in my childhood, the latter was often airbrushed out of the record as comprehensively as Trotsky, despite the hugely important work she did in her own right (as I discovered when I touched on aspects of her role in directing naval affairs after 1689). Sellars and Yeatman memorably satirised the intellectual hurdles inherent in the concept of joint monarchs by combining the two into a single androgynous creature called Williamanmary, alongside a picture of a crowned fruit (‘England ruled by an Orange’). But if William and Mary are allowed, why not Philip and Mary a century and a half earlier? Philip of Spain was given full monarchical status by his wife – coins, acts of Parliament, etc, were all made in the names of Philip and Mary jointly. So surely writing Philip out of the record is nothing more or less than a manifestation of Protestant xenophobic bias against the man who would later despatch the Spanish Armada against these shores? Similarly, Henry II had his eldest son, another Henry, crowned in his lifetime, to prevent future succession disputes, but ‘the Young King’, as he was known, never features in the lists, perhaps because ‘Henry II(A)’ is just too difficult for some to get their heads around.
Let’s take another example. When he was restored to the throne in 1660, Charles II and his ministers categorically proclaimed it to be the twelfth year of his reign, thus effectively declaring that the Interregnum had never legally happened at all, and that thus, more importantly, all of the legislation passed during that time was invalid. But at some subsequent point, somebody, identity unknown, sensibly decided to ignore the Royalist interpretation of what had happened between 1649 and 1660 – thus making a political judgement on which set of ‘facts’ should be accepted, and which should not. One need not add, of course, that for Jacobites – and there are still a few out there – every ‘regnal date’ since 1688 has been a fiction, and we are currently living in the eleventh year of the reign of His Majesty King Francis II, who fills in the time before his inevitable and glorious restoration by fulfilling the onerous duties of the patron of the Bavarian Dachsund Club.
The familiar sequence of names of the royal houses is equally contentious. The late, great Tudor historian Cliff Davies caused a minor furore in academic circles a few years back – not to mention much wailing and gnashing of teeth among historical novelists and the makers of countless BBC dramas and documentaries – by pointing out that England’s most famous dynasty never actually called themselves by the surname at all, partly because of a degree of shame about the name’s humble Welsh origins, partly because they actually saw themselves as reuniting the disparate strands of the old Plantaganet royal line. (The abstract is here, although the full article is behind an armed Mafiosi checkpoint – sorry, academic publisher paywall.) Indeed, he argued, hardly anybody else in the ‘Tudor age’ ever used the word ‘Tudor’, either. Even in our times, there’s been a nagging uncertainty about what the surname of the current royal family actually is: the brilliant Netflix series The Crown convincingly portrayed Prince Philip’s fury at not being able to bestow his own name on his children, although that name (Mountbatten) is itself an invention, only four years older than the prince himself, as is his wife’s maiden name of Windsor. Still, Mountbatten-Windsor is probably preferable to trying to conjure a suitable moniker out of the coupling of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glucksburg with Saxe-Coburg-Gotha.
One final point. Who, exactly, decided that the list of ‘English’ monarchs should only commence in 1066, when the English royal line was comprehensively overthrown by a Norman invader? What about all the Saxon and Danish Kings of England before that date? True, it suited all the Norman Edwards to number themselves as though the likes of Edward the Elder never existed – but why on earth have all subsequent historians, makers of lists, and setters of pub quizzes, bought into that hugely political reinvention of history by a bunch of Anglo-French toffs?
There we have the nub of the problem: the list of Kings and Queens of England is not the string of unassailable set-in-stone facts that it appears to be, but an arbitrary set of choices based on political prejudices and unchallenged orthodoxies. And if that is the case, and the facts themselves are potentially so badly flawed, then ‘post-truth’ thinking in such cases can actually be a positive, forcing us to reassess the very building blocks of history from first principles.
To conclude, then, to say that history is written by the winners is only partly correct: history is, and always has been, written by those who decide who the winners actually are.
(* Very similar issues apply to the regnal lists of Scotland and Wales. Quite apart from the ‘grey areas’ in the former – e.g. Edward Balliol – the whole Scottish royal sequence has been politically charged since 1603, and not just because of the Jacobite dimension referred to earlier. My Scottish friends rightly get very upset when their King James VII is referred to indiscriminately as ‘James II’, while postboxes newly adorned with the royal cipher of ‘Elizabeth II’ were firebombed in the early 1950s by those who knew rather better than Anglocentric Post Office apparatchiks that Scotland never had a previous Queen Elizabeth… As for Wales, the traditional description of Llywellyn ap Gruffydd, killed in 1282, as the last native Prince of Wales, is very much a construct of English conquest. His brother Dafydd was proclaimed Prince after Llywellyn’s death, and could be legitimately regarded as such until his own death in the following year, while the proclamation of Owain Glyndŵr in 1400 muddied the waters even more. Indeed, the pendulum has now swung the other way, and it’s become ‘politically correct’ in Wales to refer categorically to the latter as the last prince – a line taken even in such a seemingly innocuous context as the Christmas quiz on S4C, the Welsh TV channel.)