You Can Fool Some of the People Some of the Time (Redux)

The current media storm about ‘alternative facts’ put me in mind of a post I first published on 1 November 2011, when this blog was read by two men, a dog, and a vole called Kevin. So I thought I’d re-post it now for a rather wider audience, especially as it chimes neatly with some of the themes I’m exploring in my new book, Kings of the Sea: Charles II, James II and the Royal Navy. In that, I deal with some of the instances where Samuel Pepys peddled his own ‘alternative facts’, many of which have been accepted uncritically by pretty much all writers. But as I’ll be demonstrating in Kings of the Sea, several important measures for which Pepys claimed the credit, and which historians and biographers have invariably been prepared to accept as being his responsibility, were not actually his doing at all, or not entirely so – and one entire source which he produced, and which has always been treated by historians as ‘gospel’ evidence for what happened in the navy, is, in fact, seriously flawed and misleading. So the book is likely to get quite a few people’s backs up…

However, back in 2011, I raised some questions about the veracity of the other great diarist of the Restoration period, John Evelyn, after first talking about a book I was then reading as part of my research for Britannia’s Dragon. Time to fire up the DeLorean, Marty!


Just finished two books on my Kindle – Roy Hattersley’s biography of Lloyd George (which showed the old goat to be even more randy and devious than I’d ever realised) and Anthony Dalton’s Wayward Sailor, an exposé of another brazen old rogue, the bestselling sailing guru Tristan Jones. Despite a schmaltzy and overblown prose style, Dalton does a meticulous job of dissecting Jones’s wildly exaggerated claims, proving that many of the experiences he recorded in his wildly successful ‘non-fiction’ books were either partly or wholly invented. I’m particularly interested in Jones because he claimed to be Welsh (although the ‘Llangareth’ where he claimed he grew up doesn’t exist) and to have served in the Royal Navy throughout World War II, being torpedoed three times and being present at the sinking of the Bismarck, among many other adventures recounted in his wartime ‘memoir’ Heart of Oak. Unfortunately, as Dalton shows Jones was actually born in 1929, not 1924 as he claimed, and thus could not possibly have served in the war; in fact, he did not join the navy until 1946. Heart of Oak is thus a complete invention, unlike some of the books about his sailing exploits which are at least vaguely grounded on truth. Yet remarkably, it continues to fool some. By coincidence, I was recently sent a review copy of a new book on the Royal Navy in World War II by an eminent authority in the field, and was amazed to discover that the author was citing Heart of Oak as a valid historical source. (I’ll save the author’s blushes, at least until my review appears in print!) We all make mistakes in our research, and I’ve sometimes been as guilty as anyone of not checking sufficiently on the provenance of a source, but even a simple check of Wikipedia would have revealed the extent of Jones’s invention.

This put me in mind of an unsettling discovery I made a few years ago. As far as I know no-one has ever queried the authenticity of John Evelyn’s diary,  but among the seventy-odd entries I wrote for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography were those on two men whom Evelyn knew well, Edward, Earl of Sandwich (the patron of Evelyn’s friend Pepys) and Thomas, Earl of Ossory, one of the most charismatic figures at the Restoration court (and one of the nicest, although he’s sadly little known these days). In both cases, Evelyn recounted stories about the end of the men’s lives that were simply not true. The diarist describes a meeting with Sandwich shortly before the latter joined his flagship, the Royal James, which was destroyed by a fireship during the Battle of Solebay (28 May 1672). He told Evelyn that he ‘was utterly against this war from the beginning’, and  regarded his own prospects fatalistically: when he parted from Evelyn, ‘shaking me by the hand he bid me good-bye, and said he thought he should see me no more … “No”, says he, “they will not have me live … I must do something, I know not what, to save my reputation”’. It’s perfectly possible that Sandwich spoke to Evelyn in those terms, but if he made the statement that he was against the war from the beginning, he was either lying outright or cleverly concealing one very important fact. Unknown to Evelyn or the earl’s subsequent biographers, Sandwich was the principal English signatory of the secret Anglo-French naval treaty of January 1672, which set out the arrangements for the conduct of the joint naval campaign against the Dutch. He was a principal architect of the war that killed him, not an opponent of it.

Of course, Sandwich might have dissembled deliberately by telling Evelyn he was against the war; the conflict was unpopular, and Sandwich might have been covering himself in the event of a future parliamentary enquiry, such as that which had followed the previous war. But my inner alarm bell really started to ring when I moved on to research Ossory. In 1680 he was appointed Governor of Tangier, a posting widely regarded as a death sentence. According to Evelyn, Ossory spoke to him privately of his doubts on 26 July, bemoaning the fact that he believed he was being sent out solely so that Charles II could prove to the next Parliament that he, the king, had done all he could to save Tangier by sending out his best and most popular general; in other words, Ossory’s reputation would be destroyed in a mission that could not succeed simply to serve the king’s own cynical political agenda. Still according to Evelyn, it was at a dinner in Fishmongers’ Hall on the same evening that Ossory fell ill with the severe fever, probably typhus, that was to kill him. Although Ossory and Evelyn might well have had the sort of conversation described by the diarist, Evelyn’s recollection of the sequence of events is seriously faulty. The earl had been stricken by the fever on about 18 July, and on the 26th he was in the second day of a delirium that lasted until his death.

So what explains Evelyn’s apparent inventions? Of course, he might simply have got the dates wrong, especially if he was writing up several days of his diary at once; but this seems unlikely in Ossory’s case at least, given the nature of Evelyn’s entries on the days before and after the 26th. But it seems curious that Evelyn should have claimed sole privy knowledge of the last thoughts of two of the most eminent warriors of the age. Throughout history, there are those who have claimed to be the last witnesses to the final hours and thoughts of a great figure, often as a way of emphasising their own importance in the history of their age. (Witness the weight given to the reminiscences of Hitler’s last secretary/bodyguard/etc, and more recently to those of Colonel Gaddafi’s driver.) If Evelyn did invent or exaggerate Sandwich’s and Ossory’s statements, he must surely have done so in the belief that his diary would eventually be published, and that such publication would present him as an important figure who was privy to the innermost thoughts of the great. Which begs an unsettling question – what else in Evelyn, or in many other sources that historians have always accepted as gospel, might be at least ‘economical with the truth’? At least we now know where we stand with Tristan Jones, who brazenly invented vast tracts of his life; or at least, we should do!

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