Writing Portfolio

3.2.17

Whig history and fake news (with Lucy Worsley)

Lucy Worsley has clearly been busy recently. The historian, Chief Curator of the Historic Royal Palaces and TV presenter (who has brought us such documentaries as The First Georges and Empire of the Tsars) was on Beeb One in December with Six Wives, and is now on Beeb Four with British History’s Biggest Fibs which re-examines certain aspects of our history. The latter is the more interesting, and it shows that there is nothing new about what we now call fake news.

If you haven’t seen it, there are no prizes for guessing who Six Wives is about and if you didn’t catch it you probably wouldn’t be surprised to learn that there were costumes (it wouldn’t be a Lucy Worsley documentary if she didn’t don at least one historical costume; this irritates some but I see it as a visual sign of an enthusiastic presenter getting underneath the surface of her subject), dramatic reconstructions that inevitably looked like low-budget imitations of A Man for All Seasons or Wolf Hall, and Dr Worsley telling the story in her usual engaging, light and energetic manner that’s a refreshing change from the affected bitchiness of (say) David Starkey. Of particular note were her insights into Anne of Cleves although these were pretty much the same as the impression of her that was given in the 1970 drama series The Six Wives of Henry VIII. To be fair, the saga that was Henry VIII’s marital history (all that, ahem, chopping and changing) is is one of the best-known stories from English history and as such I’d’ve been amazed if Dr Worsley had come up with anything new; to her credit she let the wives rather than Henry take centre-stage, but such an approach has nevertheless been done before and in this instance it could’ve been condensed into a single hour.

Meanwhile, Henry VIII’s dad was key to the first episode of British History’s Biggest Fibs which is a much more interesting and thought-provoking programme. It was Henry VII who, after defeating Richard III at Bosworth, embarked on a major propaganda campaign to assert the legitimacy of his claim to the throne (which was rather questionable, he being the grandson of Henry V’s wife by her second husband). He managed to convince people that he had been declared King before the battle, and set about demonising Richard with a vengeance. He asserted his legitimacy with symbols too. The Tudor rose, combining the red rose of Lancaster with the white rose of York, was created and adopted as his symbol, showing how he had unified the two rival royal houses (he’d strengthened his claim by marrying Elizabeth of York, Richard’s niece). But the red rose hadn’t really been used as an emblem by the Lancastrians, and contemporaries had never used the term ‘Wars of the Roses’ to describe the ongoing (yet surprisingly sporadic) conflict between the two rival branches of the Plantagenet dynasty between 1455 and 1485. Indeed, the idea of their supporters using roses to identify their allegiance owes more to Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 1 (specifically, the scene where the supporters pick red or white roses in the garden of Temple Church) than anything else; at Bosworth, Richard’s banner was adorned by a boar, while Henry used a dragon. Sticking with Shakespeare, who was writing during the reign of Henry VII’s grand-daughter Elizabeth I, the Bard drew heavily on the works of Henry’s chroniclers when writing Richard III, which presents said king as an out-and-out villain who is beaten by good in the form of the Earl of Richmond (Henry).

Aside from detailing the rewriting of history that Henry VII and his chroniclers embarked on, there’s a good point from Dr Worsley (as well as waving a sword in a field in Leicestershire, she gets to dress up as a Tudor-era Yeoman of the Guard in this one) about linking this to the Whig interpretation of history, which is an approach that seeks to present the past as an inevitable progression, with things always getting better and better; if used by a ruler (and throughout history, it often has been) then I guess it’s an approach that is not dissimilar from what we would now call fake news. As Dr Worsley herself points out, some elements of our history are a “carefully edited and deceitful version of events”. ‘Fake news’ may be a new phrase, but it is not a new phenomenon.

More overtly related to the Whigs was the second part of British History’s Biggest Fibs which looked at the Glorious Revolution. For many years this event was presented as a key to Britain’s subsequent prosperity by, for example, the Victorian historian Thomas Babington Macaulay whose History of England exemplified the Whig interpretation; the advances of British power in the eighteenth century owed much to the sovereignty of Parliament that had been enshrined by the Glorious Revolution. But how did the Glorious Revolution come about? Was it a peaceful transfer of power following the tyranny of James II, or a foreign invasion? Certainly James was suspected of aspiring to be an absolutist ruler and his Catholicism didn’t help. James’s enemies, who came to be called the Whigs, were not above the use of fake news to discredit him, for example with the rumours that his son born in June 1688 (the future Old Pretender) was actually an illegitimate imposter who had been smuggled into his wife’s bed in a warming-pan. James’s response, engaging with this craziness by publishing statements from those who had witnessed the birth (apparently, the number of witnesses was well into double figures), only made matters worse – the Whigs produced pamphlets discrediting the witnesses and their statements, and someone even came up with a map of St James’s Palace which showed the route that had supposedly been taken by the servant with the warming-pan, from the convent next door (where, the story went, the imposter-baby had been born) to the Queen’s bed!

Using propaganda to discredit a tyrannical ruler is all very well (it evidently works even better if his attempts to refute it can themselves be refuted), but how do you go about getting rid of him without risking civil war? The solution, as revealed in the cellars of a long-demolished Buckinghamshire mansion called Ladye Place (owned by an MP who indulged in publicity-seeking behaviour like using a court summons to wipe his bottom in public), was to invite someone else to invade England – that someone else being the Dutch prince William of Orange. Such an invitation was treason – the seven senior politicians who signed it didn’t use their own names (those were added later) – but in the light of what happened next this invitation came to be seen not as a treacherous act but as a plea from a desperate nation. Those seven politicians would be remembered not as traitors but as heroes, the ‘Immortal Seven’.

There’s more to it than that – the situation in England was linked to that in Europe, where the Protestant William was locked in a struggle with Louis XIV, the Catholic King of France. By looking at things from the Dutch side, it’s evident that William – who was married to Mary, James’s daughter – had considered invading England even before he was invited to do so; with the resources of England (and Scotland and Ireland) behind him, he would be much better placed to fight against his rival Louis. When he did invade (after sailing along the Channel, he landed at Brixham in November 1688), he was shrewd enough not to present it as an invasion, with his weapons of war including a printing-press which was used to print multiple copies of the declaration which presented his reasons for arriving in England; this propaganda campaign was clearly a success, for by the time he got to Exeter he was greeted not as an invader but as a liberator (even the colour of his horse – white – was symbolic, referring to a passage from Revelation which Dr Worsley quotes, while wearing a suit of armour of course). James fled; the Whigs said he’d abdicated.

There followed the reign of William III and Mary II, the only joint monarchy in our history – and it was enshrined by the Bill of Rights which barred Catholics from the line of succession and gave the Whigs the constrained, or rather constitutional, monarchy that they’d wanted. As Henry VII and his supporters had done unto Richard III, so William and Mary and their supporters did unto James II by denouncing him as a tyrant. Getting rid of a king and asserting the sovereignty of Parliament; revolutionary this undoubtedly was, and to a Whig it was indeed glorious; “if you win a conflict,” as Dr Worsley points out, “you get to pick its name”. You also get to ensure that your version of said conflict is the version is the one that gets the most publicity to the point where it can even be seen as fact rather than interpretation; William III knew this as well as Henry VII had done.

Some at the time called the Glorious Revolution a bloodless revolution, which wasn’t the case if one considers subsequent resistance to William in Ireland. In 1690 he met his father-in-law on the battlefield for the first time at the Boyne, and easily defeated him. This has been commemorated by Northern Irish Protestants every 12th July ever since – or has it? In actual fact, the subsequent battle of Aughrim, which took place the following year, was seen as more significant at the time and that was the one that took place on 12th July and was commemorated, but in 1752 the Gregorian calendar was adopted in Britain and Ireland. This led to the commemorations focussing on the Boyne (which had taken place on 1st July, that date becoming 11th July under the new calendar) instead; to this day, these commemorations continue to be an incendiary subject in Northern Ireland (William III – King Billy – is still very much either a hero or a villain depending on one’s perspective).

Perceptions change with time; in recent years the relative merits of Richard III and Henry VII have been re-evaluated (with the discovery of the former’s remains underneath a Leicester cark park sparking much re-thinking), while the Whig interpretation of the Glorious Revolution faded somewhat in the twentieth century (and yes, some historians have queried the extent to which it really counts as a revolution). History, or rather the evidence that has survived, is always open to questioning and reinterpretation. Much like some of what we read and hear in the news today, said evidence is usually biased in one way or another and may well be exaggerated (or even in some cases misleading or factually inaccurate); one thing we can say for certain is that it was ever thus.

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