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Time for a Rethink?

I’ve started a new book in the last few days called ‘Past Mistakes’ by David Mountain, the premise of which is that everything we think we know about the past may need to be reviewed, because it turns out that we are victims of other people’s myths and fake news, whether they lived in the Stone Age or live in the here and now.  I will share more details in due course as usual, but in the meantime I will continue with a very similar theme using examples from the book I mentioned last week, Robert Lacey’s ‘Great Tales from English History’, which provided a veritable treasure trove of exciting alternative versions of what I thought I knew.  

For example, if I were to ask you to name an English king who had a reputation for not being prepared, you would most likely choose Ethelred the Unready.  The clue, after all, is in the name.  However, as Lacey points out, although the unfortunate Ethelred was indeed not a great exponent of the skills required to be an effective monarch, it may not actually have been all his fault.  His nickname ‘Unready’ turns out to be a mistranslation of the gibe made after his death by chroniclers who dubbed him Ethelred ‘Unred’.  The ‘unred’ comes from Old English and means ‘ill-advised’, and it apparently made a rather clever pun on the meaning of Ethelred’s name, which meant ‘of noble counsel’ – rendering Ethelred Unred ‘the well-advised, ill-advised’.

What image comes to mind if I ask you to think about Lady Godiva?  It seems a fair assumption that you are thinking about a lady with such luxuriant hair that she can ride a horse naked through the streets of Coventry while maintaining her modesty during a protest of some sort against taxes.  As Lacey tell us, Lady Godiva was one of the last great Anglo-Saxon women landowners, whose considerable possessions were listed in the Domesday Book.  He asserts that the idea of this God-fearing founder of monasteries and nunneries riding naked through rows of gawping peasants, however complete the camouflage of her hair, is therefore little short of ridiculous.

What does seem possible, however, is that Godiva may have ridden out symbolically naked – that is, stripped of the fine jewellery and sumptuous costume that denoted her status as one of the great of the land.  In which case, the source for the story may have used the Latin word ‘denudata’, which means ‘stripped’, but not necessarily totally nude.  Maybe the jewels and fine outfit of clothes that Godiva took off for her ride were the very treasures that she was presenting to the abbey at Coventry – and without fancy hairpins, of course, her hair would have come tumbling down.

Never let the truth get in the way of a good story, as the saying goes, so the idea of real nudity is much more interesting than just taking off some jewels, which is how the story has not just endured but developed.  According to a seventeenth-century version, some six hundred years after the event may or may not have happened, the medieval villagers of Coventry had shown their solidarity with Lady Godiva’s protest by staying indoors on the day of her ride, with their shutters decently closed so that she could pass by unobserved.  No one, it seems, was so cheeky as to look out at her, with the single exception of a tailor called Thomas, who was promptly punished for his curiosity by being struck blind (or even struck dead, depending on the storyteller).  This is the origin of another English folk character – Peeping Tom.

The book is not all about busting myths, but it keeps throwing up really interesting nuggets.  As we watch with horror night after night the consequences of one country invading another, we must remember that we have experienced something similar on our own island, albeit a long time ago.  After the Norman invasion of 1066, Lacey highlights that there was one law for the conquerors and one for the conquered.  William’s laws gave special protection to ‘all the men I have brought with me, or who have come after me’. 

This legal discrimination is reflected in the language we speak today, a mixture of Anglo-Saxon or ‘englisc’ and Norman French.  Our modern English words of control and authority – order, police, court, assizes (from the French for ‘sitting’), judge, trial, sentence, prison, punishment, execution – all come from the Normans.  And there is a similar linguistic apartheid in the way we describe food.  When it came to the hard work of rearing the animals, the words used were English – cow, pig, sheep.  When it came to eating them, they were French – beef, pork, mutton.  As Lacey summarises, it is not hard to see who produced the fruits of the earth, and who enjoyed them.

Some two hundred years later, Edward I called for villagers to practise archery every Sunday and holy day to ensure they were ready for war.  Parliament passed laws forbidding tennis, dice and cock-fighting as well as various forms of cricket and hockey (described as ‘club-ball’) because they diverted men from their target practice.  Unsurprisingly perhaps, football was particularly disapproved of, as leading to hooliganism and riots.  In contrast, French laws prohibited peasants from possessing any arms at all.  French military tactics centred on the mounted knight, and the difference showed when the French and English armies met on the battlefield of Crécy in 1346, with the French defeat almost certainly caused by the arrogance of their horsemen.

Although the weather certainly played its part in October 1415, a similar arrogance and over reliance on cavalry was a key factor in the English victory over the French at Agincourt, another battle in the Hundred Years’ War – which actually lasted 116 years, but there’s a story for another day.  Alas, however, despite what we may think, Lacey tells us that there is no evidence to support the claim that the origin of the ‘up-yours’ V-sign originated with fifteenth-century archers who wished to demonstrate that their bow-string fingers had not been cut off.

When looking at another conflict from the same century that has captured our imagination, Lacey describes how, in the thirty-two years that history textbooks conventionally allot to the ‘Wars of the Roses’, there were also long periods of peace.  In fact, there were only thirteen weeks of fighting – and though the battles themselves were bitter and sometimes very bloody, mayhem and ravaging seldom ensued.  Nobles may have been executed after being defeated, but the common people were free to return to their villages and get on with their lives.

A final myth to bust this week starts when Lacey describes the memorable scene in Shakespeare’s ‘Henry VI, Part 1’ that depicts the nobility of England in a garden selecting roses, red or white, to signify their loyalty to the House of York or the House of Lancaster.  But it did not happen because, as so often, Shakespeare invented the episode.  The ‘Wars of the Roses’, the romantic title we use today for the succession of battles and dynastic changes that took place in England between 1453 and 1487, was also a later invention, coined by the nineteenth-century novelist Sir Walter Scott. 

The Yorkists may have sported a rose on occasion, but there is no evidence that the Lancastrians ever did – at the Battle of Barnet in 1471, they actually started fighting each other because they did not recognise their own liveries.  Lacey concludes that to judge from the profusion of badges and banners that were actually borne into battle during these years, men were fighting the wars of the swans, dogs, boars, bears, lions, stars, suns and daisies.  Ain’t history grand?!

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