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One thing you need to remember about history

Everybody lies. Two versions of history in collision

OK, I admit it. I’m a history nerd and always have been. I can’t even remember when I was first bitten by the bug but I do remember getting an Unwin Illustrated Book of British History as a birthday present when I was around 7 or 8 – probably from my Hungarian grandmother as it was so age-inappropriate – and reading straight through it from cover to cover.

I fell in love. Here were people from a long time ago and in some ways, they were the same as us, in other ways they were alien and strange. There were babies – but they were tightly wrapped into parcels, just like the Baby Jesus. There were knights in armour, there were princes and Kings and Queens.

There were a few peasants to grow the food, but they were simple and boring people. There were priests and monks and nuns, just like at school. In the later pages all kinds of peculiar machines sprouted and Parliament replaced kings which was much less fun.

I loved the clothes, particularly the medieval and Elizabethan clothes, up to the end of the 17th century in fact. I became absolutely obsessed with the wasp-waisted Elizabethan courtiers and spent hours drawing anatomically improbable ladies and colouring in their beautiful skirts.

I also loved Religious Knowledge because the Bible was clearly another kind of history book. I actually listened to the readings in church on Sundays because sometimes you got good stuff about fighting. I also liked the saints’ stories that the nuns filled us with at school because that was a kind of history as well, although some of it was pretty revolting – nuns were not shy about telling us of bloody and horrible martyrdoms, complete with saintly miracles.

Being at a Catholic school I was expected to go to Crusaders meetings, which involved giving up playtime once a week to crowd onto the stage in hall and give details about how often I went to church and how often I took Communion. I was always disappointed because my father refused to go on any day except Sunday and I went with the school on Friday, so that was only twice, whereas there were Irish pupils there who went every day! Early in the morning! With their parents!

On a couple of occasions children claimed to have taken communion eight times a week, at which point the nun who was laboriously noting this in a ledger looked up coldly and said that they had better not have taken communion eight times in a week because it was a mortal sin to take it more than once a day.

For the first time I wondered if some of the children who went spectacularly seven times a week were in fact lying. After all there were badges at stake for the ones who had been to church most often.

What did that make the nun’s ledger, I wondered. Was it true or not?

I only kept going because you could get a little magazine called “The Crusade Messenger” which gave you stories of even more bloody and sadistic martyrdoms as well as great riddles and jokes with which to annoy your parents. Sample: Q: What did Tarzan say when he saw some elephants coming over the hill?  A: Here come some elephants over the hill. Q: What did Tarzan say when he saw some elephants coming over the hill wearing dark glasses. A: Nothing because they were in disguise.

There was a series I particularly enjoyed about an Elizabethan priest called Fr John Gerard who had been horribly tortured by Topcliffe and then escaped from the Tower of London by sliding down a rope to a boat. I saw him as a sort of Fr James Bond. Many years later I found the source for this story – a book called “The Hunted Priest” which was a translation from Fr Gerard’s memoirs in Latin by Philip Caraman. There’s now a new translation.  And it was true. He had been exactly like James Bond, except he didn’t kill people and was celibate. (Yes, I’m planning a book, one of many…)

There was also history in my mother’s stories about her adventures in the Second World War when she had been a child in Hungary. She had seen dead bodies. She had walked across a battlefield three days after it happened and she said that the discarded shell cases were so deep in some places that she waded to the knees in them.

My father had played rugby under the air battles of the Battle of Britain and two boys at his school had gone truant to go in the Little Ships to Dunkirk and back. (I have a feeling they weren’t allowed because their boat was too small.)

Here was where history melted into story, a vast number of them, about people, not about machines or money. My Irish grandmother told a particularly thrilling tale about the siege of Drogheda by the wicked English and how the people had eaten cats and rats and died of starvation. I asked my father afterwards if we could do something about the poor people of Drogheda and he laughed and told me that it had happened 300 years ago.

Then I went from the convent school to a normal State primary school and my world turned upside down.

Up until this point I had known that there were two Queens in the middle of the 16th century, one called Mary and the second called Elizabeth, who were half-sisters, children of the evil Henry VIII. Of course, at the convent school I had learned that Queen Mary was the good Catholic Queen, while Queen Elizabeth was evil and bad and did scandalous things as well as torturing good Catholic priests and hanging, drawing and quartering them.

At the State school we launched into the 16th century once again and suddenly… Queen Mary was the evil one, known as Bloody Mary who had burned good Protestants to death. Queen Elizabeth was the good and noble one, who admittedly had been a bit lax with Walsingham over Catholic priests but was a great and glorious Queen who led a Golden Age which included Shakespeare.

What? Well which was it?

I looked for more books in the school library and the public library and found that both things were true. The situation was more nuanced than the nuns had said.

Queen Mary had certainly been a good Catholic, but even the Spanish King she had married tried to get her to burn fewer of her subjects. Queen Elizabeth had certainly winked at the execution of Mary Queen of Scots (according to the nuns, a Catholic martyr) although she herself would have preferred Mary Queen of Scots to be assassinated. She also allowed the execution by revolting means of Catholic priests and a great deal of torture to go on which was actually against the English law. However, she had kept the country at peace and managed to navigate the poisonous politics of the time such that she died in her bed in 1603 and was succeeded peacefully by her closest relative, the King of Scotland.

It cemented my fascination with history and Queen Elizabeth: both Queens were pretty bad by modern standards, but by their own, Elizabeth had been a thumping success, and in her time, England had been (mostly) prosperous. Her skilled balancing between the fanatical Catholics and the fanatical Protestants was part of that success.

It also taught me that you have to read many accounts of any historical event because every single witness forgets things and is biased. You must ask of any text, who wrote it and why did he or she write it?

I had learned the first lesson of history.

Never take the first account you see of any event as the truth, ever.

***

You can buy my Elizabethan Noir Trilogy (containing Firedrake’s Eye, Unicorn’s Blood and Gloriana’s Torch) here.

4 Comments

  1. Mary Loomer Oliver says:

    So true!
    The more you learn about history, the more nuanced you discover it is!

  2. Joanna says:

    So good to hear from you Patricia. You and Barbara Tuchman are in my Top 5 Favorite Authors list.

  3. rmmack says:

    “…every single witness forgets things and is biased. …
    Never take the first account you see of any event as the truth, ever.”

    True then, true now. Politics never ends.

  4. Muriel Verdibello says:

    Two comments: First: I’m 2/3 of the way through Elizabethan Noir, and I love it; I’m going slow to make it last longer! Second: my love for history and Elizabeth started in the 3rd or 4th grade. My parents gave me an encyclopedia for Christmas, and somehow I opened it to the section on Queen Elizabeth, with a picture of her portrait in one of her elaborate costumes (I really appreciate those details in Noir). Read all I could after that, majored in history, etc. Please keep writing Patricia!

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