Facts happen. The First World War happened. But who started it, and why – this is the story we tell ourselves later. It’s an opinion, it doesn’t exist outside the mind of the person writing that history.
When I was a kid John Wayne was a hero and shooting Apaches off a horse was considered patriotic. Within a generation we were cheering for Kicking Bird in Dances with Wolves when he kills the cavalrymen who have kidnapped John Dunbar.
Traditionally, when we tell ourselves history we like there to be a good guys, bad guys and an act of infamy. We like a story. It’s why CNN has such a hard time reporting Syria at the moment. Who’s the good guy there? It’s like Alien v Predator.
But this is also why historical novelists love history. There’s blood and sex and so much fiction to play with.
I’ve just completed a novel about Isabella of France. Not heard of her? She was the last person to invade England, (Okay, yes, William of Orange as well) surmounting the best efforts of the Spanish in 1588 and Hitler in 1941. She did it back in 1326, with just five hundred hired mercenaries.
But if her name’s not familiar to you, don’t worry, I went to school in England and they never mentioned her to me.
I think it was because she was, you know, a woman.
In some histories she is often referred to as the She-Wolf. If she was a man taking on England with five hundred men and a bad attitude she would have been Isabella the Conqueror. Isabella the Lionheart.
But because she was a woman it was Isabella the She-Wolf. She invaded us! That bitch.
She did it while still, technically, the Queen of England. Up to this point she had endured endless provocations from her husband and his favourite minister but she was supposed to lie down and take it. Most women of her time would have done. A female was no more than a chattel; a wife, even a queenly one, was a breeding machine. Even most English queens knew their place.
Not Isabella. She was shrewd, she was popular, she was tough. She was chillingly ruthless. Much like her father King Phillip – the Handsome.
(My italics – it seems you can get away with a lot in history if you’re a man, and you’re straight.)
Those historians who take Isabella’s side paint Edward as a cruel and despotic monarch. They view her as a tragic figure, a bewitched princess trapped in a loveless marriage to a negligent husband, a passionate and intelligent women driven to extreme measures by her situation
Was Edward really cruel and despotic? He was certainly incompetent. But not all kings are born to rule; and incompetence and villainy are not the same thing.
He has been described as one of the most unsuccessful monarchs ever to rule England not without some justification. Despite his strapping good looks he just wasn’t leadership material.
Many historians seem to have attributed his failings to his sexual preferences. He is sometimes portrayed as foppish, even though his favourite occupations were digging ditches and mending roofs. The greater likelihood is that Edward was cut, and that he was a good fighter.
His real problem was that he wasn’t a good tactician – Bannockburn! – either on the battlefield or at court.
If he had been astute he would have kept his relationship with Piers Gaveston discreet. Instead he goaded his barons with it. Did he want their acceptance?
We can only guess at his motives. Why did he later take Hugh Despenser as his prime minister when he knew the guy would take anything that wasn’t nailed down and who had a unique talent for antagonizing people. It was almost as if Edward wanted to be rid of his burdensome crown.
It’s an intriguing story. Who is the hero of it? In the end it depends who is writing the story. The facts are set in stone.
But the history? History moves, history changes. Live long enough and you can see history change.
Colin Falconer, November 4, 2013