THE GREAT HISTORY HOAX by Colin Falconer

Posted by on Nov 4, 2013 in Featured Book, Historical Fiction Influences, Historical Tidbits, Medieval Great Britain | 4 comments

Isabella185x280There is no such thing as history.

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.

415px-1292_Isabella_(1)-2I 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.)

515px-Isabella_and_Roger_Mortimer-2Those 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.

Edward_II_&_Gaveston_by_Marcus_Stone

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.

800px-Battle_of_Bannockburn_-_Bruce_addresses_troops

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

 

4 Comments

  1. Excellent post, Colin! I, too, always wondered if Edward could possibly have been that dumb? arrogant? besotted? Sadly, if a fiction writer made up some of the events from his reign, the story probably wouldn’t sell. Some agent would say it was too far-fetched!

  2. I think you’re so right about how women get such a bad press in history. The only thing I readily remember about her was her portrayal in Braveheart, where her appearance was fictitious.

    I suppose the bad press that Edward II gets is proof that history is written by the victors. Edward III gave a pretty bad press to his mother, having said that. I guess he would have preferred it if he had had neither parent.

  3. I think the significant thing I take away from this blog is that history is open to interpretation, simply for the fact that it was history. We can’t know exactly the ins and outs of any historical event since we can’t have been there. Time and time again I see authors and scholars (though it’s usually authors) who feel they ‘own’ their field of expertise, that anyone who disagrees with their particular point of view is an idiot and needs to be soundly chastised and usually publicly corrected. There’s no place for that. Consider modern events. There are so many takes on current political and social events that no one, not even we who live in it, can quite say we understand exactly how it is and so there is no room for argument. I happen to study Victorianism, and to write about it, but I know my views are different than others, and yet I stand by my opinions. I do it, however, without strangling anyone who disagrees. It’s open to interpretation. The. End. The interesting thing about studying Victorianism, is that you develop a certain slant toward other periods, particularly the book end eras, Regency and Edwardian, and so my philosophies tend to rub the ‘experts’ of those eras the wrong way. At the end of the day, we are all right, and very likely, we are all wrong as well.

    I always enjoy your blog posts, Collin. Well done!

  4. History is our story. Sometimes it’s the way we are. Other times it’s the way we wish we were. And, in some times, it’s a form of penance. Still, history is real, very real. “Esse es percipi”