Thursday, 7 February 2013

All is fair in war and love... and history

History can be harsh on the powerful, and it's part and parcel of being up on the hill. But some 'great men' (and a disproportionate amount of great women) get a worse treatment than others and that may be a bit unfair.

Even redemption at the hands of the press may come in unfair ways. King Richard III owes much of his new popularity to the novelty of his discovery under a car park in Leicester. A surprising PR move for a man more used to riding horses on unpaved roads.

Humble Scribe, in another excellent post, asks the question why King John has not received a similar revival. While the historical record has been very negative for him, this is largely due of him not being around and his haters holding the quill. John was an able administrator and general as recorded in Ralph Turner's King John: England´s Evil King?, but this is overlooked because of his major character failings.

Popular perception might have to do more with representations in literature and movies than history books. As many people have noted, Shakespeare has been instrumental in demonising both Richard III and John, while Walter Scott's depictions of John and his henchmen in Robin Hood confirmed this in the 19th century. 20th century writers and directors have used these images rather than provide reinterpretations.

This durability of historical stereotypes is also manifest in the appreciation of Willem, Hereditary Prince of Orange and later King Willem II of the Netherlands. Demetrius Boulger, in his 1904 article on 'the Belgians at Waterloo' notes that Siborne, Maclachlan and Alison have been the principal culprits in attributing the failures of the campaign to the Netherlands troops and Willem in particular.

But according to Boulger the greatest damage was done by Thackeray reproducing them in Vanity Fair. And it is easy to see when British writers in the 1960s and 70s uncritically adopt this perspective. Luckily, the image is now being rectified somewhat (of course, Willem hasn't suddenly become a great commander) by closer study of individual accounts of the battle.

By the way, if you're on facebook and have an interest in restoring King John to his rightful place in history, why not join the King John Appreciation Society?

And as a fitting farewell to King Richard, the song dedicated to him by Supergrass. A fittingly brilliant one!

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