As Tony Robinson puts it, history is fragile. Some of the things we think are set in stone are actually written in water.
I just watched a fascinating documentary by Tony Robinson, the actor whose most popular character was Baldric in the Blackadder series on British television. After that series he started hosting and writing programs on history and archeology, notably Time Team, which ran for more than a decade. He also made a series of television specials dealing with historical myths, including a revisionist take on Richard the Third.
Most people know, or “know” about King Richard from the Shakespeare play. His character is an amoral grasping schemer, killing his way to the throne. Among his victims in the play are the princes in the Tower, the sons of his brother, Edward the Fourth. He not only has them killed, but he has one of his people announce that Edward, their father, was illegitimate.
Richard III, Act 3, Scene 5
Tell them, when that my mother went with child
Of that unsatiate Edward, noble York
My princely father then had wars in France
And, by just computation of the time,
Found that the issue was not his begot,
Which well appeared in his lineaments,
Being nothing like the noble duke my father;
The accusation is that, calculating back from Edward’s birth date, The Duke of York was nowhere near his wife around the possible time of conception. The added piece of evidence is that Edward in no way resembled his father. A nasty piece of slander, to be expected from a character like Richard.
But was it more than slander?
Elizabethan plays aside, there were rumors in Edward’s time that he was illegitimate. Those rumors pointed to an archer in the English garrison in Rouen France, named Blaybourne. Edward’s mother, Cecily Neville, had been at Rouen while the Duke of York was on campaign elsewhere in France.
Robinson spoke with a British historian who had been researching the English/French wars of the 15th century and came across something startling in the records of Rouen cathedral. The cathedral’s chapter book records daily prayers for the Duke in July and August of 1441 – prayers because he was away fighting. Edward was born April 28th, 1442. Forty weeks gestation gives us an ideal date of conception of July 29th, 1441. Edward would have to have been a month late – impossible – or a month early, which would have elicited much comment. Premature babies had little chance of surviving in the 15th century. There are other pieces of evidence, including a statement by Cecily herself that Edward was illegitimate, but an impossible birthdate clinches it.
So what does this mean? Edward the Fourth being illegitimate, so were his offspring, including his daughter Elizabeth, who Henry Tudor married to legitimize his own illegitimate claim to the throne. The entire Tudor line becomes illegitimate, and so on down through the Georges and Queen Victoria to Elizabeth the Second, now on the throne.
It sounds ridiculous. It’s the British Royal Family, right? Elizabeth, Philip, Charles, Harry, and Andrew. Kind of troubled and out of touch, but royal. However, the two qualifications for royalty are 1) legitimate birth, and 2) a royal ancestor. You can be evil, barking mad, or thick as a roast beef sandwich, but with a direct line back to a royal, you’re in. If 17th-Great Grandma jumped the fence you’re out.
With the present occupants of Windsor Castle being squatters, who actually has a claim? The answer lies in Edward’s brother George, Duke of Clarence, legendarily drowned in a barrel of Malmsey wine. His daughter Margaret had five children before being executed on trumped up charges by Henry the Eighth. Those charges were fabricated due to the fact that her family’s bona fides rivaled those of the Tudors. Margaret’s line winds down and around till it joins with that of the rich and powerful Hastings family. Their fortunes collapsed in the late 19th century.
Robinson traced the Hastings line into the 20th century and ended up in the outback of Australia. There he met one Michael Hastings, a middle aged agricultural researcher. King Michael the First, as Robinson calls him, was born in England and grew up in a small house in the shadow of the ruined castle that once housed the mighty Hastings of old. Actually the 14th Earl of Loudon, Michael was happy living as an ordinary citizen of Australia. He died this last summer at the age of 71, but left a royal family behind, including Simon the First, the new pretender to the throne.
It’s a solid piece of genealogical detective work, brought about by a chance discovery in a church record book. But what does it really signify?
Even if Richard III had prevailed at Bosworth Field, someone would occupy the throne. The names would have changed, but the turmoil and geopolitical forces would have been much the same. The royal line has enough backstabbing, usurpation, upset victories, and infant mortality that the chances of any branch of the British royal family were probably as good as any other. In 1066 that fateful arrow could have missed Harald and hit the guy next to him. So Elizabeth II is descended from an archer and not a Plantagenet – so what? She’s not about to pack up the Corgis and shog off. A properly descended monarchy would be just as archaic and ridiculous.
Perhaps this is a joke of the fates, a victory for the ordinary schmo. The commoners have taken the throne.
It makes no difference to me who waves to the crowds in London. What makes this story interesting is the way that a deep dive into history can turn supposed truisms upside down. The more important a piece of history is to people in power, or to a people’s self-image, the more likely it is to be fiction. Our own popular history in the U.S. is a cob-job of essential truths and essential myths.
The words “history” and “story” were not differentiated until the late 15th century, and perhaps the eventual distinction was naive. Fiction is designed to satisfy our need for entertainment, for narrative cohesion, and in many cases, for closure and comfort. History, written by the victors and edited by the zeitgeist, adds the needs of power and social cohesion to the mix. History, real history, based on hard evidence, tends to annoy people, even enrage them. Part of the annoyance is that when done properly it leaves uncomfortable gaps.
From this I’ll postulate Minor Heretic’s Rule of Historical Narrative: If a particular bit of history makes you feel comfortable and satisfied, it’s almost certainly a crock of shit.