Charles II is often associated with mistresses, the revival of London’s theatres and horse racing (the ‘sport of kings’).  But he also had to contend with restoration of the monarchy after England, Scotland and Ireland had been republics for more than a decade and the early part of his reign saw the devastation of the plague (1665) and the Great Fire of London (1666).  You might say that he was dealt a tricky hand.

I went to an exhibition at The Queen’s Gallery recently (the one at the back of Buckingham Palace) called Charles II:  Art & Power.  As the title suggests, the exhibits show how Charles II used art to consolidate his power.  There are the usual formal portraits – similar to the ones Tudor kings and queens used to good effect – showing the King in majesty.  But the exhibition also shows that prints allowed images of the new King to be circulated widely, fixing his image in the mind of his subjects, replacing that of his executed father and of Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector.  The drawing made to provide the King’s image on coinage is tucked away in a side-room and the Financial Times’ review of the exhibition makes the point that the artist of the drawing was the artist who painted Oliver Cromwell warts and all.  That might have been to establish continuity or to set a tone of conciliation, but it’s unlikely to have been a coincidence; this was a King who meant to keep his throne and subliminal messaging was as good a tool as any others.

The last years of Charles II’s reign were dominated by the Popish Plot and its consequences.  The plot was a false tale of a Catholic conspiracy to assassinate Charles II and (at the risk of extreme over-simplification) it gained credibility for two reasons in particular.  First, anti-Catholicism was a feature of politics, religion and society in seventeenth-century England.  That was fuelled by doubts about the religious persuasion of Charles II and the lack of a legitimate son as heir to the throne, leaving his Catholic brother – later, James II – as next in line to the throne.  Secondly, threats against the King were taken extremely seriously.  Charles II had regained the throne, but Stuart kings had faced assassination plots before (think of the Gunpowder Plot), his father had been removed from power (albeit by Protestant radicals) and the monarchy was no longer as unquestioningly secure as it was once perceived to be.

By the time the so-called plot was revealed as an invention, more than 20 innocent people had been executed.  Jumping at shadows cast by a plot that played on widespread fears within society, Catholic peers were put on trial, James II’s place in the succession was in doubt, houses of suspected Catholics were searched, Catholics were banned from London and the surrounding area and hysteria was widespread.  Fake news is not a new phenomenon.

Counter-factual history and fake news


Yesterday evening I watched the first episode of SS-GB, the BBC’s new Sunday evening series.  For anyone who missed it or hasn’t seen the trailers, it’s an alternative reality drama, set in Britain occupied by Germany after losing the Second World War.  It’s a story built on what I know as counter-factual history.

Counter-factual history scenarios are littered with What ifs?  What if Elizabeth I had married and had children (with all the who and when that goes with that)?  What if Archduke Franz Ferdinand hadn’t been assassinated?  What if there’d been no Adolf Hitler?  What if the Germans had invaded Britain?  What if President Kennedy hadn’t been assassinated?  These are games that Historians like to play and there’s a book of essays edited by Professor Niall Ferguson on exactly this topic – Virtual History:  Alternatives and Counterfactuals.

But let’s look at more recent scenarios.  What if Al Gore had won the US presidential election in 2000 or if the UK had stayed out of the second Gulf War in 2003?  Or if Hilary Clinton had won the US presidential election in 2016?  This is when history, current affairs and politics meet – and where counter-factual history and fake news bump against each other.

After watching SS-GB yesterday evening, I caught the first part of the BBC News and I realised that it’s rare to see or hear a news programme now that isn’t commenting on or doesn’t have some reference to fake news.  Even a few months ago, I hadn’t heard the phrase.  Now it feels ubiquitous and there’s a perception it’s playing an important part in creating what appears, to many, to be an alternative reality.

It’s not so far removed from counter-factual history, but there’s more at stake.  It isn’t a game and it isn’t Sunday evening entertainment.  It’s about fundamental issues of what constitutes the truth, but it’s also about freedom of speech and freedom of the press.  As those topics play out to allow anyone to say what they think, I wonder how truth can be presented in a way that frees it to sing out and convince those who may be disinclined to believe it.  What are the essential truths that people can agree on and what are matters of perception?  How can the meaning of “truth” be preserved and protected when it’s under threat?  And how do we start to pull together, rather than continuing to pull apart?