FAKE NEWS IN SEVENTEENTH-CENTURY ENGLAND

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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.

PROPER HISTORY

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Early last month, I joined a group of Historians and their guests to spend a Saturday morning hearing about the Vikings. They were centre-stage because it’s the millennium of Cnut’s conquest of England.  (To put this in context, the next conquest was by the Normans in 1066.)

Before we started, the jury was a bit out on how interesting people would find the topic. Frankly, it seemed a tad unfashionable and it might not be something people would know anything about and could identify with.

Any worry was wasted. The only complaint was that there wasn’t long enough for all the questions people wanted to ask.

Afterwards, some of us speculated why there was so much enthusiasm for the topic, apart from three excellent speakers who brought the Viking world to life. It took a couple of the younger people to make a point that escaped the rest of us.

Apparently, older history (if you’ll excuse the phrase) has a particular appeal to a generation raised on twentieth century history. The causes of the First World War, the origins of the Second World War, the rise of the United States, the Cold War and the like all have their place, but there are History students at universities who’ve studied little before the twentieth century.  The opportunity to hear about Vikings was manna from heaven.

As someone who studied up to the 1850s and considers anything after that date as politics, this was a revelation. I hadn’t realised that what I think of as “proper” history is so thin on the teaching syllabus.

Someone also pointed out that television programmes such as Game of Thrones help to provide connections between contemporary culture and historical periods.  I’d be interested to see a film or TV series that makes the Angevin kings cool, Oliver Cromwell a hero or Charles James Fox aspirational.  It’s time for proper history to fight back.