Royal History’s Biggest Fibs with Lucy Worsley: the French Revolution – BBC 1

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  I thought that some of this was a bit patronising.  Surely most people realise that the institution of monarchy in France didn’t come to an end in 1789, or even 1793; and surely no-one thinks that the French Revolution was a peasants’ revolt.  Also, Lucy Worsley’s childish dressing up is extremely annoying, as is her use of the word “fibs” which I don’t think anyone over the age of eight is in the general habit of using …. although I did rather envy the large plate of French pastries which she apparently found necessary to illustrate the issue of food shortages.  Furthermore, there was a disappointing lack of reference to either tricoteuses or Charlotte Corday murdering Marat in the bath.  People should always mention these things when discussing the French Revolution.  Especially tricoteuses.

Having said all that, I thought she made some extremely good points.  There were three main themes which stood out for me.  One was the demonisation of Marie Antoinette – and I’d draw parallels with Henrietta Maria and Alexandra Feodorovna, as well.  All three had their faults, but they weren’t responsible for their husbands’ failures.  Yet people always seem to find it easier to blame a woman, especially a foreign woman.  One was the way in which French history romanticises the Revolution, conveniently ignoring the Terror, the fact that it wasn’t actually very democratic at all, and the fact that the First Republic only actually lasted for, er, twelve years.  And the third was the way in which British history views it completely differently, due in no small part to Charles Dickens and Madame Tussaud, and puts a lot of emphasis on Madame Guillotine.  I think it was probably also Dickens who popularised the image of tricoteuses.  I really was very disappointed that there was no mention of tricoteuses …

Poor old Marie Antoinette, then.  I think most people are now past the idea of her saying “Let them eat cake” but, as Lucy pointed out, the idea was so strongly held for decades that it even appeared in school textbooks.  I don’t think she ever stood a chance, even when she got married: it was too soon after the Diplomatic Revolution, and Austrians weren’t popular in France.  Then it took her a while to produce an heir … which was because Louis didn’t, er, make the effort.  And, as I’ve said, people love to demonise a woman, especially a foreign woman, and especially to make sexual allegations about her.  In poor Marie Antoinette’s case, she was even accused of abusing her own son.  That’s not widely reported now, but the “let them eat cake” story does still linger.

As for the French view of the Revolution, Lucy wasn’t nastily sarcastic like she was in the unpleasant series about American history, but she did poke a bit of fun at Emmanuel Macron (a man who irritates me a million times more than she does) for making out that the French Revolution was some great exercise in democracy which set the pattern for the entire world.  It was pointed out that the Storming of the Bastille only actually freed a few prisoners, most of whom were forgers and one of whom was an Irishman who thought he was Julius Caesar.  And that the franchise was only extended to some men, not all.  And no women.

I don’t think anyone sees it as a peasants’ revolt, but it does have this image as a mass uprising, whereas, as Lucy said, it started off with a group of upper-middle-class legislators having a meeting at a tennis court.  The “to the barricades” thing belongs to 19th century risings.  French history tends to gloss over that.  And it glosses over the Terror …

… whereas British history is obsessed with the Terror!   Guillotines!  Tumbrils!  Tricoteuses!  Oh, hang on, she didn’t mention tricoteuses.  The guillotine was apparently meant to be democratic, though.  I have to admit that I’d never thought of that, but it was a very good point.  English historians are very familiar with the idea of posh people being beheaded on Tower Hill, with a nice sharp sword rather than an axe in Anne Boleyn’s case, whereas common people were hanged at Tyburn; and Ancien Regime France had a similar system.  Then came the guillotine.  And it didn’t hurt – although I suppose we don’t really know that for sure, as none of its victims can tell us.  But there is still no denying the fact that a lot of people were guillotined, and that the Terror well deserves its name.

Even so, I think that there was still some romanticising in Britain over the French Revolution, especially given the repressive nature of Pitt the Younger’s government.  But I think British historians get more romantic about the American Revolution, even though it was against Britain!

To draw this back to the idea of “fibs”, the point was that the French and British views of the French Revolution are very different but both pretty biased.  Fair point.  Although I remember everyone making a big fuss about the 200th anniversary of the Storming of the Bastille, in 1989.  We had a “French day” at school – which must have been at least a week early, as we’d have broken up by the 14th.  We were supposed to speak French all day.  Very Chalet School.  Except that no-one really bothered.  But we did get croissants at break.  It was a bit mad that we, in Britain, made a fuss of that.  But then people make a fuss about the Fourth of July as well.  Oh, whatever!  It’s an excuse to eat …

We were also reminded about the obsession with decimalising everything – although, strangely, without any reference to the Brumaire/Thermidor calendar.  And about the use of hot air balloons.  I think the idea of that was to make the point that the revolutionaries were into science, although I don’t think anyone’s ever “fibbed” that they weren’t.   And, apparently, Robespierre wasn’t as bad as people make out.  Hmm.  Oh, and the Tricolore is not really a revolutionary or republican symbol, because the white is the Bourbon colour, and it wasn’t really a thing until the 1848 Revolution, not the 1789 one, anyway.  The word “Tricolore” always reminds me of our school French textbooks.  They were a big thing in the 1980s.

Anyway, despite Lucy’s rather irritating presenting style, I enjoyed this more than her American history series, when she was so spitefully sarcastic about the history of our most important ally, or the previous “Royal History” series when she kept putting across the BBC’s Euro-obsessive agenda instead of talking about what she was supposed to be talking about.  This was much better, and hopefully the rest of the series will be the same.  And I wonder what happened to all those pastries …

 

 

Royal History’s Biggest Fibs with Lucy Worsley – BBC 4

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When it stuck to telling the story, this was a fairly interesting run-through of the basics of the English Reformation, although it would have been nice if Lucy Worsley had remembered that she was supposed to be appealing to an adult audience and spent a bit less time putting on fake warts, dressing up and sniggering about constipation.  However, I’m not sure that any of the myths it claimed to be dispelling actually exist.  Anne Boleyn’s seen as nothing more than a tart?  No, she isn’t.  That’s Catherine Howard.  Everyone thinks that the Reformation was universally welcomed.  Seriously?  Was it just my school where we had to learn all about the Pilgrimage of Grace, even in the second year?   No-one realises that Catholics were persecuted during Elizabeth’s reign?  Yes, they do.  Loads of stately homes still have priest holes.

If anyone was creating myths, it was the BBC, yet again pushing its own political agenda into what was supposed to be a historical documentary.  Please tell me that we’re not going to get this all through “Back in Time for the Corner Shop”, which starts next week. Cromwell was trying to create a mythical national history?   No.  He was just a clever lawyer manipulating archaic texts in a way that worked for him and Henry.  Clever lawyers do things like that.  The Reformation was about England withdrawing from European affairs?  Well, that quite explains why Henry wasted a load of the money from the Dissolution of the Monasteries on invading France, and Elizabeth got involved in the Dutch war against the Spanish.  Perhaps the BBC thinks that the Mary Rose was on a booze cruise when it sank.  The Dissolution of the Monasteries is to blame for the concentration of power in London?  Tell that to the Percys and the Stanleys!

The parts of the programme which just stuck to the facts, instead of claiming to be trying to dispel non-existent myths and making out that British politics in 2020 revolve around the works of Geoffrey of Monmouth, were very good, though.  It was a shame that they didn’t just stick to that, because, considering it was only an hour, it was an impressively comprehensive run-through of over half a century of very eventful history.

It started with Lucy dressing up as Martin Luther and saying that he didn’t really nail the 95 theses to a church door because he was too busy writing about being constipated. I’m not sure what that had to do with Royal history. We then moved on to Henry VIII wanting to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn, which is probably the best-known episode in English history.  And, at this point, we did, to be fair, get some genuine myth-busting.  We had the term “Henrician Catholicism” hammered into us at A-level, but, yes, there is inevitably an idea that Henry was a Protestant.  Which he wasn’t.

And there are a lot of myths about Catherine and Anne – and it’s very interesting, because, given how negative the view of Catholicism in England was during the late 16th, 17th, 18th and even 19th centuries, you’d think Anne would be seen as the heroine and Catherine as the villain, but it’s the other way round. Catherine wasn’t as saintly as she’s made out to be, and Anne is unfairly vilified – it wasn’t her fault that Henry took a shine to her and scuppered her chances of marrying anyone else – but the programme didn’t go into that. Instead, it talked about how Anne was a very intelligent woman and a genuine Protestant. That was all true, and it’s not often mentioned, but the point Lucy seemed to be trying to make was that Anne’s just seen as a “sexpot”. Is she?

Then it moved on to Thomas Cromwell, and this really was nonsense. Yes, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 12th century chronicles did go on about the idea of the realm of England being an empire, and, yes, Cromwell did use that to make up an argument about how the Pope had no authority over English affairs, but he wasn’t trying to create some sort of national myth, just get round the problem of Henry not being able to get out of his marriage to Catherine whilst the Pope was being held captive by Catherine’s nephew.  Geoffrey of Monmouth also said that King Arthur was descended from Aeneas, of Virgil’s Aeneid fame, and I’m fairly sure that no-one thinks that that’s part of any sort of national myth.  If anyone created myths of English history, it was Shakespeare, not Cromwell.  And apparently Henry was pulling out of Europe.  When he wasn’t invading France, presumably.  Or maybe the BBC thinks France is on Mars or something.

We then got a load of utter bullshit about how this was all connected with Brexit.  Right, and presumably Spain staying out of the Second World War was because St James is supposed to have appeared in the middle of the Battle of Clavijo, and the Napoleonic Wars were all about the Song of Roland.  Give it a rest, BBC.  It’s getting very tiresome.  This was supposed to be a history programme.

When Lucy actually shut up about all this rubbish and talked about Cromwell also being a Protestant and the other reasons for the Reformation, what she had to say was interesting, but there just wasn’t enough of it. And the “political earthquake” wasn’t about relations with Europe, it was about the role of Parliament. A lot of kings and their advisors wouldn’t even have bothered with legalities and legislation, but Henry and Cromwell did: that was the political earthquake. Parliament even abolished purgatory! It was a very important moment on the road to democracy. Not a mention of that. It’d have been too positive.

On to the Dissolution of the Monasteries. This part of the programme was genuinely very good, explaining that the Dissolution was about destroying the power of the Church, not just about money-grabbing, and also talking about the problems caused by the loss of the monasteries, which had provided shelter and healthcare for people with nowhere else to go, and how Cromwell had introduced legislation aiming to protect vulnerable people now that the monasteries were gone.   I’m not sure that I get the argument that there’s a myth that the Dissolution was a good thing and was welcomed, though.  But I suppose you can argue that there was in Victorian times, when there were all sorts of strange ideas about what went on in … well, convents more than monasteries.

Anyway, this was all pretty good stuff, until out came a lot of waffle about the Dissolution concentrating power in the hands of the metropolitan elite.  Annoying as the BBC’s insistence on spoiling historical programmes by going on about current political issues is, it was quite refreshing to see them having a dig at the metropolitan elite, instead of having a dig at everyone else!   I’m not sure that the argument worked, though.  I suppose you can argue that the monasteries were important centres of learning, but their destruction didn’t affect the power of great Northern families such as the Percys and the Stanleys.  And saying that it concentrated power in the hands of elites made no sense at all – plenty of people who hadn’t previously been part of elites got a boost because they got the monastic land.  Anyone know how far the Earl of Grantham’s title dates back 😉 ?

I was getting rather exasperated by this point, but we then moved on all the to-ing and fro-ing during the reigns of Edward, Mary and Elizabeth, and thankfully the BBC managed to keep its political agenda pushing out of this.  Lady Jane Grey didn’t get mentioned at all, and Edward’s reign only got a few seconds.  On to “Bloody Mary”.  Now, we did the Reformation twice at school, first in the second year and then for A-level.  In the second year, we had some rather ancient text books in which the chapter on Mary’s reign was entitled “Turn or Burn” – which made it sound as if half the country met a nasty end in the bonfires of Smithfield.  Which was rather an exaggeration. But that’s how Mary’s remembered – and, as Lucy pointed out, a lot of that is to do with Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.

Hooray!  This was more like it!  This was a proper history programme!  It also talked about how plenty of “heretics” were executed in Elizabeth’s reign too – although, to be fair, I think people are aware of that.  No-one thinks that life for Catholics was easy under Elizabeth.  Given how much the BBC hates to say anything positive about England/Britain, I wondered if Lucy might have a go at Gloriana, but she was very fair and explained that the Pope’s attitude towards Elizabeth pushed her into taking action against Catholics.

It them all got rather bizarre, jumping back to Anne Boleyn’s time, messing about with fake warts, and interviewing one of the producers of Six The Musical .  But parts of this programme really were very good, and it was just a shame that, as with American History’s Biggest Fibs, as with The Rise of the Nazis and as with Downfall of a King, and, in particular, as with Back in Time for School, the BBC had to spoil it by trying to push its own agenda about modern political issues.  I’m hoping that they’ll have given it a rest with Back in Time for the Corner Shop, but I’m not holding my breath.  It’s such a shame, because these programmes would be very good otherwise.