No, tell me what really happened…?


We think we invented it.  We think that it was the brainchild of late 20th century PR men and political advisors intent on fashioning the most memorable sound-bites, the best headline.

Then there’s airbrushing.  That neat trick of techno-wizardry which can make an alcoholic overweight pop singer look like…well, you know what they look like.  Barbie dolls in the main.

But the fact is, none of this is new.

From time immemorial, politicians or rulers have been keen to tell their story in the way that was most flattering to themselves.

As for imagery, or iconography, if you prefer…Today we have airbrushing, then they had portraiture.  An artist’s job at least until the 16th century was turning fat middle-aged kings into objects of veneration–the flower of virtuous, virile youth (and I’ll just paint those warts out while I’m was about it, shall I, your Majesty?).

And while, for centuries, we believed that this picture or that portrait actually shewed what the king in question looked like, and that the accounts of his heroic deeds described events pretty much as they happened, the last thirty years or so have seen a remarkable shift in perception.

It all started with demographers.

I don’t know what they’re calling them now, but they’re those historians who started the trend of going back to the original sources.  And instead of reading things like the lives of kings and queens and the historical accounts of brilliance on the battlefield, they went back and looked at records of births, marriages, deaths, and analysed these.

They examined merchants’ records to find out how earlier economies worked, what was selling well, when were the harvests good or bad, how many ships on average were being lost and how…that kind of thing.

And this has transformed our perception of what life used to be like.

For example, until the demographers got busy with the records from the Italian Renaissance, we believed that Shakespeare was telling the truth in Romeo & Juliet.  We believed that girls were married off very young–like at 14.

But it turns out that’s wrong.

The records of baptisms, marriages and deaths in Florence and Mantua and the other Italian cities of the 15th century tell us that the average age for a woman to marry was 18–because of nutritional deficiencies, puberty, hence marriage, occurred later.

Shakespeare did have one thing right in Romeo & Juliet though–the daily street fighting between the gangs.  The records of deaths and burials tell us so.

And since those heady days of thirty or forty years ago, when demography was young and historians had this exciting new-fangled contraption which could analyse all these dates and provide conclusions…(Aka the computer. Remember that?  Ha ha.  Neither do I.)

Since then, history and research has moved on to incorporate more and more of this data and now to always look beyond what a leader said about a thing (spin) and examine contemporary sources, alternate sources, newspapers, journals, diaries…to fossick out the differences between what he said and what was actually done.

(Louis XIV was only 5’4″.  Hence his love of red high heels.  Think of that the next time you’re at Versailles, gazing up at the ceiling roundels of him dressed as Apollo…)  (Sorry.  Had to get that one in.)


Hence, one of the great pleasures of my research is how much information is just falling out of every nook and cranny about the early 19th century–about the politics, their diet, their sanitation, casualty lists from the Napoleonic battles, records of burials, contemporary accounts.

(It used to just be me in that research library reading the old newspapers of May 1812.)

And this transformation of our understanding of the period is glorious–okay, sometimes it’s just plain funny.

Take Napoleon, for example.  Here was a guy who was seriously engaged in spin and propanda.  (Step aside Henry Tudor.)  A guy who took his image very seriously.  So seriously that I’m not sure there’s anyone who can compete with him in the vanity stakes.  (Maybe Nero?)

From the outset, he projected an image of himself as the man of action and ultimate courage, the leader of his soldiers who could triumph over the most adverse of circumstances and enemies, the leader who cared for his men and shared their victories and their sacrifices.

Yuh, right.

But this is the image.  And here it is!  And what a horseman he looks!  What a leader of men!  Cue heroic music as he masters his rearing horse and charges into the thick of battle.  Right?

Except that, from contemporary sources, we now know that he didn’t ride like that.  Not ever.  In fact, he wasn’t really much of a horseman at all, when you get down to it.

Indeed, one might say, he sat his horse like a sack of…ah…ordure.  Slouching. Paunchy.  Reins like boiled spaghetti.  And his medical records which speak of his terrible piles would seem to support that verdict on his equestrian talents. 

Oh, and of course, there are all those journals and letters in which we find he mostly went everywhere in a travelling coach.  So the real picture is rather more like this…A bit of a difference, hunh?

And then there’s that famous account of the French withdrawal from Russia in the early winter of 1812.  The official account which states that all their troubles began after they had taken Moscow and then it fell apart because of the weather, the unseasonably cold weather and the nasty, nasty Cossacks.  That and that reason alone is what happened to those 600,000 men Napoleon failed to bring back home.

And all the while Napoleon wrote back to France, “My health has never been better…”  (Which turns out to be a clanker.  He was suffering from dysuria and chronic gastroenteritis at the time.  So perhaps the question should be, “Better than what?”)

Nor had everything been hunky dunky until winter set in on the 6th of November.  He’d lost nearly half his troops back in June, without firing a shot, even before they ever crossed the River Nieman into Russian territory–dysentery, dehydration, starvation all being fatal problems.  And that doesn’t take into account the other various disasters along the way–like at Smolensk…

But my favourite ‘burying bad news’ spin-story has to be the French Emperor’s announcement regarding Trafalgar.

You will recall that on 21 October 1805, the Royal Navy led by Lord Nelson took on the French and Spanish fleets and soundly defeated them.  Lord Nelson himself was killed in the action and subsequently received a hero’s (demi-god’s?) funeral back home in Britain.

His Spanish counter-part, Don Federico Gravina, had his left arm shattered by grapeshot during the afternoon’s engagement and subsequently died of his wounds in Cadiz on 9 March 1806.  He too received a hero’s burial.

The losing French admiral, Villeneuve, had the misfortune to survive.  Upon his return to France, he was imprisoned and on 22 April 1806, mysteriously died.

But when I say mysteriously, what I mean is he was in a tower in solitary confinement where he happened (according to official accounts) to be so depressed over losing at Trafalgar and the loss of France’s honour and all that, that he stabbed himself through the heart.  Seven times.

(Now you might say that it’s physically impossible to stab oneself through the heart seven times.  That the angle required for the leverage is all wrong for a self-inflicted wound of such a nature, let alone nine such wounds.  And that it is equally impossible for someone to render themselves in such pain as that, then have the strength to withdraw the knife and repeat the operation.  Not once or twice, but nine times.  I could not possibly comment.)

Yet curiously, it was only after Villeneuve was safely out of the way–thus at the end of April–that Napoleon allowed any news of Trafalgar to be broadcast in France.

But wait, this only gets better!

Because you see, Napoleon declared it a great victory.  Because the fearsome Lord Nelson had been killed in the action.  (Nevermind the loss of the fleet and all those men who died fighting bravely for France.  Nevermind the fact that henceforth the French were confined to territorial Europe and he could kiss his dreams of overseas empire goodbye.)

But that, my friends, is what you can do if you control the press and are a master of spin.

(I know.  Alastair Campbell never had it so good…)


10 comments on “No, tell me what really happened…?

  1. Debra Brown says:

    Have I mentioned that I am young, beautiful, intelligent and wealthy?

    • M M Bennetts says:

      I know you are young and beautiful as I have seen your picture. I know you are intelligent because I have read your work. Wealthy? Hmn. You have children, so probably not.

  2. Debra Brown says:

    Lol, if I was all those things I would have to be terribly arrogant to say so.

    I’ve mentioned before that my picture is 12 years old- maybe you didn’t catch it. I am 60, a grandmother and 20 lbs. up from the pic (but dieting). That is why I have taken it off FB. 😀 Giving the wrong impression. I just haven’t had time to take it off everywhere.

    Anyway, just playing the spin game. 🙂

  3. Debra Brown says:

    DEFinately not wealthy.

  4. I’ve never been to Versailles. I shall have to look up a picture of Louis dressed up as Apollo. The two pics you posted of the little Corsican certainly illustrate your discussion very well.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      Don’t get me wrong. Versailles is glorious. But once one knows, there’s no getting away from those red high heels.

  5. I too am young, virile, a brilliant horseman, and hyperintelligent. If it should appear otherwise, it is only because I am charming, polite, friendly, and modest; or perhaps, to paraphrase Churchill on Atlee, I have a lot to be modest about.

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