“At times of crisis,” Winston Churchill said, “myths have their historical importance.” Myths can sustain morale and convince the undecided. They can inspire people to risk death on the battlefield or on the exposed mountain summit. They often simplify, providing a nice clear narrative about the past. Perhaps that is why they endure.
Generations have told stories of King Arthur, the perfect king, a man who fought for a Roman-influenced and civilised Britain against savage Germanic invaders. Sadly, there is simply no reliable evidence for his existence.
Drake, Henry V, Elizabeth I, Nelson, Victoria, Churchill… everyone, frankly, has a contemporary reputation in which myth merges with real history, which is what makes history so joyful.
What did actually happen? And might the truth be more dramatic and fascinating than the myth? Certainly, it is almost always more uncomfortable.
Here are some of the most widely believed myths I have ever come across.
1. Britain fought alone in 1940
Britain was part of a gigantic imperial network in 1940, with her empire incorporating hundreds of millions of people such as Canadians, West Indians, Australians, South Africans, Nigerians and Indians.
Places like Canada and Australia declared war against Germany independently and with no compulsion to do so. As well as its empire, Britain could call on Poles, Czechs, Dutch, Norwegians and many others who flew RAF aircraft and helped develop Britain’s nuclear programme.
2. Emperor Napoleon was short
The idea that Napoleon was a small man intent on conquering Europe to make up for his insecurities was British propaganda. He was 1.7m or 5’7” tall, which was not tall, but average for the time.
3. Vikings wore horns on their helmets
No contemporary image of a Viking has ever been found of a horned helmet, and there is no reference in any source. The Vikings did not have horned helmets: they were the fever dream of Wagner’s costume designer in the 1870s.
4. Adolf Hitler snubbed Jesse Owens at the Berlin Olympics of 1935
Owens later reported that Hitler waved at him, congratulating him for his victories. It was once he returned to the USA that Owens was snubbed, since there was no offer of a Presidential meeting, and he had to attend his own victory party by a service elevator since the hotel’s main elevator was reserved for white guests.
5. The Bridge of Sighs in Venice is named because of people sighing
It is one of the world’s most beautiful and recognisable bridges. Prisoners walked across it into the palace of Venice’s ruler to stand trial, but it did not get its name from the sighs of those unfortunate men and women. Instead, it was named by the poet Byron who visited the city and dreamt up the name.
6. Medieval people thought the world was flat
Medieval scholars, sailors and many others knew full well that the world was not flat. Everyone knew that it was curved because, among other things, they could climb up church steeples, castle watchtowers and ship’s masts and see the distant curve on the horizon.
7. Castles poured boiling oil off their battlements
It was very rare to waste oil by boiling it up and throwing it off castle walls during sieges. Boiling water was used instead. Oil was extremely expensive and not particularly more effective than boiling hot sand or water. In fact, this practice was so unusual that sources mention it as a mere curiosity. It may have been used at the Siege of Orléans (1428–29) and the Great Siege of Malta (1565).
8. Captain Cook discovered Australia
James Cook is one of the most famed explorers in British history, but he was not the first European to explore Australia. The Dutch explorer Willem Janszoon landed in northern Australia in 1606, 164 years before. Cook was the first European to arrive in Eastern Australia, landing in what he named Botany Bay in April 1770.
9. More Australians were killed in Gallipoli than Brits
During World War One, the campaign in the Gallipoli Peninsula was a disaster. Australians and New Zealanders served alongside other British imperial forces in a series of bloody battles which did much to shape national consciousness, so much so that it is often remembered as ‘Anzac’ campaign.
9,000 Australians died there compared to 30,000 Brits. More French troops were killed at Gallipoli than Australians as well. Today it is remembered by Australians as a seminal campaign because it was the first major – and costly – overseas encounter in Australian history. Moreover, the effect of their casualties was more pronounced within a far smaller population.
10. Shah Jahan mutilated those who built the Taj Mahal
Contrary to the myth that he could not bear to see anything as perfect built ever again, there is no evidence at all that Shah Jahan blinded the architects, artists, masons or engineers to stop them from working on subsequent projects.
11. The War of the Worlds provoked mass panic
When Orson Welles’ adaptation of the H.G. Wells novel The War of the Worlds was broadcast on the radio, the story goes that people across the country thought it was real. In reality, there were one or two incidents and a few troubled calls to the police about alien invasion, but these were seized on by newspapers to discredit radio and protect their market share.
12. King Christian of Denmark wore a Star of David on his clothes
During World War Two, the Danes were told to round up Jews and hand them over to the German occupiers, and they did indeed come up with all sorts of laudable ways of protecting their Jewish fellow citizens. However, the king ostentatiously wearing Jewish insignia was not one of them. Instead, Jewish Danes were smuggled in huge numbers across to neutral Sweden.
13. Julius Caesar was the first person to be born via caesarean section
The Romans were not capable of performing surgery of that complexity and ambition. Any recipient of a caesarean would have died, and we think Caesar’s mum lived beyond his childhood. The name almost certainly comes from the Roman caedere, meaning “to cut”.
14. Jesus was born on 25 December.
There’s absolutely no evidence of this. None at all.