“History is not a hard science. It is much more soft and yielding, capable of being defined and shaped – or distorted and falsified – by those who live it, or those who tell it…in fact a lot of the history we learn turns out to be only half the picture. Worse, some of it is just plain wrong.” ~Dominic Selwood, Spies, Sadists and Sorcerers.
History is written by the victors. So much of the history we think we know, is really only the history propagated by one side, filtered and carefully curated information that eventually becomes know to us as “fact”. Dominic Selwood has presented a different picture, daring to show us the stories that are omitted, covered up or dismissed because they don’t conform to what we’ve be told by our parents, or taught in school. In an intriguing collection of essays, Spies, Sadists and Sorcerers: The history you weren’t taught in school, dares to break rank and expose lies, debunk myths and set the record straight about English history from Roman Times to the present day.
The ancient section is rather light, with only two papers for the period; a look at the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans and to clear up the confusion that Constantine I the Great (272-337 AD) was responsible for bringing Christianity to the empire. Selwood turns our attention to the forgotten role of Flavius Theodosius (347-395 AD), who actually made Christianity global.
By far, the largest section is medieval. Selwood tackles a lot in this chapter; he dispels some of the ridiculous myths about the Middle Ages, such as: that the medieval period was ‘uncivilised’ compared to the Roman period, and puts to bed the notion that the Middle Ages were the ‘Dark Ages’.
He picks apart the commonly held view that the Anglo Saxons were better than the Vikings, and sheds light on some of the contributions Vikings made to England and the English language. He does away with the erroneous notion that they were unclean and ignorant, and that they were any less violent than Anglo Saxons, referring to a recent exhibit at the British Museum on Viking culture:
“It cannot be denied that they were quite spectacularly violent. But they did not have a monopoly in treating life cheaply. The British Museum’s exhibition will highlight a recently excavated mass grave in Dorset where a group of Vikings had been summarily executed by the locals…The Vikings were far from being ignorant, unclean, and boorish. In fact, they were rather advanced. For a start they were highly literate. Great stones carved with jagged Tolkienesque runes (called futhark) carpet Scandinavia, some going back as far as the AD 300s. There is more traditional writing, too – especially in the Eddas and Skaldic poetry….As for the idea the Vikings were unkempt and unwashed, the truth is the polar opposite/ Archaeology reveals endless combs, tweezers, razors, and other grooming items. They used special strong soap for cleaning and bleaching their hair blond.”
Selwood also discusses the (un)importance of the Battle of Hastings, the Magna Carta, the Shroud of Turin, the ridiculous myths surrounding the Knights Templar, and does away with the romanticized notions many people have about popular medieval figures, such as Richard the Lionheart (1157-1199).
Known as England’s ‘golden boy’, national hero, and a symbol of everything “English”, Selwood demonstrates that this is little more than a farce. It’s funny because Richard didn’t speak a lick of English, or care to spend much time on the island he ruled. He was also buried in France, which, is most likely the way he perceived himself – as French. Aside from the little time he spent actually crusading, and more time war mongering, he nearly bankrupted England with his heavy ransom after being captured by Duke Leopold V of Austria (1157-1194). Not exactly a stellar king, yet (pardon the pun) he’s lionized as the epitome of Englishness and good kingship in popular culture. I can think of many other English kings that deserve more praise and applause than Richard I. I’ve always wondered (and been amazed by) why Richard I was held up as a symbol of all things “English”? Selwood captures this sentiment in his in an essay on Richard and Saladin (1137-1193), exposing their true “chivalry”.
“Eight hundred years later, Richard the Lionhearted remains a shining hero, with a unique place in popular culture – a name every school child repeats with conviction when asked for a great medieval English king. Richard inspires a misty reverence, and somehow, like Arthur, personifies a certain historic Englishness…
As an adult, he visited England only twice, and on each occasion for as short a period as humanly possible. The first was in 1189, when he came for four months to be crowned (an event he could hardly avoid) and also oversee a fire sale of everything that was not nailed down. He famously remarked that he would have sold London if he could have found a buyer. Once back in France with his shiny English crown, he took no ongoing interest whatsoever in the running of his new kingdom. He was an absentee landlord, only concerned with the rents England yielded to fund his personal wars of dynastic consolidation and self aggrandisement…he was a thoroughbred Frenchman.”
This chapter also explores the other, more sinisterly viewed Richard, Richard III (1452-1485) and discusses his involvement with the death of the Princes in the Tower, and the hubbub around his reburial in Leicester in March 2015. Although I knew many of the stories in this chapter, this section is a good read for a general audience waylaid by Hollywood myth into believing a lot of erroneous ideas about the Middle Ages.
Selwood moves onto to the Renaissance and Reformation, to expose the Tudor spin machine, the witch craze, the Gregorian calendar change, an examination of Thomas Cromwell (1485-1540), and Guy Fawkes (1570-1606). Selwood also talks about Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) “discovering” America, and his horrendous treatment of Native Americans.
In his Victorian chapter, he touches on the controversial topic of the Elgin Marbles, and shines a light onto Ada Byron Lovelace’s (1815-1852) contribution to coding, years before Alan Turing (1912-1954). The last few chapters deal with WWI, WWII, and modern topics like the Queen’s German roots, and why the English continue to be fascinated by witchcraft in the 21st century.
This book was definitely an ambitious undertaking. In covering a span of English history from the ancient world to the present day means that there are a lot of stories, and myths to sort through and select. This book could easily have swelled to another five hundred pages but Selwood manages to get it done in easily digestible chunks, each era sectioned off with several essays devoted to dismantling well known, and lesser known “facts”. The book is for anyone, academic or general interest because even if you know some things, you will discover things you didn’t know. The essays are quick reads, enjoyable, controversial in some places, and compelling in others. Spies, Sadists and Sorcerers challenges you to question what you know, understand why we’re taught to believe certain things, and to think about how to move forward, armed with this new information. Selwood does not expect, nor ask us to cast off everything we know, but just to be aware of the workings of historical writing, to ask questions, and at times, to challenge things when we know there was egregious wrong doing. It’s a great book, and provided some laughs and a lot to chew on. Happy reading!
Dominic Selwood writes for the Telegraph and has quite a few books under his belt. To see more of his work, please visit: Dominic Selwood.com
You can follow Dominic Selwood on Twitter: @DominicSelwood