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Tall Tales: The Trouble with Tours

Nottingham Castle sitting atop its rock, a vast network of caves. Photo by
Nottingham Castle sitting atop its rock, a vast network of caves. Photo by
Nottingham Castle sitting atop its rock, a vast network of caves. Photo by

Tours. They can be great, or they can be cringeworthy and rife with misinformation. A great tour guide knows how to add a flourish or two to a story to keep the audience engaged and the history interesting. A bad tour guide invents things and hopes there isn’t a historian in the audience dismayed by the falsehoods they’re spreading to unwitting listeners…

On a recent trip to Nottingham for the Making the Medieval Relevant conference, I decided to do a little site seeing and popped over to Nottingham Castle. To be honest, it’s really not a castle in the true sense of the word – it’s a Ducal palace built on top of where the medieval castle once stood. The medieval castle was demolished in 1649 and a palace was built in its place by the Duke of Newcastle. That palace was burned down by an angry mob in 1831 and sat as a ruin for almost fifty years. The latest incarnation was opened in 1878 by the Prince of Wales.  It now houses a museum with a history of the city, along with a campy Robin Hood section in the basement that’s geared towards kids.

One of the more interesting aspects of the Nottingham Castle is the cave network it rests on. The castle sits on top of a 40m high rock, full of caves and what once were former homes to the city’s inhabitants. Visitors can take a brief guided tour of the castle caves and see the famous “Mortimer’s Hole”, the secret passage that was used by eighteen-year old King Edward III (1312-1377) to capture Roger Mortimer (1287-1330), the lover of Queen Isabella (1295-1358). I decided to go on the tour because it had a medieval twist. For the most part, it was informative and interesting, starting on the outside of the castle with stories about the Dukes who lived in it during the seventeenth century.

Edward II - photo by Holly Hayes. (Flickr)
Edward II – photo by Holly Hayes. (Flickr)

The problem with the tour was the medieval portion that had to do with Mortimer and Richard I. The story about Mortimer’s Hole didn’t surprise me (although, I’ve also heard alternate theories to the abduction of Mortimer). What I found problematic was was the addition to the story of how Edward II died at Mortimer’s hands by being sodomized with a hot poker. This story was recounted by our tour guide in rather graphic detail; how Edward II was a homosexual so they crushed him under a door and then a hot poker was thrust up inside him five times until he died. Granted, our group was small, but I could tell that the glee in which the tour guide was telling this tale wasn’t shared by his listeners. He was embellishing it for shock value alone. I’m not squeamish, but the story is false, and to be honest, it annoyed me. It’s been panned by scholars, so why was it being propagated on a tour as fact? I know that it’s rubbish, but the people on these tours probably don’t. How many historians will you have in a typical tour group? One? Two or three if you’re lucky, but most of the tour group, I’ll wager, will be the general public interested in learning about site and it’s historical significance.

The second story, not quite as juicy but also questionable is that Richard I was so despised for bankrupting England with his ransom, that while he was in Nottingham, he could only travel to and from the castle via the cave tunnels. Richard I was in Nottingham in 1194, and besieged the castle, but there is no mention of him being so reviled as to have to resort to travelling by tunnels to move around the city. Again, another moment on this tour that left me scratching my head.

This could have all been mitigated by the simple addition of a few sentences: “There were rumours that….*followed by*…has now been proven false by historians”. The same could have been said for Richard I: “There is a rumour that…” would have sufficed. That didn’t happen, and it left a bad taste in my mouth.

I get that tour guides need to “spice things up” so that they can keep people coming to these sites, and keep money flowing so that they don’t close, but putting a mild spin on events isn’t the same as stating myth as historical fact. The poker story was propaganda spread by Edward’s captors, but and has since been discredited by modern historians. The people in my group were not historians, I found that out by chatting with them briefly while we were walking along, and they believed every single word of it. That is the main problem – they will go home and remember that Edward II was murdered by Roger Mortimer by inserting a hot poker in his anus because he was a homosexual (which is also a topic of much debate). It’s a salacious and a gory campfire tale at best, but it has no place on a tour that’s attempting to teach people about Mortimer or Edward II. Tourists will also take away the idea that Richard could only travel by tunnel in Nottingham because the populace hated him.

History doesn’t require embellishment – the real life stories of important figures are fascinating enough without the need for tabloid style tales that feed into stereotypes and spread misinformation. If you want to add urban legend, go ahead, just make it clear that it’s exactly that, and don’t call it history.

~Sandra Alvarez

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