... is never trust the TV to teach you about history.

I was thinking about this as I watched Gunpowder, Treason and Plot on Netflix. The title comes from the famous rhyme about Guy Fawkes ("Remember, remember, the fifth of November") and I expected it to be about James I/James VI* and the Gunpowder Plot. But it was actually a two-parter (of 1.5 hours each), with only the second part about James. The first episode was the story of his mother, Mary, Queen of Scots, from her coronation to her being taken into "protection" by English forces under her half-sister, Elizabeth I (about six years).

(* In the immortal words, and in the immortal Scots burr, of DS Alison Macintosh on Shetland, "James th' furrrst end James the sexth wair th' same PAIR-son? That's jest crazy!" But they were. He was the son of Mary, Queen of Scots, and became James VI of Scotland when she was forced to abdicate, but he was also the grandson of Henry VIII, and so when Elizabeth (Henry's last surviving heir) died without issue, he became also James, King of England and Ireland, first of that name.)

As has become my habit, I was Googling all the principals and historical facts as I watched the show, because I've learned: Never trust TV when it comes to history. Even the BBC. Even when it's the BBC doing a historical drama about British history.

Counter-intuitive, I know. But they really sex this stuff up, to the detriment of the history.

In Gunpowder, they completely misrepresented James, who wasn't a great king but had some good qualities -- he was a patron of the arts and literature (Ben Johnson, the King James Bible, etc.); he doted on his wife, at least in the early years; he ended an expensive war with Spain; he ended 300 years of war between England and Scotland (admittedly, given his unique situation, not too hard). But this show portrayed him as an out-and-out savage who was aroused by bloodletting and did it often, a homosexual hostile to women, crippled (a club foot), and so forth. He didn't have a single redeeming feature on this show. In short, he was portrayed like Shakespeare's Richard III, not James VI.

The show portrayed his arrival in London as a sad, poorly-attended affair. It was, in fact, a very joyous one, despite the plague, with big-time parties from rich nobles all along the route from Edinburgh, and a huge, loving welcome in London.

The show depicted most of the plotters dying in combat with some sort of police/militia/king's men. Untrue; Guy Fawkes was caught on Nov. 3, and after five days of torture gave everybody up. They were arrested, and hanged (amid other, more unsavory treatment).

Guy Fawkes (portrayed by Michael Fassbender, to my surprise), was portrayed as a coldly efficient master spy and assassin, when he, was in fact, a pretty ordinary guy, and as history reveals, not very good at his job. (In fact, he is the original "guy," from which the casual reference comes from.)

An anonymous letter alerted James to the plot, which this show reveals to be the wife of one of the plotters whose brother was in Parliament. History records an anonymous letter, but that's all.

And so on. There was so much false history, I had to rely on Wikipedia for a version somewhat closer to the truth. Sad!

I should mention that this extends to the first episode, about Mary. History generally records her as incredibly stubborn and incompetent, which was why she was forced to abdicate after only six years. This show presented her in a much more favorable light, of course, but also muddled who exactly deposed Mary (they tried desperately to make Elizabeth the villain), and all of her decisions -- like having ordered the murder of her husband, and then marrying the likely killer, rousing the Scottish nobles to oust her -- as perfectly rational. Terrible history. Her refusal to lighten up on the Catholic business in Protestant Scotland and her constantly gigging Elizabeth with claims to the English throne led up to downfall, but at no point would you learn that from this show.

Meanwhile, in two shows about Elizabeth I watched (both from the BBC, I think), Elizabeth was the hero, and Mary the villain. Guess it's POV, eh?

The same extends to White Queen, which is equally laughable historically. Two women who were allies in the real world -- the mother of Henry Tudor of Lancaster and the mother of queen consort Elizabeth of York -- as bitter enemies. Starting from this false premise, almost everything that followed was false.

Now, I honestly enjoy these things. I especially like it when some surprise casting comes around, like the aforementioned Fassbender, and the guy who played Darling on Blackadder showing up as James' Lord Cecil, complete with huge, Spinal Tap hair. And I'm appreciative that they're finally getting around to English history that doesn't involve Henry VIII -- well, not all the time, anyway.

But I have to keep my Google handy when watching these shows, and I suggest you folks do so as well.

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My favorite historical drama set in that period is "The Death of Mary, Queen of Scots".

Still waiting for part 3!

James was the great-grandson of James IV and Margaret Tudor. Wikipedia tells me he was also Margaret's great-grandson through his father, through a daughter of Margaret's from another marriage. She was the eldest daughter of Henry VII (Henry Tudor).

Shakespeare's early Henry VI parts Two and Three and Richard III are about the Wars of the Roses. (Henry VI part One is about Joan of Arc.)

John Ford wrote a history play Perkin Warbeck. Warbeck claimed to be Richard of Shrewsbury (=the younger of the princes in the tower murdered by Richard III). He was supported by Yorkists and James IV of Scotland, and invaded England with a Scottish force, but James then dropped him. James married Margaret afterwards. Mary Shelley wrote a novel about Warbeck, but I haven't read it.

James IV was killed in 1513 at the Battle of Flodden. There's a play by Robert Greene called The Scottish History of James the Fourth, Slain at Flodden which has absolutely nothing to do with Scottish history, James the Fourth, or the Battle of Flodden.

Schiller wrote a Mary Queen of Scots play called Mary Stuart. It's about Mary's imprisonment and execution by Elizabeth I.

John Ford directed a 1936 film Mary of Scotland starring Katharine Hepburn. It's years since I saw it: my recollection is Hepburn is un-winning as Mary, but I always imagine Bothwell as looking like Fredric March.

Mary, Queen of Scots (1971) stars Vanessa Redgrave as Mary and Glenda Jackson as Elizabeth I. My recollection is it represents Mary as a passionate woman. It begins with her return to Scotland and ends with Elizabeth about to sign her death warrant.

Luke Blanchard said:

Mary Shelley wrote a novel about Warbeck, but I haven't read it.

There's a book you haven't read? Now I'm all disillusioned and stuff!  ;)

Knowing about books, and not getting around to reading them, is one of my vices.

The TV series, Will, about the young Will Shakespeare is apparently a mix bag of historical facts and fiction, helped, undoubtedly because we know so little about Shakespeare to begin with!

He was so absorbed in his work!

from Space Adventures Presents U.F.O. #60 (Charlton, 1967)

Captain Comics said:

Guy Fawkes (portrayed by Michael Fassbender, to my surprise), was portrayed as a coldly efficient master spy and assassin, when he, was in fact, a pretty ordinary guy, and as history reveals, not very good at his job. (In fact, he is the original "guy," from which the casual reference comes from.)

The term "guy" as we now use it is indirectly named for Guy Fawkes. In the Guy Fawkes Day celebrations Guy Fawkes is burned in effigy*. So when we call someone a guy we are kinda calling him a flaming dummy.

*Contrary to Alan Moore's version of the people celebrating him as a hero.

According to Wiki, the term comes from people dressing up as Guy Fawkes and the other rebels on Guy Fawkes Day, with the term originally meaning any man who dresses oddly, then eventually the negative connotation fell out, and it was just any man.

I trust your research more than Wikipedia, although how could they put it on the Internet if it wasn't true?

Most of what I said about Guy Fawkes is from what I learned in childhood. It was all tied up with the then-conflict with Spain and especially the then-new Catholic/Protestant conflict. Fawkes and his co-conspirators decided to blow up Parliament while the King was visiting. Here are a couple more references:



I'm a history buff and have a bit of a love or hate thing for many movies based on history. Generally, I'm ok with some artistic license as long as the important details aren't too greatly screwed up or don't give a vastly distorted version of what actually happened. Spielberg's Lincoln was, IMO, pretty good in that regard. Other movies, however, have thoroughly disgusted me with their distortions, although I can't think of any I've seen recently that left me with severe distaste. Usually before seeing historical movies, I'll read several reviews online to get a sense of both how good the movie is both as a cinematic piece of art and as a reasonably accurate depiction of what happened. Admittedly, most often what's great art isn't very accurate and what's very accurate doesn't make for great art, but sometimes gifted movie makers, writers and cast manage both. Then there are those that fail on both fronts and if forewarned I'll avoid those.

Slate used to have a feature that would compare movies against the known facts, but it didn't keep it going.

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