Lessons of History

Image of the Battle of Towton, 1461

I don’t do politics on social media, mainly because it’s such a minefield. I love politics and have my views, of course, but I choose to keep them firmly to myself. It’s hard sometimes, I don’t mind admitting, but it strikes me that the way the world is at the moment, the study of history has never been more important to the political world emerging around us all.

History is a Greek word which means, literally, just investigation

Article 50, beginning Britain’s exit from the EU, is triggered on 29 March 2017, the 556th anniversary of the Battle of Towton in 1461, the largest and bloodiest battle ever fought on British soil in which heralds reported 28,000 dead, as well as uncounted injured. Families were torn apart between two rival ideologies and leaderships as those at the top of society fought for supremacy. If that doesn’t offer a direct parallel from history, I’m not sure what does. Towton was apocalyptic, but it was also the culmination of years of trouble and it was a watershed in ending problems that had dogged the nation for a decade.

A perfect example can also be found at the U.S. Holocaust Museum, where a poster lists the early warning signs of fascism for all to see. When they begin to ring bells, alarms should sound loudly. It’s also important to remember that hitting one or more of these criteria doesn’t necessarily require immediate panic. The other point to consider is whether the sign at the U.S. Holocaust Museum, which recently went viral, really exists. In an age increasingly dominated by fake news, we need more than ever to question what we read, and that is why the skills that are integral to the study of history are so vital.

Early Warning Signs of Facism Poster

It isn’t a question of needing to study a particular period or adopt a certain viewpoint, political, ethical or otherwise. History as a subject requires a set of skills invaluable to the navigation of the increasingly murky world of multi-media; instant news thrust in front of our eyes on every screen we look at, often unbidden. News breaks on Twitter in real time, provided by real people with no filter. In some ways, it’s attractive, but in many more ways it’s dangerous. Visceral images and unregulated, often unchecked, information can be more unwelcome than useful in moments of crisis and can prove dangerous if it hampers the efforts or investigations of the emergency services. Opinion is a dangerous and incendiary weapon in the hands of those with unpleasant agendas, particularly when it is masked as fact.

Part of the problem with the abundance of news and the proliferation of fake news is that it’s hard to decipher the truth. Studying the past might seem like a dead, useless subject, but the skills involved, even more than the lessons of comparison, are increasingly something every consumer of news today should arm themselves with to combat the waning influence of a fixed bank of ‘reliable’ news providers (because there isn’t, and never has been, any without an agenda of their own). There is more information than ever before, and that brings with it the need to question it more closely.

The study of history is the dissection of fake news. It really isn’t the new phenomenon many think it is. Many medieval sources are chronicles written by monks who had their own agenda for recording and reporting the things they selected, often noting outlandish weather events to mark years with political events the Church didn’t approve of. Ralph of Coggeshall discusses the discovery of a giant’s teeth and skull, Warkworth describes a headless man roaming the countryside moaning ‘bowes, bowes, bowes’. Roger of Howden recorded blood falling from the sky on the Isle of Wight, staining washing that was hung out to dry. The Melrose Chronicle describes comets as portents of doom, recording that ‘a comet is a star which is not always visible but which appears most frequently upon the death of a king; but if it has a streaming hair, and throws it off, as it were, then it betokens the ruin of a country’.

We might think these things bizarre and laughable now, suspicions from an age before science dispelled such ideas. Strange discoveries, weather phenomena and apparitions were portents of doom linked to political upheaval or social disaster. I’m left wondering, as we sneer at the belief of our forebears in the supernatural as a portent of evil, just how different we are as politicians make apocalyptic predictions to fill the vacuum of their knowledge of a matter. If they can’t fathom the end, they can paint a picture that fits their agenda and promise milk and honey if we follow their line and doom and destruction if we stray. They are becoming modern parallels of medieval monkish chroniclers.

The study of history teaches us to evaluate sources, to seek corroboration, to establish the difference between fact and opinion and to weigh the evidence based on our examination. It is a fact the William the Conqueror became King of England in 1066. It is a matter of opinion that his claim was the strongest or was rightful. It is a fact that Edward II was deposed as king, but an opinion that he was murdered by the insertion of a red-hot iron as punishment for his homosexuality. Many of the things we believe are historical fact are actually reported opinion or rumour with a political motivation that have simply been absorbed into a narrative. The same is happening at the moment as we question less and less and accept more and more.

Empathy is another key part of the study of history that the world could use a little more of. Understanding the position of others, trying to fathom their real motivations, not the ones they offer openly to the world, is vital to understanding why people act as they do. This aim is achieved by the evaluation of a range of sources and is a careful process of weighing and measuring to reach a view, not accepting at face value the version provided by the person trying to influence you. Empathy is also the only rout to understanding the position of those without a voice, or whose voice is drowned out too easily. We should question why we don’t hear these voices and try to understand the needs and problems fuelling silence as well as noise.

History is not a burden on the memory but an illumination of the soul

Another crucial element of history is the understanding that the weighing of evidence results in an opinion, not a fact. Historians take a view, based on their evaluation, but historians cannot create facts, only uncover them. Thus, many historians hold the opinion, based on their study and measuring of the evidence available, that Richard III ordered the murders of his nephews, the Princes in the Tower. Others, with the same evidence, reach the opposite view. If an historian tells you they know the truth of the disappearance of those two boys, they aren’t telling you the truth because the facts are unclear and can only lead to the forming of a view that cannot be proven or disproven. When you buy a non-fiction history book, you are buying an historian’s assessment and opinion on a topic or a person. There will be facts that are used to formulate a view and politicians do the same thing, yet we accept their assertions as fact all too easily.

The ability to form polar opposite assessments of the same evidence means that the study of history is also the art of disagreeing constructively, responsibly and politely. I want to say dispassionately, but that might not be entirely accurate. Raise almost any topic on social media and an onslaught of opinion will follow that is none of these things. Trolls are cowards who hide behind a profile, there is no doubt about that. Plenty of trolls operate behind an agenda too that requires the bullying or inflaming of others.

I also think that the wider world, who are in no way trolls, has also lost the art of polite disagreement. Displaying passion is all well and good, but it is no excuse for being impolite, belittling the opinions of others or shouting down those with a newly sprouting interest that might require more information to build upon a foundation. No flower was ever grown by stamping it down. A flower requires nurturing with care and it needs feeding. We, as a wider society, seem to have lost the art of disagreeing with each other politely. We don’t debate, we try to shout down. We don’t freely give our view to be used as a building block in the construction of another’s opinion or even a wider understanding. Instead, we jealously guard and defend it.

The United Kingdom is entering a new phase, or more correctly, taking a step back forty years and returning to an old state of being. Some will see that as a retrograde move, a withdrawal from engagement beyond our own shores. Others will believe it is the undoing of forty years of a wrong direction or stepping away from an organisation teetering on the brink of collapse or a step forward to engage with the whole world instead of just the EU.

The truth is that no one knows what will happen. Those sounding portents of doom may be proven correct, but the delight some seem to take in that prospect is a self-destructive narcissism that risks real people’s futures in a desire to be proven right and to be able to say ‘I told you so’. Equally, those who paint a rosy future are guessing and hoping, which might at least be a positive position to take. The truth is that predicting doom or glory is pointless. The effort now needs to be focussed on achieving the best possible result because whether this is a direction you wanted or not, all of our futures rely on making it a success.

So, for what my opinion is worth, I think the skills involved in the study of history are more important now than ever before. We need to learn to question what we consume, to seek out corroboration, to look for agendas, to weigh and measure what we are exposed to and to build our views based on as wide an understanding as possible. Always ask who is showing you something and why they want you to see and believe it. We also need to understand that our opinion is just that. It’s not necessarily correct, not everyone needs to share it and it is strength, not weakness, to allow our opinion to be examined, questioned, modified and even changed. There is no need to shout. The truth is not necessarily spoken by the loudest voice. Sometimes it cowers in silence.

After the apocalyptic Battle of Towton on 29 March 1461, the new king, Edward IV, reached out to his enemies. He offered reconciliation, even making peace with Henry Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, the military leader of the Lancastrian faction opposed to Edward. It was temporary and Henry eventually ended up back at odds with the House of York, but those we judge as less civilised than us knew the importance of unity in the building of a brighter future and saw the need to put old rivalries to bed. As Article 50 is triggered on 29 March 2017, I think it’s a lesson we need to learn again.

Image of the Battle of Towton, 1461
The Battle of Towton, 1461

Coming Soon……

I thought it was time to offer an update about forthcoming books. A lot has been going on behind the scenes and some things are still being discussed, but there are also a few things signed and sealed that I can tell you about now.

My second novel, Honour, is due to be released on Audible as an audiobook around May this year. It is being narrated by Rory Barnett and I’m really excited at hearing the story of the aftermath of the Battle of Bosworth expertly read by Rory.

The Survival of the Princes in the Tower is due for release by The History Press in September this year. It will look at the various theories that one or both of Edward V and Richard, Duke of York survived past 1483 and beyond 1485. I’ve tried to approach the matter with an open mind and there is some interesting evidence that makes sense of otherwise inexplicable events if a reader sets aside their preconceptions. It’s safe to say I’m expecting a bit of a backlash from this one, but I’m looking forward to it!

Also due for release in Autumn 2017 is The Wars of the Roses in 100 Facts, published by Amberley Publishing. This is part Amberley’s series of topics in 100 facts and aims to give an overview of the period using 100 facts, some well-known and some more obscure. These books are meant to be a bit of fun and hopefully this one will introduce some readers to the depths and complexities of the Wars of the Roses in an accessible way.

2018 will see Stephen and Matilda: Cousins of Anarchy published by Pen and Sword. This book will examine the civil war known as the Anarchy in the wake of the death of Henry I. He left his daughter Matilda as his heir but instead his nephew Stephen grabbed the throne, sparking almost twenty years of civil war. The book will examine both points of view to try and understand the causes of the civil war and how it was fuelled for nearly two decades.

Okay. This is the biggie. September 2018 is the due date for a full, 200,000 word biography of Richard III published by Amberley. Man, I’m looking forward to getting my teeth into this one! The intention is to take a balanced view of Richard’s life from beginning to end and provide an interpretation of him that seeks neither to present him as an infallible hero nor as an evil monster, but rather, as I have always tried to show him, as a real man, living in difficult times and faced with difficult circumstances. I’m expected a strong response to this one too, as with anything to do with Richard III, but I can’t tell you how excited I am to get to grips with it. 

September 2019 will see the release of a joint biography of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, one of medieval Europe’s original power couples. Together, they represented an immense block of power and created the huge Angevin Empire, but they would end up as bitter rivals, Eleanor encouraging their children to rebel against their father. Eleanor had been Queen of France, ridden to the Holy Land on Crusade, married a young nobleman and then become Queen of England. Henry II, grandson of Henry I, had failed to prove his military credentials during The Anarchy yet went on to become one of the most powerful warrior kings in European history. Their stories are incredible and fascinating, a passion that burned so hot it destroyed even them.

In September 2020, Amberley are scheduled to publish a full biography of Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, the man who revels in the epithet The Kingmaker. He came from one of the dominant families in northern England and helped drive the Nevilles to the highest heights of national politics. Intimately involved in the Wars of the Roses, his personal agenda is less well-understood, the reasons he fell out with his protégé Edward IV are not all they might seem to be and the lingering question is whether he deserves the towering title history has afforded him.

There are still a few things in the pipeline too, but I wanted to share those that are firmly planned now. I hope that some of these will be of interest to you. I’m really excited about all of these projects.

Was Henry III Autistic?

Embarking on a biography of Henry III was an exciting but daunting task. He is a king many might struggle to place in English history. Men like William Marshal and Simon de Montfort have made more of a mark on the history of Henry’s reign than the man himself. Sandwiched in an almost non-descript period between the disasters of John and the towering figure of Edward I, there were nevertheless immediate pointers that there might be more to this man and his period wearing the crown than is attributed to him. He remained king for 56 years, a record until George III in 1816, Queen Victoria in 1893 and more recently Elizabeth II hit that milestone. His rule saw the finest hour of one of Europe’s most famous knights, the last great Justiciar in England, a role almost forgotten today, but equivalent to a Prime Minister today and a role not to find a true parallel until Henry VIII relied so heavily on Thomas Wolsey and the Thomas Cromwell, the emergence of a body taking the name ‘parliament’, a Second Barons’ War and a man (wrongly) dubbed the father of parliamentary democracy.

As I researched this elusive man I made my notes and filed things ready to organise my thought. It wasn’t until I began to draw these disparate threads together that an intriguing but ultimately unprovable notion began to stand out from the page. Individually, the items meant little, beyond being interesting and sometimes confusing snippets, but as I began to string them together, a question began repeating itself, nagging away at the back of my mind. As much as I was unable to offer it as a proven fact or even a provable theory, I couldn’t stop it repeating away.

Was Henry III autistic?

King Henry III
King Henry III
A diagnosis of autism can be notoriously difficult today, with an individual stood in front of a specialist, so I am under no illusion that this question cannot be definitively answered. However, I am also convinced that it cannot be completely discounted. When drawn together, the snippets of evidence can make an intriguing case that this is possible.

Matthew Paris, a key recorder of this period of English history, though frequently diverted by his own monkish prejudices and agendas, met Henry during the king’s visit to St Albans Abbey at the time bones believed to belong Saint Alban himself had been found and were being reinterred. Matthew quite proudly notes that he was able to spend time in personal conversation with the king and in recalling their discussions he noted that he had been impressed by Henry’s ability to recall complete lists of things such as German electors and English saint-kings. The recall and reliance on lists of known information, called rote memory, is a well-known ability of those affected by autism. Sadly, I could not find other examples of this being recorded to corroborate it or demonstrate it being a prominent portion of his personality, but it may be telling that when placed in a social situation with a person he did not know, Henry fell back on reciting lists.

In 1258, as England began to slide towards what became the Second Barons’ War, Matthew Paris recorded an encounter between the king and his troublesome brother-in-law Simon de Montfort. The interesting portion of the story for the purposes if this discussion is that Henry was rowing down the Thames when a thunder storm erupted. The king was so terrified of the noisy storm that he ordered his barge to put in at the nearest dock. The house in which he took shelter happened to be being used by Simon at the time and Matthew placed prophetic words into the king’s mouth, having him tell his brother-in-law ‘I fear thunder and lightning greatly, but by God’s head I fear you more than all the thunder and lightning in the world.’ Nevertheless, Matthew might have struggled to write what he did if it was not the case that Henry was known to be scared by thunder and lightning. Perhaps Henry had a fear of storms unrelated to anything else. Perhaps Matthew even made up the story to allow his prophesy of trouble between the in-laws, but if sensory sensitivity is behind the episode it is another pointer to potential symptoms of autism. This might be supported by the fact that at the Battle of Evesham in 1265, although an old man, Henry was found curled into a ball shouting to be left alone, overwhelmed by the experience of being caught in the midst of the noise and chaos of the battle.

One thing that does reoccur is a trait that might point to a need to assert royal authority and keep unruly barons on their toes, but which could also contribute to increase the potential for a diagnosis of autism. When Henry’s first son, Prince Edward (later Edward I) was born in1239, gifts poured into the capital city to celebrate the momentous event. Henry made a point of asking who had sent each gift and if he didn’t think that the value reflected the wealth and position of the sender, he ordered it to be sent back and a more suitable replacement sent that met his expectations. Matthew Paris recorded that ‘the king deeply clouded his magnificence as a king’ and one joke reportedly doing the rounds in London quipped that ‘God gave us this child, but the king sells him to us’. Henry repeated this behaviour in 1254 when he returned from a rare successful venture to France. On his return to London, the city joyously gave the king a gift of £100 only to be dismayed when Henry told them flatly that it was not enough to recognise his achievements. There was much desperate scrabbling and Henry was only satisfied when a cup valued at £200 was added to the cash gift.

Henry did have a dire and deeply vested interest in establishing the authority and prestige of the crown, so these may have been displays designed to check and wrong-foot both the barons and a capital Henry always had an uneasy relationship with. However, high-functioning autism such as Asperger’s Syndrome is frequently accompanied by social awkwardness and a tendency to be honest and to say things those without autism might shy away from saying. Without understanding Henry’s true motive, it is hard to know whether this was a calculated strategy or an example of behaviour that might point further toward a degree of high-functioning autism.

King Henry III's Tomb Effigy
King Henry III’s Tomb Effigy
Henry’s long rule is notable for a complete lack of favourites. Several monarchs, particularly weaker ones, and Henry is frequently placed amongst their number, were plagued by favourites who were promoted to the chagrin of the nobility and caused immense problems within the kingdom. Henry’s rule, if anything, was marked by a lack of these close connections. He remained on the best of terms with his brother Richard and his wife and children throughout his life, but beyond that, there are no examples of lasting close favourites. Whilst this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, the failure to create lasting social connections might be another pointer suggesting autism. Henry’s relationship with his brother-in-law Simon de Montfort blew notoriously hot and cold, lurching from bosom buddies to arch enemies and back again with the changing of the wind. In September 1238, Henry was the target of an assassination attempt which is also quite revealing. Whilst staying at his palace at Woodstock, Henry was awoken in the night by a noise which turned out to be made by an armed intruder. Seemingly failing to equate the situation with any danger, Henry struck up a conversation with the would-be assassin. Their talking awoke Henry’s wife, Queen Eleanor, who raised the alarm in panic. The man was arrested and admitted that he had been hired by some of Henry’s enemies to kill him in the night. The assassin was torn limb from limb, beheaded and once his limbs had been sent to major cities around England the remnants were hung from a gibbet usually used for thieves. The fact that Henry saw no danger in the situation points to a glaring lack of appreciation of a very dangerous situation and might suggest a degree of social awkwardness and an inability to discern the motives of others that is indicative of autism. Why else might that armed stranger have been in Henry’s bedchamber when he was asleep?

The final piece of suggestive evidence that I can offer is Henry’s often unhealthy obsession with Edward the Confessor. The saint-king fascinated Henry and drove many of his choices through his life. His first son was probably given the very Anglo-Saxon (and previously unused in Norman and Angevin royal circles) name of Edward most likely in homage to Henry’s hero. When Henry rebuilt the Confessor Abbey at Westminster with his gothic masterpiece, he had the Confessor’s bones moved to a central position of high honour and had his own tomb built over the exact spot on which Saint Edward had rested for two centuries. When Henry had the Painted Chamber at Westminster Palace redecorated to use as a private bedchamber, he had a portrait of Edward the Confessor painted over his bed. It was a lifelong and deep obsession that is again a potential symptom of a high-functioning form of autism, though as with each other piece of the puzzle, far from confirmation.

Each of these pieces individually would mean nothing. Taken together, they begin to build a suggestion of a form of high-functioning autism but, with a definitive diagnosis difficult enough to confirm face to face today, trying to construct anything beyond a suggestive set of symptoms that might add to up possible autism. It is therefore impossible to state that Henry III had any degree of autism, but it is fascinating to consider what it might mean if he did. Henry ruled England for 56 years, in spite of frequent problems. He handed over a kingdom rescued from the brink of disaster and ripe for the consolidation and expansion of his son’s reign. The lack of a favourite, if due to a difficulty in forming close social connections, possibly worked in his favour. Weak kings tended to be dominated by unpopular favourites but Henry never suffered in this respect. He was at odds with Simon de Montfort as much as they were best friends. Henry tended to flip flop in his policy, one moment swearing religious oaths to support the Charters and then denying their enforceability, perhaps demonstrating that he was easily influenced and unable to discern the motives of others in social situations.

Henry was referred to by contemporary chroniclers as ‘simplex’, which has been used to suggest that he was not a clever man and perhaps suffered from mental problems. The word ‘simplex’ is also often applied to saints to demonstrate their lack of guile and unworldliness and it has been suggested that this was what chroniclers meant, but the truth perhaps lies in the subtleties in between. Henry may have frequently appeared to lack the intellectual acumen of others, though been capable of memorising lists of information. He might also have seemed to lack the guile of a politician if he was unable to make out people’s true motives when others may have seen plainly what was going on.

Henry’s reign is often overlooked within English history. I wrote this new biography because I believed there must be more to a man who lived, and retained his throne, through such a long and eventful reign. There is some tantalising, but ultimately inconclusive evidence to suggest that he achieved all of this with a high-functioning form of autism, which would shed a new light on his achievements and his failures alike. Perhaps most intriguing of all is the possibility that ‘simplex’, which is a word that has caused debate on Henry for centuries, was in fact an early diagnosis of an as yet unknown condition. What if ‘simplex’ can be directly equated to autistic?

A new biography of Henry III: Son of Magna Carta is available now from Amberley Publishing, seeking to uncover the true story of a king all too often forgotten to history.

Matt’s book Richard, Duke of York, King By Right, reveals a very different man from the one who has passed into myth amongst the stories of the Wars of the Roses
Matthew Lewis has written The Wars of the Roses (Amberley Publishing), a detailed look at the key players of the civil war that tore England apart in the fifteenth century, and Medieval Britain in 100 Facts (Amberley Publishing), which offers a tour of the middle ages by explaining facts and putting the record straight on common misconceptions.

Matt is also the author of a brief biography of Richard III, A Glimpse of King Richard III along with a brief overview of the Wars of the Roses, A Glimpse of the Wars of the Roses.

Matt has two novels available too; Loyalty, the story of King Richard III’s life, and Honour, which follows Francis, Lord Lovell in the aftermath of Bosworth.

The Richard III Podcast and the Wars of the Roses Podcast can be subscribed to via iTunes or on YouTube.

Matt can also be found on Twitter @mattlewisauthor and Facebook.