This week’s Friday funny, penned by author and journalist Eugene Byrne, takes a closer look at the 1930’s piece 1066 and All That, which first appeared as a series of articles in Punch. So successful was the series, that it was eventually turned into a West End musical, but what is the story behind it?
A thoroughly Good Thing
With the ascension of Charles I to the throne we come at last to the Central Period of English History (not to be confused with the Middle Ages, of course), consisting in the utterly memorable Struggle between the Cavaliers (Wrong but Wromantic) and the Roundheads (Right and Repulsive) …
For a long time before the Civil War, however, Charles had been quarrelling with the Roundheads about what was right. Charles explained that there was a doctrine called the Divine Right of Kings, which said that:
(a) He was King, and that was right.
(b) Kings were divine, and that was right.
(c) Kings were right, and that was right.
(d) Everything was all right.
But so determined were the Roundheads that all this was all wrong that they drew up a Petition called the Petition of Right to show in more detail which things were wrong. This Petition said:
(a) That it was wrong for anyone to be put to death more than once for the same offence.
(b) Habeas Corpus, which meant that it was wrong if people were put in prison except for some reason, and that people who had been mutilated by the King, such as Prynne, who had often had his ears cut off, should always be allowed to keep their bodies.
(c) That Charles’s memorable methods of getting money, such as Rummage and Scroungeage, were wrong.
1066 and All That (“A memorable History of England, comprising all the parts you can remember, including 103 Good Things, five Bad Kings, and two Genuine Dates”) first appeared as a series of articles in Punch.
Published in book form in 1930, it was an immediate success for its authors Walter Carruthers Sellar (1898–1951) and Robert Julian Yeatman (1897–1968). They followed the book up in subsequent years with other humorous works which, though little remembered nowadays, were also bestsellers in their time. 1066 and All That was also turned into a successful West End musical.
Seller and Yeatman had met at Oriel College Oxford where they were studying modern history following service in the First World War, where both had been wounded. Despite the success of their books, neither gave up the day-job.
Sellar had interrupted his career as a schoolmaster with a brief attempt to become a full-time writer in the late 1920s, but financial pressures apparently drove him back to teaching. Most of his career was spent at Charterhouse School in Surrey, where he was popular, particularly during the Second World War when he used his own money and even his ration-book to provide extra food for the boys. Yeatman (pronounced ‘Yetman’) was the more extrovert of the two. His career took in journalism, advertising and public relations and he had a busy social life, counting WH Auden and Christopher Isherwood among his friends.
1066 and All That is still widely read because it works on several levels. At root it’s a spoof of the Whiggish and relentlessly England-centric history in schoolbooks at the time, as parroted back by an enthusiastic-but-dim pupil, or indeed as an adult’s attempt at recalling school history.
In the book’s view, as in that of most junior history books at the time, monarchs are good or bad and historical developments either a Good Thing or a Bad Thing. They’re not making this up: I have an unintentionally hilarious primary school history reader from the 1920s which makes out that Robin Hood was a genuine historical figure, and describes King Louis XIV (whom it calls “King Lewis of France”) as a “very wicked man”.
The silliest bits of all are the occasional “test papers” (“9. Examine the state of mind of (1) Charles I half an hour after his head was cut off (2) Charles II, half a moment after first sighting Nell Gwyn.”)
But it’s also very clever in that many of its schoolboy errors also carry satirical meanings too, so for example “the Irish could have a Parliament of their own, but the English were to pass all the Acts in it” or in Victorian times Egypt becomes a British “sphere of interference”.
Of course nowadays you have to either be over the age of 40 or an English history enthusiast to get the most out of it. School history nowadays is rather more project-based and certainly isn’t so Anglocentric. Is this a Good Thing or a Bad Thing? Discuss. As Sellar and Yeatman didn’t say.
You can read more of Eugene’s historical jokes and comedy tales at www.historyextra.com