Lucy Worsley on royal history’s biggest fibs

How much of what we think we know about history’s big events are actually true? Ahead of a new series of Royal History’s Biggest Fibs with Lucy Worsley on BBC Two, BBC History Revealed editor Charlotte Hodgman spoke to Lucy about historical misconceptions, the French Revolution and the battle of Waterloo...

Lucy Worsley in Regency period costume

Q: What drew you to investigating some of the misconceptions and inaccuracies of royal history?

A: I’ve made some other programmes along the lines of ‘history’s biggest fibs’, and what I like about the subject is that it’s not just about what happened; it’s about the skills a historian needs to assess the evidence and establish the truth of what actually happened – if that is ever possible. So it’s not just about the past; but the practice of history as well.

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Revolutions against monarchies have historically provided some intense storytelling, fake news, and, well, just plain fibbing, and that’s because the way you win a revolution is to tell the best story. So revolutions seem to be the essence of this idea of royal history’s biggest fibs.

Q: One event you reassess is the French Revolution, specifically the role of Marie Antoinette. What did you discover?

A: Marie Antoinette is one of those people about whom British people feel a sense of sympathy, but who is still widely hated by the French, and that’s because they’ve been taught to do so by the French revolutionaries. Yet from our perspective, you can see that, as a female and a foreigner, Marie Antoinette was a fantastic scapegoat for all the troubles the French monarchy was going through.

Q: Why did the French people focus on Marie Antoinette rather than the king himself?

A: It was partly because, in the 18th century, it was difficult to reconcile your belief in the divine authority of your king with the knowledge that actually he’s not that good at his job. And this is an issue that goes back centuries: you don’t blame your king, you blame his ‘evil councillors’. In the case of Marie Antoinette, she had to face the added negativity of being from Austria, an ancient enemy of France.

But there was also someone missing from court during Marie Antoinette’s reign, and that was a royal mistress. Louis XVI didn’t have one. So a lot of the negativity that would usually have been directed at a hated mistress – for being frivolous, for wearing expensive jewels, or getting involved in politics – instead found an outlet in the queen, Marie Antoinette.

Historian Lucy Worsley in costume as much maligned French queen Marie Antoinette
Historian Lucy Worsley gets into character as much maligned French queen Marie Antoinette (Photo by BBC Studios – Photographer: Tom Hayward)

Q: What about the role of America in the French Revolution?

A: Well, the traditional story is that France’s huge debts were down to the Queen and her huge extravagance. But when I spoke to the curator of the Palace of Versailles, he explained that the debts of the French state were actually caused by the American War of Independence. France had been financially supporting the Americans against the British and racking up huge debts. That was the crunch that really created the circumstances in which revolution in France began to seem like a good idea.

Q: Did people question events and the reasons behind them at the time they were happening?

A: This is really the kind of essence of politics – who’s on side and who isn’t – and how change spreads through groups of people. In the second episode, we look at why there wasn’t a revolution in Britain during the late Georgian period, when you really might have expected there to have been one given the chaos and financial catastrophes of the Napoleonic Wars.

Even so, there were the seeds of discontent being sown that would later lead to revolutions. It just takes a few people in the moment to have a really strong view that something is wrong. And it might take a long time for their cause to be won – such as the fight for Catholic Emancipation during the early part of George IV’s reign – but it can win.

Q: Most people have grown up with the idea that the battle of Waterloo was a British victory. Was this the case?

A: It depends on your perspective. If you were the Duke of Wellington then yes, it was totally a British victory. But if you were the Duke of Wellington’s European allies, then you might get rather annoyed by that statement.

The European allies referred to the battle as the Belle Alliance and saw it as a European collaboration, but from the earliest dispatch sent back to Britain after the battle, Wellington was calling it the battle of Waterloo after the place it was fought, playing down the collaborative nature of the victory.

Painting of the battle of Waterloo was fought in Belgium in June 1815
The battle of Waterloo was fought in Belgium in June 1815 (Photo by Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)

There’s an incredibly detailed model of the battlefield as it looked at 7.45pm on 18 June 1815 at the National Army Museum, London, built by Lieutenant William Siborne in the 1830s. When Siborne asked for funding for the work, he was effectively told by Wellington that he would get no money from Britain because he had placed too many Prussians on the battlefield.

At a time when Britain had been shaken by revolutions in France and the Napoleonic Wars, it was extremely important for Wellington – and George IV, another character we look at in the series – to claim Waterloo as a British victory.

Lucy Worsley is a historian and Joint Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces. She was speaking to BBC History Revealed editor Charlotte Hodgman

The new series of Royal History’s Biggest Fibs with Lucy Worsley begins on 6 November on BBC Two

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This content was first published in the December 2020 issue of BBC History Revealed