By Nancy Bilyeau
I discovered Dominic Selwood's writing on twitter when I saw a link to a story he wrote for The Telegraph headlined "How the Tudor Spin Machine Hid the Brutal Truth About the Reformation." How refreshing to read fearless, well-argued insights into what actually took place in the 16th century! Dominic, a historian, novelist and lawyer, has written similarly fascinating essays about controversies from history, ranging from the ancient world to the 20th century. They've been gathered in the new book Spies, Sadists and Sorcerers: The History You Weren't Taught in School.
I read the entire book, enthralled, and put these questions to Dominic:
When it comes to these categories, spies, sorcerers and sadists, which is the most fun when it comes to research--digging up the unknown story?
I am intrigued by all of them, but my favourite is definitely sorcerers! Whether it’s the Knights Templar, the Malleus Maleficarum, the early-modern witch craze, the Word War Two witch trials in London, remnants of pagan religions in our modern world, or any of the other stories in this category, I am fascinated by exploring magical beliefs and seeing how they tap into universal ways of thinking. Our digital world has not stopped people being captivated by the Harry Potter stories, celebrating Halloween, or remaining anxious about that thump in the middle of the night. As a historian, I never get tired of finding out about attitudes and responses over the centuries to magic and the supernatural. And that’s probably also why I write ghost stories, too!
Why AREN'T most of these stories told in school?
Sometimes there is straightforward manipulation of what is taught – like in Nazi Germany or Communist China – but I’m not really talking about that here. What I’m looking at is something that affects everyone. Take the history of World War Two. Schools in the USA, the UK, Germany, Russia, and Japan all teach it – but they don’t tell the same stories. It’s no surprise, really, because the task of teaching history has always been selective. In many ways that’s a good thing. Not everything is relevant for everyone. But selectivity brings problems about what should be left out, and the danger is that we end up retelling the version of history that suits us best. For example, take the following three statements. (1) Winston Churchill could be stubborn, and at times made disastrous military decisions that needlessly cost many thousands of lives. (2) Sir Isaac Newton was an early scientist, but he also spent a great deal of time on alchemy and what we would call ‘magic’. (3) President Andrew Jackson called American Indians ‘savage dogs’ and boasted that he kept trophy scalps of those he killed. Now. There will be people who feel upset or angry at one or more of these statements. Maybe they just flat out disagree. Or perhaps they justify it with a, “Yes, that’s true, but … .” However, regardless of our emotional response, all three statements are provable from original documents. Given that history is selective, and these statements are not what people want to hear, eventually, over time, they stop just being taught.
So, to answer your question, I think a lot of history is not taught in school because it doesn’t agree with the clear-cut image we have of a person or an event, and it’s simpler to ignore complexity and present events as black and white, especially when its suits our traditional cultural view of things. I don’t think it’s necessarily a conscious process by schools or teachers. It’s inevitable really. But it does make room for a book like Spies, Sadists, and Sorcerers to dig out some of the stories that might surprise us the most.
You often occupy a revisionist school of thought or at least a contrary perspective. When do you first remember realizing that you are an independent thinker on matters of history?
When I was at junior school, my history teacher was a World War Two fanatic. He had been an RAF instructor in the war, and had dozens of World War Two model aircraft hanging from his ceiling. In lessons he told us endless stories of the larger than life people involved in the amazing dramas of World War Two. I loved it. But when I moved to senior school, history quickly became a subject I loathed. The first book I was told to read was about an eighteenth-century Austrian diplomat called von Metternich. The book set out with elaborate tedium his successes and failures in backroom negotiations. I mean, seriously? How many 13-year-olds are going to care one way or the other whether some Austrian prince brokered a détente with some other country or joined the War of the Sixth Coalition? I tuned out completely. I ended up training as a lawyer. I only became a historian later, when I became fascinated by the Knights Templar, and was lucky enough to get to research them for a doctorate. But by then I was able to decide what interested me – and it comes down to two things. I want to learn about amazing people and their stories. And I want to learn about things that I can share with people and they’ll say. “I just did not know that.” Both of these come through in Spies, Sadists, and Sorcerers, because almost every chapter is told through the eyes of someone, which lets me go into the extraordinary things they did in a personal way. Looking back, I thank the history teacher who tried to get me to read about von Metternich’s diplomacy. One day I might really get into 18th century Austrian politics. But until then, whenever I write something, in my head I compare it to that von Metternich book. If I find I am straying into that kind of territory, the pages go straight into the bin.
In your thriller, The Sword of Moses, which I really enjoyed, you have elements taken from history: holy relics, the Knights Templar, and other mysteries. Did you know most of this history before you plotted the novel, or did you learn some of it while specifically researching your thriller?
Fortunately, a bit of both! Some of the subjects have fascinated me for years, and I’ve studied them a lot. For example, I’ve been reading and thinking about the Knights Templar for 20 years, so I didn’t really have to do much research about them. Other things did need work, though. For instance, I grew up listening to a lot of 1980s heavy metal music and watching horror films. So I had some sense of where I wanted to go with the black magic angle to the story, but I did need to put in quite a lot of time reading about it all. However, I find that the research is often just as much fun as the writing, and it’s great to have an excuse to go off and become really immersed in all sorts of really oddball subjects!
You are the first person I've come across to say that the Knights Templar, while horrifically wiped out because of a plot by the French king, were in fact up to something very bizarre and possibly heretical. How did you discover this, and is there any hope of someday learning the truth?
This is such a great question – and it comes back to what we were saying earlier. History moves in great waves of consensus. For the last fifty years every serious historian has said that the Templars were completely innocent, and were sacrificed on the pyre of the king of France’s greed (he wanted their money) and ambition (he wanted to take the pope down a peg or two). That’s all true, and I agree with it. But the king of France did it intelligently. He heard that the Templars had a curious moment in their initiation ceremonies in which the new knight was asked to spit or urinate on a crucifix. We still don’t really know why they did this. One theory is that it was part of a psychological test to see how the knights would react if captured and asked to renounce their faith. Anyway. The king of France was canny enough to use this ceremony to whip up a hysteria that would allow him to invent all sorts of other things that people would then be more likely to believe. So, the Templars were innocent of most of what the king of France accused them of. But they were not innocent of it all. I think you’re right to ask, ‘when will we know the truth?’ One thing that keeps me very excited about research is that every year something new and amazing crops up. For instance, moving forward to World War Two, who would have thought that this year archivists would find more of Himmler’s diaries? It’s in the nature of archives, really. Things get misfiled or misplaced, and then some lucky researcher stumbles across something fascinating and unexpected. So I’m sure that we will learn more about the Templars. Their story has not been fully unearthed yet!
You've done substantial academic research into the Crusades. Do you think the Crusaders are getting hopelessly caught up in political correctness?
The human brain has remained largely unchanged since homo sapiens began to walk the earth about 200,000 years ago. But what has changed many times – and will continue to change – is how different groups of humans see the world. For example, in medieval times, it was possible for children under the age of 10 to marry. These days that would be abhorrent. As a historian, it’s really easy to assume that people in a previous age saw things the same way we do – especially if it’s something that we now think is fundamental. We may forget that people did not always think a certain way. The Crusades are a great example. Nowadays some will say that that the Crusades were an unforgivable barbarian invasion by bloodthirsty and bigoted religion-crazed Europeans. Others will say they were a noble response by European chivalry to counter centuries of Islamic aggression in the Mediterranean. I don’t really have much sympathy with either of these views, as they’re both loaded with modern value judgements. The Crusades can only be understood in medieval terms. So, yes, I do get frustrated when political correctness stops us peeling back the centuries and understanding a historical event on its own terms.
I was shocked to read in this book that you believe that it was NOT Richard III they dug up in Leicester. Are these doubts widely shared, and who do you think they are re-burying?
I know it sounds sort of barmy to say it, but there is actually a definite debate about whose bones they are! Ultimately, it all comes down to the question: how certain do we want to be? The team in charge of the reburying said that they were 99.999% certain the skeleton was Richard. I have to say that I struggle with that statement. On the one hand, the skeleton’s female line DNA is the correct group for Richard. That looks promising. But there are several serious problems. (1) Richard died in 1485, but the carbon dating on the skeleton gave dates of 1412–1449 and 1430–1460. (2) The skeleton’s male line DNA shows the wrong group for Richard. (3) The skeleton’s DNA is for blond hair and blue eyes, whereas Richard is thought to have had black hair and brown eyes. (4) There is no evidence from Richard’s lifetime of a deformed spine. So, being blunt, the only really solid connection with Richard is the female DNA group. However, this type of DNA – called mitochondrial DNA – is passed from a mother to her daughters and sons (and then passed on by her daughters to her daughters and sons, etc.), so it is a huge pool that runs down the ages.
If you’ll allow me to be a lawyer for a moment, in England the courts use two different thresholds to prove something. In most cases something needs to be proved ‘on the balance of probabilities’. In other words, is it more likely than not, i.e., 51% to 49%. On that test, I’d say the skeleton probably is Richard’s. Some of the problems could be explainable. For example, the male line DNA might be wrong because of an infidelity somewhere in the Plantagenet line. However, there’s a higher test that’s used in criminal cases, when something has to be proved ‘beyond reasonable doubt’. There’s no official percentage number to go with it, but it’s somewhere in the high 90s. On that basis I wouldn’t be confident saying the skeleton was Richard’s. And I absolutely cannot agree with the 99.999% certainty figure. There are too many ifs, maybes, and unanswered questions. The fifteenth-century Plantagenet nobility was drawn from a very intermarried pool. It’s entirely possible that the bones belong to someone else. And, no, I am not alone in this view. Fortunately a number of other people said the same thing at the time!
I discovered your writing when on twitter I came across a link to the article "How the Tudor Spin Machine Hid the Brutal Truth About the Reformation," included in your book. I felt so happy to discover I wasn't alone! Do you think other people are beginning to doubt the "official" story of the dawn of the Reformation?
Many people have contacted me about this piece. Lots of them were quite angry, which did not surprise me. We were talking at the beginning about how people get used to a certain comfortable version of history. Well, in Britain, we’ve all grown up with a very strong image of the Tudors. We were taught that the Tudors made us great. King Henry VIII was ‘Bluff King Hal’ and Queen Elizabeth I was ‘Gloriana’. We are bombarded with affirmations of the idea that their religious reforms were popular and freed England from a moribund and superstitious religion. We are taught that the vision of the Tudors enabled us to become a free trading nation that would go on to found a mighty empire and spearhead the industrial revolution. The problem is that this sort of patriotic history is far too simplistic. In reality the Tudors had to bulldoze through their reforms against the entrenched wishes of the English people. The process was a sustained, brutal, and violent act of state terror that took three monarchs and half a century. There was real opposition, and they had to wipe it out with violence. But – of course – no one wants to hear that.
Yet the facts are there for anyone who reads the original documents. The Tudor regime was totalitarian. They crushed dissent. Opponents were beheaded, burned, and hung-drawn-and-quartered. But to get back to your question, I was delighted that a lot of other responses I got were from people who were really interested to learn the other side of the story. So, yes. I think there’s a growing awareness of the untold side of the Tudors. Academics are now working really hard in this area, and their new research on the widespread English resistance to the Tudor’s religious reforms is becoming more widely known. I am sure the story taught in schools will gradually change over the next 50 years.
I did see some public push-back to the anti-Catholicism in Wolf Hall. Is this a beginning?
Wolf Hall has got new audiences talking and thinking about the Tudors, which is excellent! The Tudors were an immensely important dynasty in European history, and such a lot changed during their reign. Really, it’s hard to understand modern Europe without an appreciation of the huge impact of the decisions they made. However, I think it’s a real shame that the story in Wolf Hall is so historically inaccurate. The author took real people from the court of King Henry VIII and invented make-believe personalities for them. The overall effect is historical nonsense, and purposefully perpetuates myths that many academics are working hard to explode. But you’re right. There’s been a lot of criticism of Wolf Hall’s blatant falsification of history. This was especially true when the television version came out, as it took the story to an even wider audience. Now that we all learn so much history from the television, something like Wolf Hall makes me want to try even harder to tell the other side. What happened in the Tudor period is too important for it to be misunderstood.
While many of the chapters in your book provoked an emotional response, it was the story of Fritz Haber that actually gave me nightmares. How did you discover this ghastly German scientist?
I was actually surfing around the Nobel prize website, and I saw the entry for him. I had vaguely heard of the Haber-Bosch process, so I had a look. The website explains what an amazing chemist he was, and how the Haber-Bosch process completely revolutionized twentieth-century agriculture to feed the world. Then I saw that it said, ‘he was appointed a consultant to the German War Office and organised gas attacks’. That struck me as a bit odd for someone awarded a Nobel prize for his services to humanity. So I went and read about him, and was absolutely horrified. He pretty much invented chemical warfare in World War One. He went to the front to supervise the gas attacks himself, and seemed totally unmoved by the suicide of his wife (also a chemist) in protest at his work. Yet he obsessively continued. His son later committed suicide in shame. When he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1918, many people stayed away from the ceremony in protest. Years later, he lost his job in Nazi Germany under the anti-Jewish laws, but not before he had invented Zyklon B, which was the chemical used by the Nazis in the gas chambers, where some of his own relatives were murdered.
Like you, I find his story really shocking. Although the story in the book that upset me the most is the one about Noor Khan, the gentle children’s book writer who volunteered to help the French resistance, but who was betrayed the day before she was due to fly out of France to safety, and ended up being murdered in the Dachau Concentration Camp. Her story is not so much about correcting history that has been distorted, but more about telling the amazing and tragic story of a real-life hero that people have probably never heard of. I was really delighted to find when researching her that there is now a statue to her in a park in London.