The BBC series ‘British History’s Biggest Fibs’ aims to debunk historical myths, revealing the extent to which the stories we know have been shaped by those in power. Evoking the imagery of a tapestry of different stories woven by the successful winners, Lucy Worsley reminds us at the beginning of this episode that British history is carefully crafted. Series one has three episodes covering the Wars of the Roses, the Glorious Revolution, and India’s place within the British Empire. This review focuses on episode two, which was, generally, a fascinating and detailed piece of revisionist history. With a host of guests, Lucy Worsley certainly makes a commendable attempt to weave a wider historical tapestry of the Glorious Revolution, with some aspects more successful than others.
Worsley neatly describes the history of the Glorious Revolution. She begins by demarcating the differences between James II (a tyrant, wicked, cruel and, worst of all, a Catholic) and William of Orange (a Protestant, bringing order and liberty), before moving on to explain some of the propaganda against James, especially the fantasy of Mary of Modena’s pregnancy and the warming pan myth. William’s invitation to England from Arthur Herbert and the Immortal Seven is situated within his overall plan against Louis XIV: facing the most absolute of monarchs, William needed the English navy to protect the Dutch people, and the English conspirator’s invitation legitimised his plans. With William’s arrival in Brixham, his printed propaganda and a brief look at his self-presentation as a Christian saviour, the Declaration of Rights and the aetiology of the term ‘Glorious Revolution’ (such a power shift necessitates it be called a ‘revolution’, its influence so large it was ‘glorious’) are considered. The narrative then shifts to the revolts in Ireland, especially the Battle of the Boyne and the Battle of Aughrim, and to Scotland. This ultimately proves that one of the biggest fibs of this period is that it was a bloodless revolution. Placing British history into a European context, the nineteenth century’s predilection for revolutions is juxtaposed with the peace enjoyed by England. Worsley argues that the publication of Thomas Babington Macaulay’s The History of England (1848) cemented the conspirators’ plan into history with the Glorious Revolution as the masterstroke of a grand story. Using the reception history of Macaulay’s work, the show then shifts to 1988 and a debate in the House of Commons between Margaret Thatcher and Tony Benn, the latter challenging the view that the revolution was so glorious. Ending in contemporary Ireland, Worsley follows a Jacobite musket that made a public appearance in a 2007 visit to the site of the Battle of the Boyne by Ian Paisley and Bertie Ahern and its purchase by the Museum of Orange Heritage. Ultimately, Worsley concludes, the story of the Glorious Revolution is still being written.
As this summary shows, the range of Worsley’s show is commendable, as is the variety of locations visited. A host of guests also join Worsley throughout the show: Melanie Unwin’s contribution on the series of frescos in the Houses of Parliament was especially well analysed and contextualised, and Dr John McTague (University of Bristol) neatly explained the propaganda against James II during his wife’s pregnancy. Paul Rem, the curator of Het Loo Palace, also made a fascinating distinction between James’s and William’s bedrooms: the latter’s room lacked a balustrade, which the former had, implying a more open and friendly space. The first half of the documentary is also worth a special mention: Worsley very nicely breaks down why James was an inappropriate ruler and the tone of civil unrest after the Restoration. Sailing down the channel with music and twenty-five ships abreast, the importance of William’s theatricality is made explicitly clear.
Unfortunately the show never seems sure of its tone. Presented as a generally scholarly endeavour, storybook-esque illustrations are used to demarcate sections and summarise details, often with a few key words. For example, in the summary of the differences between William and James, the term ‘hero’ is applied to the former, whilst ‘a nervous shadow’ and ‘obsessed with Death’ accompany pictures that are akin to a mature Horrible Histories. Whilst a nice idea, these images detracted from the otherwise adult and academic tone of the show. This unsteady divide between tones is also seen in the inclusion of Peter the taxi-cab driver, whose charming Irish lilt tells of how Catholics see William as a figure of hate. In Ireland, William is known as King Billy, yet this name is used much earlier during the discussion of the Irish rebellions without explanation. Small dislocating points like these mar the otherwise factual show. Worsley occasionally forces a point that makes the tidy conclusions and the wider narrative seem somewhat simplistic. In looking to current political affairs, the purchase of the Jacobite musket by the Museum of Orange Heritage is seen as an attempt to bring the two opposing sides of history together, and it is with this idea the show ends. This conclusion, though neat, is perhaps too idealised.
Overall, ‘British History’s Biggest Fibs, with Lucy Worsley: The Glorious Revolution’ is certainly an admirable and generally thorough account of one of history’s biggest coups. Worsley is an engaging host and the variety of locations and guests creates a show that explains how our conception of history can be easily shaped by a number of factors. The show perhaps struggles in trying to form a general narrative of history: looking in William’s tiny study in Het Loo Palace, the romantic idea that it was in that room William plotted his master-plan felt as if it was playing to a cinematic conception of history. Yet the attractiveness of undercover plotting and traitorous politicians, especially when shows like Game of Thrones and The Tudors loom large in the historical imagination, makes a documentary about the Glorious Revolution appealing. Dressed in silver armour with a white plume, Worsley crafts a show that adequately captures the pomp and hyperbole that surround such large historical events.
British History’s Biggest Fibs, with Lucy Worsley: The Glorious Revolution was first broadcast on BBC 4 on 2nd February 2017.