The other day I picked up a book I hadn’t read for years: WC Sellar and RJ Yeatman’s 1066 and All That.
Written in 1930, it’s the best, well, the funniest book of British history ever. Taking as its maxim the truism that ‘History is what you can remember’, it tells the story of Britain as if narrated by a man distantly recalling the history lessons he snoozed through as a boy.
There are only two dates in history: 55BC, when the Romans came, and, of course 1066, when the Normans did; and everything is either a Good Thing or a Bad Thing.
I remember this passage on the ‘Pretenders’ making me weep with laughter when I was a schoolboy:
English history has always been subject to Waves of Pretenders. These have usually come in small waves of about two: an Old Pretender and a Young Pretender, their object being to sow dissension in the realm, and if possible to confuse the Royal issue by pretending to be heirs to the throne.
Two pretenders who now arose were Lambert Simnel and Perkin Warbeck, and they succeeded in confusing the issue absolutely by being so similar that some historians suggest they were really the same person [i.e. the Earl of Warbeck].
Lambert Simnel (the Young Pretender) was really (probably) himself, but cleverly pretended to be the Earl of Warbeck. Henry VII therefore ordered him to be led through the streets of London to prove that he really was.
Perkin Warbeck (the Older and more confusing Pretender) insisted that he was himself, thus causing complete dissension till Henry VII had him led through the streets of London to prove that he was really Lambert Simnel.
The punishment of these memorable Pretenders was justly similar, since Perkin Warmnel was compelled to become a blot on the King’s kitchen, while Perbeck was made an escullion.
Wimneck however, subsequently began pretending again. This time he pretended that he had been smothered in early youth and buried under a stair-rod while pretending to be one of the Little Princes in the Tower. In order to prove that he had not been murdered before, Henry was reluctantly compelled to have him executed.
Even after his execution many people believed that he was only pretending to have been beheaded, while others declared that it was not Warmneck at all but Lamkin, and that Permnel had been dead all the time really, like Queen Anne.
And here’s a good passage for any American readers:
The Boston Tea Party
One day when George III was insane he heard that the Americans never had afternoon tea. This made him very obstinate and he invited them all to a compulsory tea-party at Boston; the Americans, however, started by pouring the tea into Boston Harbour and went on pouring things into Boston Harbour until they were quite Independent, thus causing the United States.
These were also partly caused by Dick Washington who defeated the English at Bunker's Hill ('with his little mashie', as he told his father afterwards).
The War with the Americans is memorable as being the only war in which the English were ever defeated, and it was unfair because the Americans had ‘the Allies’ on their side.
In some ways the war was really a draw because the English remained Top Nation and had the Allies afterwards, while the Americans, in memory of George III's madness, still refuse to drink tea and go on pouring anything the English send them to drink into Boston Harbour.
After this the Americans made Wittington President and gave up speaking English and became U.S.A. and Columbia and 100%, etc. This was a Good Thing in the end, as it was a cause of the British Empire, but it prevented America from having any more History.
The book finishes at the end of WWI, and describes as ‘a Bad Thing’ the time when "America became Top Nation, and history came to a ."*
(*ie. history came to a full stop – thus preempting Fukuyama by six decades)