I have just finished watching an episode of “Fit to Rule”. I shall comment on this one in particular, as I haven’t been able to see the previous episodes. I was working in the other room when my family called me down because Lucy Worsley was on the telly. As I sat down I heard her begin to speak about the reign of William and Mary and since I specialise in the Late Stuarts I hoped to learn some new information. Naturally, I was filled with excitement.
Unfortunately, I heard one myth after another reinforced in the programme to a degree that it motivated me to write this post. Also, I was surprised by the amount of tweets asking me to do this, so here we are. Those who frequent this blog know that I am not a very critical person, so I hope no offense is caused, for it is not intended.
These are the main issues I must address:
- There was an academic on who incorrectly claimed that “Mary did not get pregnant”, whereas a rudimentary study of Mary’s life shows that she in fact conceived not once, but twice. The first time was quite soon after her marriage, in late 1677, and this resulted in a miscarriage in early 1678 (Read Nesca Robb, William of Orange: A Personal Portrait, Vol. 2, page 105). She then became pregnant again. According to John van der Kiste’s William and Mary, page 58, in early 1679, William supervised alterations at the hunting lodge at Dieren in anticipation of the arrival of their child, and Mary began to furnish a nursery. This, sadly, also resulted in a miscarriage. Thus it is shocking that a senior academic can report that Mary never became pregnant.
- The same academic also stated that William “proved unable to have children” yet this actually cannot be proven. It seems that whoever was researching this topic did not learn about how the initial miscarriage incorrectly handled, leading to infection, which in turn was the probable cause of Mary’s infertility.
- She furthermore suggested that William was homosexual. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: there is no evidence for this conclusion. Her justification was that “he did spend a lot of time with men in the military”, but of couse he was a king and there were no women in the military at the time. I have several male friends in the army even today who are completely heterosexual and would laugh mightily if they had heard this woman tonight. It’s as preposterous as those who called William Hague gay because he and his wife have been unable to have children. Also, we should remember he was linked to Mary’s lady-in-waiting, Elizabeth Villiers.
- It was also suggested that Mary was “insecure” about ruling and afraid of William’s judgement. However, it could be that she was simply humble. We were subjected to feminist interpretations each time, whereas I believe Mary reacted exactly how a normal woman would react at that time and might even react today. Her fears and doubts were both typical and highly commendable in a woman of the time, and I actually admire her self-doubt: a quality possessed by few rulers. We should not judge historical people by our standards (i.e. after the feminist movement, etc).
- The historians constantly spoke as if these people were still alive: “William has/wants/needs” They are over 300 years dead; so, for goodness sake, please use the past tense! This habit of many historians is becoming a pet hate of many people and giving us a bad name. I can’t stand it, and refuse to make any of my work in the present tense.
- Finally…the programme implied that a mole killed William! This is actually a gross simplification, supporting the Jacobite myth of the “Gentleman in the black velvet waistcoat”, as I detailed in a recent podcast.
I spend hours and hours of my life trying to uncover the truth about the Stuarts, and I can only reach a handful of people. Programmes such as this reach millions and yet it was, at least insofar as I have mentioned above, propagating misinformation and myths. If it was supposed to be historical fiction, perhaps that would be fine. A programme debunking “Stuart myths”, perhaps. But it claimed to be a historical documentary and therefore it is imperative that it gets its history at least as accurate as possible where the basics are concerned. I also understand the time constraints involved in a tv programme, but there was surely time to give more accurate information. The best thing about the programme, in my opinion, was when 18th century historian Elaine Chalus spoke! 🙂
[UPDATE: As some of you know, I help out at Kensington Palace as often as I can. The other day I was working the lifts when a couple of friendly visitors asked me about the history of the King’s Stairs, which led on to William and Mary. This was our conversation:
Visitor: It’s a shame that Mary could never get pregnant.
Me: [my face fell] Where did you learn about that?
Visitor: It was on Lucy Worsley’s programme.
Me: Ah. I’m sorry but Mary did, in fact, conceive at least twice. She had miscarriages. William and Mary seem to have had normal sexual relations.
Visitor: Oh, I thought he was gay.
Me: The evidence does not support that.
Visitor: Well, thank you for clearing that up! It’s fascinating!
So, you can see why I was irritated in my post. I knew that people would take what the programme related as gospel. This audience has been misinformed, and no amount of myth-busting on my part can change that.
Let me know what you think, below.
Well done, Andrea. It’s good to get the facts from someone who has studied them closely. I find this series interesting, and whilst I accept they do need to condense, but there are some unnecessary omissions and an over-riding element of sensationalism at play here — never let the truth get in the way of a good story. The positive thing about this series is that it does give viewers a snapshot of the British monarchy and will encourage some people to delve deeper — where they’ll discover the real truths in all their expanded glory.
I’m up in London this weekend, following for a new Garden History Tours leader —Peter — and giving myself a refresher course at the same time! Denise and I have our first “husband and wife” tour on 30 May. We’re loving life in Torquay. You and your husband are welcome here anytime — we have a spare bedroom. In the meantime, keep up the good work.
All the best, Simon
Thank you very much for your kind invitation, Simon. We would be delighted to visit you someday. Best of luck with your Garden History Tours – I miss working with you on them! Thanks also for commenting – I agree about the time constraints and all, but too many people will have come away with the wrong idea, which is not on.
Thanks for the head’s up … I won’t waste my time …
I’m glad you were able to set the record straight with that visitor. I know that doesn’t make up for all the people who took the television program as gospel. There is so much misinformation out there.