Fear in History – what scared us in the past?

In 2012, the academic Steven Pinker wrote a book called The Better Angels of our Nature arguing that in historical terms, violence and murder were in decline. Whereas widespread constant states of fear had been understandable in history – our future would be a lot safer and secure.

What a difference eight years makes! Fear may not yet be banished to the dustbin of history. Crisis after crisis looms – and social media spreads rumour and lies. It seems fear is stronger than ever. History may have the last laugh.

At the moment of writing this, we’re all in Coronavirus lockdown. We tune into the daily news bulletins to hear how many unfortunates have died overnight and how many more are infected.

The Governor of New York state appears in front of TV cameras to plead for emergency assistance. Hospitals and morgues are constructed hastily to accommodate the dying and the dead. Fear is everywhere.

But, as Steven Pinker rightly pointed out, mass fear is nothing new. History is littered with episodes of huge anxiety – where thousands if not millions of people were gripped with terrifying anxiety.

FEAR IN HISTORY: The French Revolution

Yesterday, browsing through some old history books, I came across a month-long episode in French history two hundred years ago when the landed peasantry were suddenly struck by something called The Great Fear. Or La Grand Peur if you prefer the original French.

Mansions and chateaus were attacked by pitchfork wielding landless poor. There were a handful of murders of the wealthy. And all around swirled rumours that the aristocracy were hoarding food supplies and plotting to withdraw what few rights the downtrodden had.

How much of this was true? In reality, the rich were probably no worse than they had been the year, decade or century before. But with an intensified political climate and the neighbouring cities rising up, the rural masses were consumed with a sense that unless they acted, their destruction loomed.

FIND OUT MORE: The London of the Frankenstein Chronicles

FEAR IN HISTORY: The Salem witch trials

A century before the town of Salem in Massachusetts had been the scene of hysterical witch trials. The backdrop was unrest between colonialists and American native tribes – as well as a war between England and France fought on American soil. Into this toxic brew add small town rivalries and Puritan terror of the devil and it wasn’t long before innocent women were being accused of witchcraft.

The Salem episode was depicted by the 1950s American playwright Arthur Miller in his play The Crucible – as a satire of McCarthyite anti-Communist investigations. These were show trials overseen by Senator Joseph McCarthy who accused hundreds of Americans of being secret Communists – ruining their careers and driving some to suicide.

Senator McCarthy in action

At the height of this Cold War paranoia, a movie was released under the initial title: I Married A Communist. It’s a clumsily plotted piece of drivel about a guilt-ridden ex-Communist being blackmailed by his former comrades. Watch it on YouTube – I can’t be bothered to write anymore about it. Except to say, no self-respecting Hollywood director would touch the script so it was directed by British director Robert Stephenson who finally lived that career low down by directing Mary Poppins.

DISCOVER: How to talk like a Victorian Londoner

FEAR IN HISTORY: 1970s angst

As a teenager in the late 1970s, I experienced waves of popular, tabloid-fuelled fear. This was a time of economic crisis and rising unemployment. And there was plenty – allegedly – to fear.

Skinheads were taking over the streets. Old people were being routinely mugged. Racist propaganda claimed jobs were being taken by new arrivals to Britain from Africa and the Indian sub-continent. And on top of all this – young people wondered whether the United States and Soviet Union would reduce the planet to a post-nuclear dustball.

And yet – here I am. The great fear of the 1970s proved to be largely illusory…

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Napoleon and Hitler investigated in a new TV programme – Private Lives

From Monday 11 March 2019, I will be appearing in every episode of Private Lives broadcasting on UKTV’s Yesterday channel in the UKTV and other channels around the world. Presented by Tracy Borman, curator of the Royal Palaces in England. I’ll be covering the private lives of six fascinating historical characters:

  • Princess Margaret – the late sister of the present Queen Elizabeth II. Margaret never stuck to the rules and caused constant scandal during her life. She’s featured in the Netflix series The Crown
  • Edward VIII – the king of England who gave up his throne to marry an American commoner and divorcee Wallis Simpson. The British Empire was rocked by Edward’s decision but what really lay behind it?
  • Napoleon – the diminutive French emperor who conquered most of Europe but was destroyed in his attempt to take Russia. His passionate affairs, tempestuous marriage and crushing defeat by the English exposed
  • Hitler – you’d think there was nothing left to say about Hitler but we delve into his fascination for teenage girls, frustrated artistic ambitions and the corrupt ambition that brought him down
  • Al Capone – the gangster known as Scarface terrorised Chicago but also had a great many admirers. The establishment seemed powerless to act as this street punk made vast profits from racketeering but eventually they got him on tax evasion
  • Peter the Great – the mightiest tsar that ever ruled Russia. A very odd character who loved dwarves, heavy drinking and women. His parties were notorious. His cruelty, even to close family, was highly disturbing.

Happy viewing!!

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Tragic and comical incidents at past royal weddings

Today saw the wedding of Prince Harry and Meaghan Markle and the run up wasn’t without incident and scandal. But that was nothing compared to the bizarre events that have hit royal weddings in the past.

Hardicanute

King Harthacnut dies at a wedding

Royal wedding ends with a dead king

Take for example, King Harthacnut. He was a Viking who ruled England between 1040 and 1042. He succeeded his equally warlike brother Harold the First, often referred to as “Harefoot”.

Harthacnut was rather upset about the way his brother had executed a rebel called Alfred Atheling and so had Harold Harefoot’s body dug up, beheaded in public and then chucked in a marsh.

Harthacnut was in his early twenties and fighting to control his kingdom in England and in Denmark from rebellious nobles and rival kings. To relax from all this, he attended the wedding of a friend Tovi the Proud in Lambeth. Unfortunately, Harthacnut drank way too much and the king of England, aged only 23 or 24, had a stroke and died.

George IV turns up drunk to his royal wedding

Fast forward eight centuries… George IV, who ruled England between 1820 and 1830, was certainly no paragon of virtue before and after becoming king. A hopeless gambler and womaniser with a gargantuan appetite. But eventually, his parents demanded that the 32-year old prince get hitched…to his first cousin Caroline. This was not as unacceptable as it is today.

George had never met Caroline and wasn’t too keen on the match. So he did what any gentleman in this predicament would do – he got completely drunk. He was so legless in fact that his friends had to prop him up throughout the ceremony.

Throughout the wedding service, George eyed up his mistress Lady Jersey and hardly paid any attention to Caroline. Then when they got to Brighton for their honeymoon, he passed out in front of the bedroom fireplace. However, when he regained consciousness in the morning, George did the decent thing and a baby was born nine months later.