Werewolves explained – from ancient legends to Hollywood!

What are the origins of the Werewolf myth? This strange story of cursed people unable to resist transforming into a wolf at the Full Moon – with the consequent murderous rampage. Why is this monster so enduring and if anything, more popular than ever? It came as a surprise to me to discover a literary genre termed ‘werewolf erotica’ and all that teen-focussed TV content featuring our lupine friends. Werewolves need to be explained so here goes!

Before I continue – do watch this video I’ve just made on the topic with lots of clips from movies and information about the development of the werewolf story in literature. Especially why so many werewolves have been women.

FIND OUT MORE: More examples of werewolves in history

The first recorded werewolf story I could find – and reassured to include as a werewolf tale – was that of King Lycaon of Arcadia (also spelt Lykson of Arkadia if somebody could clarify the spelling) who served up a dish of human flesh to Zeus when the king of the Gods paid him a visit. Zeus was unamused. So unhappy in fact that he unleashed a flood that destroyed human civilisation and also condemned Lycaon to become a wolf doomed to eat any flesh that crossed his path. Including human of course.

This story is disturbing on many levels. It not only involves lycanthropy – believing you’re a wolf – but human sacrifice and a possible vindication of the global flood story in the Bronze Age that pops up in many myths and the Bible. The tale of Lycaon and his ill-advised hubris is told by the racy Roman poet, Ovid. He delighted in the details of the monarch’s downfall and being reduced to scrabbling around on all fours for meat.

Lycaon had clearly sacrificed a human being – possibly one of his own many sons – in order to provide Zeus with a meal. According to Plato and a later Greek writer, Pausanias, a curious ritual was held annually in the kingdom forever after involving a young noble transforming into a wolf by a lake. There was also the suggestion that human sacrifice was still being practised in this area as late as the 2nd century AD.

Werewolves Explained – Viking Beserkers and Ulfhednar

Not surprising that if imitating wild animals while shrieking and slaying was the order of the day – then the Vikings were almost bound to be involved. Beserkers wore bear skins and Ulfhednar opted for wolf skin. Both groups of warriors had such an insatiable appetite for bloodshed that before a battle they were said to bite their shields furiously, attack trees, and even kill a few people on their own side while warming up for the fighting ahead.

The famous Lewis chess set – dating back to the Viking period – has a knight who is biting his shield Beserker style – so this may be an accurate claim!

Werewolves Explained – lycanthropy in the bible?

As I mention in the film here, the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar is said to have turned into a wild animal and was sent away from his people during these phases of madness. Whether he actually transformed or believed he was a different creature is not exactly satisfactorily explained in the Book of Daniel. He appears to have suffered from either lycanthropy or ‘boanthropy’, because he’s described as an ox as opposed to a wolf in one verse of scripture.

This is the relevant passage in the bible:

While the word was still in the king’s mouth, a voice fell from heaven: “King Nebuchadnezzar, to you it is spoken: the kingdom has departed from you! And they shall drive you from men, and your dwelling shall be with the beasts of the field. They shall make you eat grass like oxen; and seven times shall pass over you, until you know that the Most High rules in the kingdom of men, and gives it to whomever He chooses.”

That very hour the word was fulfilled concerning Nebuchadnezzar; he was driven from men and ate grass like oxen; his body was wet with the dew of heaven till his hair had grown like eagles’ feathers and his nails like birds’ claws.

The brilliant illustrator William Blake depicted Nebuchadnezzar in his bestial state.

Werewolves Explained – the boy wolves of India

The wolf boy (and girl) phenomenon has been reported for millennia. Right back to the myth of Romulus and Remus, babies suckled by a she-wolf who went on to found the city of Rome. Over the last 150 years, India has become a focal point for these stories. In 1867, a feral boy named Dina Sanichar was found living with wolves in the state of Uttar Pradesh at a time when India was under British colonial rule. His story is often cited as a major influence on the author Rudyard Kipling and his bestselling novel, The Jungle Book – later animated by Walt Disney.

In 1954 and 1976, two other wolf boys were discovered in India – exciting global media interest. The latter child was a baby when found and ended up in an orphanage run by Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Shockingly to my view, he died at the age of ten in 1985.

The Anarchist assassination of President McKinley

Everybody knows about the assassination of two US Presidents: Abraham Lincoln in 1865 and John F Kennedy in 1963. But what about President William McKinley on 14 September, 1901? Shot at point-blank range by an anarchist called Leon Czolgosz and dying of his wounds just over a week later. As we move into a stormy political period worldwide, this assassination is the one we should all know about.

The murder of McKinley was part of a global wave of assassinations that claimed top political leaders including McKinley. Other victims of the anarchists included the King of Italy, President of France, Tsar of Russia, King of Greece, and the Empress of Austria. In 1920, an anarchist bomb detonated on Wall Street, the financial heart of New York, killed 38 people. The worst terrorist atrocity in the city until 9/11.

In the 1890s and up until the 1920s, there were secret anarchist cells operating on American soil planning attacks in the United States and around the world. The successful plot to kill the King of Italy, Umberto I, in 1900 was hatched in New Jersey and implemented by an Italian-American called Gaetano Bresci, who travelled to Italy to carry out the murderous deed.

The assassination of President McKinley was carried out by a working-class Polish American, Leon Czolgosz, who was known to some of the leading anarchists in the United States including Emma Goldman – a globally recognised figure at the time. Czolgosz may have carried out the crime as a lone operator to prove his worth to comrades, some of whom thought he was an ‘agent provocateur’ in the pay of the police. Or he may have been directed by other anarchists.

DISCOVER: The eight assassination attempts on Queen Victoria

Ten facts about the anarchist assassination of President William McKinley

Here are ten facts about the McKinley assassination that you might not know:

  1. Newspapers had been warning of an anarchist-inspired attack on the President for weeks before. One senior police officer thought the same anarchist cell behind the killing of King Umberto of Italy was planning to murder McKinley.
  2. President McKinley’s killer – the anarchist Leon Czolgosz – was suspected by his fellow anarchists of being a police spy.
  3. Czolgosz hid his gun in a handkerchief and in a major security breach fire at very close range at McKinley.
  4. An African-American called James Benjamin Parker, born to enslaved parents in 1857 in Atlanta, Georgia stopped Czolgosz firing a third shot into McKinley and his heroism led to public call for a statute to be erected of Parker. Sadly he died in poverty six years later.
  5. Anarchists were rounded up across the United States after the death of President McKinley including the infamous Emma Goldman described as the “queen of anarchism”
  6. President McKinley loved meeting the public and boasted he could shake fifty hands a minute
  7. McKinley removed one of the bullets that Czolgosz had fired himself as he was being stretchered out as that bullet had glanced off his suit buttons while the other had penetrated his abdomen and would kill him
  8. The President urged his security detail to stop beating Czolgosz after the shooting
  9. The assassination happened at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York state, and there was an early X-Ray machine being used as a fun exhibit but it was not deployed by medical staff to find the bullet lodged deep in the President
  10. Czolgosz was condemned to the electric chair but a film widely circulated on YouTube purporting to show his execution is actually a re-enactment with an actor produced by Thomas Edison’s film company. His last words before the volts were fired through his body were: “I killed the President because he was the enemy of the good people – the good working people. I am not sorry for my crime.

This YouTube film below that I presented, directed and produced tells most of the story of the McKinley assassination. Below it, I share even more salacious details – including questions we have to ask about the personal lives of and psychology of these anarchists.

The ceaseless slayings by anarchist assassins had experts scratching their heads. What was motivating these killers? Psychology was in its infancy. Months before McKinley’s death, Professor Cesare Lombroso at the University of Turin published a study that reads today more like a tabloid newspaper rant than a serious analysis. He called the anarchist assassins “moral madmen, half-educated, or not educated at all”.

He took aim specifically at Luigi Luccheni, a fellow Italian who had murdered the Empress Elizabeth of Austria in 1898 with a knife while she was taking a stroll in the Swiss city of Geneva. Professor Lombroso pointed to Luccheni’s troubled childhood as “the son of a tippling priest of unsteady mind, and of a servant”. Raised in a foundling asylum, then farmed out to various foster parents, followed by a period of begging. And he was epileptic. Seemingly “gentle natured” and kind to children. Nevertheless a terrible anger was building up inside him.

Luccheni “feels the breath of anarchy” – Lombroso wrote – which he believes can “avenge his many grievances”. This is a recognised pattern in radicalisation today. Grievance creates a cognitive opening for terrorist ideology which legitimises and enables violent action. He stabbed the Empress. After his arrest, Luccheni claimed he would have killed any aristocrat who crossed his path that day “even if she had been a little baby”.

At his trial, Luccheni demanded the death penalty. He wanted to die. Professor Lombroso concluded that “his homicide is nothing except an indirect suicide”. What law enforcement today calls ‘suicide by cop’ when an individual knowingly provokes the police into a deadly response to kill themselves. Lombroso noted this character trait in many of the anarchist assassins of his time.

But then Lombroso took a weirder turn in his analysis. Not only was Luccheni suicidal (he did go on to hang himself in jail), but he was…”in temperament a homosexual”. Worse – a homosexual with epilepsy! This is of course wildly offensive today. Lombroso’s theory is that anarchists like Luccheni swung between criminality and anarchy. He could tell what phase Luccheni was in by his handwriting – going from “small and feminine characters” (presumably in his homosexual/anarchist phase) to criminality, when his handwriting got bigger and more butch!

Lombroso characterised anarchists as something akin to werewolves who kill in a trance-like state and then have to sleep it off. As for the epilepsy: “Epilepsy, moreover, is extremely frequent among anarchists, and one might say that it was the basis of action among the bomb-throwing anarchists”. The debate about the relationship between mental illness and radicalisation into terrorism is still very live today but experts are more careful about how they frame the issue.

This is an image of Luccheni under arrest below looking very pleased with himself.

The contemporary debate about the motivations of anarchist killers threw up some crazy ideas. Madame De Thebes, a Paris-based palmist, was sure that the answer lay in examining the shape of anarchists’ hands. She had examined the hands of several anarchist assassins and noted marked similarities.

The hand of a standard murderer is less detailed than an ordinary hand because the lines indicating love, long life, and domestic happiness are not there apparently. Neither are the raised mounts that tell of success and “worthy ambition”. But the politically motivated murderer, Madame De Thebes observed “has a less brutal hand than the ordinary murderer”.

Although the Parisian palmist had nothing good to say about the hand of Italian-born, French resident Sante Geronimo Caserio – an anarchist who successfully stabbed President Marie François Sadi Carnot to death in 1894 and was guillotined for his crime. His hand was “repellent” with four fingers of almost equal length and a thumb that was “strong, heavy, and brutal”. In a diagram reproduced below, De Thebes was most insistent that a murderer’s was invariably “short and thick”.

If you enjoy my video on anarchist assassinations – it is part of a playlist on YouTube about terrorists in history so do watch some of the others that cover everybody from Jesus Christ to Guy Fawkes.

alien contact

Alien contact with humans – fact or myth?

For millennia, humans have looked up at the skies and wondered if it was the house of the Gods or alien beings. Over the last century, the genre of science fiction has exploded as we’ve made our first tentative steps into outer space. With that has come a slew of theories about UFOs, UAPs and extra-terrestrials. But have humans ever really made alien contact?

This is what a new film presented by me sets out to investigate. Click on the video link to view. It gives you a full description of one hundred years of conspiracy theories, claimed sightings and the latest views on what may lurk in the cosmos.

I start by looking at our burning desire to find aliens. Something called the Fermi Paradox. We want to believe there are other life forms in the universe, but we have no evidence. That hasn’t stopped us churning out books, documentaries, and movies with aliens as friends and enemies. So much content has been created that most of us are thoroughly convinced alien life exists and human contact will happen.

DISCOVER: Neolithic statues that look like aliens

I run through the key events in the 20th century around UFOs from Roswell to Area 51 and examine the evidence. Also, how alien contact stories have often coincided with politics on planet Earth. For example, how fear of communism in 1950s America was projected on to extra-terrestrials as disguised enemies mingling amongst us – just like Soviet spies.

Then the trend towards aliens being seen as our galactic creators – replacing God. As traditional religion declines, so we’ve turned to the idea of alien intervention in our human past. Contact with creatures from other planets speeding up our development as a species. The theory that ancient monuments and even ancient people could have been alien imports.

In our own time, scepticism and hostility towards government agencies has mixed with a belief in alien life. Some very complex ideas about human alliances with aliens to develop new defence technologies and so on. Accusations that NASA and the US military are covering up what they know about UFOs. None of this is substantiated of course and these agencies have strenuously denied that they’re withholding information.

I’m intrigued by what alien contact with humans could look like. Would our first meeting be with some form of Artificial Intelligence as opposed to a fleshy extra-terrestrial with green skin?

In conclusion, coming back to the Fermi Paradox, I wonder if we are alone in the universe and have simply projected our hopes and fears but also achievements (in the past and future) on to alien beings that we have no solid evidence actually exist? In effect are we the aliens we like to describe?

Enjoy the film and share your views and experience on this fascinating subject!

The shortest war in history – just 40 minutes!

The shortest war in history was between the British Empire and the sultanate of Zanzibar. A David and Goliath struggle in which Goliath won – in just over 40 minutes. It was enough time for the British to inflict 500 dead on the enemy while only sustaining a single casualty on their side.

The reason for the shortest war in history was a dispute over the appointment of a new sultan. The previous holder of this title and ruler of the idyllic island off the east African coast had died in rather suspicious circumstances. His nephew then took power. But the local British consul took the view that no new sultan could be appointed until Queen Victoria’s local representative said so.

However, the newly enthroned sultan thought different. He told the British to mind their own business. However, the British felt they were indeed minding their own business. Zanzibar was a protectorate. And the British were intent on protecting Zanzibar from German expansion in Africa. The new sultan wasn’t trusted on the German issue and so had to go.

Neither side was prepared to back down. And so the British embarked on what is euphemistically termed ‘gunboat diplomacy’. That meant positioning three cruisers, two gunboats and 150 marines in the harbour of the sultan’s capital and then bombarding his palace. That kind of diplomacy!

DISCOVER: Medieval buildings bombed in World War Two

The sultan responded by firing back with a Gatling gun that – ironically – had been a present from Queen Victoria. He also mustered a 17th century cannon and a couple of field guns. Needless to say, he couldn’t match the firepower of the British Empire.

The war kicked off at 9am and was over by 9.40am – making it the shortest war in history. And it’s the theme of an episode in my new YouTube series, Weird History Facts. Do please watch and enjoy!

metal detector

Metal detector treasure hunting comeback!

The metal detector is making a comeback with treasure hunting enthusiasts back out again looking for ancient loot. But in the United Kingdom, this has led the government to rethink the law on ancient artefacts dug up by amateur enthusiasts.

Changes are being made to the 1996 Treasure Act (yes, such a piece of legislation exists!) that will re-define metal detector finds as treasure. That’s if they are of major historical or cultural significance. Which means, you can’t make off with them so easily. Or at least, that’s the idea.

The normal definition is that a find has to be over 300 years old, made of gold or silver or found alongside artefacts made of precious metals. In 2014, a Roman figure of a man nearly left Britain for a private collector because it didn’t meet these criteria. The export was stopped at the last minute.

DISCOVER: My quest for Templar treasure with the History channel

Roman statues cast in bronze have slipped through the net and disappeared, which is very sad. New rules mean that will no longer happen. Or at least, if it does – it’ll be illegal.

I was given a metal detector back in the 1970s when I was about 11 years of age. Epping Forest was at the top of my road and I got hopelessly addicted. Those beeps and whines of the machine were great fun. Unfortunately, despite the huge amount of history in the area where I grew up – Roman, Saxon and medieval treasure eluded me.

In recent years, I’ve spent a lot of time visiting Paris with work. And I’m very aware that many metal detector enthusiasts make their way to the battlefields of the two World Wars looking for artefacts. I suppose because my father was alive during the last War I’m a bit queasy about this.

So are the French authorities. At the Gare du Nord rail station in Paris there are placards held up by employees warning Eurostar travellers that if they smuggle stuff out then there will be consequences.

Muslim American slaves

Muslim African slaves in America

Here’s an angle on American slavery that I’d never considered. How did the treatment of African slaves who were Muslim differ from non-Muslim slaves?

I knew nothing about the role of Muslim African slaves in 18th and 19th century America until I read a fascinating book called A History of Islam in America published by the Cambridge University Press. The author is a professor of religion, Kambiz GhaneaBassiri.

Most white slave owners were ignorant of differences between people in Africa. To them, Africans were a commodity bought and sold for their labour and that was it. But a minority seem to have taken an interest, if only to find ways of exploiting those differences for their own advantage.

They noticed that some of their slaves knelt to pray five times during the day while working on the plantation. Many were literate as they been brought up writing and reading Arabic. And they didn’t identify with non-Muslim Africans who having not accepted the word of Allah were therefore unenlightened.

Some white American slave owners began to regard the Muslim slaves as a cut above the others – and these slaves encouraged this notion. After all, they wanted better treatment and held out the hope that it might be possible to find the means to be freed one day.

Professor GhaneaBassiri notes that some were even given supervisory roles over other slaves because they were seen as being brainier. He also notes that of course some Muslim Africans had been slaveowners back in their homeland or had engaged in wars of religion with pagan Africans in the decades before.

DISCOVER: The male model in the Abraham Lincoln plot

During the War of Independence against the British, some African Muslims fought with the colonists. Names on the military muster rolls include Bampett Muhamed, Yusuf ben Ali and Joseph Saba. It’s well known that Thomas Jefferson owned a copy of the Qur’an and opposed discrimination against Muslims and Jews.

In the years after independence, the new United States experienced years of conflict with the so-called “Barbary” states of north Africa. The US even suffered the indignity of its own sailors being captured off the African coast and sold into slavery – by Africans. Karma is the word that comes to mind.

Behind the scenes, a still miffed Britain encouraged the north African rulers to attack American shipping no longer protected by the Royal Navy after independence in 1783. In desperation, the US turned to Muslim African slaves in its diplomacy with the Barbary states to try and put a stop to the onslaught on its ships.

Teen diet in the 1940s – pigging out, staying slim

The teen diet in 1940s America at the end of the Second World War was surprisingly generous. I mean, young people seemed to have been pigging out and staying slim. What was the secret?

I found an old copy of Life magazine in my vast collection of old publications dating back three hundred years. This was the 11 June 1945 edition of Life with plenty about the ongoing war between the US and Japan (Germany had already surrendered) and a front page picture plus feature story on teen diets.

It followed an American kid called Richie in Des Moines whose 1940s teen diet was truly epic. I mean, he just didn’t seem to stop eating. And yet – he was not clinically obese as so many young people today are – regrettably.

Here is Richie’s June 1945 daily intake!

Dairy products, red meat, bread and some fruit – but not much by way of green vegetables. Meals eaten at home but also down at the Drug Store. Sandwiches are a staple with peanut butter and jam. Snacks involve ice cream, biscuits and soda.

Sliced bread features heavily and the lunch Richie gets at the Drug Store looks like something your Mum would make today as a school packed lunch. Dinner was still a three-course affair eaten at the dining room table. A ritual that might yet be revived following the Coronavirus lockdown.

We can see processed food creeping into the teen diet but nothing like the scale we witness today. And there’s no burger bars with super portions. Also – deep fried chicken was not a feature of every street corner.

The teen diet in the United States in 1945 is pretty much along the lines of what we think about young people eating throughout the 1950s. But in the UK and Europe, the picture was very different. Hearty food was not so readily available after the Second World War. And there was rationing through the late 40s and early 50s.

Plus unlike Richie – there wasn’t a vast continent pumping out farm produce on anything like the scale of the US. Europe was also battle scarred and recovering from a massive loss of human life. So, diets were pretty austere for everybody including your average teen.

This is a clever video below on 1950s teen diet reality in the United Kingdom.

Coronavirus – lessons of past plagues

Coronavirus has been a huge shock. But history is brimming with pandemics and plagues. So, what can we learn from them?

Here’s the bad news first.

Diseases like Coronavirus have an amazingly long history

Viruses have been part of our evolutionary history since we stood on two feet and spread out of Africa. Viruses are not strangers – they have been with us for millions of years – and more than likely, will be with us forever.

Coronavirus isn’t a wholly new phenomenon or a moral judgment on our species – as some seem to suggest (on Twitter for example) – it’s just the latest manifestation of a long running phenomenon.

Here’s the really freaky thing – because of the way in which viruses hijack our cells and mess us up – they have probably played a role in our evolution as a species. So close is our relationship to viruses, that they could even be manipulated in the future to cure cancer or genetic disorders. Small comfort now.

But while the Coronavirus is taking a terrible toll – we could one day harness viruses to be a force for good. Basically instructing a virus to do something useful in our bodies instead of harming us. That’s the science of tomorrow – so what about the impact viruses have had on us in history.

Ancient Greek history – disease with a Coronavirus like impact

A catastrophe like a plague can be absorbed by a civilisation in otherwise robust health. But at a critical moment, it can have a devastating impact. The trouble is – pandemics in history often seem to occur when or because of a broader crisis. So – we know that ancient Athens was racked by plague in 430BC at the height of the Peloponessian War – which killed the great Greek leader and statesman Pericles.

Pericles – died of plague

Plague after plague in the Roman Empire

History shows us that the greatest empire of them all could succumb to the equivalent of Coronavirus and its might and majesty provided no cure.

The Roman Empire saw two huge plagues at turning points in its history. The Antonine plague of the second century AD came at the end of a period of relative stability but now the eastern frontier with Persia was becoming increasingly problematic. And it’s possible that returning soldiers from those battlefields brought the disease back into the heart of Rome.

In the following century, the Plague of Cyprian (recorded by a bishop called Cyprian) bore all the hallmarks of an influenza-driven pandemic. Cyprian wrote about fevers, the passing of blood and aching limbs. When all factors are taken into consideration, it seems the Romans at that time succumbed to an Ebola type of disease. It came at a time when the empire was divided and at war on many fronts – when its usual reserves of vitality were severely depleted.

Spanish Flu – a Coronavirus type pandemic in history

Today in 2020, the British prime minister Boris Johnson contracted the Coronavirus. But he’s not the first leader of the United Kingdom to have fallen victim to a pandemic. In 1918, the news was hushed up that the then Prime Minister Lloyd George – who had just led the country to victory in World War One – had contracted the deadly Spanish Flu.

I was never told about this studying the “Great War” as a child in the 1970s. Britain had just beaten Germany after a four year war and the establishment didn’t want anybody to know that the Prime Minister was flat on his back in bed attached to a ventilator. Ironically, he may have picked up this disease during the many celebrations at the end of the war. And tragically, the Spanish Flu ended up killing more people than died in the trenches.

David Lloyd George – British leader who got deadly flu

The tragedy of HIV/AIDS

The societal impact of a virus can ultimately be positive despite the terrible human cost. HIV/AIDS was an appalling illness that ripped through the gay community in the 1980s. I knew two men who died of AIDS and that was immensely tragic. But the virus forced gay identity to the top of the media agenda. Initially that was a negative. Gay people were accused of spreading a plague.

But within the gay community it built a gritty determination and anger to break through and demand tolerance and acceptance. And among the wider population, gay people went from largely invisible to highly visible. Families were forced to realise that a son, father or cousin was gay – because they finally had the courage to come out.

The Coronavirus has up-ended our lives. There’s already a mass of academic content on how things will be different. The state looks set to play a bigger role. Populism in politics will be in the dock. Experts may come back into fashion. And so on. Let’s see!

London hated the French long before Brexit

If you think Brexit is making Britain more xenophobic, then you need to get a time machine and go back to Georgian London. Because two hundred years ago, a French person walking around London might not only endure abuse but come to an unfortunate end!

Eighteenth century London was a dangerous place to walk around if you were French. As England was in an almost constant state of war with France, Londoners often sought out a Frenchman in the city to pick on or worse.

FIND OUT MORE: The urban gang that terrorised Georgian London

London abuse against the French long before Brexit

There are several accounts of unpleasant abuse meted out by London folk against the French in the 1940 history book The Streets of London by Thomas Burke. He details one appalling incident where a French servant went to see a public hanging at Tyburn and nearly got executed himself!

British and French

The hanging of two criminals had just finished when three people in the crowd, realising the servant was French, began pulling at his coat-tails and powdered wig (this is the 18th century after all).

At which point the hangman was going past in the cart, in which he’d brought the condemned in to die, and began joining in the harassment by taking to the French servant with his whip.

He began to wonder if his time was up when three other Frenchmen came to his rescue. They beat the English thugs back and got him into a nearby tavern.

The narrator of this story then pointed out that should a Frenchman find himself in this predicament, he should single out one of his assailants and fight him with his fists.

If he wins, the typical English crowd would then declare him a good sport and parade him around in a chair!

Why I prefer Roundheads to Royalists

America had its revolutionary war in the 18th century – at the same time as the French Revolution. But a hundred years before, England had a war that pitched defenders of parliamentary democracy – Roundheads – against defenders of absolute monarchy – the Royalists.

The issues were not entirely dissimilar to what would be played out in the new United States in the future. If you want – the English Civil War between Roundheads and Royalists was a dress rehearsal for George Washington versus King George III.

Roundheads against Royalists – whose side to pick?

BBC Four is broadcasting a new series titled Charles I: Downfall of a King telling the gripping of how a divinely anointed king of England in the 17th century was toppled and eventually executed by beheading in front of a London crowd.

His overthrow was the result of a civil war that divided England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland into two camps: Roundheads who opposed the king and Royalists who fought for him.

Which rather begs the question – which side would any of us have been on?

Royalists or Roundheads then?

Watching the programme last night, I found my inner Roundhead stirring. Here was a pint-sized monarch painted to look like a victorious giant with a decidedly mean streak when it came to his own subjects.

In one letter read out on the programme, he cheerfully orders troops to go and shoot at those who dared to question his divine right to rule.

And let’s be clear, since Magna Carta was signed over four hundred years earlier, kings and queens had been forced to take on board the views of the aristocracy, clergy and wealthier citizens as opposed to ruling like an all-powerful pharaoh.

That was something French kings did – exercising absolute power and accountable to nobody.

READ MORE: Ten weird facts about Hitler

How power mad monarchs provoked Roundheads to fight Royalists

But Charles and his father James I had sought to enforce the notion of ruling by “divine right” – that is they were not monarchs because of human decisions but because God had chosen them to rule. England’s parliament was justifiably angered by such a notion.

But so too were religious dissenters who opposed Charles trying to enforce one version of Christianity on the whole kingdom.

Scotland rose in revolt when Charles tried to impose his authorised prayer book and Anglican bishops. There was a strong suspicion among puritanical Protestants that Charles was seeking to create the kind of Catholic influenced monarchy you could see across Europe with its accompanying Inquisition and blind obedience to the pope.

Patriotic Roundheads and treacherous Royalists

This suspicion was fuelled by the fact that Charles was married to a French woman, Henrietta Maria. And she was undoubtedly of the view that her husband should clamp down on both political and religious opposition.

England had experienced a Reformation a hundred years before to throw out the pope, monks and friars – and there was no appetite to turn the clock back. Charles was swimming against the tide of progress and reform. Once defeated at the end of the civil war, he resorted to petty scheming and plotting, even with foreign powers, to get his untrammelled power back.

FIND OUT MORE: The maddest rulers in history

Cromwell and his Roundheads vanquish the Royalists

Once Charles was deposed and then beheaded, Oliver Cromwell became Lord Protector of the Commonwealth – an early experiment in republican rule. He’s been reviled and demonised by royalists ever since. In fact, Cromwell’s reputation is far worse now than it was under the Victorians a hundred years ago – who regarded him as a champion of parliamentary democracy and the rule of law.

But Cromwell was everything that Charles wasn’t. A solid Englishman from the shires who inspired others by his leadership and rejected royal pomp and extravagance. When he was painted, the Lord Protector ordered that the painter depict him “warts and all”. Unlike Charles who was made to look gigantic and his wife Henrietta Maria whose teeth were apparently like “bullwarks” but appears to us as a rare beauty.

I’d be interested to know whether you see yourself as a Roundhead or a Cavalier…