In the midst of a battlefield drenched in blood, a king stumbles through his ranks, an arrow buried deep in his eye. Body parts are scattered across the grass. The stench of death rises in the air. This sounds like the last battle scene of the latest historical film, right?
Wrong. This is the finale of medieval Europe’s oldest surviving example of historical fiction: the Bayeux Tapestry, commissioned by William the Conqueror to commemorate his victory at the Battle of Hastings almost a thousand years ago.
Fictionalising history is not a twenty-first-century phenomenon. Yet the rising popularity of historical drama in the age of the Internet is undeniable. History has been pillaged by streaming sites, filmmakers and TV commissioners alike for whom the past provides a goldmine of storylines for adaptation. But re-presenting history comes with its own particular responsibilities, and with popularity, these responsibilities to historical veracity are ever increasing.
The Crown, one of Netflix’s most popular and award-winning historical dramas, has been the subject of criticism for its misrepresentation of the past. Sonia Sodha, writing for the Guardian, called out The Crown for tipping the scales too far, saying that artists “have a responsibility to tell the truth because popular culture is how so many of us learn about history.”
But is the audience merely a passive recipient of popular culture, or an active participant for whom shows like The Crown provide a springboard into individual research and debate? Should the entertainment factor of a show be compromised by the inconvenient reality of what actually happened when the audience is capable of finding out the truth for themselves?
Typically, when a new historical drama is released, reviewers, historians and audiences are aready with their pitchforks to skewer what they perceive to be historically inaccurate. These debates have ranged from matters as serious as cultural erasure in blockbuster war films, to the grumblings of a viewer regarding the incorrect usage of a spoon in a BBC adaptation of Howards End.
Historian Hannah Greig argues rather than demanding everything must be accurate, historical dramas should first “engage and excite us” so that “we seek out further information”. A study into online fan groups for The Tudors found that of 170 threads, 64% contained a total of 484 references to historical sources invoked by contributors to support their arguments. It’s clear that audiences aren’t passive victims ready to be led astray by artistic licence, but are eager to discover the historical landscape behind shows. Historical drama can be a gateway to bring scholarship, and often underrepresented histories, to public attention, and into the debate.
To say that the distorted narratives of historical dramas are a crime against history is a one-dimensional view: a crime against the audience. It patronises viewers by implying that they cannot comprehend history more deeply than the object of entertainment placed in front of them. Good historical entertainment should bring out our inner historians and inspire us all to investigate the fact behind the fiction.