The Propaganda of the Defeated

The quest for justice for maligned figures in our past forces us to question the notion of historical truth and objectivity.

The noble but defeated figure treated unjustly by posterity is a recurring feature of Britain and its history, often appropriated as a tool to accomplish political or cultural goals in the contemporary world. Those who entertain a developed sense of justice want to see this side of history prevail, actively representing it as a means of preserving the cultures and principles these figures fought tirelessly to defend. This fight to establish a new historical truth inevitably pits the romantic, enthusiastic, amateur historian against the apparently dispassionate and rational historian. 

The most famous example of this is perhaps Richard III, whose supporters and their quest to rehabilitate his image are well known. However, another story about a forgotten hero blends issues of historical truth with identity: the story of Prince Madoc. This Welsh prince apparently fled his war-stricken home during the 12th century and sailed west from modern Colwyn Bay to discover America, landing at Mobile, Alabama. According to legend, Prince Madoc explored the American interior and members of his party intermarried into a Native American tribe, the Mandans, bequeathing them both pale skins and the Welsh language. In the years since, his story has been in the possession of a bewildering number of people with different agendas and uses for it. Professional historians have often felt unwillingly dragged into the legend, tending to dismiss it as fanciful and lacking proof, and were poor value among those who gazed wistfully at the Atlantic. The most famous account of the story comes from the great left-wing historian Gwyn Williams, who used it to elaborate a wider history of Welshness that encompassed both the British Empire and exploration on the eastern seaboard of America. But Williams also saw the story as double- edged with its blind assertion liable to make the Welsh a laughing stock. He felt the Madoc legend had eclipsed the history of the Welsh common people, potentially turning them into a romantic Celtic sideshow. This element also surfaced in Madoc’s adoption by the Daughters of the American Revolution, who erected a plaque in his honour at Mobile as a way of asserting a further connection with an intriguingly Celtic origin. Subscription to the Madoc legend was also almost a touchstone of national identity among Welsh descendants in the New World. While professional historians hoped they had banished Madoc, or discredited his legend as a skilled Tudor fabrication with its own purposes, they were scarcely to have things all their own way. Enthusiastic amateurs persisted, claiming they had uncovered literary evidence that predated the Tudors, while others said they could point to suggestive archaeological evidence uncovered on both sides of the Atlantic. New ways of investigating arrived with DNA testing, championed by the Madoc International Research Association, which hoped to provide a clear and obvious link between the Welsh prince and Native Americans. Perhaps the latest attempt to take possession of Prince Madoc and his story was the campaign in his ‘home town’ of Colwyn Bay, which hosted an exhibition in his honour. This offered the twin lures of heritage tourists from both sides of the Atlantic, while bolstering Welsh independent identities during the quest for political devolution from Westminster.

Elsewhere the Montrose Society of Scotland is a comparatively recent phenomenon that celebrates and seeks to publicise the career of another noble figure who inspired sympathy for the manner in which he was defeated and accepted his fate. James Graham, the 1st Marquis of Montrose, was an early signatory of the Solemn League and Covenant, a pledge to gain increasing separation from the king, Charles I, that escalated into outright war. According to the account given by the Montrose Society, the marquis was sent north with a commission to raise an army, which eventually won a series of important military victories against Covenanter armies in a period that became known as ‘the year of miracles’. However success melted away and after defeat and surrender Montrose went into exile to be courted by the new king, Charles II, who was also negotiating with the Covenanters behind Montrose’s back. The Society states that the king knew he was sending Montrose back to Scotland to a certain death and, perhaps inevitably, he was duly arrested and executed in Edinburgh in April 1650. This story stresses the courage of a man of gentility and learning, loyal to a cause and individuals who manifestly appear not to deserve such loyalty. Likewise it displays a morality tale of loyal Scottish service betrayed by the fickle and devious behaviour of successive English kings who forgot they were kings of Scotland as well. The Montrose Society has also ensured a last intriguing tinge, suggesting that he should be regarded as a champion of constitutional monarchy and a prototype for modern Scottish politicians who might echo the sentiments of his last words to the Scottish people from the scaffold: ‘God have mercy on this afflicted land.’ 

Several of these sentiments are echoed in organisations devoted to remembering the importance of the Jacobite cause. Re-enactors like the Charles Edward Stuart Society bring bekilted troops to Derby every year to commemorate the furthest point in England reached by Bonnie Prince Charlie’s troops. Alternatively the Royal Stuart Society keeps alive knowledge of the Stuart monarchy and offers itself as the defender of monarchy in opposition to republicanism. Perhaps most interesting of all is an organisation called the ‘Circle of Gentlemen’, claiming to have been in existence since the ‘Good Old Cause’ was driven underground after Culloden in 1745 and secretly working for the defence of Scotland ever since. As such, they also offer a counterpoint to the hybrid identities created by the modern world, suggesting that the advent of multicultural society has produced a need ‘to hold onto old values and traditions’. Perhaps such organisations provide historical focus for less articulate and conscious nationalist feelings that can otherwise appear in every context in every place from popular song, to the football terrace and, most recently, the ballot box.

Being a victor in history’s great battles is no guarantee of total success or of the survival of your version of history. History always has hidden stories to tell and it is also a hitherto hidden story just how far enthusiasts and professional historians have been prepared to go in resurrecting some of these. Defeated, marginal and forgotten figures hold a fascination for those who believe history is about truth. But such figures are also pressed into service in the contemporary world to shore up identities under threat or to promote them in a time of potentially advantageous change.

David Nash's book, Christian Ideals in British Culture: Stories of Belief in the Twentieth Century, is out now, published by Palgrave MacMillan.