The What Ifs of History

Spanish ArmadaHello, Nicola here. Lately I’ve been thinking quite a lot about the “what ifs” of history, those moments when the future and sometimes the fate of nations hangs in the balance and when history could have turned out so differently. What if Wellington had lost the Battle of Waterloo? He said himself that it was “the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life.” What if the Roman Empire had never fallen? What if the South had won the Civil War? I read a brilliant article once on what would have happened if the infamous British weather had not played havoc with the invasion of the Spanish Armada in 1588. Counterfactual or alternative history is a fascinating topic for historians to speculate about. It’s also a very imaginative area for a writer to explore.

What got me started on alternative history this time around was the discussion we had here on theWhite Rose of York Wench blog about our favourite mystery and crime reads. Qute a few of us mentioned The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey as one of our favourites for it’s brilliant sleuthing and its characterisation. The Daughter of Time looks at an enduring historical mystery – who murdered the Princes in the Tower? It also prompts the question of what might have happened had the Yorkist dynasty survived.

As a confirmed fan of King Richard III I have often reflected on what might have happened if he had won at Bosworth rather than lost the battle to Henry Tudor. As is so often the case, victory hung on such a slender thread, Richard’s betrayal by traitors. If he had fled the battlefield and regrouped in the North where he had strong support, would he have won his throne back? And if he had, would he have hung on to it or would there always have been usurpers coming along to challenge him and his Yorkist successors?  

Anne BoleynFrom there is was a small hop in my reading to Pale Rose of England by Sandra Worth which tells the story of Perkin Warbeck from the perspective of his being Richard Plantagenet, the surviving son of King Edward IV. I had previously read Perkin by Ann Wroe and found it fascinating to speculate on whether Perkin was indeed Richard and what would have happened if he had taken back the throne from Henry VII. No succession of the Tudor dynasty! No six wives of Henry VIII! No Anne Boleyn, one of my history heroines. Well, presumably she would still have been born but maybe she would have married Henry Percy instead of Henry VIII and gone to live in Northumberland.

After Pale Rose of England I moved on to the early 18th century and to Shores of Darkness by DianaShores of Darknes Norman. I love her historical novels and this one grabbed me from the first. (Anyone read it? – it's a wonderful historical novel!) At Ashdown House we have a fabulous portrait collection bequeathed to William, 1st Earl of Craven by Elizabeth of Bohemia. We tell the story of how it was Elizabeth’s grandson George who became King of England after the death of Queen Anne. (I feel a bit sorry for George I – he is so often portrayed as a distant German cousin whom no one liked very much but the truth is he had a cast iron claim to the throne of England as a direct descendant of King James I.) Anyway, amongst our portrait collection is a swoonworthy painting of Prince Rupert of the Rhine, Elizabeth’s son. William Prince Rupert_of_the_RhineCraven was a great friend of Rupert’s and godfather to his illegitimate daughter Rupertina. But Rupert had another child, Dudley Bard, by the Honourable Frances Bard, daughter of Viscount Bellomont. Frances always claimed that she and Rupert were married and that she had the marriage licence to prove it. What if this were true and Rupert and Frances’s descendants had a better claim to the English throne than George? It’s a great premise for a story. (And there would have been no Regency period as we know it!)

There are so many points at which history could have turned out so differently and so many historical mysteries left unsolved. I was left wondering what it was about historical mysteries and historical speculation that so appeals to me. There’s something romantic about the not knowing and something intriguing about historical speculation. There’s the space to let your imagination roam over the possibilities and the “might have beens”. As writers we are constantly saying "what if." What if the plot twists in a particular way, what if this happens to our characters… What will they do? What happens next? It's no wonder that as historical writers - and readers – we are intrigued by alternative history and historical mysteries.

Do you have a favourite historical mystery? A moment in history you wish you could go back to witness to see what really happened? Or is there a historical event that you wish had turned out differently?