Marie Antoinette DIDN’T say ‘let them eat cake’ and the Vikings DIDN’T have horns on their helmets: New book debunks some of history’s ‘fake’ but widely believed tales
- Myths are debunked in new book Fake History: 101 things that never happened
- It is by historian Jo Hedwig Teeuwisse, who is known as the Fake History Hunter
They are tales so firmly engrained in the public consciousness that it seems ridiculous to claim they aren’t true.
France’s decadent last queen, Marie Antoinette, said ‘let them eat cake’ in response to the plight of the poor.
The Vikings marauded around Europe in the Middle Ages whilst wearing majestic helmets topped with horns.
The final words of British hero Admiral Horatio Nelson were ‘kiss me, Hardy’.
But, as a new book explains, all of the above alleged facts – along with 98 others – are anything but.
Fake History: 101 things that never happened, is by historian Jo Hedwig Teeuwisse, who has built a huge following on social media as the ‘Fake History Hunter’.
Below, MailOnline delves into some of the claims from history that many still believe.
Marie Antoinette said ‘Let them eat cake’
It is a myth that typified the hedonism of the French king and queen, as ordinary people were starving. When Marie Antoinette – wife of Louis XVI – was told that the poor couldn’t buy bread, she is said to have replied: ‘Let them eat cake!’. Above: American star Kirsten Dunst is seen portraying a very hedonistic version of the French Queen in the 2006 film Antoinette
It is a myth that typified the hedonism of the French king and queen, as ordinary people were starving.
When Marie Antoinette – wife of Louis XVI – was told that the poor couldn’t buy bread, she is said to have replied: ‘Let them eat cake!’
Infuriated by her remarks, the people triggered the French Revolution – cutting off the heads of the king and queen in the process.
The truth is that there is no evidence Antoinette ever made such a remark. Ms Teeuwisse tells how no one even claimed she said it until ‘long after her death’.
Instead, Antoinette – despite her decadent lifestyle – did show concern for the poor.
The new book reveals how she told her mother in a letter in 1775: ‘It is at the same time wonderful to be so well received two months after the riots and in spite of the high price of bread which unfortunately continues.
There is no evidence Antoinette ever made such a remark. Ms Teeuwisse tells how no one even claimed she said it until ‘long after her death’
‘It is certain that when people who are suffering treat us so well, we are even more obligated to work for their happiness.’
The cake phrase came from a story written by philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He claimed a ‘great princess’ responded to news of there being no bread for the poor by saying ‘then let them eat brioches’.
Ms Teeuwisse points out that that the princess was not named, and that brioche is not cake.
The story was written between 1766 and 1767, when Antoinette would have been aged around 11 and living in Austria.
The Vikings had horns on their helmets
It has long been a belief among many: the Vikings had horns on their helmets.
The pervasiveness of this was typified when one of the protesters who stormed the US Capitol in 2021 was described as having a ‘Viking helmet’ or ‘Viking horns’ because of his bizarre choice of head gear.
But Ms Teeuwisse says there is ‘no real evidence’ of Viking helmets with horns ever even existing.
Instead, it is unlikely that the Scandinavian warriors – who raided and settled all across Europe from the eighth to the 11th centuries – favoured fancy helmets at all.
It has long been a belief among many: the Vikings had horns on their helmets
Only one complete helmet has ever been found at a burial site, and it did not have horns.
Ms Teeuwisse says that the idea of Viking horned helmets ‘didn’t really pop up until the Victorian era’.
At the time, the Middle Ages were ‘extremely popular’. In his epic musical dramas, composer Richard Wagner’s visions of history featured men with horned and even winged helmets.
This fuelled the craze for the depiction of the Vikings in such a way.
Napoleon was unusually short
The assumption that Napoleon was short firmly ingrained in public consciousness.
So much so that the marauding French emperor’s name was give to the ‘Napoleon complex’ – the term applied to short people who are allegedly domineering to make up for their lack of height.
The belief about Napoleon being vertically challenged stems in large part from the work of caricaturist James Gillray, whose cartoons in the late 18th century depicted the ruler as being tiny.
Ms Teeuwisse points out how he enjoyed portraying ‘Little Boney’ as ‘tiny and prone to temper tantrums like a toddler’.
In reality, Napoleon was of average height for his period. He was left angry at Gillray’s depiction of him and even tried to get the British government to do something about it.
The assumption that Napoleon was short firmly ingrained in public consciousness. Above: A cartoon by caricaturist James Gillray, showing Napoleon in the palm of the hand of King George III
Ms Teeuwisse adds: ‘This inevitably fuelled the fire: there he was, the great powerful emperor, stamping his little feet because of some drawings.’
The historian explains that knowing exactly how tall Napoleon was is challenging, because the old British and French systems of measurement used different standards.
His doctor wrote in 1802 that the emperor was five foot two inches, which when converted to the British system would be five foot six.
Equally, Ms Teeuwisse points out that no one who met him is recorded as having noted that he was unusually short
The assumption that Napoleon was short firmly ingrained in public consciousness. Above: Another Gillray cartoon
Hugo Boss designed the Nazi uniforms
Another popular myth is the claim that fashion house Hugo Boss designed the uniforms worn by the Nazis.
The firm’s founder, Hugo Ferdinand Boss, was a member of the Nazi party and did manufacture some of the Nazis’ uniforms – including their infamous brown shirts.
But Ms Teeuwisse explains that he was not a designer and had no role in how they looked.
Another popular myth is the claim that fashion house Hugo Boss designed the uniforms worn by the Nazis. Above: German illustrations of some of the Nazi unforms
Instead, his firm – then little-known – was just one of many producing clothes for the Nazis.
Ms Teeuwisse asks: ‘Why on earth would the Nazi party ask such a small clothing manufacturer with no real design talent or experience to design their uniforms?’
However, she adds that Boss was an ‘active supporter’ of the Nazis and happily used forced labour in his factories.
He was heavily fined after the war for having financially benefited from the Nazi regime and for having been friends with high-ranking Nazis.
In 2011, Hugo Boss apologies for using forced labour in its factories.
The firm’s founder, Hugo Ferdinand Boss, was a member of the Nazi party and did manufacture some of the Nazis’ uniforms
Hitler invented the motorway
Another common belief about the Nazis is that Adolf Hitler – despite his monstrous crimes – invented the motorway.
Ms Teeuwisse swifty demolishes both this and the claim that Hitler brought the motorway to Germany by opening the famous autobahn.
In fact, motorways in both New York and Italy before Hitler rose to power.
The first section of road that could be called an autobahn or motorway opened in Germany in 1921.
Another common belief about the Nazis is that Adolf Hitler – despite his monstrous crimes – invented the motorway
Eleven years later, a longer stretch opened in 1932 – the year before Hitler came to power.
And the motorway that opened in 1933 – after the Nazis had taken control – had mostly been under construction since 1931.
When the construction of the first autobahn section under Nazi rule did begin, Hitler was present at a huge ceremony which reinforced the notion that it had been his idea.
A picture taken in 1935 shows him in a convoy of cars as hundreds lined the road to see him open the newly-built autobahn from Munich to Salzburg.
Two bullets collided in mid-air in the First World War
It is a picture that has done the rounds on social media sites for years.
Two bullets are seen fused together, after apparently colliding during the battle of Gallipoli in the First World War.
It has long left many to wonder what happened to the opposing soldiers who fired the bullets.
It is a picture that has done the rounds on social media sites for years. Two bullets are seen fused together, after apparently colliding during the battle of Gallipoli in the First World War
However, the bullets clearly did not collide in mid-air. Ms Teeuwisse highlights the lack of ‘rifling’ marks on one of the projectiles.
The marks are obtained when a bullet travels through a barrel, which is never perfectly smooth.
Given that the pierced bullet is unblemished, it must have been shot before being fired.
Ms Teeuwisse speculates that it may have been stored in a cartridge box or soldier’s bandolier.
Such an occurrence is much less rare than two fired bullets colliding in mid-air.
The famous image was taken where the bullets were on display, in a museum in Turkey.
Nelson’s last words were ‘Kiss me, Hardy’
Admiral Horatio Nelson was revered both in life and in death. The majestic military figure was the vanquisher of the French, and the hero of the Battle of Trafalgar.
It was that fight that proved to be his last. Having been hit by a French sniper’s bullet, he die in his comrades’ arms.
It has long been believed his last words – uttered to his good friend Thomas Hardy – were ‘kiss me, Hardy’.
But Ms Teeuwisse points out that, although Nelson did ask his friend to kiss him, the request was not his final phrase.
The witness accounts of his passing recount that he was kissed on both the cheek and forehead by his friend.
But his parting words to Hardy before he slipped away were ‘God bless you, Hardy’.
Admiral Horatio Nelson was revered both in life and in death. The majestic military figure was the vanquisher of the French, and the hero of the Battle of Trafalgar
Witnesses including surgeon William Beatty and chaplain Alexander Scott all mention this moment in their accounts.
However, it is unclear what exactly the very last thing was that Nelson said.
He had repeatedly said, ‘thank God I have done my duty’, but the Dr Beatty was not there when Nelson lost the ability to speak so it is not known if these were his final words.
The admiral also kept asking for something to drink, someone to fan him and for someone to rub his chest, so any of those requests may have been the last thing he said.
Ms Teeuwisse also reminds readers that Nelson was dying as the battle with French was still ongoing, and so it is not surprising that the witness accounts of his final moments differ in some areas.
The pyramids were built by slaves
It is a sight often seen in films: slaves being whipped and threatened with their lives as they haul the stones of the pyramids up slopes.
The belief that the ancient Egyptian structures were built by slaves is a common one.
But there is no evidence that it is true.
Ms Teeuwisse writes: ‘Yes, there were slaves in ancient Egypt and somewhere along the production line they were very likely involved in the building of the pyramids – after all slavery was part of daily life.
Jewish slaves are seen being guarded by men with whips as they build the pyramids in ancient Egyptians
‘So I don’t think we can say they had absolutely nothing to do with the construction of the pyramids, but there is no evidence that they actually built them.’
The historian explains that the myth was probably born because someone had misunderstood what ancient Greek historian Herodotus had said.
He wrote of ‘gangs of a hundred thousand men’ dragging stones to their destinations.
But, in recent years, archaeologists have uncovered evidence that the workers were not slaves.
One example is the workers’ city that was established near the pyramids. ‘It didn’t look like a place where you’d keep slaves,’ Ms Teeuwisse writes.
General view of the ancient Egyptian pyramids, from the Giza Plateau
It boasted well-made streets and evidence of both fish preparation, the butchering of cattle and baking. ‘These workers enjoyed a good diet of high-quality food’, the historian adds.
This food would not have been wasted on ‘common’ slaves.
Graffiti found on some of the buildings also highlights how the men had a sense of humour. One group called themselves ‘the drunkards of Menkaure’.
Ms Teeuwisse concludes: ‘There is a lot of evidence that shows the pyramids were built by well-looked-after labourerers, and no evidence at all they were built by slaves.’
Fake History: 101 things that never happened, by Jo Hedwig Teeuwisse, is published by WH Allen
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