Horrible Histories is a popular British television series based on the best-selling book series by Terry Dreary. The show was produced for CBBC by Lion Television with Citrus Television and ran from 2009 to 2013 with an additional ‘reincarnation’ in 2015. Here in Australia, reruns are constantly being shown and the show is very popular in my home (and not just with the kids!).
The show is ‘hosted’ by a black rat puppet by the name of Rattus Rattus and stars Mathew Baynton, Simon Farnaby, Martha Howe-Douglas, Jim Howick, Laurence Rickard and Ben Willbond, alongside a large supporting cast headed by Sarah Hadland, Lawry Lewin and Dominique Moore.
Each episode lasts for half an hour and covers different time periods with interesting titles such as ‘Gorgeous Georgians’ or ‘Vile Victorians’. The show consists of Live-action sketches—which often parody other UK media or celebrities—and music videos, intercut with animations and quizzes, with Rattus Rattus explaining the facts behind each segment.
Horrible Histories was a critical and ratings success, winning numerous domestic and international awards (including being the first children’s show to win best sketch at the Comedy Awards) and has been named among the greatest British children’s television series of all time — with good reason, in my opinion. The show is entertaining for all ages, including adults, with the added benefit of being educational. Some of the most popular sketches and songs from the show have attracted more than half a million hits each on YouTube.
Frankly, I have learned more from this show than I ever did in History class.
Now that has been said, here is my top ten list of Horrible Histories songs, from ten to one:
Magna Carta 800 Years
The Magna Carta (latin for the Great Charter) was first drafted in 1215 by the Archbishop of Canterbury to make peace between the unpopular King John of England and a group of rebel barons. It promised the protection of church rights, protection for the barons from illegal imprisonment, access to swift justice, and limitations on feudal payments to the Crown, to be implemented through a council of 25 barons.
Despite the fact that it was broken or ignored and re-issued several times over the next century, Magna Carta eventually became part of English political life and was typically renewed by each monarch in turn. As time went by, however, it lost some of its practical significance, as the English Parliament passed more laws.
Today, Magna Carta is considered an essential foundation for the contemporary powers of Parliament and legal principles such as habeas corpus and was a big influence on American colonists in the Thirteen Colonies and the formation of the American Constitution in 1787.
While the original Magna Carta concerned the medieval relationship between the monarch and the barons, rather than the rights of ordinary people, it is still considered an important and powerful symbol of constitutional freedom today.
Also, I love the look on King John’s face when the Magna Carta is first mentioned in this video.
World War Two Girls
Coming virtually on the heels of World War I, World War II involved global conflict on an unprecedented scale; the urgent need to mobilize almost the entire male population made the expansion of the role of women an inevitable and necessary undertaking. The roles women took on varied from country to country, but in every case their work was vital to the war effort.
In Britain, women took on many roles including working in munitions factories and farms, transporting coal and munitions by barge across the UK, serving with the Women’s Auxiliary Fire Service, the Women’s Auxiliary Police Corps and in the Air Raid Precautions (later Civil Defence) services, working with the Women’s Voluntary Service for Civil Defence and the salvation Army and taking on non combat jobs in the military. The contribution by civilian men and women to the British war effort was acknowledged with the use of the words “Home Front” to describe the battles that were being fought on a domestic level with rationing, recycling, and war work. The hard skilled labor of women was symbolized in the United States by the concept of Rosie the Riveter, a woman factory laborer performing what was previously considered man’s work.
At the end of World War Two, those women who had found alternate employment from the normal for women, lost their jobs. The returning soldiers had to be found jobs and many wanted society to return to normal. Therefore by 1939, many young girls found employment in domestic service, as they did after the first World War. When women found employment in the Civil Service, in teaching and in medicine they had to leave when they got married. However, it is safe to say that the roles women took on during both World Wars laid the groundwork for the rights and freedoms we enjoy today.
I was only able to find a lyrics video for this song, but it still captures the spirit of women during the war.
Dick Turpin, Highwayman
Richard “Dick” Turpin was an English highwayman who was executed in York for horse theft in April 1739. Turpin followed his father’s trade as a butcher early in life, but, by the early 1730s, he had joined a gang of deer thieves and, later, became a poacher, burglar, horse thief and killer. It was after the 1935 arrests of the rest of his gang that Turpin turned to highway robbery, the role that he was most famous for. He was arrested in Yorkshire for horse theft under the assumed alias of John Palmer after local magistrates became suspicious and investigated how he was funding his lifestyle. Palmer was discovered to be the infamous highwayman Dick Turpin after a letter he wrote to his brother-in-law made its way into the hands of authorities. Turpin was romanticized after his execution, as is too often the case, and became the subject of heroic ballads, theatre, film and television.
I love how Turpin in this video looks so dark and mysterious.
Charles II’s father, Charles I, was executed at Whitehall on 30 January 1649, at the climax of the English Civil War, at which point the country became a de facto republic, led by Oliver Cromwell. This period is known the English Interregnum. In his role of ‘Lord Protector’ of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, Cromwell executed an aggressive and effective foreign policy and was ruthless in quashing any rebellion against his rule. Cromwell was a Puritan Protestant who imposed his views on the masses. He was passionately opposed to the Catholic Church and conducted a campaign against them that verged on genocide. However, he also achieved much while in power leading him to become one of the most controversial political figures in history.
The death of Oliver Cromwell in 1658 resulted in the restoration of the monarchy, and Charles II was invited to return to Britain from his exile in mainland Europe. Charles was popularly known as the ‘Merry Monarch’, in reference to both the liveliness and hedonism of his court and the general relief at the return to normality after over a decade of rule by Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans.
Charles favoured a policy of religious tolerance. He attempted to introduce religious freedom for Catholics and Protestant dissenters with his 1672 Royal Declaration of Indulgence, but the English Parliament forced him to withdraw it.
During the Great Fire of London, Charles and his brother James joined and directed the fire-fighting effort and Charles was the personal patron of Sir Christopher Wren, the architect who helped rebuild London after the Great Fire and who constructed the Royal Hospital Chelsea, which Charles founded as a home for retired soldiers in 1682. A patron of the arts and sciences, Charles founded the Royal Observatory and supported the Royal Society, a scientific group whose early members included Robert Hooke, Robert Boyle and Sir Isaac Newton. Theatre licenses granted by Charles required that female parts be played by “their natural performers”, rather than by boys as was often the practice before.
According to Wikipedia, John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester supposedly said of Charles II:
- We have a pretty witty king,
- Whose word no man relies on,
- He never said a foolish thing,
- And never did a wise one”
to which Charles supposedly said “that’s true, for my words are my own, but my actions are those of my ministers”.
Charles died in 1685, and died aged 54. At the time of his death he had no legitimate children, but had acknowledged a dozen children by seven different mistresses. He was succeeded by his brother, who became James II of England and Ireland and James VII of Scotland.
I think this video captures Charles’ purported personality perfectly.
The Greek Thinkers
The four philosophers featured in this song are Aristotle, Socrates, Plato and Diogenes. Most of the information below has been taken from Wikipedia.
Aristotle was a Greek philosopher and scientist born in the Macedonian city of Stagira, Chalkidice, on the northern periphery of Classical Greece. His writings cover many subjects – including physics, biology, zoology,metaphysics, logic, ethics, aesthetics, poetry, theater, music, rhetoric, linguistics, politics and government – and constitute the first comprehensive system of Western philosophy. According to the Encyclopædia Britannica, “Aristotle was the first genuine scientist in history … [and] every scientist is in his debt.” Aristotle believed all peoples’ concepts and all of their knowledge was ultimately based on perception and his views on the natural sciences represent the groundwork underlying many of his works. In metaphysics, Aristotelianism profoundly influenced Judeo-Islamic philosophical and theological thought during the Middle Ages and continues to influence Christian theology, especially the scholastic tradition of the Catholic Church. Aristotle was also well-known among medieval Muslim intellectuals and revered as “The First Teacher” (Arabic: المعلم الأول).
Socrates was a classical Greek (Athenian) philosopher credited as one of the founders of Western philosophy. Through his portrayal in Plato’s dialogues, Socrates has become renowned for his contribution to the field of ethics and the Socratic method remains a commonly used tool in a wide range of discussions, and is a type of pedagogy in which a series of questions is asked not only to draw individual answers, but also to encourage fundamental insight into the issue at hand. Plato’s Socrates also made important and lasting contributions to the field of epistemology, and the influence of his ideas and approach remains a strong foundation for much western philosophy that followed.
Plato was a philosopher and mathematician in Classical Greece, and the founder of the Academy in Athens, the first institution of higher learning in the Western world. Along with his teacher, Socrates, and his most famous student, Aristotle, Plato laid the very foundations of Western philosophy and science. Alfred North Whitehead once noted: “the safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato”. In addition to being a foundational figure for Western science, philosophy, and mathematics, Plato has also often been cited as one of the founders of Western religion and spirituality, particularly Christianity, which Friedrich Nietzsche, amongst other scholars, called “Platonism for the people”. Plato also appears to have been the founder of Western political philosophy, with his Republic, and Laws among other dialogues, providing some of the earliest extant treatments of political questions from a philosophical perspective.
Diogenes was a Greek philosopher and one of the founders of Cynic philosophy. Diogenes made a virtue of poverty. He begged for a living and often slept in a large ceramic jar in the marketplace. He became notorious for his philosophical stunts such as carrying a lamp in the daytime, claiming to be looking for an honest man. He criticized and embarrassed Plato, disputed his interpretation of Socrates and sabotaged his lectures, sometimes distracting attendees by bringing food and eating during the discussions. Diogenes was also responsible for publicly mocking Alexander the Great. After being captured by pirates and sold into slavery, Diogenes eventually settled in Corinth. There he passed his philosophy of Cynicism to Crates, who taught it to Zeno of Citium, who fashioned it into the school of Stoicism, one of the most enduring schools of Greek philosophy.
One again I was only able to find a lyrics video for this song.
Charles Darwin was an English naturalist and geologist, best known for his contributions to evolutionary theory. In his 1859 book On the Origin of Species, Darwin presented his theory of Natural Selection. A very basic summary of this theory is that species adapt to their environment through a process of selective breeding, thereby allowing new species to emerge. Surprisingly, the term ‘survival of the fittest’ was not originally a part of Darwin’s lexicon. This term was actually coined by Herbert Spencer in his 1864 book Principles of Biology. Darwin approved of the phrase and later used it himself in The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication, published in 1868 and adding it to the fifth edition of On the Origin of Species. However, while colloquial usage interprets ‘survival of the fittest’ as ‘the strong triumph over the weak’, the phrase should actually be understood as “Survival of the form that will leave the most copies of itself in successive generations”.
I find the tune of this song to be quite catchy.
There isn’t much I can write about the content of this video, since even a basic history of each of England’s Monarchs would take up much more space than I have to devote to them. I will say, though, that I am not surprised that school children have difficulty remembering which King did what. They all have the same bloody names! Did the royals have no creativity?
In any case, this catchy tune should help in remembering the order, at least.
William Shakespeare was an English poet, playwright, and actor, widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language and the world’s pre-eminent dramatist. While there is some controversy around whether he actually wrote the majority of his plays, we are going to write this blog with the assumption that he was, indeed, the author. He is often called England’s national poet, and the “Bard of Avon” and he is known to have written approximately 38 plays, 154 sonnets, two long narrative poems, and a few other verses. His plays have been translated into every major living language and are still performed regularly, as well as being studied by poor, confused English students throughout the world.
I personally love Shakespeare, but even I was unaware as to the extent his words have made their way into common usage. Therefore, this video was quite informative to me.
King George IV Solo Career
George IV was King of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and of Hanover following the death of his father, George III, on 29 January 1820, until his own death ten years later. From 1811 until his accession, he served as Prince Regent during his father’s final mental illness. For most of his regency and reign, Lord Liverpool controlled the government as Prime Minister, with little help from George. His ministers found his behaviour selfish, unreliable and irresponsible. Taxpayers were angry at his wasteful spending at a time when Britons were fighting in the Napoleonic Wars. He did not provide national leadership in time of crisis, nor act as a role model for his people. Liverpool’s government presided over Britain’s ultimate victory, negotiated the peace settlement, and attempted to deal with the social and economic malaise that followed.
George may not have liked his wife, having been forced into marriage by his father, but he did manage to sire a daughter with her, their only child, Princess Charlotte. He is also rumoured to have sired several illegitimate children with his many mistresses.
When George III died in 1820, the Prince Regent, then aged 57, ascended the throne as George IV, with no real change in his powers. By the time of his accession, he was obese and possibly addicted to laudanum. His relationship with his wife had deteriorated to such an extent that he refused to recognise Caroline as Queen, and commanded British ambassadors to ensure that monarchs in foreign courts did the same. By royal command, Caroline’s name was omitted from the Book of Common Prayer, the liturgy of the Church of England.
While he did continue to intervene in politics, George IV spent most of his later reign in seclusion at Windsor Castle until his heavy drinking and indulgent lifestyle finally took their toll on his health. In his last years, he spent whole days in bed, suffered spasms of breathlessness that would leave him half-asphyxiated and was almost completely blind from cataracts. He died at about half-past three in the morning of 26 June 1830 and was buried in St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, on 15 July.
My favourite line in this song is ‘the mad old goat just wouldn’t die’.
Boudicca was a queen of the British Iceni tribe who led an uprising against the occupying forces of the Roman Empire. Boudicca’s husband Prasutagus ruled as a nominally independent ally of Rome and left his kingdom jointly to his daughters and the Roman Emperor in his will. However, when he died, his will was ignored and the kingdom was annexed. Boudicca was flogged, her daughters raped, and Roman financiers called in their loans. Boudicca led the Iceni, the Trinovantes and others in revolt destroying Camulodunum (modern Colchester). Their next target was set to be Londinium.
The Romans, having concluded that they did not have the numbers to defend the settlement, evacuated and abandoned Londinium. Boudicca led 100,000 Iceni, Trinovantes and others to fight Legio IX Hispana and burned and destroyed Londinium, and Verulamium(modern-day St Albans). An estimated 70,000–80,000 Romans and British were killed in the three cities by those led by Boudicca. Roman governor Gaius Suetonius Paulinus, meanwhile, regrouped his forces in the West Midlands, and despite being heavily outnumbered, defeated the Britons in the Battle of Watling Street.
The crisis caused the Emperor Nero to consider withdrawing all Roman forces from Britain, but Suetonius’s eventual victory over Boudicca confirmed Roman control of the province. Boudicca then either killed herself so she would not be captured, or fell ill and died. The absence of native British literature during the early part of the first millennium means that knowledge of Boudicca’s rebellion comes solely from the writings of the Romans. However, Boudicca, remains a strong female presence in known British history.
This is my favourite Horrible Histories song for several reasons. The song itself is catchy and the visuals (while sadly lacking from this lyrics video) are very good. Secondly, at the time I first saw this song, I had just recently watched a documentary about Boudicca. I had never heard of her before that, but I found the documentary to be incredibly fascinating. Finally, I am a sucker for strong women in history and, whatever you may think of Boudicca or her actions, she definitely qualifies as a strong historical female.