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Everything You Know About England is Wrong


Never mind the rights and wrongs of Brexit. Pretty much everything we know about our country is steeped in error and misconception. In his new book Everything You Know About England is Wrong, Matt Brown debunks some of England’s most tenacious myths, from the near-universal confusion over how the country fits into Britain and the UK, to why Scottish banknotes are not legal tender in England, to the idea that we all love warm beer, afternoon tea and a full English breakfast. Here, he shares four of the more historical nitpicks.

By Matt Brown

Henry VIII

Henry VIII was not married six times

Go up to any person in the street and ask them to name one fact from English history. About 50% of people will say that Henry VIII had six wives. (The other half will withdraw eye contact and speed off.) It’s the ultimate everyone-knows-it fact. And it’s wrong. On a technicality.

The portly monarch said his vows on six occasions, this much is true. His queens, as trivia fans can list, were Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, Catherine Howard and Catherine Parr. But here’s the thing… three of those marriages officially did not take place.

Divorced, beheaded, died; divorced, beheaded, survived. So goes a popular mnemonic to remember the fates of Henry’s wives. That word ‘divorced’ is not quite accurate, though. Henry’s marriages to Aragon, Boleyn and Cleves were annulled, which is to say they were retrospectively declared invalid, as though the ceremony had never taken place. Legally, then, the corpulent monarch had only three wives.

Henry’s multi-matrimonial conduct came entirely in his later years. His first marriage to Catherine of Aragon was surprisingly long-lived. The pair stuck together for 24 years. The mean length of time for a marriage that ends in divorce today is 11.7 years, so Henry was twice as steadfast as the modern standard.

Union Jack

It’s not wrong to call the Union Flag a Union Jack when not at sea

This, this, THIS, dear reader, is the ultimate plaything of the pedant. Nothing is more likely to wake a nitpicker from his slumbers (and it is usually a he) than to point at the national flag fluttering over a town hall and call it a Union Jack. ‘I think you’ll find,’ you will at once be advised, ‘that it’s only a Union Jack when flown at sea, on a ship. When raised on a building, it should be called the Union Flag’.

Well, I’ve looked, and I don’t find that, thank you. First off, the Union Jack’s career as Britain’s national flag is merely a custom. No law, Act of Parliament or Royal Decree ever established its status or its name. We may call it the Union Jack, or the Union Flag, or Winston Churchill’s Multicolour Hanky, or anything we like, and we are not at odds with officialdom.

Next, the Flag Institute – the UK’s national flag charity – notes that the Jack versus Flag distinction is a recent one. Before the mid-20th century, the flag was near-universally referred to as the Union Jack, whether on land or boat.

It is a useless distinction, in any case. Why should a flag change its name just because it has gamely ventured out onto the water? The whole point of a national flag is its universality. It should be recognised and understood by everyone. Why muddy the waters by having two names? Plus, ‘the Union Flag’ stinks as a name. It’s bland and generic and could apply to any group of united territories. Union Jack is unique and internationally recognised as a hallmark of Britain.

That brings us on to the most serious error concerning the Union Jack, and that is to fly it upside-down. I say ‘serious’, but there is only one consequence in doing so: you will anger another cohort of pedants. People get greatly exercised by this kind of thing. ‘Sir – I was disgusted to notice that the Union Jack flying over the Town Hall in celebration of St. George’s Day was being flown upside down,’ wrote one livid reader of the Banbury Guardian in 1950. Many other examples can be found in the newspaper archives; it is a pet subject of the kind of people who like to write letters to editors. Incidentally, every example I can find from the mid-20th century (and there are many) refers to the Union Jack and not the Union Flag, again showing how that piece of pedantry is very recent.

For the record, a correctly flown Union Jack should have a thick white band touching the top of the flag on the side attached to the flagpole. Tradition has it that an upside-down Union Jack is a symbol of distress. If that ever were the case, it is no longer a sensible way to seek help. Far better to wave your arms about and look distressed than to carefully orient and raise a flipped Jack in the hope of attracting a passing flag geek.

City of London

An English city must have a cathedral

What constitutes a city? In England, there is only really one way to tell. A city is a place that the monarch, or long tradition, has declared a city. No other criterion – the presence of a cathedral, university or decent coffee shop, say – is relevant.

We might suppose that a city is simply a large town. Birmingham and Manchester are clearly cities; Pontefract and Mablethorpe are indubitably towns. It’s not hard, though, to find munchkin cities that don’t meet expectations. The City of London is England’s smallest. With a resident population of 8,000 people and well-known dimensions of a square mile (it’s actually slightly larger), it would be small even for a town. Compare this with some of England’s largest towns – Reading (233,000), Dudley (195,000) and Northampton (189,000) – and we see that population size is no certain indicator of city status. More people live in Croydon (just one of 33 local authorities in London) than in the 11 smallest English cities combined. Croydon has never been granted city status, despite asking six times and containing several very good coffee shops.

Neither population nor size alone is good enough to establish somewhere as a city. So what about a cathedral? Received wisdom holds that the presence of a big church is a golden ticket to citydom. That was once true, but the rule no longer applies. Fifteen English cities have no Anglican cathedral, including Cambridge, Leeds, Nottingham, Sunderland and Westminster (the Abbey does not have cathedral status, while Westminster Cathedral is Catholic). Conversely, five English towns possess a cathedral but are not considered cities. These are Blackburn, Bury St Edmunds, Guildford, Rochester and Southwell.

England currently contains 51 cities, and the wider UK supports 61. The most recent is Chelmsford, granted city status in 2012 to mark the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. Similarly, Preston got the nod in 2002 as part of the Golden Jubilee. If the Queen is still with us in 2022, perhaps Croydon will finally get its wish at the seventh time of asking.


Charles I was the last monarch to be put to death

The execution of King Charles in 1649 was a momentous event in English history. For the first time in 700 years, England had no monarch. This was the only period in which the country has functioned as a republic. The interregnum was short-lived. Just 11 years separated Charles’s execution and the Restoration that saw his son, Charles II, reclaim the throne. England (or Britain) never dabbled with republicanism again. We did, however, kill another king.

George V is today noted for three achievements. He was Queen Elizabeth II’s granddad. He bestowed the word ‘Regis’ on Bognor Regis after convalescing in the town. And he gave the country almost 500 playing fields by way of a memorial. He should also be remembered as the last British monarch to be murdered.

In 1928 the king fell ill with septicaemia and lung problems whose effects stayed with him for his remaining eight years. The following year, George spent 13 weeks in Bognor under the slightly dubious but widely believed advice that seaside air is good for the constitution.

Finally, in January 1936, he could continue no longer and retired to his bedroom at Sandringham. After several days falling in and out of consciousness he passed away on 20 January. George was not permitted a natural end. The king’s physician Lord Dawson of Penn accelerated the inevitable by administering a lethal dose of morphine and cocaine. The ailing monarch was euthanized. These facts only emerged in 1986 with the publication of Dawson’s private notes. The physician had taken the decision to end the king’s suffering. Astonishingly, and by his own admission, Dawson gave the fatal injection before midnight so the news could break in the morning papers, rather than the ‘inappropriate’ evening news. Assisted dying was illegal in 1936. Dawson had effectively committed murder and, indeed, regicide. The establishment reacted by advancing him to Viscount a few months later. The king’s final words were either ‘God damn you’ or ‘Bugger Bognor’, depending which story you believe.




Matt Brown is author of eight Everything You Know… books, including Everything You Know About England is Wrong, and the most recent Everything You Know About Animals is Wrong, published by Batsford.

Illustrations by Sara Mulvanny.