A new eight-part TV series co-produced by the BBC about England in 1066, entitled King and Conqueror, has diverse actors playing Anglo-Saxons. Elander Moore will reportedly play the real historical role of Morcar, an Earl of Northumbria who fought against Viking and Norman invaders.

At first sight there might be plausible precedents for the choice of black actors to play leading parts in this kind of historical drama. But looking more closely you have to wonder whether ‘my truth’ is taking over from ‘the truth’ and generating false views of the past.

The show presents an unusual angle on the well-known history of England at that critical moment

More than 30 years ago, a much-praised film of Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing featured the black actor Denzel Washington as Don Pedro, prince of Aragon. His casting worked very well, even though there were no black princes of Aragon. One reason it worked was that Washington’s physical distinctiveness could be seen to signify his special social status, as a royal prince visiting Sicily. Shakespeare was right that Aragonese kings ruled Sicily during the late Middle Ages, but in other respects the story makes no pretence to historical accuracy.

When it comes to contemporary productions, we can probably say the same about the dramatisation of Shardlake, a crime story by C.J. Sansom based in an invented monastery overlooking the English seashore, on the eve of the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII. Here the abbot is played by a black actor. Here too, the casting is neither here nor there, since the story contains a large number of fictional figures alongside several historical ones, such as Thomas Cromwell, and the monastery itself is pure invention. If Sansom could invent a monastery, his film producer could invent a black abbot. Fiction is piled on fiction. Creative licence has a long history. Shakespeare had a yearning for non-existent Roman clocks. In Julius Caesar, the dictator asks ‘What is’t o’clock’, and Brutus responds ‘Caesar, ‘tis strucken eight’, building our sense that time is marching on to the moment of his assassination.

What we do know about the series King and Conqueror is that it presents a, shall we say, unusual angle on the well-known history of England at that critical moment. Here is a brief description from the BBC website:

Harold of Wessex and William of Normandy were two men destined to meet at the Battle of Hastings in 1066; two allies with no design on the British throne, who found themselves forced by circumstance and personal obsession into a war for possession of its crown.

It is true that they had no claim to the British throne, because at this point there wasn’t one. But if the blurb means ‘English monarchy’, William of Normandy did have a claim through kinship with King Edward the Confessor. All this makes me think that the series will have a rather detached relationship to real events, and at that level one might apply the principle I applied to Much Ado and Shardlake. If you can invent a black abbot and a black prince within a fictional setting, then you should perhaps feel free to invent a black Earl Morcar within what will certainly be a largely fictional setting – imagined conversations, inauthentic locations, and so on.

But there is a real problem here, since, as has been said, Earl Morcar did exist, along with Lady Emma (Juliet Stevenson) and Harold Godwinsson (James Norton), though other several other roles are pure invention. Audiences may find the episodes much more authentic than they really are.

Making Earl Morcar interesting is not really a great challenge. He had a tumultuous career, quarrelling with King Harold and resisting William the Conqueror. Perhaps, though, the producers of King and Conqueror regard him as somewhat boring and in need of a makeover. Lewis Carroll included him in Alice in Wonderland, where the Mouse wants to dry himself by telling a very dry story: ‘“Ahem!” said the Mouse with an important air, “are you all ready? This is the driest thing I know. Silence all round, if you please! William the Conqueror, whose cause was favoured by the pope, was soon submitted to by the English, who wanted leaders, and had been of late much accustomed to usurpation and conquest. Edwin and Morcar, the earls of Mercia and Northumbria…”’

Lately, though, bad history books, sometimes written for young children, have been spreading the news that there were plenty of black people in ancient and medieval Britain, including an early abbot from North Africa (unlikely to have been black). And also, in one bizarre version, the builders of Stonehenge.

Then there is the argument that we should stop talking about the Anglo-Saxons, partly because they were (it is claimed) not really German invaders but a mixture of highly cultured Celts, kind-hearted Teutonic volunteers in the Roman army and, subsequently, cuddly Vikings who settled in the north and east of England. Although if you follow this logic, surely you can’t use the word England either, as it incorporates the questionable term ‘Angle’, so maybe ‘southern Britain’ will have to be used instead. This was missed by Cambridge University Press when it recently reacted to American dislike of the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ and changed the name of its much-respected journal Anglo-Saxon England to Early Medieval England and its Neighbours. In the United Sates the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ may have racist overtones, but we should not let our use of terms be dictated by ignorant extremists.

So when it comes to King and Conqueror, the question is whether this is simply colour-blind casting, or whether the BBC and the others involved in this production are trying to make a point about modern society or about a wrongly imagined medieval society. In this age of trigger warnings we perhaps need something different: ‘WARNING: the events portrayed in this series bear no relation to historical reality.’ Then no one needs to question the casting, and the production team can feel free to introduce Merlin the Wizard, Sir Galahad on a white horse and fire-breathing dragons, whatever they like, into the story.

King and Conqueror could then be constructed along the lines of Game of Thrones. A Game of Thrones actor has in fact been cast in this new series as William the Conqueror – he will feel he is in the right place. But don’t assume any of this is credible history.

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