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Top 10 Historical Myths Debunked


There are an awful lot of known ‘facts’ about Europe’s history which are actually false. Everything you read below is widely believed, but click through to find out the truth.

1. The Death of Catherine the Great

Portrait of Catherine II of Russia (1729-1796)
Stock Montage/Archive Photos/Getty Images

The legend learnt in the playground by all British school children – and those of a fair few other countries – is that Catherine the Great was crushed while trying to have sex with a horse. When people tackle this myth, they often perpetuate another one: that Catherine died on the toilet, which is better, but still not true...

2. The 300 who held Thermopylae

The film version of ‘300’ told a heroic story of how just three hundred Spartan warriors held a narrow pass against a Persian army numbering in the hundreds of thousands. The problem is, while there really were three hundred Spartan warriors in that pass in 480, that’s not the whole story.

3. Medieval people believed in a Flat Earth

In some quarters the fact that the earth is a globe is regarded as a modern discovery, and there’s few things people trying to attack the supposed backwardness of the medieval period like more than claiming they all thought the earth was flat. People also claim Columbus was opposed by flat earthers, but that’s not why people doubted him.

4. Mussolini got the Trains Running on Time

The exasperated commuter often remarks that at least Italian dictator Mussolini managed to get the trains working on time, and there was plenty of publicity at the time explaining how he’d done so. The problem here isn’t that the trains improved, because, but when they got better and who did it.

5. Marie Antoinette said 'Let them eat cake'

The belief in the arrogance and stupidity of the France monarchy just before a revolution swept them away is encapsulated in the idea that Queen Marie Antoinette, on hearing that people were starving, said they should eat cake instead. But this isn’t true, and neither is the explanation that she meant a form of bread instead of cake either.

6. Stalin Died unaffected by his Mass Murder

Hitler, the most famous dictator of the twentieth century, had to shoot himself in the collapsing ruins of his empire. Stalin, a bigger mass killer, is supposed to have died peacefully in his bed, escaping all the effects of his bloody actions. It’s a stark moral lesson; well, it would be if it was correct.

7. Vikings wore Horned Helmets

Minnesota Vikings mascot Ragnar
Adam Bettcher/Getty Images Sport/Getty Images

I’m loathe to tackle this, because the image of the Viking warrior, with his axe, dragon headed boat and horned helmet is one of the most iconic in European history. Almost every popular representation of a Viking has the horns. Unfortunately, there’s a problem…

8. Statues reveal how people died / went on Crusade

You might have heard how the statue of a horse and rider reveals how the pictured person died: two of the horse’s legs in the air means in battle, just one means of wounds received in battle. Equally, you might have heard that on the carved image of a knight, the crossing of the legs or arms means they went on crusade. As you might have guessed, this isn’t true…

9. Ring a Ring a Roses

If you went to a British school, or know someone who did, you might have heard the children’s rhyme ‘Ring a Ring a Roses’. It’s widely believed that this is all about the plague, particularly the version which swept the nation in 1665 -6.

10. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion

The rather wordily titled ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion’ are widely available in some parts of the world, and have been disseminated in the past in most others. They claim to prove that Jews are trying to secretly take over the world, using such feared tools as socialism and liberalism.

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