On Friday May 20, 1988, The Times printed a story by a young journalist, Boris Johnson. It concerned an archaeological dig that had discovered Edward II’s ‘Rosary Palace’ on the south bank of the River Thames, opposite the Tower of London.
Now the one thing most people think they know about Edward II, if they know anything at all, is that he was supposed to have been murdered in an extremely unpleasant way, thought by his murderers appropriate because of his alleged homosexuality. Boris was only 23 years old when he wrote the piece about Edward’s palace, but he had an eye for spicing up an otherwise dull story.
It is alleged that he fabricated a quotation from Dr Colin Lewis, of Balliol College, Oxford, to the effect that the palace was where the king: ‘… enjoyed a reign of dissolution with his catamite, Piers Gaveston, before he was gruesomely murdered at Berkeley Castle by barons who thought he was too prone to foreign influence’ [A catamite is ‘A boy or young man who is made use of as a (typically passive) sexual partner by an older man; Oxford English Dictionary].
Balliol was Johnson’s alma mater, and Lewis was his godfather to boot, so he probably thought he was on safe ground. Apparently Lewis was not amused, and when the editor of The Times found out, Johnson was fired.
Did Johnson do very wrong or was it just a youthful indiscretion? After all, Edward II was accused of inappropriate behaviour with Piers Gaveston, and he may have been murdered. It was a good story, so what better stamp of authority than a quotation from an Oxford Don? The problem is, that just like the myths surrounding Richard III, historians now believe the truth about Edward II to far from clear. The Thunderer was (and probably still would like to be thought) a purveyor of the truth.
Ultimately, it is a question of trust and judgement. Boris could easily have used the story about the king and Gaveston without attributing it to Dr Lewis; he could have found the details in half a dozen history books. But he couldn’t resist the Oxbridge connection, nor the opportunity of articulating an obscure and salacious word (how many people, I wonder, had to look up catamite in the dictionary – as I did).
But is it possible to trust such a person with the great affairs of state? It is one thing to be careless about the facts concerning a 14th century monarch, quite another to have confidence in that same person to steer this country through the biggest crisis facing it since the Second World War.
Boris was inventing fake news back in 1988, and when you’ve done it once …
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