The Top 10: The real stories remembered for a vivid detail that isn’t true

Some events are remembered for a detail that is completely untrue

John Rentoul
Saturday 11 September 2021 07:34 BST
<p>The plane that saved the day in the Battle of Britain was... a different one </p>

The plane that saved the day in the Battle of Britain was... a different one

Thanks to John Peters for suggesting this list. He had read an interview with John Stonehouse’s daughter Julia, in which she corrected the record in the first example.

1. John Stonehouse left a pile of clothes on a beach in Miami. That is how Wikipedia says the former Labour minister faked his death on 20 November 1974, and it is the story most of us know. In fact the clothes were stowed in a beachside cabana.

2. Horned Viking helmets. Only one helmet survives from the period and it does not have horns; no contemporary sources mention them. Nominated by Robert Shrimsley.

3. Alexander the Great cried salt tears because there were “no more worlds to conquer”. The original story is that he wept because he learned from an Indian holy man that there was an infinite series of worlds. He said: “So many worlds and we have not even conquered this one.” Stewart Slater said: “A Greek of Alexander’s time would never have thought he had conquered the world by that stage of his expedition, since he only went east and the Greeks had been planting colonies around the western Mediterranean for about 400 years.”

4. Martin Luther posted his 95 theses on a church door. No evidence that he did, and most scholars think he probably posted them to the archbishop. Thanks to Steven Fogel.

5. The Spitfire saved the country in the Battle of Britain. In fact, the Hurricane was more numerous in service in the summer of 1940 and shot down more German aeroplanes. According to the air ministry’s figures, for every two Luftwaffe planes brought down by Spitfires, three were shot down by Hurricanes. Nominated by Paul T Horgan.

6. Jeremy Corbyn won the election in 2017. Thanks to Citizen Sane.

7. Henry VIII divorced Catherine of Aragon and Anne of Cleves. Actually, those marriages were annulled. Nomination from Andrew S.

8. They drank the Kool-Aid. The poisoned vat in the 1978 Jonestown murder-suicide wasn’t Kool-aid, it was Flavor Aid, a rival brand. Thanks to David Boothroyd.

9. Sir Francis Drake said he would finish his game of bowls before setting off to attack the Spanish fleet. No contemporary source for a story first told 37 years later.

10. “Mama” Cass Elliot died from choking on a ham sandwich. (It was a heart attack). Nominated by Nicci French.

There is some overlap here with the Top 10 things people are remembered for that they didn’t actually do (Freddie Starr’s hamster, Eve’s apple, Emperor Julius Caesar, Nero fiddling, Magellan circumnavigating the world, Guillotin’s guillotine, Stephenson’s steam locomotive, Rosa Parks in the White section of the bus, and Peter Mandelson’s mushy peas).

Next week: Skulls – Yorick’s, Oliver Cromwell’s, Piltdown Man’s, Damien Hirst’s diamond one.

Coming soon: Bass guitarists.

Your suggestions please, and ideas for future Top 10s, to me on Twitter, or by email to

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