5 historical phrases that their protagonists never uttered

Not long ago we dedicated an article to reveal the falsity of the famous phrase attributed to Marie Antoinette, that of “let them eat cakes” and we already explained then that history is studded with quotes well-known put into the mouths of many of its great protagonists but that are often apocrypha, either by mistake, or by manipulation, or because they were actually pronounced by others. Here are five well-known examples.

1. Felipe II and the elements

The Anglo-Spanish War which took place between 1585 and 1604 had some particularly well-known episodes. The one with the greatest repercussion was the attempt to invade england through the transfer of the Thirds of Flanders, for which Philip II ordered the organization of a big and happy army that he should escort them.

This operation was so complex in every way (coordination, administration, meteorology…) that, say the experts, even today it would have problems to succeed.

In the 16th century even worse, of course. The thing went wrong and he ended up with a third of the ships wrecked by trying to return by circumnavigating the British Isles instead of through the English Channel, where the headwind and the English fleet blocked their way.

The Invincible Armada fighting with the English/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

A rosary shelled of ships were arriving at the Spanish coasts. Among them that of his admiral, the Duke of Medina Sidoniawhich after docking in Santander and informing the king took care of the work of caring for the wounded and survivors.

The monarch authorized him to return to Andalusia without the need to render an account to him personally because, although the duke assumed responsibility for the disaster, Felipe II did the same and wrote a letter to Alejandro Farnesiowho was in command of the Tercios, in which he literally said “In what God does, one must not lose or gain reputation, but rather not talk about it”.

Instead, it was another quote that has gone down in history and that has been reflected in multiple versions: «I sent my ships to fight against men, not against winds and storms»often synthesized in its last part with the expression “The elements”.

In fact, it was popularized in the mid-19th century by the journalist and historian Modest Lafuentein its General History of Spain; For this, he took as a reference a review of the priest and humanist Balthazar Porrenowho had reflected it in his book Sayings and facts of King Felipe II in 1639; that is to say, half a century after the Invincible.

2. General Cambronne at Waterloo

On June 18, 1815, the most famous battle of the napoleonic wars, the one that put a definitive end to the Emperor’s attempt to return after that first confinement in Elba. Bonaparte’s plan was to defeat his enemies separately, before they could unite and overwhelmingly outnumber him, as had happened at Leipzig.

It started well, sweeping the Prussians at Ligny while at the same time Marshal Ney forced the allied army (English, Scottish, German…) to retreat at Quatre Bras, albeit at the cost of considerable losses. wellingtonwho was in command of that contingent, chose Waterloo to try to stop the advance of the grand armee because the orography favored a closed defense and made it difficult for the French troops to deploy, superior in number, gaining time for Blucher’s Prussians to come and reinforce him.

General Cambronne at Waterloo (Charles-Édouard Armand-Dumaresq)/Image: TRAILERMUSEUM on Wikimedia Commons

The next day the development of the battle went more or less as expected by the British, whose disciplined picture they managed to resist first the massive cannonade and then the successive charges of the Gallic cavalry, while Blucher approached with forced marches towards the right flank of the adversary. As evening fell, Napoleon attempted one last coup by sending the Imperial guard to break the allied line, but it was also repulsed and with the arrival of the Prussians the tables were turned.

The guards formed into two squares, one commanded by Bonaparte himself, who opted for withdrawal while the other remained protecting his progress. He was commanded by General Pierre Cambrone.

Cambronne was ordered to surrender, a circumstance in which he would have pronounced one of those phrases for posterity: “La Garde dies, mais ne se rend pas!” (The Guard dies but does not surrender!). However, it seems that those words were no more than the elegant version for the textbooks of French schoolchildren; what he actually exclaimed was something more in keeping with the moment and need not be translated: “Fuck!”. There are also those who say that he first said one and at the enemy’s insistence released the second, which came to be known euphemistically as Le mot de Cambronne (Cambronne’s word).

3. Custer, Sheridan and the Indians

One of the most emblematic characters of the conquest of the West is Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custerwho achieved fame for the crushing defeat of his Seventh Cavalry Regiment before the sioux in June 1876. Everyone easily recognizes his iconographic representation -long hair of blond curls, fringed suede jacket, red scarf, goatee-, even though in that last battle he was shaved bald and probably was not wearing the jacket.

Custer had built prestige against the Indians, despite the fact that in practice he had hardly had any direct confrontations with them (they tended to shy away from combat) and that only in Washita did things go beyond mere shootings, the usual being the endless persecutions in which the persecuted always managed to slip away.

Despite this, no one had more experience than Custer with that enemy and that is why Generals Crook, Gibbon and Terry, supported by Sherman and Sheridan, asked the president Ulysses Grant his joining the campaign the government launched to return the tribes to the reservations they had abandoned. It goes without saying that the action of the Indians responded to the umpteenth breach of treaties with the whites, embodied in a discontent that was reflected in the indian warsthe confrontations between both parties that marked the history of the United States from the colonial era until the end of the 19th century.

Custer and Sheridan/Photos: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

In this context, the catalog of atrocities displayed by the contenders was extensive, although in the average citizen only the atrocities of the Indians had an echo and that is why the public opinion he was totally hostile to them. The phrase that best represents that animosity has traditionally been put in Custer’s mouth: “The only good Indian I know is the dead Indian.”

Except that the eccentric soldier never pronounced it; those words -not even those exactly- reached resonance when expressed by the general Phil Sheridan in response to the Penateka-Comanche chief Tosawi (Silver Brooch), who defined himself as a good Indian, to which the other replied “The Only Good Indians I’ve Ever Seen Are Dead”. The press did the rest.

paradoxically neither Sheridan nor Custer hated the Indians and on one occasion the former stated in an interview with a newspaper that “We took away their territory and their means of survival, we broke their way of life, their habits, we introduced disease and decay among them and it was for this and against this that they battled against us. Could anyone hope less?”

4. Bismarck and the Spanish

A priori it seems a bit strange that Otto von Bismarck, the architect of German unification, later the Prussian minister and chancellor of the country, had time to pay attention to Spain. However, there were a few years in which the fate of Europe was closely linked to the Spanish political situation and the most powerful governments of the continent maneuvered to try to channel it to their advantage. It was in 1870, when the abdication of Elizabeth II forced Prim to look for another king.

Between the candidates They included the widower of the Portuguese queen Maria, Ferdinand of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha; the sultan of Morocco; and the Duke of Aosta, Amadeo de Saboya, who would ultimately be chosen. Earlier, France presented its candidate, the Duke of Montpensierand quickly Germany came to the fore by proposing to the prince Leopold of Höhenzollern-Sigmaringen (whose unpronounceable name was traditionally adapted as Olé olé if they choose me or deaf pot without larynx).

Napoleon III and Bismarck vetoed each other and that gave the latter the perfect pretext for what he had been looking for for a long time, a war against the french to consolidate national unity.

It is supposed that it would be in that context when the iron chancellor said that about «I am firmly convinced that Spain is the strongest country in the world. She has been wanting to destroy herself for centuries and she still hasn’t succeeded ». The quote is accurate and very descriptive of our country, except that… it is not reflected in any known document and outside of Spain it is completely unknown.

There is another version that places it in 1863, during a reception for the Spanish ambassador and slightly changing the sentence (“Not even you, the Spanish, are capable of destroying your nation”). Apparently, the oldest true reference to it that has been found dates back to 1974, during the famous PSOE Congress in Suresnes, where Alfonso Guerra He delivered it during a speech.

5. Louis XIV or the State

A monarch of the category of Louis XIV, under whose reign France climbed to the top of the European podium in multiple facets (military, economic, cultural…), is a potential source of legends and there are two that are well known around him. One is the nickname of roi soleil (Sun King), which was not actually attributed to him in his time but much later, during the reign of Louis-Philippe of Orleans (1830-1848). The historiography of the moment, eager to extol the monarchical institution in the face of the difficult revolutionary situation, recovered the distinguished predecessor by surrounding him with even more tinsel.

Perhaps the authors were inspired by his love of dressing up as a star king at parties or by the nickname of King Planet that a contemporary of Luis had, the Spanish Felipe IV, alluding to his world empire.

The fact is that to that nickname is added a fortunate phrase that was equally graphic about the absolute monarchy that that king embodied: “I am the state”. He would have pronounced it on April 13, 1655 before Parliamentwhere he would have appeared to reaffirm his authority after abandoning a hunt when he learned that the meeting was being held without him.

It must be borne in mind that less than two years before the fronde uprising, a popular riot against the tax increase decreed by Cardinal Mazarin, the prime minister. However, those famous words do not appear in the minutes of the parliamentary session and, moreover, the king was very young -sixteen years old-, still lacking both the strong personality that he would show later and expressive faculties.

In fact, it is believed that the phrase was the work of his political enemies who took advantage of some of his words expressed in his own handwriting in Reflexions sur le métier de Roi but much later, in 1679: “The good of the State is the glory of the King.”


Felipe II and his time (Manuel Fernandez Alvarez)/The reckless king. (Geoffrey Parker)/Son of the Morning Star. General Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn (Evan S. Connell)/The battle. Waterloo history (Alessandro Barbero)/The Making of Louis XIV (Peter Burke)/bismarck (Pedro Voltes)