Myth Trivia: A duck, a sheep, Napoleon and the Magna Carta

Napoleon, King John and a Duck: It's not a joke.
Napoleon, King John and a Duck: It's not a joke.

CHARLOTTE, N.C., March 4, 2015 — Unexpected discovery: Weekend driving is filled with a world of amusing and entertaining facts about nothing in particular. Recently Google announced it will, once again, be changing its search engine algorithms to determine whether web sites—Communities Digital News, for instance—are “factually correct”.  The more correct the site, the higher the site is in the search engine responses.

If you have an opportunity to listen to National Public Radio on any given weekend as you are driving around on your your “honey-do” errands, you may be amazed at what you can learn.

It occurred to me that perhaps I should memorialize some of these delightful tidbits in order to enlighten others about myth-interpretations we have all come to accept during our formative years.

“Myth Trivia” is an effort to seek out explanations and/or new facts about old ideas that have led to decades of myth-information.

You may have debunked the following three tales for yourself, or, then again, you may have thought you knew the truth, but didn’t.

1 – King John and the Magna Carta: The year 1215 was one of the most important in history because it limited the power of the throne in England and became the basis of American democracy and the Bill of Rights.

The event took place in a meadow in England at Runnymede near Windsor when barons from all over the country gathered to force King John to sign the Magna Carta, or “Great Charter.”

John, the youngest of five sons of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, succeeded his brother Richard I, also known as Richard the Lionhearted, to the throne of England in 1199. King John was a villain of the first order which ultimately led to an uprising by 25 English barons to present him with demands for reform.

Historical accounts generally state that King John signed the Magna Carta on June 15, 1215, in exchange for the barons’ oath of loyalty to the king. There were several original Magna Cartas, of which four are still in existence.

But the key to the story is that many historians believe that King John was illiterate and therefore could not actually “sign” the document. John did “ratify” the agreement with the royal seal, which is evident in the four existing charters.

The myth has apparently evolved as a result of paintings depicting King John as signing the Magna Carta.

 2 – Napoleon Bonaparte was short: What it really boils down to is whether you interpret size according to the era in which a person lived.

It seems that the myth surrounding Napoleon’s diminutive stature arises from the difference in measurements between France and the United States. According to historical records, Napoleon was said to be 5 feet 2 inches tall at the time of his death. However, those measurements were based upon the units of the day and when converted to the international designations of today, Napoleon was actually about 5 feet 7.

By modern standards, 5’ 7” is still considered small in stature, but in Napoleon’s time the average French male was only about 5 feet 5 inches in height. Therefore, Napoleon himself was actually regarded as about average by the measures and standards of his time.

Even so, the “Napoleon Complex” is still regarded as “short man syndrome” in the 21st century.

One interesting addendum to the story is that “The Little Corporal,” as he was nicknamed, was still considered short upon his death because his personal bodyguards were two inches taller than Napoleon himself. Thus his image still appeared to be short even in his own time.

3 – Hot air balloon’s barnyard passengers: Ever since the Greek myth about Icarus and his father’s attempt to escape from the Island of Crete by creating wings made of feathers and wax, man has wanted to fly.

It did not actually happen until 1783 in Paris, when Jean-Francois Pilatre de Rozier and Francois Laurent d’Arlandes accomplished the first successful manned flight in an untethered hot air balloon designed by the Montgolfier brothers.

Joseph Montgolfier and his brother Etienne shared a passion for the possibility of flight but were unable to create a viable means of success until one day when Joseph made an accidental discovery. He inflated his shirt by holding it by the neck above a chimney and suddenly realized that hot air is lighter than cold air.

The brothers immediately went to work experimenting with “thermal airships” or hot air balloons.

Since the Mongolfiers were in the paper business, their earliest balloons were constructed of paper and fabric. But it was barnyard animals that pioneered the way to aviation. During the testing process, the first passengers in a successful balloon flight were a caged duck, a sheep and a rooster.

It was a feat that would have even made Charles Lindbergh proud.

If you have some “Myth Trivia” to share, please send it in, and we’ll present more myth-information.

Bob Taylor has been traveling the world for more than 30 years as a writer and award-winning television producer focusing on international events, people and cultures around the globe. Taylor is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (

Read more of What in the World and Bob Taylor at Communities Digital News. Follow Bob on Twitter @MrPeabod


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