The destination for history

Quizzes, trivia and history


A good quiz is a very effective way of stamping information on the brain. If you know the answer, you feel justifiably proud of yourself; if you’re unsure but manage to guess correctly there’s the gentle thrill of having gambled and won. And if you haven’t got a clue, the answer, when revealed, joins the stockpile of simultaneously useful and useless information in that part of your brain labelled ‘trivia’.

The information doesn’t have to be of any obvious use, as long as it’s interesting. And weird, ideally. As an example that ticks all these boxes, have a stab at this:

According to apocrypha, only one of these three mythical kings was not killed and eaten. Which one? Your options are King Mempricius, King Bladud and King Morvidus.

Now, I would guess that only one in 10,000 interviewees, unaided by the wizardry of the internet, would be able to answer this with confidence; and perhaps one in 100,000 would actually be able to say something about all three kings in the list.

The answer is King Bladud. He was the founder of the city of Bath, and died after crashing his one-man aeroplane into the Temple of Apollo in Troinovant (New Troy, later known as London) some time in the eleventh century BC. Mempric came a century or two earlier - an evil tyrant who was eaten by wolves in north Oxford. Morvidus, dating back to the fourth century BC, was another tyrant, dying after an unsuccessful tussle with a sea serpent.

Quite what you do with such information, other than amaze your friends over a glass or two of something strong, I’m not sure. And I remain unsure after a lifetime’s addiction to quizzes, folklore and historical trivia. The only winners in all this are the pubs of England - far richer as a result of my 30-year pursuit of pub quizzes.

Maybe it’s just that a quiz is a great way to digest information. I’m certainly not alone in thinking this: witness the success of classic shows such as Call My Bluff, or the more recent Would I Lie to You? and Horrible History Gory Games. They all have that irresistible gambling element - one question, more than one possible answer, and no tangible reward whatsoever for your efforts (not counting the beery rewards you sometimes reap at the local pub quiz).

Maybe it’s the fact that the Q&A format can make strange century-hopping connections for you. To illustrate what I mean, try out these unlikely links. Metallic leaders: Oliver ‘Old ironsides’ Cromwell, Margaret ‘Iron lady’ Thatcher and Charles ‘Iron Duke’ Wellesley (the Duke of Wellington). Or body-part nicknames amongst royals: King Edward ‘Longshanks’ the First, King Richard ‘Crouchback’ the Third, and King Harold ‘Harefoot’ the First.

But I don’t think it’s the weird lists that have the lasting appeal: it's the good old fashioned tall tale. Popular history is all about good stories well told, and a historical quiz is a format that allows you to dip in and out of the centuries like a kleptomaniac at an antique fair, grabbing all the good stuff.

Fortunately, that brain compartment labelled ‘trivia’ is a bit like the Tardis in Doctor Who - so big on the inside that an insatiable lifetime of trivia collecting can never hope to fill it.

See you at the next pub quiz. 

By Paul Sullivan


Sign up for our newsletter

show more books