Chivalry And Betrayal: The Hundred Years War

Friday 15 February 2013, 14:34

Janina Ramirez Janina Ramirez Historian

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Making Chivalry And Betrayal: The Hundred Years War has been a daunting, thrilling and exhausting experience.

We all knew we were taking on a massive topic – those 114 years that saw England and France break apart from one another through a sequence of dramatic battles that would redefine these nations’ histories.

There was so much that drew me to this project, not least that very few people had produced television programmes on it before.

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Dr Janina Ramirez explains how the highest order of English knighthood came into being

But also, as a cultural historian, I was delighted to be part of something that would hopefully give a multi-dimensional insight into this important era.

I wanted to show, not just the lives of the kings, knights and bishops, the battles, the sieges, the politics, but also the impact it had on the general populations of the countries involved, and on the art, architecture and literature that emanated from it.
It’s a technical quagmire for a TV production, as there are so many different ways to explore the period.

The military history is of paramount importance, but looking through the eyes of the art historian, the literary scholar, the social historian, or the theologian, all adds extra dimensions to better-known events like the battles of Crecy, Poitiers and Agincourt.
On a logistical level, it was challenging for our TV crew to physically move ourselves and our kit between all the locations - battle sites, castles, libraries and churches across the UK and France.

We found ourselves driving for five hours, then setting up at a salient location, trying to get everything first take, then jumping back in the car for another five-hour drive to do the same thing again a few hundred miles away.

It certainly gave me a very real insight into the distances the armies had to march, and if it was hard in a car, it must have been excruciating on foot!
The Hundred Years War is certainly an emotive topic, where national pride and the identities of England and France are called into question.

As a result, the research process was all-important. In just three hours of television we had to make difficult decisions about what we could and couldn’t include.

I know there are some individuals, events and artefacts that simply couldn’t make the cut, but we tried to create a narrative that held together and gave the broadest picture of these formative years.

What’s more, through consulting experts on both sides of the Channel, we tried to create a balanced account that took on board a range of often very differing viewpoints. Dr Janina Ramirez at the walls of Carcassonne, France Dr Janina Ramirez at the walls of Carcassonne, southern France

I had so many breathtaking experiences while filming this series.

The most memorable was for episode two, when I was asked to meet the crew at a small church in Suffolk.

I wasn’t told what I would be seeing, and when I met the expert I was told to wait in the nave while they excitedly set up the shot in a separate room.

I was totally shocked when a small door in the wall of the church was opened to reveal the mummified skull of that infamous chancellor and archbishop, killed during the Peasants' Revolt, with his head displayed on Tower Bridge - Simon Sudbury.

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'You can feel the texture of the skin through the gloves'

I was shaking as I handled this remarkable survival; I could see the muscles of his cheeks, and the remains of his withered nose. I was further shocked when, on completing the shoot, the vicar told me I’m one of two people who have actually held the skull!
Other great moments came when I was allowed to examine some of the amazing documents and manuscripts of the time.

In particular I got access to the Hengwrt manuscript for episode three; one of the earliest surviving copies of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, held in the National Library of Wales.

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'Chaucer's pugnacious style came to be seen as quintessentially English'

It was a surprisingly plain manuscript in terms of its decoration, but my blood ran cold when I saw those famous opening lines "Here begins the Tales of Canterbury". For someone with a passion for medieval literature, I really did feel like I was in the presence of greatness.

I take away so many fond memories from making this series. Some of the locations we visited were the stuff of fantasy – Mont Saint Michel, Carcassonne, Saint Denis

I also had a few hair-raising moments, such as setting off a cannon, before being made to ‘kiss the gunner’s daughter’ – a punishment for firing my first cannon, which luckily did not involve flogging, but did see my face wiped with the filthy, stinky sponge used the clean the powder!

As a team we had to contend with flight paths over Windsor, aggressive ravens at the Tower of London, and 100-feet-high, dilapidated French towers full of dead pigeons.

But it was amazing to get so close to the locations and objects at the heart of this historical period when national identities were born, and our modern society began to emerge.

Dr Janina Ramirez is a historian and the presenter of Chivalry And Betrayal: The Hundred Years War.

Episode two of Chivalry And Betrayal: The Hundred Years War is on Monday, 18 Feburary at 9pm on BBC Four. For further programme times, please see the episode guide. 

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    This twisted attempt to depict the Norman English as the underdog beggars belief, they from the onset waged colonial wars against the Irish Welsh and Scots and where brutal in there conduct of such wars

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    Comment number 2.

    Another formulaic history series from the BBC. A reasonably attractive persona in front of the camera, filmed in some pretty places, with a few talking heads, all talking down to the viewer. It must be cheap, there's so much of it on BBC.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    I thought the programme was very good and well presented. Some stunning scenes. There was no attempt to hide the brutal nature of the raids into France to destabilise the incombent king. The world doesn't change much in that respect.

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    Comment number 4.

    I loved this episode and can't wait for the next. It showed from both sides how a truly multicultural society understood that a project can only be fufilled with the will of all those involved. From the lowest to the highest. Something this whole planet should think on.

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    Comment number 5.

    A very good programme - I am looking forward to episodes 2 & 3. I can see how quickly it was filmed as Janina only had one outfit!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    @tamO - I would suggest your use of the term 'Norman English' is highly misleading; before they went anywhere else they undertook the Harrying of the North (of England), of which a near contemporary wrote:
    "The King stopped at nothing to hunt his enemies. He cut down many people and destroyed homes and land. Nowhere else had he shown such cruelty. This made a real change.
    To his shame, William made no effort to control his fury, punishing the innocent with the guilty. He ordered that crops and herds, tools and food be burned to ashes. More than 100,000 people perished of hunger. I have often praised William in this book, but I can say nothing good about this brutal slaughter. God will punish him.
    —Orderic Vitalis

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    Comment number 7.

    I thought this was excellent and told in such a beautifully clear way that still brought a real sense of the time and place. No Schama-esqe pretentiousness or History Channel hyperbole. It was like The Economist doing a piece on the Hundred Years War. Loved it.

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    Comment number 8.

    1. tamO
    18 HOURS AGO
    This twisted attempt to depict the Norman English as the underdog beggars belief

    Which completely misses the point that was, I think, clearly made. The "Norman English" (whatever that might mean in this context) weren't substantially different from the "Norman French" - they were related by family. The point the programme made again and again was that Edward III "tore up" the chivalric rule book and prosecuted total war like any barbarian

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    Comment number 9.

    The point was made - this was a family dispute, however I still found myself shouting at the TV for an explanation as to WHY the aristicracy in England spoke French ! It would also have been nice to show a map of the 'English' holdings in France since 1066 up until the outbreak of the Hundred years war.
    Still a good start - I agree, a massive project for 3 episodes.

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    Comment number 10.

    An entertaining programme. I don't think there ever was a golden age of chivalry. Maybe at the tournaments but not on the battlefield.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    Interesting so far, just curios to see how Talbot will be handled

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    Comment number 12.

    to try and categorise late medieval historical events using modern labels such as colonialism is utterly meaningless. Feudal societies were more devolved than a modern state (the idea of state itself is anachronistic in the feudal period) and lords, including Kings, were often in possession of estates which transcended purely national boundaries.

    I think you misunderstand the meaning of chivalry, or the purpose of the "chivalric rulebook", if such a thing ever existed.
    Froissart, in his chronicles, is not blind to the barbarism of the events of the 100Years war - his account of the chevauchees of the Black Prince is full of details of "civilian" populations killed, churches burned & looted - & yet he acclaims the Black Prince as the greatest chivalric knight alive.

    I think Chivalry can be loosely equated to the modern Geneva Convention - it is a practical code to govern the conduct of war, and moderate the behaviour of the combatants towards each other - its purpose above all to assure the survival of the chivalric class. So, vanquished opponents are to be ransomed, not killed. Burning peasants, however - not members of the chivalric class -well, go ahead, my boy!

    There was also a chivalric literature which gave rise to the idea of courtly love, and was promoted by the troubadour culture of southern France - but this literature should be seen as entertainment for the knightly classes and separate from the more practical conduct of chivalry.

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    Comment number 13.

    @McClane. I should declare my hand. I was one of the contributors. I very much regret that I was judged to have talked down to viewers. The difficulty is the range of knowledge within the audience, from those coming to the subject for the first time to those who are much better acquainted with the history. How much do you explain and how much do you take for granted? I take issue with "formulaic", - I think Dr Ramirez and the production team had an extraordinarily difficult task with the huge quantity of material available and struck a good balance with an original and wide ranging approach..

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    Comment number 14.

    Ms Ramirez twice referred to Edwards coat of arms having 3 tigers. I always thought they were lions. Otherwise a very good program, but too many shots of the presenter.

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    Comment number 15.

    I very much enjoyed the 1st programme - I was of course aware on the battle of Crecy but had no idea of the wider context of why the battle was fought. Also well presented and well made. Well done.

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    Comment number 16.

    This is an excellent series. As a medieval history student it is great to see new programmes that cover some topics that I've recently learned about, but I think that this programme would be just as interesting to the casual viewer too.

    The programmes provide just the right amount of information, and are neither too slow-paced nor too fast. It is also nice to see a series on warfare that looks beyond the violence and weaponry of the conflicts themselves and chooses to focus on the social and cultural background to the HYW.

    All in all, this is a great series so far from a talented new TV personality, and it is programmes like these that encouraged me to study the Middle Ages in more detail.

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    Comment number 17.

    Overall, enjoyable history-lite, a nice run through a complex conflict. It's nice to have something on England from the BBC that's not utterly hostile or patronising.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    Just watched the First 1 of 3 of this Fascinating programme..I really thought that Dr Janina Ramirez did a good job of explaing it all and i Look forward to the next part with Relish..

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    @Steve She referred to them as Leopards not Lions as is correct in heraldry of the time.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    I'm really enjoying this series! my knowledge of the Hundred Years War is pretty scanty, and having it presented by someone young and engaging (not to mention pretty !) rather than the standard old Oxford don is a refreshing change. Dr Ramirez is doing a great job, and at least now I know where 'Ich Diem' comes from!


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