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 21.

    A great programme I thought. Does anyone know the names and performers of any of the titles of the music used in the 2 episodes so far? They're not listed in the credits and on the BBC site it states details of music from specific programmes is not available.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    This was obviously the Julie Burchill view of history. The casual omission of Salic Law, the frequently war territories of France such as Brittany, Anjou and Burgundy being shown as united, little mention of the wool trade. These political leaders didn't wage war because of 'chivalry'. The real reason for the war was economic. Chivalry was just another con trick for the feudal system's over active, testosterone filled, minor nobility. It kept them busy and not plotting or causing mischief at home. Nobles on both sides were worth ransom money, the lower orders got slaughtered.

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    Dr. Ramirez stated of France, and I quote "Ravaged by twenty years of war it was now being overrun
    by terrifying bands of out-of-work English soldiers known as freebooters".

    According to Merriam-Webster's dictionary the first known occurrence of the word "freebooter" in English was in 1570. But the Hundred Year's was was waged between 1337 and 1453.

    Methinks Dr. Ramirez was being patronising.

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    Great series so far, in the first 2 episodes I've learned more about this period of English history than I ever did at school. Thank you Janina for making history so interesting and educating me in a such an engaging manner. Great photography too.

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    easy going, enthusiastic, interesting and informative, and for those making invalid negative comments "Honi soit qui mal y pense"

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    I'm enjoying this series, as i did the last one about manuscripts. I think Dr Janina Ramirez is ace. She is passionate, and for the layman, like me, makes the subject interesting.
    I love history, can't get enough of it.
    Can't wait for her series on Vikings either.
    so, shut it you lot.

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    I've really enjoyed this series and have learnt much from the two programmes.

    I wonder how many Scots realise that the 'Braveheart' ideal that they hold so dear to their hearts was actually fighting a French king! So maybe the 'Auld Alliance' is not quite what it seems.The invasion of 1066 effectively gave England French rulers for 300 years until the split with France which caused the Hundred Years War.

    They say that the victors write the history and we've got used to the Norman story of what happened immediately after 1066 - I would dearly love to see another series made by the same people covering the period 1066 to 1337 - I want to find out more about the Harrying of the North, Hereward's rebellion and the effect on the country of the invasion and occupation by a foreign power.

    Please, please, please get the team that has made this series back together to do it!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    What a pretty and truly passionate can really tell she loves the subjects...and in turn makes them very interesting...thanks Dr Janina Ramirez xxx

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    I appreciate that you cannot, in just three hours of television documentary, include everything. However I was surprised that in the run-up to Agincourt and during the period of Henry IV's reign the experience gained by Henry V as Prince of Wales during Owain Glyndwr's fight for freedom was not mentioned at all. Neither was my contribution at Agincourt and that of the many hundreds if not thousands of my countrymen. Davy Gam

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    This is 'Mc' History at its worst with a gurning, slovenly presenter who seems to posses only one set of clothes. History for goths. An infantile, shallow programme.

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    These are excellent programmes as were the Illuminations series. Always had a passion for the Vikings so looking forward to that as well. The presentation is superb, sure we'll be seeing a lot more of Dr. Ramirez on the beeb in future...hope so! Read a few negative comments, but there are always one or two clueless chumps with nothing to say.

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    Another great history programme from the BBC, if you don't enjoy history why watch? . There are plenty more channels to view. I for one am loving it all, the subject, presentation, locations even Simon Sudbury's head. Is It being one sided,? aren't they trying to be fair ? War was/is brutal on both sides. What about the English rampaging through the French countryside, after one battle was over?. Looking forward to the rest of the series.

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    Just watched episode two on iplayer and really enjoyed it expanding my knowledge of the 100 years war by almost 100%. Janina Ramirez very engaging. I also liked the incidental music pieces, one of which I recognised as Arvo Part's "Fratres" - could anyone enlighten me on the others?

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    Interested to see how much focus is put on why the various "English" forces actually comprehensively lost the "100 years war." So far it has been rather typical heavy analysis on Crecy/Poitiers and Azincourt bt with a few hints at least. Few on these shores have even heared of Patay. As a juvenile, I always asked, if were made so many great victories, why dont we own these places now? Always best to think simplistically if you want to get out of the staightjacket of nationism driven subjects. A good lesson for the more trickier questions of the 20th Century.

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    An aside on (mainly) pub names (see episode 1)

    The 'Star and Garter' as a name occurs over 236,000 times in Google! I wonder if some of these names could date back as far as the first part of the hundred years war? (I know some don't.)

    That is naming after the English 'Order of the Garter' and the corresponding French 'Order of the Star' (Ordre de l'Étoile)?

    Just a thought, as it might explain the very early versions of this inn name.

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    22.marginalbear "Chivalry was just another con trick"

    If it was a con trick then the nobles were taken in by their own devising just as much as the slaughtered footsoldiers. Yet another case of the folly of believing your own propaganda! Remember that is just after the legitimising of slaughter as a religious duty really took hold in a grand way (although in rational hindsight a perversion of religion!)

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    I'm enjoying the narrative reminding me of what I have heard many times before in other programmes. But it is so low tech - as others mentioned it would have benefited from more graphics - better maps, clips from films, and clever reconstructions used by the Snows in their battle stories. Instead of visits to churches and tombs as visual aids. Also as people have mentioned it gives a nice polished gloss to these people who were no better than Afghanistan warlords or Genghis Khan. Laying waste to vast areas and killing thousands of helpless people is commented on in rather too polite language considering the evil deeds done. Even by the standards of the time. I wonder why he was called the Black Prince? More like the prince of devils. I bet the French had a lot of names. Nowadays I dont think too many people are going to see these ruthless class conscious children of the Feudal system as English heroes. So really I would have liked to hear a more critical tone sometimes. These were not nice people.

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    37. keveen "it would have benefited from more graphics - better maps, clips from films, and clever reconstructions "

    Better maps yes, but please, no more reconstructions - clever or otherwise. As an example of my concern: consider the BBC2 reconstruction of the first murder on the railway last night and its 'clever' reconstructions grated badly with the narrative. Facts were withheld for dramatic effect - this is just stupid and an insult to the viewer. I completely disagree with the use of reconstructions just to retain an audience with a limited attention span. It is my considered opinion that this method of dramatising history warps history and the real story more than it illuminates it. The concern I have is the intermingling of historic evidence with reconstruction so that in the end the researched historically sourced evidence is inextricably mixed with the 'drama' so that all is seen just as drama.

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    A fascinating insight into a period of history that I, for one, knew little about. The Middle Ages can often seem to be a chaotic mixture of events, and this series gives some feeling of continuity and reason to the events that happened during the 'Hundred Years War'. I hope the final episode lives up to the first two. Maybe those who criticise the BBC's 'formulaic' history series are already knowledgeable historians, but for those of us who are not, these series make enjoyable viewing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    Having just covered the basics of medieval life with my primary school class I have found the series absolutely fascinating and a 'must see' programme. The production quality is excellent and Dr Ramirez is an enthusiastic and engaging presenter who really brings the subject to life. I certainly don't feel 'patronised' by any of the presenters (as someone else has commented). In contrast, I watched Simon Schama last night and fell asleep!


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