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 41.

    There are some unfair comments here. This is the sort of stuff that the BBC is best at and I couldn't care less how cheap it is to make! I devour this kind of programme and I think it's up there with the best. Dr Ramirez has an infectious enthusiasm that I really like and this is history. Not just one person's viewpoint but real history. Furthermore, it's not an era with which I am particularly well aquainted so it's all new to me. New is good! So I say well done BBC and thank you to Dr Ramirez and her associates for crafting this fascinating series.

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    I'd never heard of the 100 years war (though I might well have studied it in school back in Rio), but i feel the program passed on a good generic view of such an important period in this country's history and its divorce from France.
    I love the passionate and interested way with which Dr Janina Ramirez speaks (a bit like Andrew Marr), she's brilliant and modern. I'm really looking forward to the 3rd episode

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    I thought Sir Reginald and the crossing of the river was Epic!

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    Very enjoyable programme doesn't over complecate the history but gives you the information in a form we can all understand,miss Ramirez does an excellent joband is good on the eye too.

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    I thought the programme was excellent and very easy watching compared with some dull and stayed programmes. Really enjoyed the presenting. Can't wait for the final episode tomorrow.

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    An enjoyable programme without the superlative-laden text you sometimes find in documentaries. It would be great if on this website there was a list of the major filming locations: you've mentioned three above but where is the castle surrounded by a large moat with long-bridged walkway that was used right at the end of the first episode? and the hill-top ramparts where Dr Ayton was summing up Edward III's strategies concering his claim to the French throne?

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    Hello cynical chap #21 and Duncan Allen #33 - thanks for your comments here. Following your mentions of the music, the tracklistings have now been added to the Chivalry And Betrayal episode one, two and three pages. Cheers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    This could be a really interesting series, instead we have 'moody' shots of a presenter pretending to look at something in the middle distance and a dearth of information. It seems the BBC are trying to create a new 'in-house' telegenic historian who talks quite a bit and tells us very little. Contrast this with Prof Brian Cox's Wonders of life and his erudition jumps out of the screen. Every episode of Wonders of life has been information heavy and really fascinating (for a Zoology graduate listening to a particle physicist talking about biology that's impressive), every episode of Chivalry and betrayal has been information light and more and I've come away from two episodes knowing that the Black Death was 1346-1349 and one or two other minor details. It's history redacted in true BBC style.

  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    I correct an earlier comment I think it's commendable and well executed but I kept forgetting dates. Telling a story requires regular milestones and with the ascendency of screen base information delivery the pure narrative can easily be zoned out of.

  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    Dr Janina Ramirez is extremely watchable and makes this series unmissable. Not only is her commentary clear, concise and enthralling, but dare I say she is also very easy on the eye?

  • rate this

    Comment number 51.

    An excellent introduction to a critical time in two nations history. For those wishing for anything more than an introduction, and three hours can only be an introduction, then they are inevitably going to be disappointed. For myself I thought it was excellent, articulate, very well produced and presented. Well done presenter, crew and production team!

  • rate this

    Comment number 52.

    Well done guys, you managed to air-brush the huge Scots military contribution to the French, particularly Jeanne d' Arcs army. The BBC, as usual is the English Broadcasting Company. A disgraceful piece of glossy propaganda.

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    Comment number 53.

    What a good refresher course for a period of history so under-exposed. Most people have heard of Agincourt, Crecy and Joan of Arc, but know little or nothing of why they occurred. Other programmes have covered the campaigns but not the entire war. Well done to all for a very entertaining little series and thank you.

  • rate this

    Comment number 54.

    I loved this series of 3 films on the 100 years war,smoothly presented by Janina Ramirez.She has
    a forward,hands-on approach,with gets rid of stuffiness and the stiff,upper lip.She almost walks into
    the camera as if she was talking to you in a pub.She wears her learning lightly and is not geeky like the incredibly clever Brian Cox,who is at times too analytical.History on TV has been dull for
    years,this is like an injection of new blood.I like the way she shares her enthusiasm with books,
    documents,manuscripts,sometimes she walks around a bit and you don't get precise locations or directions,but still if you're like the Pied Piper of the Middle Ages,I'll follow anywhere.I liked how
    she tackled the subjects of the common people like Watt Tyler and Joan of Arc and their effect
    upon the aristocracy,the Kings and how they changed the nature of nationality in their own lands.

  • rate this

    Comment number 55.

    Absolutely brilliant - rivetting in it's scope and grasp of the many elements which went into the make-up of the 100 years war (eg. Norman ancestral lands). More like this please.

  • rate this

    Comment number 56.

    This was a good historical program ' have learned allot about the 100 years war. I see we did not rule France quite as convincingly as the Normans ruled us.

  • rate this

    Comment number 57.

    The programme itself wasn't bad, given the size of the canvas it was trying to cover. However, there was a far too much time given over to some characters (Henry V, at almost an hour, is a good example) and far too little (10 minutes only) to the character who effectively turned the war in favour of the French and who is, to me, the most enigmatic and remarkable of all its participants, namely Joan of Arc. I had hoped to learn more about where she came from and how, given her peasant status, she got anywhere near the Dauphin, let alone manage to persuade him that she was the real thing and not just one more hearer-of-voices. How, also, did she manage to get an army of 4,000 men to follow her into battle and take part in the battle herslf, bearing in mind that she was a) only 17, b) female and c) an illiterate peasant? This was medeival Europe after all. A lot more time should have been spent on Joan and less on Henry etc. The programme was, for me, a bit unbalanced and sort of 'aren't the English just wonderful!!'
    It should have been more dispassionate

  • rate this

    Comment number 58.

    I knew little of this period of history so have really enjoyed watching this series. I like Dr Janina Ramirez's presenting style. Thanks to everyone involved - you sound like you had a memorable time making it!

  • rate this

    Comment number 59.

    Reading history is one of my great pleasures. I found these programmes a delight. They have clearly introduced many to a subject that they can now, if they wish, delve into further. The presenters obvious enthusiasm has taken us throught the 114 years with clarity and charm. Some of the knocking comments I have found unconsionable.
    Juliet Barker (shown in the programme) has written two billiant books on the period "Agincourt" and "Conquest". In Conquest she gives the best description I have read of the part played by Joan of Arc (Jehanne D'Arc or The Pucelle). One person wanted to know more. Her story is worth reading. Comment was made that the horrors of 14th century was was glossed over. Ms Ramirez mentioned it in context. Her presentation was evenly balanced. Well done the BBC on an interesting, well presented and photgraphed series. it was fascinating to see so many of the sites, buildings, churches, cathedrals and castles as well as some fascinating documents in such a short time. As for talking down, it had not dawned on me and I was surprised to see the comment.

  • rate this

    Comment number 60.

    A couple of people have commented on Dr Ramirez having only one set of clothing. Clearly this is for continuity. When filming on a budget one has to do shots to camera out of sequence, The only way to ensure this does not look rediculous is to use the same clothes when filming.


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