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 61.

    We are enjoying the programme,accepting that time constraints limited input. What would be good to have would be the production team's perspective on why the average man seemed to tamely accept being "cannon fodder" and let the aristocracy away with the willful slaughter of so many of their own people. Were there no revolts?

  • Comment number 62.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 63.

    A very interesting and well-presented programme. I knew nothing about this period as I had never studied it at school. Obviously it had to be aimed mainly at an audience who hadn't got a History degree, and had to be condensed into 3 hours so some of the earlier comments are unreasonable. David Attenborough often wears the same clothes for continuity and I bet he doesn't have to put up with stupid comments about it. Particularly enjoyed the close detail of the Medieval books and views of the French cathedrals, it made a refreshing change from some of the recent history programmes which only seem to be about the battles.

  • rate this

    Comment number 64.

    I enjoyed the series, trying to put all the information of the hundred year war in 3 programs would be difficult, but it was a very good go.
    Dr Janina Ramirez, I probably should have warned you how load cannons are you did jump well :-) and Yes maybe I should have warned you about "kissing the gunners daughter" :-) Hope you enjoyed the Guns

  • rate this

    Comment number 65.

    Fantastic series that was extremely interesting and well put together. Particularly interesting was the fact that the presenter obviously had a different heritage and was young, so it had a modern slant which was a success. Knowlegeable folk may grumble at what has been left out but I learnt more on the subject than I knew - so well done to those involved.

  • rate this

    Comment number 66.

    @Lachie.[post 52] I agree with you. The Scots were indeed a part of the French fightback. At one point the Constable of France was the Earl of Buchan. Instead we got the same old claptrap. Crecy, Poitiers and Agincourt. And the English longbow - that old chestnut. It doesn't mention that the Scots and the French had archers too. It doesn't mention either that the Gascons had the best crossbowmen in the business, many of whom fought on horseback. The Gascons were a large part of the English army at Poitiers. Henry V's marvellous artillery were Germans. But it is the English longbow - the machine gun of its day - shoots as far as the eye can see - one wonders how the French could have possibly won the Hundred Years War.
    I was very disappointed. I was hoping to find out what Dr Ramirez had to say about some of the lesser known campaigns of the Hundred Years War, and the fact that many of the "English" troops who fought in them were levied locally. Instead the English won three major battles centuries ago, and we never hear the end of it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 67.

    This was an excellent programme -well presented & full of interesting information.

  • rate this

    Comment number 68.

    I loved this series it really helped me to gain an understanding of dramatic period of history that is not often discussed. (probabaly because living in an age of political correctness and the illusion of Europian unity its not seen as proper to talk about us kicking the butt of the French!)
    Love Dr Ramirez especially when she reads old Medieval English I was impressed with that. I find her flirty rock chic approach to history really engaging.

  • rate this

    Comment number 69.

    I watched all three on iPlayer, the presenter’s enthusiasm was infectious. There was a lot of content in three hours, it refreshed things I already knew and introduced a lot that I’m pretty sure I was never taught in the first place. For those on here overly concerned with “Janina only having one outfit” perhaps a continuity aid? Must have been much easier to edit and keep the flow rather than a collection of clips welded together? I liked it and will watch out for further offerings.

  • rate this

    Comment number 70.

    Alan Kerr asks why the common man accepted so readily the role of cannon fodder. The Kings in the Middle Ages were little mor than war lords and fighting to retain power was normal - while the 100 years war was going on against France we in England had the civil war - or Wars of the Roses running concurrently. Battles were bloody and intense. But an army marches on its stomach and as Janina has pointed out the distances they marched was prodigous. And so the men had to be fed in order to be in any fit state to fight. Therefore these men were guaranteed 3 square meals a day. It was much the same for the first two years of WW1. The British Army attracted so many volunteers amongst the working man beause some, for the first time, were guaranteed 3 meals a day. Check out the starvation and poverty especially in the country prior to 1914. To say nothing of the slums in the big cities.

  • rate this

    Comment number 71.

    It is the Joan of Arc myth that interests me. A peasant girl who at 17 persuades the Dauphin to let her lead his army and so on until her trial by the English in Rouen. But at her trial she proves herself to be very articulate and fully able to deal with the complex theological issues of the day. We know this because as Dr Janina Ramirez said, we have the trial record. Clearly, therefore, she cannot have been a peasant girl as the myth states, instead this is an intelligent and educated woman who may have bought into the myth herself, but who was she and what is the real story ? I was disappointed that the myth was presented baldly by Dr Janina Ramirez without question.

  • rate this

    Comment number 72.

    Very enjoyable series well presented more please

  • rate this

    Comment number 73.

    Really enjoyed the series, very well researched and presented extremely well. Having watched the last episode for the second time tonight, I was surprised to hear that at the final fall of Gascony John Talbot rode into battle without armour, but on falling and being trapped by his horse, he was decapitated and stripped of his armour??

  • rate this

    Comment number 74.

    Good to see serious history on the TV. We can all learn from our past! One little crit. of course!
    I cannot resist! John Talbot`s body was said to have been stripped of its armour on the battlefield of Castillon. But he was supposed to have not been wearing any armour? Oh I know...who knows what really happened. Never mind. :)

  • rate this

    Comment number 75.

    A very good series, well presented by Janina. I did my dissertation about Joan of Arc, so this was of particular interest to me. The Hundred Years War [1337-1453] was a very interesting period of both English and French History.

  • rate this

    Comment number 76.

    I can't believe the naysayers- this is the best history programme I have seen on television in a long time- informative and entertaining- well done Janina- any plans for another show.

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    Comment number 77.

    aude: You make a good point. I will not even attempt to give an answer here. However, as I have stated earlier I found Juliet Barker's book "Conquest" has the clearest and most comprehensive account of Joan of Arc's story. It is well worth a read. There are of course many other books on her. It is truly a remarkable story and of course there are valid reasons for why she was able to relieve Orleans. But all will be revealed in Mrs Barker's book.

  • rate this

    Comment number 78.

    Physicist: You are of course quite right, but Dr Ramirez was giving an over view, there are hundreds of books available to read on the 100 years war for those who wish to delve further.
    I thought history is written by the victors. I am sure it was the relieving of Orleans by Joan of Arc (hence her extraordinary fame) that changed the direction of the war. Added to which Henry VI was not interested in continuing the fight.
    However most of all if you want your side of the story to prevail it is ideal to have the best playwrite to chronical the events - and the English had Shakespeare.

  • rate this

    Comment number 79.

    Honi Soit qui mal y pense(To Dr Ramirez)

    Put aside your French,your Norman architecture,
    give us the bawdy words of feisty Chaucer
    and English Gothic Perpendicular.
    Take your taxes for jewellery away if not taxes for war,
    Give us a king who fights for more.
    Wat Tyler eclipsed the divine right of kings,
    it was Bolinbroke or bust, then Henry V,

    Masked by chivalry but bloody all the same,
    the Order of the Garter and St George,
    leading One Nation to win Agincourt.
    (A cold,hard man,not golden boy
    brought the wind of God on England’s side).Archers
    low-born,killed the cream of French nobility,
    but then poor Henry V was brought down by dysentery.

    “A skull,a skull my series for a skull!” Cries Dr Jamirez
    touching through gloves the vellum-like skin,then
    England re-entered France through a hole in Burgundy’s skull
    until stopped by the French maid at the gates of Orleans.
    The coffers in Normandy for the war had run out,
    Henry VI was crowned king of France and England

    But it was the wrong Cathedral,Rouen,
    While the Charles VII smelled the cloves of Rheims.
    He also drove the English out using low-born
    Artillery men,the French now the superpower
    Of Europe.The English at last proud to become
    Off-shore islanders,to speak their own tongue.

  • rate this

    Comment number 80.

    The last posts are from another planet, this is BBC visual history at it's best, intellectually well balanced, dramatic, panoramic and graphic; of course there will be different interpretations of history, events, ideas etc. but TV history is all about bringing things that most people don't know a lot about to their attention in an entertaining, informative, well balanced and stimulating way - great stuff, let's have more, thank goodness for the bold political decision to invent the license fee.


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