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 81.

    I was interested in the history of this time as it is said that my father's family were Spanish mercenaries at Agincourt under the name 'Caru'. Two noble brothers who brought their fighting men with them, one was wounded and so they stayed in France.

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    Comment number 82.

    What a great series! Really informative documentaries that showed so many aspects of that Hundred Years from so many disciplines. The visits to the the locations were fascinating, and seeing all thise illuminated books and documents bought you so much closer to the people. I am glad it was not spoiled by any 'dramatic reconstructions'. Dr Ramirez was a great presenter and I learened a lot. Thanks for the series, I hope we see more from this historian, (And there must be a few good outtakes lying around!)

  • rate this

    Comment number 83.

    The fact BBC4 devoted three hours to the 100 Years War again underlined why BBC4 alone is worth the licence fee and, as we have come to expect with Janina Ramirez, the series was sexcellent in terms of its portrayal of the art of the period. The series could have been better however in terms of getting the historical narrative right. The point made in connection with the Battle of Patay (1429) that "the English archers were undefeated on the battlefield for over 80 years" ignores the the fact that a largely Scottish army had defeated and killed Henry V's brother Clarence at Battle of Bauge in 1421. Indeed the arrival of of 30,000 Scots over the 1420s in support of Charles VII could have have explain why that monarch was able to cling on and ultimately win the war. So, good though this series was, for me Helen Castor's "She Wolves" remains the best thing we have seen on TV on the Middle Agews in recent years.

  • rate this

    Comment number 84.

    @Lachie[post 52] and @physicist [post 66] both take issue with the perceived anglo-centric presentation. Of course, there is much more that could be said about the presence and, at times, important role of the Scots - including the presence of the Earl of Douglas at Poitiers with 300 men-at-arms. In this case, however, they had little impact beyond encouraging the French king to attack the Anglo-Gascon army. They left the field when the battle started to turn against the French - a prudent move since their presence with the French was in breach of the terms of the truce between England and Scotland. The contribution of the Scots could certainly be argued to be a contributory factor to the eventual French victory, but mention should also perhaps then be made of other factors that contributed to the eventual French victory: the population of France and the tax base being three times greater than England's, the army reforms in France from Charles V onwards, the loss of enthusiasm for the war in England, the heavy burden of taxation falling on towns in occupied Normandy, neglect of the defence of Gascony, and the internal feuding and civil war in England being examples. The problem for the producers was surely that there is so much more that could be said, but how much can you put into a three hour series? In the end I think the point was well made in episode three that the English (or again to be more accurate the Anglo-Gascons) were soundly trounced at Castillon in 1453. This was not celebrated as some early Dunkirk but told as it was - the end of the English in France save for a residual presence in Calais. Perhaps the programmes did not say much about the Scots, but the war was after all essentially between England and France, with others such as the counties in the low countries, Aragon, Portugal and Castille being drawn in from time to time. I don't envy the production team their challenge, but for me they put together an excellent series.

  • rate this

    Comment number 85.

    Thoroughly enjoyed this series, covered a huge amount of ground in a clear way that engaged my interest from the beginning and held it until the end. To the complainers, there is a difference between "talking down" to people and presenting complex information in a straightforward & understandable way. This was not a university degree programme, rather a good introduction to a fascinating period. This is one (of the many) things the BBC does well and the more they do the better, in my view.

  • rate this

    Comment number 86.

    I have never commented on a BBC programme before but as someone who has a keen interest in medieval history I thoroughly enjoyed this programme and thought Dr Ramirez and the BBC did a great job. Rousing soundtrack also!

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    Comment number 87.

    I wholeheartedly agree with the positive commenters above. Not everybody is as lucky as to have received anywhere near a decent education in history(or any other subject for that matter!) at school. Programmes like this are absolutely fascinating for someone who wishes to learn more to actually get into a subject area. I pick up from comments that 3 hours is a squeeze for the breadth of the subject and certain decisions had to be made by the production team. I also agree that battle reconstructions as a narrative device have been used too often in previous history programmes and are distracting and interfere with the delivery of facts, so I was glad that the editorial team went about as far as only using a shot of some flames to denote destruction, and just the technical basics when it came to the historical re-enactment fellows. Really engaging and couldn't wait for each instalment, which iplayer was great for allowing timed viewing on. As some others have commented, BBC4's output in producing programmes like this, (also the recent "Sound and the Fury") justifies in itself the licence fee. This speaks to me - I want to be educated by TV, not dumbed down so thank you. And yes, Dr.Janina Ramirez is an engaging and enlightening educator, really enjoyed the Illuminations series too, great to see women presented as equals, I have no problem with her style of presentation or dress. If she was a man, would that even be commented upon?

  • rate this

    Comment number 88.

    I found this program riveting, I really love British history the period covered in the three programs is seamless, my previous knowledge of it had been patchy and I couldn't connect up the many events throughout the hundred years war until seeing this. A massive enterprise expertly delivered and by an attractive person who clearly relished the job. It was fascinating to see Janina lovingly handle the ancient manuscripts. Excellent.

  • rate this

    Comment number 89.

    A very good clear presentation of the Hundred Years War from a cultural historian's perspective. I found it informative not knowing a lot about this period (even after studying History up to degree level). Unfortunately my secondary school education did not cover much breadth (studying Nazi Germany every year between Year 9 and Year 13), but that's another issue!

    A thought has occurred to me though whilst reading the above blog post: about how the Hundred Years War affects a modern sense of national pride and identity, it would have been interesting to explore this link between the past and the present/recent past further.

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    Comment number 90.

    I really enjoyed these programmes, I found it easy to follow and understand what was going on during these times. I could easily watch it again and again. hopefully it will be on DVD sometime.
    Dr Janina Ramirez did an excellent job of presenting this series, I would like to see more programmes like this.

  • rate this

    Comment number 91.

    I can't praise this series too highly. I was bored into a small decline at school learning about this period (family feuds among the warlords) but the delectable Dr R puts it all into a meaningful broader context of the history of the relationship of Britain and France.
    My only gripe - I missed the 3rd episode and now find it's not on iPlayer - BBC please note and either repeat it or make it available!

  • rate this

    Comment number 92.

    A really wonderful series, one that I would very much like to look at time and time again. Where can I buy a copy of this wonderful program. I have tried so many times on various search program mes all unsuccessfully. I have written an email to Dr Ramirez on her Oxford email, but no reply.
    Is there someone who could advise me. I should be so grateful

  • rate this

    Comment number 93.

    Someone asked why the English nobility spoke in French. This was a legacy of the Norman Conquest, the top brass spoke Norman French, the peasants Old English; English was lucky to survive. It was about this time that the English language returned as the speech of the nobility, and it gradually took the place of French - something that ties in with what Dr Ramirez is saying, about our own emeging identity.

  • rate this

    Comment number 94.

    Dr Janina Ramirez presents her jprogramme EXACTLY,as I,and I suspect others, appreciate.She is well-informed,presents learned and relevant views of experts in their field to substantiate her thesis and to explore the theme; and she is obviously very enthusiastic about her subject. How I dislike the cult of celebrity presenters when THEY not the subject dominate the programme.Although Dr Janina,perhaps, shows too many shots of her just walking about,- as so many of the others do-nevertheless, it is not intrusive and she is to be congratulated for her enthusiastic and knowledgeable series. By the way, the subject-matter is riveting!!


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