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Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Review: The Plantagenets (Episode 1. The Devil's Brood)

Professor Robert Bartlett
This post is contributed by Dr Kathryn Dutton, Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at the University of Manchester

An enduring dynasty of fifteen English kings descended from a malevolent demon countess of Anjou: this was the opening, complete with menacing crows and interior shots of Gothic churches, to Prof. Robert Bartlett’s first episode of The Plantagenets, dedicated to the ‘Devil’s Brood’ of Henry II, Eleanor of Aquitaine and their sons. Bartlett took us swiftly from the marriage of the Empress Matilda to Count Geoffrey of Anjou – the first ‘Plantagenet’ – in 1128, to Magna Carta and the death of King John in 1216. Along the way, Bartlett set out what made the early Plantagenets distinctive: on one hand, the rapid construction in the 1150s of an ‘Empire’ stretching from northern England to southern France, the resuscitation of English fortunes after the ‘Anarchy’ of King Stephen’s reign, and the legal reforms of Henry II, which laid the foundations for the Common Law; on the other, he told a dramatic story of discord and conflict between fathers and sons, husbands and wives, evoked the sorry image of a humiliated and hair-shirted Henry II being flogged by the English clergy after the murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket, and outlined the reigns of first an absent king, Richard Lionheart, and then a failed king, John. The hour closed with Bartlett walking away from the camera, down an exposed dirt track in the marshy wilds of the Wash, where King John famously lost men, horses and treasure just days before his death.

Bartlett’s style (and that of his production team) is familiar from his previous BBC series Inside the Medieval Mind and The Normans, and the substance of what he presented will be equally of no surprise to historians. Yet the subject matter is inherently engaging, and what made the programme particularly attractive was its varied and well-chosen locations, which included not only obvious though spectacular suspects (Canterbury Cathedral, Fontevraud) but also sites which lent the story further drama and unexpected humanity (the shrine to Saint Radegonde carved into the rock beneath Chinon, for example, with its fresco of members of the dynasty). The choice of many of these locations reflected Bartlett’s success in characterising the Plantagenets as, in essence, foreigners. Yet while the story was well told and the production lavish, something rankled. Bartlett stuck fast to a narrative which, while scholarly, was tangibly traditional. Women like the Empress Matilda and Eleanor of Aquitaine were ‘enraged princesses’ and schemers; although shorthand and character portraits are necessary in an overview like this, Bartlett’s account does not compare favourably with other recent BBC programmes which touch upon these themes, such as Helen Castor’s She-Wolves (the first episode of which looked at Matilda and Eleanor) or Michael Wood’s King Alfred and the Anglo-Saxons, both of which dug deeper into the motivations of both women and men, the latter through the use of an outstanding group of talking heads, including Jinty Nelson and Ryan Lavelle.

Such shortcomings make sense: in this episode, nearly a century of history was condensed into a single hour. Yet while this is a standard account of the early Plantagenets – one which will be familiar to any undergraduate student who has studied the dynasty – Bartlett and the BBC (no doubt prompted by the discovery of the body of Richard III, the ‘last Plantagenet’, in a Leicester car park in 2013) should be applauded for bringing the history of such a dynamic group of rulers to the attention of a public battered by the much better-known history of the Plantagenets’ successors, the Tudors. Enthusiasts have much to look forward to in the next programme, and can be assured that while the account given might at time lack the cutting edge of the newest research developments, it will be accurate, perceptive and engaging.

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