For 300 years the Plantagenets murdered, betrayed, and tyrannized an England just emerging from the chaos and violence of the Middle Ages. This dynasty also produced some of England's most legendary (and often notorious men) from the famous Crusader king Richard the Lionheart to the ruthless Edward the Longshanks, Hammer of the Scots, of Braveheart fame to Henry V whose "band of brothers" extracted a bloody victory at Agincourt. But it is not these men whose lives are examined in this documentary serie. It shines its light instead on lesser known members of the clan who, despite military blunders and family treachery brought the British Empire such lasting achievements as a representative parliament and English Common Law.
The series begins, where else, but at the beginning with the reign of the first Plantagenet, Henry II. Henry II became an heir to the English throne when his father Geoffrey V, the (French) Count of Anjou and later Duke of Normandy, married the Empress Matilda, the only surviving legitimate child of King Henry I of England.
At the tender age of 18, young Henry marries the powerful Eleanor of Aquitaine whose marriage to Louis VII of France had been recently annulled. Together the couple produced a brood of eight children, including five very ambitious princelings. Encouraged by first King Louis VII then King Philip II of France who had suffered the loss of Brittany and much of central France south to Toulouse due to Henry's imperial expansion, "Young Henry", Richard (later to become the Lionheart) and Geoffrey, dissatisfied that their father had not shared his power when they came of age, rebelled against him in 1173 with the support of their mother Eleanor. (the basis for the 1968 Oscar winning film "The Lion in Winter" starring Peter O'Toole and Katharine Hepburn)
|A painting from Chinon Castle thought to depict Eleanor of Aquitaine on Crusade.|
I have a dear friend who is absolutely in awe of Eleanor of Aquitaine. But I can't help but think Eleanor has bathed, at least to some degree, in the reflected glory from the legends of her son Richard the Lionheart. As this documentary reveals her role in the intrigues surrounding her husband's reign it appears to me she is someone who, having the taste of queenship at a young age, harbors a healthy appetite for power herself.
Like a witch from Macbeth, Eleanor keeps stirring the cauldron, resulting in a second revolt in 1183 in which "Young Henry", the heir apparent, is killed. Richard, now next in line for the throne, begins to fear his father will make Richard's younger brother (and his father's favorite) John, king, so Richard rebels a third time in 1189, aided by the French King Philip II. Henry II is finally defeated and, suffering from a bleeding ulcer, retreats to Chinon in Anjou where he dies.
This tale of betrayal and complex political machinations is told with professionally acted cinematic clips and voice overs by award-winning journalist and historian Dan Jones. Mr Jones appears periodically throughout the program in research libraries or on the grounds of castles or cathedrals. For the most part, talking heads are pretty much avoided, a most welcome approach that makes the viewer feel more immersed in the events.
I found the next episode riveting as well. The reigns of Richard the Lionheart and his brother King John (of Robin Hood fame) are skipped over and the narrative picks up during the reign of Henry III, King John's son. We discover this Henry, unlike his grandfather, is totally inept on the battlefield, despite dreams of recovering the family lands in France lost by his father. Furthermore, the king is now limited in his authority to levy taxes on his barons by the Magna Carta, signed by his father, so when his barons lose confidence in him, he must redirect his energies to something less expensive than making war and turns to building Westminster Abbey.
|King John signs the Magna Carta. Image from Cassell's History of England - |
Century Edition (1902)
|Simon de Montfort on the Leicester Clock Tower.|
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
|A panoramic view of the beautiful village of Béziers, France. Taken from the ramparts of the Cathedral of St. Nazaire.|
Photo by Mary Harrsch © 2013
My research revealed Henry III's de Montfort, though, was just a youth at the time. But he apparently accompanied his father on these grisly expeditions and evidently learned a lot from him.
Henry finds Simon charismatic and much more militarily decisive than the king. By 1236, Simon is so confident in his position at court that he refers to himself as the Sixth Earl of Leicester, although the king has not officially granted him that title. (His father had earned the title of Fifth Earl of Leicester but it was not a hereditary title.) Simon's ambitions continue to soar when the king allows Simon to marry Henry's sister, Eleanor. But there's a fly in the ointment. Henry, perpetually short of funds, does not give Simon the lands he should have received as part of Eleanor's dowry. Then Simon takes out a big loan naming Henry III as a guarantor without the king's knowledge. This arrogant miscalculation on Simon's part infuriates Henry who threatens to imprison both de Montfort and the king's own sister in the Tower. Being fully aware that Henry is deadly serious, de Montfort and Eleanor flee to France.
|The Tower of London was built by William the Conqueror|
in 1078. Photo by Mary Harrsch © 2006
|Henry III returning from Poitou from the Historia Anglorum, |
British Library, Royal MS 14, C. VII f. 134v
Meanwhile, Henry has turned over administration in England to the Lusignans, French warlords who had gained a reputation for their ruthlessness in the Holy Lands. The Lusignans immediately begin grabbing land and property, including the sack of the London palace of the Archbishop of Canterbury.
|A chained Guy de Lusignan with Saladin by|
Jan Lievens 1625.
Henry responds to the crisis illogically by deciding to accept the Pope's commission to invade Sicily, another foolish dream of military conquest that he cannot afford. To finance the fiasco, Henry defies the Magna Carta and levies a substantial tax on his barons. The barons, led by de Montfort, descend on London dressed in full battle armor and demand that the king not only give up his dreams of glory in Sicily but that he agrees to remove the Lusignans and introduce a council of 15 barons that will meet three times a year to conduct the realm's business. Henry has no choice but to agree to the "Provisions of Oxford", a document on which England's current parliament is based.
But Henry is not a man of his word and within four years' time tries to bring back the Lusignans. De Montfort raises an army and defeats Henry in the resulting civil war at the Battle of Lewes, despite the encumbrance of a broken leg. With Henry as prisoner, de Montfort essentially runs the country for the next ten years until Henry's son Edward (the Longshanks) raises a Plantagenet army and confronts de Montfort's forces at the village of Evesham. There, Prince Edward commissions a 12-knight hit squad to find and slaughter de Montfort on the field of battle - reflecting the ruthlessness he would later employ against the Scots.
|Simon de Montfort's grave at Evesham.|
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
The Daily Mail compared this series to a real-life version of Game of Thrones and, although we have no dragons or stone men, I would be inclined to agree. The sheer ruthlessness demonstrated by those who held the throne or lusted after it during this period makes for a riveting series. Once more Athena in collaboration with RLJ Entertainment has brought out an excellent educational resource for history enthusiasts around the world.
Just as a reminder, RLJ Entertainment also offers an online streaming service named Acorn TV that features a rotating collection of some of Britain's best documentaries and dramas for $4.99 per month.