Sunday, July 12, 2015

Review: Britain's Bloodiest Dynasty: The Plantagenets (DVD)

A history resource article by  © 2015

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.
This documentary appears to attribute much of this strife to Henry II's unwillingness to yield any of his tight-fisted control of his expanding empire to his sons.  I always thought sons were supposed to wait until their father dies before taking their turn at the helm, but apparently not the Plantagenets.

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)
But he chafes under the Magna Carta's restrictions on his kingship and turns to an experienced warrior from France, Simon de Montfort, to pursue Henry's dreams of conquest in 1230.  The documentary mentions that de Montfort had spent his youth "chasing heretics" in France.  Having visited southern France just two years ago, I was aware of the slaughter that occurred in the Albigensian Crusade (to persecute the religious sect now referred to as Cathars) and it was certainly not an activity to be taken quite that lightly.

Simon de Montfort on the Leicester Clock Tower.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
At first I thought this Simon de Montfort was the religious zealot I had encountered in the histories of a number of sites in Languedoc that I had visited.  I spent a beautiful day wandering the streets of the little village of Minerve, the site where Crusaders led by de Montfort burned 140 men, women and children at the stake for heresy.  Of course this atrocity did not hold a candle to the massacre of 20,000 inhabitants of Béziers, another picturesque city  overlooking the river Orb in the Languedoc region that I had the opportunity to visit. I even stood on the grounds of the Cathedral of St.Nazaire where many townsfolk had taken refuge and were subsequently killed when the cathedral was set ablaze and the roof caved in on them.

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
Although the overall commander of Crusader forces at Béziers was officially the papal legate, Arnaud-Amaury, Abbot of Cîteaux, de Montfort was named his chosen successor shortly thereafter.

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 eventually recalls de Montfort and asks him to campaign against King Louis IX of France in Poitou, another of Henry's disastrous attempts at recovering lands in France.  But during the battle Henry flees the field and leaves de Montfort fighting a desperate rear guard action.  When De Montfort finally escapes, he confronts Henry, telling Henry he should be locked up like the ineffectual Carolingian king Charles the Simple of Paris (a cowardly character in the History Channel series "Vikings".)

Henry III returning from Poitou from the Historia Anglorum,
British Library, Royal MS 14, C. VII f. 134v
Although Henry is furious, he recognizes de Montfort's considerable administrative talents and seeks to appease him by appointing him viceroy of the troublesome Duchy of Gascony.  Simon, true to his inflexible Crusader upbringing, comes down hard on the barons of Gascony, even cutting down their vineyards - an appalling atrocity to the French.

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.
Back in France, the Gascons raised so much of a ruckus about de Montfort that Henry places de Montfort, who is now a titled baron recognized as the Sixth Earl of Leicester, on trial, apparently thinking he will finally rid himself of this troublesome fanatic who even wears a hairshirt under his clothes day and night.  But the other English barons come to de Montfort's defense and will not convict him.  Evidently, the barons are fed up with Henry's Lusignans and need the military skills of de Montfort to lead a rebellion against the Lusignans.

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.
Plantagent rule is reestablished and the dynasty and documentary series, continues, skipping the reign of Edward the Longshanks, then examining the reign of his son, Edward II. The last episode focuses on the reign of Richard II, the son of the famous (or infamous depending on your point of view) Edward, The Black Prince.  Richard II is considered by some the last of the main Plantagenet line before it split between the House of York and the House of Lancaster.

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.
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