Sunday, 17 March 2013

Chivalry and Betrayal: Janina Ramirez’ Hundred Years War Documentary on the BBC

When the right elements are all in place there is nothing better on TV than a BBC historical documentary. BBC 4 just finished airing recently Chivalry and Betrayal: The Hundred Years War, a three-part series presented by Dr Janina Ramirez, a very evocative study of the conflict delivered with passion and panache.

Janina Ramirez is a seriously rising TV historian who seems to grow in confidence and skill with every new production. Previous to this series she had presented a few documentaries on Anglo-Saxon treasures and Medieval illuminated manuscripts which—if I have to be honest—although interesting and well written, were a little too academic and nothing to get fired up about. This production is a massive improvement in her TV career as she embraces a subject which not only has wide popular appeal, but that she obviously knows very well and is very passionate about. The result is a very clear, concise retelling of a very long period in English history, which manages to be simple without being simplistic, and also includes fascinating insights on how the Hundred Years War affected the English. Each of the three episodes is well made and the narration is good throughout.

The best episode is the first one, where Ramirez spells out the origins of the conflict and charts its first crucial 20 years. There are fascinating details galore, including a good retelling of the Battle of Crecy and a description of English Aquitaine. It’s hard to realize today that the French region of Aquitaine (also called Gascony) was for 300 years a little piece of England abroad and a very important part of the English economy: 80,000 tons of wine were exported from Gascony every year and its tax contributions to the English crown were higher than all the taxes levied by the English shires.

King Edward III tried to wear the crowns of England
and France at once by piling them on up.

The focus of the first episode is on the two men who whipped France under submission early in the war, the most remarkable father and son military team of the Middle Ages: King Edward III and his eldest son, Edward the Black Prince. Ramirez paints a picture of Edward as the ideal medieval monarch: chivalrous and magnanimous but also wily and iron-willed, and most of all a natural war leader. The Black Prince inherited most of these qualities and together they crushed the French forces all over the Gallic kingdom, from Crecy to Calais, from Carcassone to Poitiers.

They succeeded by adopting new military weapons, like the famous longbows at Crecy, and also by using improved and terrible military strategies: five hundred years before Sherman’s March in the American Civil War the Black Prince adopted a total war approach in the south of France that brought fear and destruction right to the heart of the French kingdom.

Although the origins of his sobriquet remain a mystery, it is said that the Black Prince was given his nickname by the terrified French population who thought his heart was as black as hell’s darkness. He was however simply a great soldier, marrying ruthlessness with courageous battle acts, like at the Battle of Poitiers where his sudden charge into the French army convulsed the enemy and delivered the French King into his hands. By the end of this first episode, Edward III and his son have conquered a third of France, and their feats have been celebrated at home by the founding of a new national order of chivalry and service, the Garter.

Edward the Black Prince’s effigy in Canterbury Cathedral
shows him ready for battle in aeternum.

The second episode takes advantage of the lull in fighting that followed Edward III’s death to focus on domestic issues. By a twist of fate, both Richard II in England and Charles VI in France were peace-loving kings who were not interested in continuing the conflict. Ramirez discusses instead the impact the war had on England and its people. Fighting the French, who had been England’s continental brothers until then, sharpened a sense of identity among the English which manifested itself in literature and architecture. Ramirez shows us the earliest manuscript of the Canterbury Tales and the glories of the totally English perpendicular style. There is also a digression to the Peasants Revolt of 1381 which killed the Archbishop of Canterbury, Simon Sudbury, and this includes a totally gross moment when Janina holds the mummified skull of the decapitated archbishop still lovingly preserved in a Suffolk church (Yaach!).

The third part recounts the apogee and fall of English power in France, from Henry V to Joan of Arc. Ramirez does a good job of sketching out the infighting among the French that allowed Henry V to step in and easily seize the French Crown, in particular the crucial role played by the House of Burgundy, a side branch of the French royal family. It was this alliance between Burgundy and England, which continued after Henry’s death, that allowed the English to occupy Paris for 15 years and for the English and French crowns to be united in the tiny person of Henry’s baby son, Henry VI. This situation however did not last long and the English empire in France was brought down by a French peasant girl.

Ramirez shows that it truly was the emergence of Joan of Arc that turned the tide of war for the French. Spurred by divine visions, La Pucelle rallied a divided French nation together against the English invaders using both religion and patriotism: “Surrender to the Maid who is sent here by God. She is come here by God’s will to reclaim the blood royal!” she proclaimed to the English. Soon the French were employing the latest military innovations and same clever tactics the English had used against them earlier in the war, while in England a child king and a divided regency paralyzed the English military in France. No English hero was left to fight for England’s possessions in France, and in a cruel final act the war ended when the English were defeated in Gascony in 1453 and the oldest English possession in France was lost forever.

Joan of arc stirs the courage of the King of France in this medieval illumination. I am not sure if the gigantic, long right index finger has any symbolic significance.

The documentary’s clear narration would be reason alone to watch this series but Ramirez also offers some fascinating insights on the Hundred Years War. By spelling out how the English won at Crecy and Agincourt she shows that England was able to overrun France not by adopting but by abandoning the rules of chivalry: the French complained that the English at Crecy used lowly-born archers to kill goodly knights from afar, which was against the principles of fair combat. It was only when the French were willing to adopt the same un-chivalric methods, like guerilla warfare and the use of gunfire, that they were able to beat the English at their own game.

Also interesting was an insight on the differences between the French and English monarchies. Ramirez points out that English monarchy was more effective because it had the safety valve of deposition. Failing monarchs who hurt the national interest could be deposed, like Edward II and Richard II. However in France the monarchy was considered sacred and inviolable in the person of the king, so people were stuck with failed monarchs until their deaths. This was particularly relevant in the case of Charles VI, whose descent into madness crippled the French government and produced the political infighting that in turn allowed the English to step in and grab the crown. In fact, you could say that despite his military brilliance and heroism the only reason Henry V was able to seize the crown of France was because the French were too busy fighting one another to repel a foreign enemy.

Some screen shots from the second episode of Chivalry and Betrayal.

But the best insight of all is the effect that the Hundred Years War had on English nationhood. Ramirez reminds us that the war acted as one the ‘longest divorces in history’, between the English and the French. The loss of almost all English possessions in France at the end of the war, although painful to bear at the time, tore England away from the continent once for all and turned it into a real island nation. It is also during the Hundred Years War that England acquired some of its oldest national symbols: the flag of St George was adopted because it was Edward III’s personal saint, the royal coat of arms incorporated the motto of the Order of the Garter, and the order itself became synonymous with England. Ramirez actually calls the institution of the Garter a seminal moment in English history because it gave birth to a national order of service open to all who served the King in loyalty, regardless of birth or station.   

This is an excellent documentary from a very promising TV historian. It is not completely without faults (I could argue with Janina about some minor interpretations she gave) but its defects are overwhelmed by its quality. The production values are first class, the cinematography and music are rousing, and there are contributions throughout from well-respected historians like Ian Mortimer. If you want to know what the Hundred Years War was all about, or just want to refresh your memory with a worthy summary, this is the documentary series to watch.

Watch Chivalry and Betrayal: the Hundred Years War
on YouTube.

Read about the making of the series from Janina Ramirez’s TV Blog on the BBC website, and learn more about Janina herself at her website.

Learn more about the Hundred Years War at Wikipedia.

Rock-chick look and all, Janina Ramirez is an excellent, passionate historian.


  1. I've just finished writing my own review to the first episode in this series -- though yours is undoubtedly better written and more fluid than mine -- and agree with everything you said here. I had never had the chance to see anything by Dr Ramirez before and was not entirely familiar with the Hundred Years War so I found this series really informative and easy to follow.

    1. Hi

      Thank you very much for your comment. I am glad you enjoyed the review, it was a very good documentary. I look forward to read your own review!

      Alex David