The Queen’s Lost Family – Channel 4

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The title of this programme was very misleading – none of George V’s children were “lost”, with the arguable exception of Prince John, whom the programme never even mentioned – but it was quite an entertaining hour of serious talk about the changing role of the Royal Family, combined with a fair amount of gossip and scandal. OK, it didn’t really say anything new, despite making a big deal of having access to the newly-released letters and diaries of Princess Mary, Countess of Harewood, and it jumped around a lot; but still, I do love a bit of royal talk! It also made some good points about life in the Britain of the 1920s in general. It was too light on the gossip element, though: it never even named any of Prince George (the future Duke of Kent)’s alleged celeb lovers!

I’m not entirely sure what it was aiming to do, especially given the confusing title. Explore the relationships between George V’s children? It was lovely to see, from the letters, how close Mary was to her brothers, and especially to her eldest brother. She’s known to have been quite supportive of him over the Abdication Crisis. Make a point about how all George V’s children suffered from his strictness? I think he gets a bit of a raw deal, TBH. Many fathers of his class and generation were quite remote from their children – although he does, to be fair, seem to have been exceptionally strict. If they were trying to do that, they should really have said more about Bertie’s stammer: it wasn’t mentioned once. Nor was Prince John, which really was weird. There was just no reference to him at all, even in passing. Trace the lives of each of the children (well, except from John)? Maybe. Very little was said about either Mary or Bertie after their marriages, but I think it was focusing on the more glamorous and more scandalous siblings. It was a shame, really, because both Bertie and Mary did a lot of charity work, much of it in unglamorous places, and I think they deserved more attention than the programme gave them. But I suppose you can only fit so much into an hour. Minus adverts.

Or was it meant to be about the changing face of the Royal Family in the 1920s? That was certainly how it started. With the Romanovs murdered, and the Hohenzollerns and Habsburgs sent packing, the newly-renamed Windsors must have been more than a bit worried – and it’s to the eternal credit of King George V and Queen Mary that the British monarchy came through this period so strongly.  The programme made it sound as if the country had gone straight from the pre-1832 world of only the upper-classes being able to vote to the post-1918 world of all men and most women being able to vote, which was hardly accurate; but the general point that Britain in 1919 was a very different world to Britain in 1914 was fair enough. The independence movement in India was also covered, although, for some strange reason, Ireland wasn’t mentioned at all.

There were clips of the princes and princess carrying out royal engagements in all sorts of different places. Edward/David got to go on tours of the Empire: Bertie got to visit factories at home. There was also some interesting talk about Mary, and how she was stuck at home whilst her brothers were away at school or naval college, not really allowed to do anything and with no hope of escape other than marriage. Being a princess sounds so glamorous, but it really wasn’t … until Princess Margaret came along, and showed that princesses could go living it up on the town just as well as princes could! A good point was also made about how it was Mary’s wedding, the first time the daughter of a sovereign had married in Westminster Abbey since Edward I’s time, that set the tone for modern royal weddings, with huge crowds in the streets and widespread coverage in the media.

Edward/David missed it, because he was away on a royal tour. He came across as being incredibly annoying. There’s this image of him as the people’s prince, because of his “something must be done” talk after the famous visit to mining areas of the North East, but comments he made after the 1922 General Election and during the General Strike make it pretty clear that he wasn’t actually that keen on “the people” at all. And he did a lot of moaning about how hard his life was, but was quite happy to be a prince when it came to getting into all the best nightclubs and pulling plenty of attractive women. He even moaned about being expected to return from a tour of Kenya when his father fell seriously ill. Bertie, meanwhile, was living a life of eminent respectability, and genuinely trying to help the working classes by running his Boys’ Camps – which the programme didn’t mention.

Henry, Duke of Gloucester, is usually seen as the one who kept a low profile, but he created a bit of scandal of his own, getting involved with an unsuitable woman and installing her as his mistress in a house close to Buckingham Palace – whilst she was heavily pregnant with someone else’s child. He did make a career for himself in the Army, though. And then there was George, who ran wild. The programme was very unsympathetic towards him – OK, he did run wild, but saying that it was “irresponsible” to have homosexual affairs and get addicted to cocaine was a bit much!  “Irresponsible”?!

It was all very bitty, and the title was very silly, but there was some good stuff in it, both about the Royal Family and about the social and economic issues facing post Great War Britain.  Also, whereas the BBC would have spoilt this by shoehorning in their own political agenda and making a load of irrelevant references to modern political events, Channel 4 just talked about the period that the programme was about, and I appreciated that.   Not bad at all!

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The Summer Queen by Margaret Pemberton

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I feel vaguely guilty for having enjoyed this, because it was mostly just a lot of historical royal gossip. Maybe I’m being a bit of an academic snob here, because I never feel guilty about reading historical royal gossip when it’s in academic book format – Theo Aronson’s written loads of books like that, and so have Carolly Erickson and various other people, and I assume that Margaret Pemberton’s been reading some of them!  Or maybe it’s because I feel vaguely uncomfortable about reading fictionalised accounts of the lives of people who seem so close: the book runs from 1879 to 1918, but some of the main characters were still around as recently as the 1950s. I haven’t got Netflix, so I didn’t watch The Crown!  Anyway, I did enjoy it – and I suppose it wasn’t all fluffy stuff, because it covered the build-up to the First World War and the Russian Revolution, focusing mainly on Princess May of Teck, later Queen Mary, Princess Alix of Hesse, later the Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna, and Crown Prince Wilhelm of Germany, later Kaiser Wilhelm II.

There are an awful lot of cousins, who have relationships with and marry each other. If you’re used to royal family trees, it will make perfect sense. If not, you might get confused! It’s all been said umpteen times before, but it’s still entertaining. I’m not sure what the King of Norway would make of the suggestion that his grandmother, the then Princess Maud, had a full-blown affair with Prince Francis of Teck: it’s known that she was interested in him, but I’m not sure about the rest. And I’m not convinced that Princess May had always been in love with the Duke of Clarence. He comes across as a very romantic figure here, but, whilst the rumours that he was Jack the Ripper are more than a bit OTT, a romantic figure he was not! But I quite like the idea that Ella of Hesse went into her marriage with Grand Duke Sergei knowing full well that it was a lavender marriage, and actively chose that because it was the nearest she could, at that point, get to being a nun … rather than finding out after the ring was on the finger, as her sister-in-law Victoria Melita of Edinburgh did.

I’ve heard it all a million times before, but it’s still quite fascinating how there were all these cousins and second cousins marrying each other. Or not marrying each other, in the cases of Maud and Francis, “Eddy” (the Duke of Clarence) and Alix, Wilhelm and Ella, etc etc.

What about the three main figures? The book revolves around the fictional and possibly rather silly idea that May, Wilhelm and Alix recognised each other as “Kindred Spirits”, all being outsiders for one reason or another, and swore an oath of friendship. The blurb on the front cover says “Her broken oath would cast an empire into turmoil” … and I don’t actually know to what that’s supposed to refer! It makes no sense whatsoever. Does it mean something to do with Alix and Wilhelm’s supposed childhood friendship? And who’s “The Summer Queen”? Queen Victoria? May? That doesn’t make much sense either. Anyway, I think all the “oath” stuff is best ignored: it just seems to be there to try to justify the focus on three different people, and link them together.

Alix’s story has been told in both academic books and fiction umpteen times, and is therefore very well-known, but she seems remote in this book. We don’t really get a sense of her concerns about changing her religion, her fears for her haemophiliac son’s health, or what was going on with Rasputin. The book also suggests that it was Wilhelm who convinced her to marry Nicholas, which doesn’t make much sense either but is presumably to tie in with the “kindred spirit” idea.

Queen Mary’s story, on the other hand, has rarely been told. She’s usually seen as the epitome of dignity, and, because of that, as being a bit cold, so it was nice to see a book reminding us of her difficult childhood, as the descendant of a morganatic marriage, and the time her family spent living in Italy and the freedom she enjoyed there, as well as how difficult it must have been for her when the Duke of Clarence died. She comes across really well here.  I’m glad about that.  She’s an admirable figure who coped well with some very difficult times.

“Willy” comes across well too. He’s such a hate figure in the English-speaking world, because of the First World War, and also the appalling way in which he treated his mother. If Queen Mary is seen as the epitome of dignity, he’s seen as the epitome of Prussian militarism – but the author is quite sympathetic to him, reminding the reader of all the horrific treatments he was subjected to in order to try to cure the damage done to his arm by a difficult birth. He certainly didn’t have it easy, but I’m not sure why the author’s quite so sympathetic towards someone who was undoubtedly very militaristic, and had some very unpleasant attitudes. She shows him as being an Anglophile, when he was anything but, and ignores some of his extremist views. On a more positive note, she touches on the interesting Harden-Eulenberg affair, when his closest friend and advisor fell from power amid a lot of talk about homosexuality, then a taboo subject in the German Empire.  It’s something that’s increasingly attracting attention from historians of the period, many of whom link its effect on the Kaiser to an increase in militarism.

There’s the odd blunder – notably saying that the previous Queen Mary had been Mary Tudor! – and the author annoying refers to “England” rather than “Britain” all the way through, but it’s generally accurate.  In fact, it generally reads as if it most of it was taken from books by Theo Aronson or Justin Vovk, and fictionalised, but maybe I’m doing the author a disservice there.  Even though a lot of the subject matter is pretty “heavy”, especially that relating to Russia, the story’s fairly light, and it’s not a bad choice for holiday reading.  Something about it vaguely annoyed me, but I think that was just because it felt weird that the lives of people who lived so recently, and whose lives, at least in the cases of May and Wilhelm, are well within living memory, had been turned into easy reading.  And, as I’ve said, that’s probably just me being an academic snob!   Given that I knew all the factual royal gossip in this already, I am clearly a total hypocrite … 😉 .  And I did really enjoy it!

 

 

Victoria’s Palace – ITV 1

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Queen Victoria could eat a nine-course meal in half an hour. That’s pretty impressive. Prince Albert insisted that all leftovers from the Buckingham Palace kitchens had to be given to the poor. That’s even more impressive. Hopefully, none of this was until after the Palace kitchens had been tarted up to stop them getting flooded with sewage from the River Tyburn.  Parts of this programme felt like a genuine historical documentary, about the transformation of Buckingham Palace into both a centre of state occasions and formal entertainment and a working family home, and about Queen Victoria’s life in general.  Other parts of it made me wonder if I’d accidentally switched over to either a cookery programme or the ITV drama “Victoria” (how many clips from that did they show?!).  But it was all very watchable.  Hey, talking about food is always interesting!  And the presenters were very understanding about Queen Victoria’s struggles following the death of Prince Albert.

It started off covering what it said on the tin – the history of the Palace during the reign of Queen Victoria. We heard about how unhappy Queen Victoria was during her childhood at Kensington Palace, and how Buckingham Palace seemed like a glorious escape from all that. Then about how she and Prince Albert thought that Buckingham Palace was too small for their family (at a time when similar-sized families were all living in one or two rooms!!) and wanted a new wing built, but, to avoid putting too much of a strain on public finances, Brighton Pavilion was sold to fund the building work.

I’m not actually convinced that that’s right: I thought the money from the sale of the Pavilion was spent on the purchase of Osborne House. It was interesting to hear about how much stuff was brought from Brighton to Buckingham Palace, though, notably for the new Chinese drawing room, and even more interesting to hear about how this very lavish room was used on a day-to-day basis by the royals. You see these very ornate rooms in stately homes and wonder what it was like actually to live in them, especially with young kids, but I suppose it’s just what people are used to.

We also heard about the construction of the famous balcony, and saw a picture of Victoria, Albert and a load of others standing on it to welcome troops back from the Crimean War. I’m not sure whose idea the balcony was, but it was a stroke of genius! It’s been such a focal point on so many occasions, from royal weddings to VE Day. And it’s something that only the Royal Family can do. Would hordes of people turn up to see politicians stood on a balcony? I don’t think so.

However, after that, we were told that “food became the centre of Victoria’s life”, and the programme then wandered off into Mary Berry territory.  It was fascinating to hear about the conditions in the kitchens, and about just how much food was consumed.  It was nice actually getting to see the present-day Palace kitchens – although they were rather dull-looking, all stainless steel surfaces! – and it was even interesting to hear about how the old Palace kitchens, before Victoria and Albert’s renovations, regularly got flooded with sewage!  But I’m not sure that we really needed to see people making roast quails, or sitting at tables laden with food.  I wonder what ITV did with all the food afterwards!  I’m not sure that I really needed to know that eating so much rich food gave people flatulence, either, but never mind.

But then it was back to the more serious stuff, and we heard about Prince Albert tackling the inefficiency and corruption within the Royal Household, and his and Queen Victoria’s joint involvement in putting pictures from the Royal Collection on display and creating the Palace ballroom.  In a relatively short space of time, they really did do a very impressive job of turning a palace that hadn’t even been completed when Victoria first moved in, and that’d undergone a lot more work since then, into … well, one of the most important buildings in the world, a centre of politics and culture, the focal point of the nation.

As with the recent BBC 1 programme about the role of music in the lives of Victoria and Albert, the programme did a good job of showing just how completely everything changed when Prince Albert died.  I can’t believe they trotted out the idea that Prince Albert died because of the trauma of finding out about the Prince of Wales and Nellie Clifden, though.  OK, it didn’t help, but they didn’t half overplay its significance.  But they dealt very sensitively with the sadness of Victoria losing both her mother and her husband in the same year, and then withdrawing from public life … and, not unreasonably, they credited Disraeli with coaxing her back into it. Victoria does come in for a lot of criticism over what was seen as dereliction of duty, and it was touching to hear the programme explain that, in addition to her grief, she’d lost her self-confidence. It’s very hard to mix with anyone when you feel like that, never mind be the head of an empire.

Happier times lay ahead, with the opening up of the Palace for royal garden parties, and then the Golden Jubilee and Diamond Jubilee festivities, with Buckingham Palace and the Mall as the focal point for them.  The programme did have rather a feeling of one of those A-level history essays where you get off the point and then hastily shove in a reference to the actual essay question, with references to the Palace being shoehorned into talk about Queen Victoria’s life – I’m not sure that which room she met Disraeli in was really that relevant to anything! – but it did undoubtedly get across the point that Queen Victoria and Prince Albert transformed a palace which had only been owned by the Royal Family since 1761, and hadn’t really been used much until 1837, into one of the most important and best-known buildings in the world.

I recently went to see an exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace and, even though it was early in the morning, and the Queen wasn’t even in residence, there were just hordes of people, from all over the world, standing outside, looking at the Palace, and taking photos.  The Gallery only opened in 1962, incidentally, and the main Palace only assumed its current appearance after building work in 1913.  It’s not all about Victoria and Albert!  But they were the ones who made it into a symbol of the nation and the monarchy, and, whilst this wasn’t the greatest historical documentary I’ve ever seen, it did explain that.

That’s two programmes I’ve seen about Queen Victoria within a few days.  Given how many programmes are being shown this month to mark the bicentennial of her birth, there will be lots more to come!

 

 

Victoria (series 3) – ITV 1

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Oh dear. This was all very dramatic, and made for entertaining Sunday night TV; but it completely misrepresented the Chartist movement, Lord Palmerston, Queen Victoria’s relationship with her half-sister, and even the sort of clothing worn by the little princes. I’m rather annoyed about the portrayal of the peaceful Chartists as a baying mob hammering on the gates of Buckingham Palace. As for Palmerston looking thirty years younger than he was, Feodora being turned into a jealous schemer in scarlet lace and the idea that the viewing public wouldn’t be able to cope with seeing little boys wearing dresses … come on, ITV, give us a break!!  Entertaining, yes; but an accurate portrayal of events and personalities would have been equally entertaining, and a lot less frustrating for historians!

According to this, Victoria resented the fact that her half-sister, Princess Feodora of Leiningen, had left Kensington Palace to get married, Feodora was jealous of Victoria’s position, and Feodora randomly turned up in London in the middle of the 1848 Revolutions, got on everyone’s nerves, and went around wearing scarlet lace dresses. Er, no. Victoria and Feodora got on extremely well, and Feodora, after her marriage, lived out her life at the Schloss Langenburg in Germany. For an accurate portrayal in fiction of their relationship, see the excellent books by Jean Plaidy and Cynthia Harrod-Eagles.  Come on, ITV, this is supposed to be a programme about Queen Victoria, not Dallas or Dynasty! Oh, and we’ve also got a fictitious duchess who’s going to have an affair with a footman, but at least that won’t be misrepresenting someone who really existed!

Palmerston would probably be quite flattered at being shown as a raffish man about town in his forties, when he was actually nearly seventy at the time, but it’s hardly very accurate! In the first series, Lord Melbourne was also shown as being a lot younger than he was. Do the scriptwriters have a problem with men past a certain age? The Victorian establishment certainly didn’t: the Duke of Wellington was in charge of dealing with any unrest in London in 1848, and he was getting on for eighty. My first ever encounter with Palmerston was in the context of his nearly dragging Britain into the American Civil War, which would not have been a good idea; but I’ve got quite fond of him since then, because of his support for Greek independence, reform in Central Europe, and Don Pacifico. And there’s certainly an argument that the Crimean War might have been avoided had he been Foreign Secretary in the mid-1850s.

There was certainly controversy over his outspoken support for the 1848 revolutions, but this programme made it look as if he was saying that everyone should go around chopping off monarchs’ heads, whereas he was actually speaking in favour of self-determination. As a sensible, liberal person, he realised that the nation state was, and is, the most successful and effective form of political unit ever known.  Being trapped in “a prison of nations” leads to instability, economic disparity, and an often violent break-up.  And, OK, he might have been fond of the ladies, but there was no need to suggest that he was some sort of pervert and no woman was safe in the same room as him.  Apparently Daisy Goodwin was trying to make him seem like Boris Johnson!  He didn’t seem anything like Boris Johnson, but he didn’t seem very much like Lord Palmerston either.

There were some annoying minor inaccuracies, as well. Someone was surprised that the Duchess of Devonshire had let her footman leave. There was no Duchess of Devonshire in 1848! The Duke wasn’t married, and his mother was long since dead. The first name of Cuffay, the leader of the radical faction of the Chartists wasn’t Samuel; it was William. Uncle Leopold had written to say that he was under threat from the revolutionaries. Seeing as there wasn’t a revolution in Belgium in 1848, I don’t think so. Then there was the thing with the boys’ clothes. Affie, being much too young to have been breeched, and probably Bertie as well, would have been wearing dresses, as little boys did in 1848. Instead, they were shown wearing kilts. In London. Apparently, the scriptwriters thought that viewers would have been confused by seeing boys wearing dresses. What??!! This isn’t a debate about gender identity: it’s a simple matter of what a particular section of the population would have been wearing at the time.

Irritating as that was, what really got to me was the way that the Chartists, who – admittedly apart from the radical wing led by William Cuffay, but their plans for armed insurrection didn’t actually come to anything – were a peaceful movement, looking for reform and certainly not revolution, were shown as an angry mob hammering on the gates of Buckingham Palace and throwing bricks through the Palace windows. And, for added drama, Queen Victoria was shown as going into labour in the middle of it all! (Princess Louise was actually born several weeks before the Chartist mass meeting of 1848, which was nowhere near Buckingham Palace anyway.)

What a load of rubbish! To be fair, the programme did initially stress that Chartism was generally peaceful and sought reform through constitutional means – universal male suffrage (female suffrage, annoyingly, doesn’t seem to have come into it), the secret ballot, equal constituencies, annual Parliaments, the abolition of property qualifications for MPs, and payment for MPs to enable people who actually had to work for a living to sit in Parliament. The first People’s Charter was presented to Parliament in 1838, the year of the great Chartist meeting on Kersal Moor (I had to get that in!), the second in 1842, a year which also saw a series of strikes, especially in Lancashire and Cheshire (had to get that in as well!), and the third in 1848. A large meeting was organised in London, to form a procession, leaving from Kennington Common, to present the Charter to Parliament.

Unfortunately, it was all a bit of a damp squib in the end, not helped by the fact that some of the signatures were fake (some things never change). But it certainly wasn’t violent. Yes, there was some unrest later in the year. I like telling people that the only place in England which actually joined in with the 1848 Revolutions was Ashton-under-Lyne! But that was a fairly minor thing. There was also some talk of an uprising in the West Riding of Yorkshire, and, yes, in London. As happened after the original French Revolution in 1789, the authorities panicked and brought in legislation meant to stop public meetings and supposed plotting, and people were rightly angry about it. But to show radical Chartists attacking Buckingham Palace is completely inaccurate, and I think it was really quite wrong to do that: it gave a completely misleading impression of an organisation which played an important part in the move towards bringing democracy to our country.

I don’t think what happened abroad was portrayed accurately, either. OK, this wasn’t meant to be a documentary on European history, but it made it sound as if it was all about trying to overthrow monarchies. And, yes, Louis Philippe did take refuge in London, but he tried to keep a low profile: he certainly didn’t move into Buckingham Palace! The July Monarchy in France was overthrown, and replaced by the Second Republic. Which only lasted a few years, before the Bonapartists were brought back. Bourbons, republic, Napoleon, Bourbons again, Orleanists, Napoleon’s nephew, another republic … they never seem to be able to make up their minds in France! There were also uprisings in several German states, and in Austria. But not really in Belgium.

Reforms in Denmark and Switzerland. An uprising in Ireland, which wasn’t mentioned – although, to be fair, it wasn’t until later in the year. I’ve been doing some Hungarian history revision recently, and the Hungarian Revolution of 1848 went on for eighteen and a half months, before being crushed by Austrian and Russian forces. There were also uprisings in Austrian-ruled Northern Italy, Bourbon-ruled Southern Italy, German-ruled Poland, Austrian-ruled Ukrainian Galicia, Moldavia (Moldova) and Wallachia, It’s hard to think of anything comparable. The fall of communism in 1989, maybe. Or the “Arab Spring” might be a better comparison – promising a lot but sadly achieving very little.

And it wasn’t all about upheaval and violence, which was how the programme made it sound. It was liberal. It was the Springtime of Nations: it was about self-determination. To be fair, both Palmerston and Prince Albert were shown expressing some sympathy for the “revolutionaries”, but it still all came across as being about violence and chaos. Not impressed.

Sadly, most of the 1848 Revolutions were crushed. But, in Britain, the campaign for parliamentary reform went on. Now we can all, regardless of socio-economic status or gender, elect MPs. That was supposed to be the answer to everything. Many of the leaders of the 1848 Revolutions admired the British parliamentary system and wanted one like it. And look what a mess the bunch of idiots we’ve got in the House of Commons now are making of everything . But that’s beside the point. The point is that, whilst this was great entertainment, and whilst anything that gets people talking about history is welcome, it was chock-a-block with inaccuracies, and it will have given people unfamiliar with the period completely the wrong impression of what was going on. Black mark, ITV!

I was glued to every second of it, though … .

Some other posts about Queen Victoria 🙂 :

Victoria (series 1)

Queen Victoria’s Letters

Queen Victoria and her tragic family

 

Danny Dyer’s Right Royal Family – BBC 1

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I thought that this was just going to be silly; but some of it was genuinely touching. Danny Dyer, evidently *not* being an avid reader of the works of Jean Plaidy 😉 , had never heard the tales of the Plantagenets’ turbulent family history before; and was clearly moved by hearing how Henry II had faced rebellion by his own sons, and Edward II had had to marry a woman even though he was probably gay – and then met a very horrible end.  There was a lot of wisecracking, but he was obviously taking it all pretty seriously and taking it all in; and he was just so enthusiastic about everything that he made it a joy to watch.

As we know from watching Who Do You Think You Are, Danny Dyer, who grew up on a council estate in the East End and usually plays or fronts series about East End hard men, recently found out that he was descended from Edward III. Yes, all right, all right, so are zillions of other people, but it was clear how much it meant to him to find that out.  And this was a voyage of discovery for him, because he obviously knew very little about the Plantagenets.  Schools fail big time on teaching kids about the Middle Ages.  Such medieval history lessons at we had at school involved drawing pictures of the Bayeux Tapestry, motte and bailey castles and pie charts of how medieval monks spent their time.  And that was about it.   Maybe the teacher would actually have preferred to be teaching art rather than history.  And why would anyone think that a class of 11-year-old girls wanted to draw pie charts showing how medieval monks split their time between eating, studying and praying?!  Even at university, the medieval history modules weren’t great.  So thank you, Jean Plaidy, for introducing me to the glorious soap opera that was the lives of the Plantagenets!   And thank you to the BBC for doing the same for Danny Dyer.

We actually started well before the Plantagenets, with King Rollo. The real one, not the one in the cartoon.  This was good, because there can be a tendency for royal history programmes to start with William the Conqueror and ignore everything that went before.  There was a lot of dressing up and re-enactment in this, so, yes, we did get Danny dressing up as a Viking, but the Viking re-enactors whom he met in Sweden were keen to tell him about Viking life, dispelling all the Victorian myths about horned helmets and so on, and explaining how Rollo pretty much came from nowhere to become Duke of Normandy and found a dynasty.  Danny said, whilst visiting Scandinavia and later Paris, that he’d had no idea that the word “Norman” actually came from “Norseman”, and that was a good point.  We’re all taught about the Battle of Hastings, but the fact that the Normans were descended from Vikings, and the very complex personal and political ties between England, Ireland, Norway, Denmark and Normandy tend to be ignored.

Danny was pretty impressed by what he learnt about King Rollo, and it was also great to see a historical programme (of sorts!) covering something different, rather than Henry VIII all over again!    Even when we got on to William the Conqueror, the focus wasn’t on all the same old, same old stuff about the Battle of Hastings and whether Harold was or wasn’t shot in the eye, but on the Tower of London and the way in which the Normans imposed their authority on the country.  Yes, it was pretty daft when Danny was presented with a set of faux Norman era coins showing his own face on one side and a simplified version of the West Ham crest on the other, and when he dressed up as a knight and tried to drive a lance through a watermelon, but this was never going to be a serious documentary!   And the hunting laws – we also saw him shooting arrows in the woods – have played a fairly big part in English history.

He was so enthusiastic about it all!   What about the swearing and the “unusual” slang words and the wanting to hug everyone all the time?  Well, if he’d been putting it on to present a certain image, it might have been annoying; but he was just being himself.  I’m not suggesting that everyone should go around saying “fuck” in one of the most important churches in Europe (Saint-Chapelle in Paris), but maybe it’s not a bad thing sometimes to show that history’s not just for people talking in … shall we say “ a scholarly way”?

Then on to Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, one of the most interesting couples in the whole of British royal history.   My one big moan about this programme was that it gave a very one-sided view both of Henry II and of Louis IX of France.  I appreciate that they were only spending a short amount of time on each person, and couldn’t go into too much detail, but they might have pointed out how badly Henry treated Eleanor!   I find it hard to have much sympathy over the whole “Revolt of the Eaglets” thing, because I just don’t like the man.  Anyway.  This is another neglected area of history – not just what was going on at home, but the extent of the Angevin Empire.  Thomas Becket got a mention as well, although only a passing one.

Danny was so interested in it all. And his take on the rebellion of Henry II’s sons against him was that they were “ungrateful little brats”, which in some ways did sum it up very well!  And humanised it.  Yes, this is history, these are kings and queens and princes and princesses, but it’s also about family fallings-out and family breakdowns.  A couple’s marriage breaks down, there are tensions between siblings, the kids want to take control of the family business, the parents are each accused of favouring one kid over the others … it’s like a soap opera storyline, isn’t it.  As I’m always saying, if schools taught people about all this, instead of making them draw pie charts about the daily lives of monks, everyone would be a lot more interested in medieval history!

Then, for something different, over to France, to learn about Louis IX. I read The Life of Saint Louis when I was 18.  I am not in the habit of reading medieval hagiographies, but I had to read it as part of my degree course.  The book does go on a lot about the Seventh Crusade, but it doesn’t really tell you about the role Louis played in persecuting Cathars and Jews and promoting the work of the Inquisition.  Louis is a big hero in France.  Like Isabella of Castile is a big heroine in Spain.  OK, let’s not get on to the thorny issue of the attitude of the medieval authorities towards anyone who didn’t toe the line in the religion department.  All Danny was told was that Louis was a very pious man who shunned luxury, and tried to help the poor and marginalised – which, to be fair, he did.  We also heard about how Louis obtained many supposed relics, including the supposed Crown of Thorns.  And how he was very into self-flagellation.

Almost 500 years after the English Reformation, the culture here has developed in a very different way to that of countries where most people are Catholic or Orthodox.  And our culture here is now very secular.  We tend to shy away from religious talk in this country.  That, as far as I’m concerned, is no bad thing; but, when we’re talking about the Middle Ages, we really can’t do that.  Even if you’re looking at the present day, rather than the Middle Ages, it can be quite a culture shock when you go abroad and see shrines by the side of the road, or religious images in hotel receptions and dining areas.  I don’t mean that in any sort of critical way, just that it takes some getting used to.

We got Danny dressed up in a brown shift, walking along like a penitent. And then he visited the Saint-Chapelle, where the historian accompanying him told him that Louis had been canonised, and that a vial of his blood was regarded as being miracle-working.  I got the impression that she genuinely believed this.  I’ve no idea what he actually thought about it all, but the magnificence of the chapel, with stained glass windows all round, and I’m guessing probably a strong smell of incense, was clearly quite dazzling and overwhelming, and, on top of that, being told that one of his ancestors had been canonised … it was a long way from West Ham and Albert Square, and it was really getting into a different sort of medieval mindset.    And you wouldn’t have got that in a programme fronted by someone who knew about history, because it wouldn’t have been new to them, and that was partly what made this programme so interesting.  That and the personal element, because we never forgot that, however many umpteen generations away, these actually were Danny’s ancestors.

Then back to England, for the sorry tale of Edward II. Son of the great Edward I, father of the great Edward III.  Lost the Battle of Bannockburn, upset all the barons, was deposed by his wife, Isabella the “She Wolf” of France, and her lover, and may or may not have been murdered by having a red hot poker shoved where the sun doesn’t shine and used to burn out all his innards.  OK, the red hot poker story probably isn’t true, but (whilst there’s the odd romantic novel that shows him escaping abroad) he did meet some sort of very sticky end.  He also had the bad luck to be king at the time of the Great Famine of 1315.

Was he romantically involved with Piers Gaveston and Hugh le Despenser, or were they both just close friends? Well, no-one really knows, but it’s quite likely.  The medieval re-enactment  bit in this programme involved a woman dressed up as Isabella shouting about having a husband who preferred guys.  OK, the way it was done was a bit silly, but it was really touching to hear Danny talking about how difficult it must have been for Edward, if he was gay but had to marry a woman to try to produce heirs, and indeed to forge an alliance with France, and seeing that he was clearly moved by it.  When you’re used to the Plantagenet soap opera, it’s easy to forget how it must all seem to someone hearing it for the first time, especially when it’s someone who’s found out that they’re directly descended from these people.

It was interesting that they chosen Edward II, rather than Edward I or Edward III.  Human interest over legal or military achievements.  The main reason that we hear so much about the reign of Henry VIII isn’t because of the importance of the Reformation on the development of Parliament and English culture – it’s because it involves a story of someone dumping their loyal partner of many years to go off with a younger, better-looking model, and that story resonates with every generation.

Speaking of Henry VIII, the programme then jumped on to the Tudor and Stuart eras. By this point, Danny’s direct line had long been detached from royalty – but travelled down through Elizabeth Seymour, sister-in-law of Henry VIII, and Catherine Tollemache, nee Cromwell, great-granddaughter of Thomas Cromwell.  First up, a visit to Wolf Hall, now associated with those ridiculously overrated books by Hilary Mantel.   This mainly involved Danny dressing up like one of Henry VIII’s courtiers, joking about codpieces, and being taught Tudor court dancing, singing and etiquette.   There’s so much on TV about the Tudors that this just didn’t have the same fascination as the earlier stuff, but he got really stuck into it all – and it was quite sweet when he kissed an effigy of John Seymour, Elizabeth’s father.  Then on to Helmingham Hall, seat of the Tollemaches, where he was joined by his wife and children and they all got dressed up.

They joked about how it was like one of those “And here’s what you could have won!” moments from Bullseye.  Maybe it was more like a real life version of one of those Edward Rutherfurd novels where two branches of a family tree go in completely different directions.    If everyone could all employ the services of professional genealogists with all the time and resources they needed, who knows what they’d find?  But this was great, because it was like a soap opera storyline and yet it was all real, and the fact that Danny Dyer was so into it all meant that the viewer couldn’t help but get drawn into it all with him.  I thought I’d be moaning about how silly this all was – I mean “Right Royal Family” is hardly the most promising of titles – but I genuinely enjoyed it.  Good stuff!