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!