Unhappy Families: The Plantagenets Episode One Review

Today I’m taking a break from rambling history lessons/rants to review the marvellous documentary The Plantagenets. The series is only on episode one but to be honest, as the episode focused on Henry II (for a whole 40-something minutes) you’ll know it’s this episode of the three parter I’ll be most invested in!

Bartlett, Plantagenet & Aquitaine
Bartlett, Plantagenet & Aquitaine

The series is presented by the eminent Professor Bartlett, who mercifully used non of the gimmicks that tend to plague historical documentaries. You know what I’m talking about: badly acted montages, dramatic music…that kind of thing. No, The Plantagenets focussed on the roots of the dynasty, and how Henry II changed England for the better. For once we have a documentary (apart from those of the wonderful Mary Beard, Lucy Worsley and Helen Castor) that doesn’t dumb down their source material and sex up the figures they’re talking about. I’m pretty sure if this was ITV the show would have the message of: sexy families betray each other scandalously, that Eleanor was a bit of minx wasn’t she? Barlett spent a great deal of time going through 800+ documents explaining the Royal Justice system Henry put in place, while explaining the profound impact it still has on us today.

Barlett didn’t need any of the amateur dramatics we usually see in television, to create a compelling piece of work. Instead he takes the viewer on a guided tour of history, through various ruins, castles and works of art. Bartlett charts the dramatic rise of Henry through his marriage, keen mind and the traits he inherited from his parents Empress Matilda and Geoffrey the Fair nee Plantagenet. Admittedly, it didn’t have the wit and funny elements of say, a Lucy Worsley documentary, but such a subject matter doesn’t need that. Instead, Bartlett outlines the main controversies of Henry’s reign-troubles with King Louis, his marriage, the Becket murder and of course the great revolt of 1173-with great tact and also detail. He shows a reverence for his subject matter and seems to humanise an often maligned king…I’d even go as far to say that he made Henry sound like a right dish!

When 'Hecket' went wrong lots of 'point offs' started!
When ‘Hecket’ went wrong lots of ‘point offs’ started!

Another factor I greatly appreciated was the comparison of Henry’s success and his sons’ failings in France and at home. While Richard wasn’t the brute that historian Warren paints him as in his Yale biography, he was hardly heralded as the Lionheart some know and love. Barlett talked about Richard’s insatiable drive and bloodthirsty nature for battle. Richard wasn’t a conquering hero, he was rival to his contemporary Philippe Augustus and the man responsible for claiming “I would sell London if I could.” Ouch. Of course Barlett reaches the third and final son of Henry, John. Oh John, I don’t even know where to start with you! The good Prof doesn’t hold back when documenting the life of the greedy and cruel King John. Instead he spends a good fifteen minutes expanding on our opinion of the money loving, church hating and wife shagger king, we all know and dislike. A great deal of time is spent on the subject of John’s war with the church and his struggles with his nephew (at this part a rather bitchy comparison was drawn with another ‘evil uncle’ of the late 1400s guffaw!) However, when it comes to the pinnicle of John’s screw ups: the Magna Carta, Bartlett is surprisingly brief. He does describe the after effects of the treaty, the Pope’s angry reaction to it, and John’s refusal to abide by it, but as he does with Henry II, Barlett focuses on what we don’t know about the king.

A depressing map
A depressing map

Needless to say I’m very happy that for once, Henry gets some time in the spotlight where he isn’t playing second fiddle to Eleanor of Aquitaine or Richard I. That time is loooong overdue but still very much appreciated! It’s also provided me with a wealth of ideas for book number two, watch out Richard! Obviously I’ll be tuning in next week and I’d encourage whoever reads this blog to catch the first episode on iplayer! The Plantagenets is exactly why we need to look after and treasure the BBC, while I do like a crime drama and s1&2 of Sherlock were good (please don’t ask me about s3) this is the kind of intelligent TV we need more of! Five stars all around, viva la Henry!

Over and out.

P.S lovely American readers (I know I have a few) if you’re deprived of iplayer try finding it on youtube!

One thought on “Unhappy Families: The Plantagenets Episode One Review

  1. About time something with substance about the Plantagenets, as you say looong overdue, I cant wait to watch it. Big , Big , Big Plantagenet fan here. Thank you for letting me know about this Documentary.


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