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Are the Plantagenets becoming the ‘new’ Tudors on television?


Richard III – The last Plantagenet king

The Tudors are most definitely one of, or possibly the, most famous dynasty to rule in England’s history. Thousands of books, novels, radio shows, plays, films and television programmes have been based around the lives, politics, religion and romances of the Tudor age. The period of 1485 to 1603 is one of the most popular periods to teach in history classes in schools and sixth forms across the country, which allows some variation to the heavily modern syllabuses we tend to see in schools. The Tudors certainly include some brilliant ‘characters’ for us to learn about. However, recently the Tudors’ ancestors, the Plantagenets, have taken on a more central role in scholarly and fictional work, which has influenced what has been broadcasted on our television screens more than you may think.

Many people I have discussed the Plantagenets with have confessed they retain a lot less knowledge of this dynasty compared to the Tudors. The Plantagenet line began when Geoffrey Plantagenet, Count of Anjou, married Empress Matilda, daughter and heir of Henry I, in 1128. In a nutshell, after Henry I’s death in 1135 a period of anarchy broke out between Stephen I and Matilda as a succession crisis emerged. They finally agreed that if Stephen were to die without issue (which he did), then Matilda and Geoffrey’s son Henry would become the next in line to the throne. The Plantagenet monarchy had begun, and continued for over three centuries later until 1485 with the death of Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth.

This vast space of time saw the murder of an archbishop, a crusading king, the sealing of Magna Carta, the Black Death, the Hundred Years War, the expansion of the merchant class and the bloody cousins rivalry between the houses of York and Lancaster, just to name a few events.

It was because of these events that many historians have recently dived back into the archives to discover the truths of this dynamic period which has been typically overlooked in favour of the illustrious Tudor kings and queens. Alongside this, historical novelists such as Philippa Gregory and Alison Weir have also encouraged the publics’ view of the medieval period. The current television production of ‘The White Queen’ based on Gregory’s book series surrounding the Cousins War will undoubtedly persuade some Tudor fans to take a step back in time and look at the monarchs previous to the Tudors. (Gregory’s television series may also turn out to be somewhat more accurate in historical events compared to the BBC’s ‘The Tudors’ which is notorious for glamorising the period and twisting history; although I will admit that it was good entertainment).

Henry V - The warrior king

Henry V – The warrior king

Last year’s BBC series production of ‘The Hollow Crown’ followed the lives, loves and battles that plagued the reigns of Richard II, Henry IV and Henry V. Although the Shakespearean series may not have reached the same audience figures of ‘The Tudors’, the production of the episodes certainly highlights the British public’s growing interest with this period of our monarchy’s history.

The BBC Four series production of ‘Chivalry and Betrayal: The Hundred Years War’, which was broadcast in February of this year, also links in with the public’s increasing curiosity in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. With the enthusiasm of presenter Dr Janina Ramirez and the historical detail contributed by leading medieval expert Nigel Saul, over 800,000 people tuned in to learn about the national power struggles between England and France that dominated the Middle Ages.

The incredible finding and confirmation of Richard III’s body under a car park in Leicester earlier this year is still at the forefront of many history enthusiasts’ minds. I believe that it is with such a fantastic finding that will encourage many more people to study this period in much more detail. There are still repeats of the thorough documentary ‘The King in the Car Park’ on the various Channel 4 platforms and is still available to watch on 4OD. The first airing of the documentary in February had a peak of over 4 million viewers, which was a significant amount for the channel, conveying the unanticipated amount of interest in the supposedly villainous king. A new exhibition based upon Richard’s short reign, alongside the excavating and confirmation of his body, has been planned to be opened in 2014 next to the site of his grave which will be undoubtedly popular with many visitors and devoted Ricardians. Meanwhile, archaeologists have begun a new excavation at Grey Friars Church to see if they can unearth any other burials from the Plantagenet period.

Even with all of these popular Plantagenet-based programmes, it seems the Tudor monarchs will not be disappearing from our screens any time soon. The recent Tudor Court Season on BBC revealed the current debates amongst historians surrounding a variety of Tudor-related topics, including the downfall of Anne Boleyn, the danger surrounding William Tyndale’s translation of the Bible, and how Cromwell rose from nothing to become the closest influence over the king’s ear. The Tudors themselves have also produced some of the most eminent historians and writers our screens have seen in a long time, such as Hilary Mantel, Suzannah Lipscomb, Tom Penn, Diarmaid MacCulloch, Ian Mortimer and, of course, the rather notorious David Starkey.

Research into these periods of history is being invested in more than ever at present. I believe the debate between the two dynasties of England will continue for many years to come both on-screen and off. If you are interested in witnessing a live debate surrounding these dynasties then you may wish to consider attending the BBC History Magazine’s ‘History Weekend’ event in October where charismatic Tudor expert Suzannah Lipscomb will be taking on journalist and medieval-man Dan Jones in a debate over which dynasty has played a more important role in our history. I am sure that the Tudors will not be fading from the limelight in the near future, however with the recent surge of medieval-based television we may be seeing more of the Plantagenet kings and queens hitting our screens soon.

Photo credits: Photopin via Lisby and CircaSassy

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