Ten best medieval TV series

Like most of you – I love watching historical TV series.  Even the ones that are a little suspect from a factual point of view.  Some lists of medieval TV series include stuff I wouldn’t regard as being strictly medieval.  Hope I’m a bit more authentic here.  We’ve been spoilt in the recent past so let’s look at what we’ve been offered.

PILLARS OF THE EARTH

Pillars of the Earth brought us a murderous romp from the civil war that engulfed England under the reign of King Stephen. This was the beginning of the Templar era and a very violent time for England, often called the great anarchy. I loved this series – absolutely faultless.

THE DEVIL’S CROWN

This was a BBC series about the Plantagenet kings that never got repeated after a controversial airing in the late 70s. It’s quite violent in parts including a very disturbing castration. The style is a bit dated but to get to grips with English history at the time of the Templars, I can’t recommend this enough.

DA VINCI’S DEMONS

Total nonsense about a young Leonardo da Vinci on a quest to find the “book of leaves”.  From the end of the Middle Ages and the dawn of the Renaissance. It’s a compelling watch and I look forward to season three in 2015.

GAME OF THRONES

It’s mythical, Tolkein with attitude and full of gory violence – but strangely, it captures the flavour of the Middle Ages quite well.  Full of court intrigue and belief in strange beings that dwell in the forests, what’s not to like as a medievalist?

WORLD WITHOUT END

Like Pillars of the Earth, this comes from the pen of Ken Follett – only now we’ve moved about 150 years ahead. This is the reign of Edward III and again, it’s after another civil war. The last king, Edward II, has been killed….or has he?  Edward II, by the way, was the last king to preside over the Knights Templar before they were crushed.

THE WHITE QUEEN

BBC drama series takes us to the War of the Roses – the bloody end to the Middle Ages in England when the aristocracy tore itself to pieces. This focuses on the strong women who emerged in this conflict.

MERLIN

Merlin had a long grey beard when I was a kid but the BBC re-imagined him as a youth for this very dynamic and rather scary kids series.

THIBAUD

Whassat? I hear you say. This was a 1960s French TV series about a crusader – I just like the theme tune to be honest!

ARABIAN KNIGHTS

This cartoon series was part of the goofy 1960s/70s kids show Banana Splits – it completely conditioned my view of the saracens.

THE TUDORS

I was brought up to believe that the Middle Ages ended at the Battle of Bosworth and you couldn’t really call the Tudors medieval.  But I think that view might be simplistic. The Tudors were as much medieval as modern and so I’ve included the delightful Henry VIII and his unfortunate wives.

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Where are English kings buried?

English: Effigy of Henry II of England in the ...

English: Effigy of Henry II of England in the church of Fontevraud Abbey (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Knights Templar existed from around the year 1118 to 1307 and I thought it might be interesting to reveal to you which kings ruled during that time and where are they buried.  So…here goes!

  • Henry I was William the Conqueror’s son and became king after his older brother was killed in a rather unfortunate hunting “accident”.  Being a Norman king, it’s not surprising that he died in Normandy – his domains in what’s now northern France. It’s said that he died from a “surfeit of lampreys”!  His body was returned to England, embalmed and sewn into a bull’s hide – nice!  He was buried in Reading Abbey but unfortunately for him, the abbey was shut down by Henry VIII four hundred years later during the Protestant Reformation and his body disappeared.
  • His successor King Stephen had a stormy reign – a period known as the Great Anarchy in England.  Embroiled in a civil war and losing the throne for a while, he managed to regain the crown but died at Dover Castle of dysentery in 1154. Buried at Faversham Abbey in Kent, his body went missing when…Henry VIII shut down the abbey during the Reformation. It’s said the local people stole the jewels off his skeleton and any other valuables.
  • Henry II took over after Stephen, the son of the Empress Matilda – daughter of Henry I – who had fought that nasty civil war with Stephen.  He married the feisty Eleanor of Aquitaine, one of the most powerful medieval queens, and she and his children rebelled against him. Not a happy family! He’s buried at Fontevraud Abbey in modern France. His empire extended from Scotland to the Pyrenees.
  • Richard the Lionheart – you all know about him.  Brave crusading king who spent hardly any time in England and allegedly admired by the legendary Robin Hood (if Hollywood is to be believed).  Like his father, he was also buried in Fontevraud Abbey.
  • John – “bad king John” who signed Magna Carta, ceding power to the barons. He was forced to flee an invading French army and died of dysentery.  According to one account the disease was brought on by eating peaches and wine. He was buried in England at Worcester cathedral, largely on account of having lost his ancestral lands in France.
  • Henry III – he was buried in Westminster Abbey, which is appropriate as he rebuilt the original Saxon church into something much grander that we see today. His tomb used to be adorned with jewels but pilgrims and tourists hacked off bits of it over the centuries so only the uppermost part of the tomb glitters anymore.
  • Edward I followed the new example and was also buried in Westminster Abbey but this time in a very grand but austere tomb.  You can still see it today.  This king, you may recall, was the vanquisher of Braveheart and a stern but effective ruler.  His tomb was opened in 1774 during a rather morbid and gothic phase of grave inspecting that titillated posh society.  The king was found to be ‘richly habited, adorned with ensigns of royalty, and almost entire’. At another tomb opening around that time, of a medieval knight, one of the high society people decided to taste the remains of the Middle Ages warrior.  Ugh!
  • Edward II – the last king to preside over the Templars came to a grisly end.  Reputedly homosexual, though one can argue that with many historians, it’s alleged that his wife and her lover had him executed with a red hot poker placed somewhere I’d rather not mention!  His body was buried in an abbey that then became a place of pilgrimage, in spite of his reputation. In fact, he was so popular in death that the abbey expanded to become Gloucester Cathedral. It’s claimed the presence of his remains stopped Henry VIII shutting the place down but as it didn’t stop him dissolving the other two abbeys I mentioned, I wonder if that’s really true.

Maps of the Templar world

I have always loved historical maps – they never give a wholly accurate view of what the reality was on the ground but they’re fascinating to pore over. And here are some images of Europe and the Middle East at the time of the Knights Templar. What a different world they present!

Going from left to right across Europe, these maps reveal the tempestuous political climate of the period.  The Norman aristocracy of England had begun its slow invasion of Ireland as you can see by a smattering of pink on the east coast, Wales and Scotland were still independent and the English crown still claimed vast swathes of what is now France.

The Iberian peninsula is even more striking. Half of it was still under Islamic control – having been completely invaded in the year 711CE.  Christian kingdoms like Leon, Castille, Portugal as well as Aragon and Navarre had begun the ‘Reconquest‘ aided by crusaders and Templars from all over Europe.

Central Europe was dominated by the Germanic Holy Roman Empire that stretched down into northern Italy meeting the Norman controlled southern half of the boot.  Venice was independent and increasingly challenged the fading power of the Byzantine Empire – which it would eventually deal a huge blow against in the Fourth Crusade of 1204.

Beyond the Byzantines – the Greek speaking inheritor of the eastern Roman empire centred on Constantinople – was the encroaching realms of the Seljuk Turks.  The Seljuks had become the dominant force in the Islamic Middle East and would crush crusader controlled Edessa in 1144.

Enjoy the maps!

Map of medieval Europe map of medieval europe map of medieval europe

Medieval murder mystery – the answer

Richard the Lionheart, , being anointed during...

Richard the Lionheart, , being anointed during his coronation in . (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I posted a photo of a medieval fort over the weekend and asked if any of you knew what terrible deed was committed there.  Opus Anglicanum was quick off the draw and said, correctly, that a great number of Jews were killed there.  And I’m afraid to say it’s true.

Clifford’s Tower sits atop an impressive man-made hill and overlooked the city of York – allowing its Norman overlords to maintain control.  In the year 1190, a new king – Richard the Lionheart – was the ruler of England. His accession to the throne was marked by a wave of anti-Semitic riots that culminated in the massacre of 150 Jews within Clifford’s Tower.

They had taken refuge there as a mob sought to drag them out – men, women and children – to be killed on the spot.  So what on earth was going on?  Basically, the crusades had unleashed a frenzy of hatred against perceived heretics – Muslims in the east and Jews closer to home.  The Jewish community had also been protected by the Norman kings and their position as bankers to the nobility was deemed useful. But money lending has never been an endearing profession and Jewish communities in Norwich, Stamford and Lincoln came under sustained attack.

King Richard, for his part, had not allowed prominent and wealthy Jews to attend his coronation banquet – an ominous sign.  And York’s leading Jewish merchant, Benedict, had been mortally wounded during riots in Westminster.  His own house in York was looted.

Those behind these actions tended to be clients of Jewish money lenders who saw a murderous opportunity to cancel their debts. We know the names of the nobles in York who goaded the mob on: Richard Malebisse, William Percy, Marmeduke Darrel and Phillip de Fauconberg. They no doubt delighted as the Jews were trapped in Clifford’s Tower and then, in a grisly turn of events, began to commit mass suicide – fathers killing their children and wives first. Those Jews who did not take their own lives were slaughtered by the mob.

In response to all this, King Richard the Lionheart felt obliged to fine the city of York but no individuals were punished and frankly, many probably joined the monarch on his long crusades to the Holy Land.  Here are my photos of Clifford’s Tower.

Clifford's Tower Clifford's Tower Clifford's Tower Clifford's Tower Clifford's Tower Clifford's Tower

Immerse yourself in the Knight Templar period of history

William de Mandeville was a knight who really existed and his father, the Earl of Essex, was killed rebelling against King Stephen.  So heinous was the earl’s crime that his coffin was left hanging from a tree branch as the church would not allow it to be buried in consecrated ground. The Templars rescued the body and I have written a fictionalised account of how his Templar son, William, sets out to restore the family honour and so be able to bury his father.

Quest for the True Cross

The greatest Templar adventure you’ll ever read

The story takes you, the reader, on a journey through medieval England and then on to what is now Spain and Portugal but in the 12th century was the front line between the domains of Christianity and Islam. William and the Templars must take the Muslim city of Al-Usbunna (modern Lisbon) and recover the relic of the sacred cross, stolen by the enemy.

This e-book has been thoroughly researched and can be downloaded for the princely sum of $1.99 or a pound if you’re English.  A sequel is on the way that will take William to Egypt and Jerusalem.  So read this first installment now to be ready for what happens next!

 

Download on Barnes and Noble HERE

Download from iTunes HERE

Download from the WH Smith e-story HERE

 

Templars put on trial in the Tower of London

English: Burning of Templars. (British Library...

English: Burning of Templars. (British Library, Royal 14 E V f. 492v) Deutsch: Verbrennung von Templern. (British Library, Royal 14 E V f. 492v) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In 1307, the leaders of the Knights Templar were rounded up and arrested in France.  Over the next five years, the wave of suppression spread across Europe and England was no exception. There’s an impressive list of Templars who were sent to the Tower of London – a Norman structure you can still see in the city that was a royal palace, prison, treasury and fortress.

The names included Brother William de la More, master of the Temple in England. Others arrested in London were the prior of the New Temple, Brother Ralph of Barton and a sergeant-brother called William of Hereford.

Templars from outside London were dragged to the Tower including a number from the preceptory at Denny in Cambridgeshire. One of them, Brother John of Hauwile, was noted as having gone insane.

And what were the charges? They were asked whether the Order’s initiation ceremony was secret and if so – why?  The interrogators wanted to know if such ceremonies were held at night, whether the existence of God was denied and if false idols were worshiped.

Interrogated at different churches in London, the Templars mainly denied the charges and affirmed that they knew of each other. They were then brought back to be questioned again – possibly after a bit of softening up. Some of the questioning was bizarre by our standards. William de la More was asked, for example, what words were uttered when a brother who had transgressed the rules was forced to bare his back to be “flogged three times with thongs”.  De la More said the words were “Brother, ask God that he may remit the punishment due to you”.

Like all political trials, the conclusion had been decided before the trial started. An official from York, Master John of Nassington, said he’d attended a banquet at Temple Hirst where the brothers “adored a certain calf” (!). Another witness gave the damning testimony that a cross in a Templar place was filthy and the Templars refused to wash it.

Sodomy came up a lot in the trial with various people saying Templars had attempted to lie with them.  Robert the Dorturer alleged that Brother Guy of Forest, Grand Commander of the Temple, had tried to have sex with him – but he fled in time from the chamber.

A friar claimed he had overheard a Templar called Brother Robert of Bayset walking through a field muttering the words: “Alas, alas that I was ever born because I have had to deny God and bind myself to the Devil“.

Most damningly of all, one witness claimed that all Templars were traitors because through them the sultan – the leader of the Saracens in the crusades – was told what the crusaders were going to do next.  This was an often repeated accusation by the Templars’ critics – that they were consorting with the Muslims.

 

Bits of a Roman bath in a medieval English church

Sometimes a historical site can be initially very confusing and making sense of it requires a little bit of detective work. I was in Leicester – in central England – last week. It’s a city that was hugely important in the Middle Ages and was a major town when the Romans ruled the province of Britannia.

So – in the pouring rain, I came across a chunky bit of masonry dating back to the Romans. It’s a thick, brick section of wall called the Jewry Wall. However, it has absolutely nothing to do with the Jews and wasn’t a boundary wall. In the eighteenth century, historians thought it was a temple to the god Janus. It wasn’t. In the nineteenth century, the Victorians decided it was a city gate. It wasn’t. Then it was believed to be the city’s Roman forum even when it was becoming increasingly clear that the wall was actually part of a bath complex.

So why was it called the Jewry Wall?  Especially as Leicester’s Jewish population was expelled by Simon de Montfort in 1231, during the Templar era. It’s now thought the term is a corruption of the word ‘jurat’ – these were the senior politicians in the medieval era who held their council meetings near the wall. It is claimed on Wikipedia that buildings of unknown origin were attributed to the Jews in the Middle Ages – I’ve no evidence to support this assertion.

Next to the wall is a church to Saint Nicholas. I walked in and was immediately confronted by two windows in the nave that looked very Roman. In fact, they date to the Saxon period – around 880AD. But the masonry was part of the original Roman bath and was simply transplanted into the church – by the looks of things, mimicking the original positioning.

It’s a strangely laid out church with a Norman tower and some questionable changes made in the early nineteenth century when a wall of the nave was demolished and replaced by a brick arch. The church authorities actually wanted to demolish the entire church but didn’t have the funds.

The Roman "Jewry" wall

The Roman “Jewry” wall

The Roman baths now excavated and the medieval church

The Roman baths now excavated and the medieval church

Nineteenth century arch

Nineteenth century arch

A Saxon window made from Roman bricks

A Saxon window made from Roman bricks

Nineteenth century arch and Saxon window

Nineteenth century arch and Saxon window

Thirteen Black Death skeletons found in London

Thirteen skeletons have been unearthed in the Farringdon area of London – believed to be victims of the fourteenth century Black Death. The terrible plague hit England in the period after the Knights Templar were disbanded and swept away entire villages and half the population in towns. London did not escape and was ravaged by King Death around 1348 to 1350.

The skeletons were unearthed during excavations for a new rail link across the capital called Crossrail. It proves the existence of a graveyard that chroniclers in the Middle Ages called a “no mans land” but had never actually been seen. The company put out a statement this week:

During the past two weeks, Crossrail’s archaeologists uncovered 13 skeletons 2.5 metres below the road that surrounds the gardens in Charterhouse Square. The depth of the burials, the pottery dated up until 1350 found in the graves and the layout of the skeletons all point to the likelihood that these skeletons were buried in Charterhouse Square during the Black Death Plague around 1349. The graves have been laid out in a similar formation as skeletons discovered in a Black Plague burial site in east Smithfield in the 1980s.

The skeletons are being carefully excavated and taken to the Museum of London Archaeology for laboratory testing. The scientists are hoping to map the DNA signature of the Plague bacteria and possibly contribute to the discussion regarding what caused the Black Death. The bones may also be radio carbon dated to try and establish the burial dates.

Plague cannot survive for very long in the soil. After 650 years, only the skeleton bones remain and do not present any modern-day health risk.

The skeletons at the bottom of the construction shaft

The skeletons at the bottom of the construction shaft

The mummified heart of Richard the Lionheart

English: Effigy of Richard I of England in the...

English: Effigy of Richard I of England in the church of Fontevraud Abbey (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

King Richard the first of England – better known as Lionheart – was killed by a boy using a crossbow during a siege in France, defending his ancestral holdings. Richard was not only king in England but duke of both Normandy and Aquitaine and count of Anjou.  So when he wasn’t in the Holy Land fighting Saracens, he was in what’s now France fighting the French. In fact, he hardly spent any time in England itself during his entire reign.

During a siege in France, he was inspecting the battlements of the castle he was trying to break into when a crossbow bolt hit his shoulder. The resultant medical procedure to remove it – or butchery if you prefer – probably infected the wound and from the description of the time, gangrene set in. The boy who had shot the crossbow was famously pardoned by Richard but when the king succumbed and died, the poor lad was flayed alive in a particularly brutal execution.

The king’s body was then divided with most of it going to Fontevraud Abbey, his entrails being interred at Chalus while his heart was sent to the cathedral in Rouen. The heart re-emerged in the 19th century, still encased in a lead box but pretty much turned to powder. So I’m not sure that the term ‘mummified’ really stands up to the reality. However, there’s clearly enough left for medical staff to have just carried out a toxicological analysis. The reason was to prove or disprove a theory going back to the medieval period that Richard was killed by a poisoned arrow.

The evidence seems to suggest not. But the heart was covered in spices meant to give it a saintly odour after death. Its owner though was not killed by poison. He was brought down by a boy whose father had been killed by the king and was simply seeking revenge.

Waltham Abbey – the rise and fall of a medieval church

Not far from where I was born is the medieval church of Waltham Abbey – famous for being the burial place of King Harold II (killed at the Battle of Hastings by an arrow in his eye) and one of the resting places for the body of Eleanor of Castile, the dead wife of King Edward I (the man who vanquished Braveheart).

What’s so interesting about the abbey is that it represents just about every phase that a Christian church could go through in English history. The first church was a rudimentary two room affair built in the 7th century after the conversion of England‘s Saxon rulers to Christianity. The religion had been present in England in the late Roman Empire but extinguished after the legions left in a hurry in the early 400s AD.

Graves have been found from this period and carbon dating has proven the age of the first building. That was then superseded by another church in the 8th century. It was present in the 11th century when the Danes fully conquered England and installed Cnut as king. His standard bearer, Tovi, owned estates in the area – which is quite close to London. Tovi brough a holy cross from another of his estates in Somerset, west England, which was believed to have healing powers. This black crucifix was brought to Walthan in around 1030.

But of course it was the Normans after their victory in 1066 who really set about building an impressive and chunky Romanesque building. It took sixty years to build, completed in 1150, and its eastern chapel housed the holy cross. The church that is visible today was just the nave of this huge structure.

After arranging for the murder of the Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas a Becket, King Henry II did penance by enlarging the church threefold. Bolted on to it was an Augustinian priory and the powerful black canons became a feature of the area. Their prior was an important figure in medieval England. Needless to say this put Waltham very firmly on the map.

As I mentioned, in 1290, the body of Eleanor of Castile rested here on its journey from a town near Lincoln where she had died to London for burial. At each stopping point, a cross was erected in her memory. But the cross that made Waltham famous was the one brought by the area’s Danish overlord two centuries before.

All good things must come to an end and for the Augustinians, the Protestant Reformation of the Tudors was a disaster. Waltham was one of the last abbeys to be dissolved by Henry VIII in his far reaching reforms of the church. The canons were turfed out and in 1540, the majority of the 12th century building was reduced to rubble. It was reworked into nearby secular buildings and farm walls.

On Boxing Day, I visited. It’s curious to find yourself standing at the spot where Harold II’s grave was located behind the main altar – because that’s in the middle of the cemetery now! The church was so reduced in size that all its chapels, part of the nave and outbuildings disappeared. Harold’s grave is just marked by a simple slab. If a more elaborate tomb once existed, then it’s long gone.

In the brief Catholic restoration of Queen Mary Tudor, a church steeple was added but this only seemed to confirm that site’s new status as a large but much more modest village place of worship.

Waltham Abbey Waltham Abbey Grave of Harold Waltham Abbey today IMG_1463 IMG_1460 IMG_1465 IMG_1483