July 2013 in Review

This is an index and summary of the things I’ve talked about over the last month. Links for multi-post subjects go to the first post (even if it’s before this month), you can follow the internal navigation links from there.

Books

Fiction

“Nightfall One” Isaac Asimov. Anthology of five stories by Isaac Asimov, including his classic “Nightfall”. Part of Read All the Fiction, boxed up.

Total: 1

Non-Fiction

“Plantagenet England 1225-1360” Michael Prestwich. Part of the New Oxford History of England.

Total: 1

Museums

Im Licht von Amarna. Exhibition about Amarna era Egypt at the Neues Museum, Berlin timed to coincide with 100 years since the discovery of the bust of Nefertiti.

Neues Museum, Berlin.

Total: 2

Photos

Cool & Minty-Green.

Lurker.

Parent & Child.

Staring Into Eternity.

Total: 4

Radio

The Amazons. In Our Time episode about the Amazons of Greek myth.

Icelandic Sagas. In Our Time episode about Icelandic Sagas.

Relativity. In Our Time episode about Einstein’s theories of relativity.

Total: 3

Reflections

Filed Under A – stats & a retrospective on the books I’ve read so far as part of Read All the Fiction.

Other Things I Read While Reading the As – stats & a retrospective on the fiction I read during the same time period as the books filed under A on my bookshelf.

Total: 2

Talks

“Marriage in Ancient Egypt” Lucia Gahlin. Talk at the EEG meeting in July, about marriage in Ancient Egypt.

Total: 1

Television

Non-Fiction

Henry VII: The Winter King. Programme presented by Thomas Penn about the reign of Henry VII.

Horizon: Little Cat Diaries. Short follow-up programme to The Secret Life of the Cat.

Horizon: What Makes Us Human?. Programme about the differences between humans & chimps, presented by Alice Roberts.

The Iraq War. Series looking at the events leading up to the Iraq War and the aftermath of the war, with interviews with many key figures.

Michael Wood on Beowulf. Programme about the epic poem Beowulf, presented by Michael Wood.

The Most Dangerous Man in Tudor England. Biography of William Tynedale (who translated the Bible into English & was executed for doing it) presented by Melyvn Bragg.

A Night at the Rijksmuseum. Programme presented by Andrew Graham-Dixon about the re-opening of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

Royal Institution Christmas Lectures: Meet Your Brain. A series of three children’s lectures from Christmas 2011 about the brain.

Secrets of Stonehenge: A Time Team Special. Time Team filmed a (non-Time Team) excavation at Stonehenge & talk about new theories about why & how it was built.

Secrets of the Arabian Nights. Richard E. Grant talks about the history & stories of the Arabian Nights tales.

She Wolves: England’s Early Queens. Series about Queens of England in medieval & Tudor times, presented by Helen Castor.

Time Team: The Hollow Way. The Time Team crew excavate a deserted medieval village at Ulnaby, County Durham.

TOWN with Nicholas Crane. Nicholas Crane visiting British towns.

Treasures of Ancient Rome. Series about the art & history of Ancient Rome, presented by Alastair Sooke.

Treasures of the Louvre. One-off documentary about the history of the Louvre and of France, and a tour of the highlights of the museum’s collection, presented by Andrew Hussey.

Wild Shepherdess with Kate Humble. Series where Kate Humble visits sheep farmers around the world to see what’s the same & what’s different.

Total: 16

Horizon: What Makes Us Human?; Royal Institution Christmas Lectures: Meet Your Brain

What Makes Us Human? was a recent episode of Horizon, presented by Alice Roberts while she was pregnant with her second child. So the frame was lots of gooey shots of little babies or shots of Roberts looking pregnant, and the meat of the programme was about some of the things that do or don’t set us apart from our closest relatives in the animal kingdom (chimpanzees, of course!).

One obvious difference between people & chimps is that we’re more intelligent than them. But actually the differences appear to be more subtle than one might expect. Roberts visited some researchers who look at co-operation in chimps & humans. Chimps will co-operate to get a reward, but if the reward is uneven – one gets more or one gets the reward before the other – then the chimps don’t care. Well, the one that loses out does, but not in a way that gets them their “fair” share. But if you do similar experiments with young children (toddler age) then an unequal reward gets shared out. Importantly this only happens if they had to work together to get the reward – co-operating means sharing.

Another difference is the helplessness of a human baby when it arrives on the scene. This is something that has had an “answer” for decades, but recent research has suggested the “answer” isn’t the whole story. Babies are born at the point where they only just fit through their mother’s pelvis, and it has been assumed that there are two selection pressures on the width of the birth canal – one is that wider makes it easier to have bigger headed babies, and the other is that narrower makes walking more energy efficient. So the theory is that women’s pelvises are at the sweet spot between easier childbirth with more developed babies and walking efficiently. But new research is suggesting that women’s walking (and running) is no less energy efficient than men’s despite a difference in gait because of the different shape of pelvis. So that may not be the explanation, you’d think if walking efficiency was the important factor then women’s hips could be wider. The new theory is that women’s metabolisms can’t continue to improve to keep up with the demands of their unborn child – babies are born at the point where their mother can no longer supply all their energy needs. Something about this segment left me with questions about whether there was more data than was explained, because it felt a bit pat & a bit too much jumping to conclusions.

When you look at a human brain & human nerve cells they show more connections (and dendrites) than other animals. Humans have more duplicates of a particular gene to do with dendrites than chimps & if you duplicate this gene in mice then you get more dendrites & connections – in the right proportion to explain the difference between humans & chimps. In this segment Roberts also talked to a scientist who is starting to map, to visually image, actual brains – at the moment he’s just doing mouse brains (very slowly) as they’re small. But eventually the plan is to be able to investigate a human brain this way. They end up with a colour coded three dimensional diagram of all the nerve cells in a brain with connections mapped etc. This looked cool, but I’m not sure how much it actually tells us in the long run – as I understand it brains are all unique in detail, even if similar in general. And does “neuron A connected with neurons B, C, D & E” tell us much about what any of these do?

(And am I cynical about Horizon’s presentation of science because I go in thinking it’ll be shallow, or do I go in thinking it’ll be shallow coz it often leaves me with questions?)


The Royal Institution Christmas Lectures are a series of lectures aimed at children and broadcast on the BBC. I used to watch them every year when I was a kid. We recorded the series in 2011, and have only just got round to watching them – that year they were about brains and the lectures were given by Bruce Hood. The first lecture in the series was titled What’s In Your Head? and covered the basics of what a brain is, how nerves work and the sort of modelling brains do to make sense of the world.

As it’s aimed at children I don’t think it covered anything I didn’t already know, but it did it with style and involved a lot of demonstrations – some of which were rather neat. For instance Hood & another scientist showed that brains work on electricity by disrupting the ability of the other scientist to move his hands properly using in electromagnet against the head. So the chap was clapping and then they switched on the moving magnetic field & he could no longer co-ordinate bringing his hands together. There was also a little bit about MRI scanners to look at brain activity – with a striking visual demonstration of how powerful the magnets involved are: a nurse went into the room with a spanner on a string and then the machine was switched on and the spanner swung up and pulled towards the machine.

Another bit was about how the brain sets up patterns as it learns about the world and how that can lead to being disconcerted by new experiences – like if you eat grapes then your brain learns that round, green, sweet is a pattern associated with grapes. The first time you meet a green olive, you see round and green and then your brain fills in “sweet” because that’s the learnt pattern. So when you eat it you get a nasty surprise. This example particularly stuck in mine & J’s heads coz until recently neither of us ate olives (I’ve somehow acquired a taste for them over the last couple of years) – so the “yack!” reaction he was talking about amused us 🙂

She Wolves: England’s Early Queens; Secrets of the Arabian Nights; The Secrets of Stonehenge: A Time Team Special

The second episode of Helen Castor’s She Wolves: England’s Early Queens was about Isabella of France & Margaret of Anjou. Neither of these women ruled England in their own right, but both ruled in the name of a man (son & husband respectively) and neither have been remembered kindly by history. Rather unfairly, I think (although Isabella brought it on herself to some degree).

Isabella was the daughter of the King of France & was married to Edward II when she was only 12 years old. The marriage didn’t get off to an auspicious start when Edward sat his favourite, Piers Gaveston, closer to Edward at the feast than Isabella was and they ignored her to concentrate on each other. Even at this young age Isabella was very aware of the respect due to herself as a daughter of a King and a Queen herself. However, despite the fact that Edward was besotted with his favourite, Isabella set out to behave like the perfect Queen & wife.

Gaveston’s behaviour and indulgence by the King wasn’t just annoying & insulting to Isabella, it also wasn’t going down well with the nobles at court. Eventually the situation deteriorated to the point where the barons took up arms against Edward & his favourite, and they had to flee – with Isabella in tow. The situation was only resolved with the capture & execution of Gaveston. Relations between Isabella & Edward must’ve got better after this – if nothing else they started having children including the future Edward III. Isabella had therefore performed one of the critical duties of a Queen in ensuring the succession, she also played the Queenly role of peacemaker in mediating between Edward & the rebel barons.

However she was to play a critical role in the re-emergence of hostilities. She was travelling with her household when they were caught in a storm, and sought shelter at Leeds Castle (in Kent). The Lord of the castle had been one of the rebels but he was away, and his wife refused Isabella entry. Isabella was furious and ordered her men to force their way in, at which point the soldiers in Leeds Castle fought back (as you would) and six of Isabella’s men died. Edward called this insult to his Queen treason & used it as an excuse to beseige the castle, eventually capturing it & imprisoning the lady & her children. The lady’s husband was executed. I’ve got chronology muddled a bit here (I don’t think Castor did tho) and by this stage Edward II had already taken up with his next poor idea for a favourite – Hugh Despenser. Castor characterised Despenser as a political predator (and we got nice visuals of a raptor of some sort flying about and tearing at some sort of prey). She also said that she believes that relationship to’ve been platonic, unlike the one with Gaveston.

So now relations between Edward & the country are deteriorating & so are those between Edward & Isabella. Tensions are rising between England & France, too. Isabella seizes her chance when her brother (now King of France) wants to negotiate a peace – she volunteers to go to France to negotiate on England’s behalf. Once in Paris she organises for her son Edward to join her, and instead of returning to England as a dutiful wife she returns at the head of an army, fighting to depose Edward II & set Edward III in his place. She’s practically welcomed in, Edward II’s reign had become tyrannical and unpopular. Once Edward II was captured Edward III was crowned & Isabella ruled as his regent. Edward II subsequently died, almost certainly at Isabella’s orders (but not via the red hot poker of later myth). Isabella was widely regarded as the saviour of England at the time.

But she’d already sown the seeds of her downfall. Whilst in Paris she’d also taken up with a knight called Roger Mortimer (Castor made a lot of use of chess metaphors in this programme, in particular referring to the Queen making her move with her Knight & Pawn (Edward III)). So when she started to rule as regent she had her own favourite by her side, not quite what the nobles wanted to see. And she had always been very aware of her own majesty, and this only got worse when she was running the country – she and Mortimer enriched themselves at the Crown’s expense. So in the end Isabella was overthrown in her turn, by her son. Mortimer was executed, but Isabella was allowed to live on.

(Isabella is one of the viewpoint characters in “Iron King” by Maurice Druon that I read earlier this year, it’s set around the time of Edward III’s birth. Druon has her & Mortimer (very much pre any relationship) conspiring to catch her sisters in the act of adultery, oh the irony.)

The second half of the programme was devoted to Margaret of Anjou – the French bride of Henry VI. Henry had been King since he was 9 months old, when his father Henry V died. Unfortunately at the time Margaret of Anjou married him he still wasn’t showing much signs of capability to rule – he was 23 by then. And it got worse – Margaret became pregnant, but shortly before the baby was born Henry slipped into a catatonic state. The court was already divided into factions – one centred round the Duke of York (who had his own claim to the throne), one centred round the Duke of Somerset (who was pro-Henry). Castor was telling us that Margaret would’ve prefered that she was named regent – she felt she had the right as the King’s wife & that she was a more neutral choice than the other two. However it was the Duke of York who got the job. This is where the Wars of the Roses begin to properly kick off.

Henry did recover his wits (such as they ever had been), so the Duke of York was no longer regent. However relations between the Yorkist & Lancastrians had deteriorated to the point where civil war broke out. Margaret was firmly in the Lancastrian camp, keen to protect her husband & son’s right to the throne. Henry was fought over & captured/released and generally passed around like pass the parcel. Castor told us of the king sitting in the centre of St Albans, guarded by soldiers, while the fighting raged through the town – not participating, just bewildered as he was fought over. In the end York won, not to control the king but to rule in his own name. (By this stage it’s not the original Duke of York, it’s his son Edward who ruled as Edward IV.) Margaret & her son (and husband? I can’t remember where Castor said Henry was) fled the country. Whilst in France she worked tirelessly to drum up support for her husband’s cause, but not very successfully.

Eventually the chance she’d been waiting for arrived – one of the major Yorkists, the Earl of Warwick, became dissatisfied with the King he’d put on the throne. Warwick regarded himself as “Kingmaker” and felt that if this one wasn’t working out, why all he needed to do was put a new one on the throne. So he switched sides, and promised Margaret that he’d work to return her husband to his rightful throne. Margaret was quite canny about this, she accepted his aid and then waited with her son in France until Warwick had delivered on his promise. Only then did she set out for England.

Sadly for Margaret just as she and her son were landing in England the Yorkists re-grouped and retook the crown. Margaret & her forces were forced into a battle in which her son took part for the first time. He died and as he was Henry VI’s only heir, with him died the hopes of Margaret for keeping her husband’s line on the throne. Henry VI was a Yorkist captive again, and died shortly afterwards in the Tower of London. Margaret lived the rest of her life in France.


Secrets of the Arabian Nights was a standalone programme presented by Richard E. Grant all about the stories of the Arabian Nights. He traced their origins in the Middle East & beyond, and how they got to the West. He also talked to several critics & others about the impact they still have in both East & West today. And we also got treated to some retellings of some of the stories.

The stories come from a thriving oral tradition originating with merchants travelling the Silk Road & other trade routes across Asia. The prominence of merchants in many of the stories is a legacy of that. These stories were subsequently fitted within the Scheherazade frame story, and written down as The 1000 Stories. They came to the West via a Frenchman called Antoine Galland in the 18th Century – he was fluent in Arabic & Persian & other Middle Eastern languages, and he translated an Arabic form of the stories into French & published it. The book was a great success – partly because it was exotic and new, with sorts of stories & magic that aren’t the common tropes of Western literature (flying carpets were an example Grant mentioned repeatedly). And partly because it was the right thing at the right time – there was already a fashion for fairytales, and these stories fitted into that niche. Due to the success of the stories Galland was pressured to provide more, and he did – he said he’d heard the stories from contacts in the Middle East, but Grant pointed out that this was pretty dubious. It’s more likely that Galland invented them or significantly embellished them. I knew already that what we have in the West isn’t quite the same as the original, but I hadn’t realised that Aladdin & Ali Baba were among the extras.

Galland’s book was translated into English where again it was a success and helped establish the craze for “oriental” fashions in Britain. It was also disapproved of by the more strait-laced – Grant quote one lord who felt that it was encouraging the “Desdemona complex” (which is every bit as racist as you might imagine). And then in Victorian times the Arabian Nights stories were significantly bowdlerised & re-purposed as children’s stories. Which is really the form that most of us English speakers run into them first today.

Grant spent some time talking to a variety of critics both European & not. They were mostly in agreement that one of the themes of the book as a whole (in the original) is female sexuality & desire. They also drew out a feminist theme to the collection of stories. The framing story of Scheherazade is about a king whose wife betrays him, so after killing her he goes on to marry & then execute a woman every night. As revenge. Scheherazade uses her wits & her storytelling abilities to not just save herself but to slowly change the King’s attitudes. They were saying at the beginning the stories she tells fit with the King’s misogynistic & vengeful ideas, but over the course of the stories she emphasises wisdom & reflection over vengeance, and seeing women as people.

In the Middle East today (well, 2011 or 2010 when this was filmed) the book is controversial. It’s regarded by some as immoral – too much drinking, too much sex, people aren’t rewarded for being good they’re rewarded for being lucky, and so on. Grant talked to an Egyptian author & publisher (Gamal al Ghitani) who has published a new edition of the stories – he has received death threats & there was pressure on the government to ban the book because it was indecent & not Islamic enough. Gamal al Ghitani was clear that he felt this was rubbish, that the extremely conservative Islamist groups weren’t right about the only way to be a Muslim. And that these stories are an important part of Arabic heritage & should be read & learnt about by modern people.

It was a good programme, interesting & the dramatic re-tellings of stories were fun 🙂


Secrets of Stonehenge was a Time Team special we’d recorded several years ago, about a team excavating at and near Stonehenge. It felt very padded, in what I think of as “Discovery channel style” – i.e. the sequence went: cliff-hanger, ad break, re-cap, small bit of something else, next cliff-hanger etc. And while it did belabour the point about theories only lasting so long as there’s evidence to support them, it also made a lot of use of “and now they’ve proved” language *rolls eyes*. However. It was fun to watch, as Time Team generally is. A particularly amusing moment was when Robinson said “to help the archaeologist Time Team has built a life size replica of the henge at Durrington” … well, no, I think you did it so you had something cool to show on the telly 🙂

The excavations were led by a chap called Mike Parker Pearson, and his pet theory (which evolved over the 6 years of excavations) was that Stonehenge fit into a ritual landscape involving a progression from life to death. The henge at Durrington, built of wood, was a place where people came to feast each midwinter. They then travelled down the river Avon and along the avenue to Stonehenge, which was the place of the dead. There they buried some of their ancestors (mostly adult males, who were relatively fit – Pearson speculated this was a royal line). Some of this left me hoping it was based on better evidence than they showed us (i.e. that the people would process along the river scattering ashes?), some of it was more compelling (i.e. evidence of feasting on pigs of a particular age at the Durrington site implies feasting at a particular time of year).

Another strand of the programme talked about the previous excavations at the site – it was a minor enough theme I wouldn’t’ve mentioned it except that I wanted to make a note of one rather appalling part. One of the modern excavators, back in the 50s, was a man called Richard Atkinson. Although he did a lot of work on the site none was recorded and none was published – so effectively he dug it up & disturbed it all for no gain. Not what you expect from the modern era! Wikipedia is somewhat kinder to the man citing overwork & illness, so perhaps that too was hammed up to make “good telly”.

Overall I’d say it was fun but not necessarily accurate (or nuanced).

“Plantagenet England 1225-1360” Michael Prestwich (Part 1b)

This post covers the second half of the introductory section of the book. Having discussed the environment Prestwich moves on to an overview of the legal & political institutions of the country during the period.

The Crown and Kingship

Kings of England during this time weren’t just Kings of some isolated country, they were part of an international world. The King had titles to lands on the other side of the channel (more at some times than others …) and marriages (both their own & their family members) linked them to yet more. So they were part of a network of ruling families in Europe, not just in the contemporary time but in their history as well. They could trace their descent back through the Anglo-Saxon Kings of England (via marriages) as well as more fanciful genealogies (Edward I wanted to link himself to King Arthur, for instance).

Prestwich then divides Kingship into two facets – sacred & secular. Kingship of the time is sacred via the anointing of the King during the coronation ceremony. This endowed the King with spiritual authority, and the King could use this to bolster his authority if necessary. As well as special ceremonies (like Henry III’s transfer of Edward the Confessor’s bones to the new shrine in a rebuilt Westminster Abbey) there was a routine calendar of religious ceremonies in which the King played a significant part. For instance the giving of alms on a regular basis, and touching to cure the king’s evil which was a rite introduced by either Henry III or Edward I.

The King was also the secular & feudal lord of the country, which granted him specific rights over his nobles. For instance military service, or the paying of an aid on the occasion of the marriage of the King’s eldest daughter. This side of Kingship was emphasised particularly when getting support for war – the feudal right to soldiers & money being very important. Another secular aspect of the King’s rule derived from Roman law. Prestwich talks here about the concept of “necessity”, and how the King was entitled to taxes without his nobles having right of refusal if he could show there was a necessity (i.e. for a war he was fighting to defend the realm).

At first there wasn’t a distinction drawn between the King & the crown, but over this period the two concepts began to separate. Most notably in legal or land-ownership contexts – for instance the King might give lands to his heir with the caveat that they were not to be separated from the crown (i.e. he couldn’t give them to someone else, he should still have them on his ‘inevitable’ accession to the throne). It also played a role during & at the end of Edward II’s reign – at the end the person of the King had been deposed but the crown had not.

Queenship was a distinct thing, that had an important part to play in royal politics. The Queen could intercede for people, and then the King could show mercy or generosity without looking weak. There was an expectation that the Queen would act as a peacemaker. Obviously personal relationships play into how that actually played out, and Isabella of France shows that a Queen could influence politics beyond that under some circumstances.

Symbols & ceremonies were important for impressing the country with the power of the monarchy. The physical crown (of which there were several) and other royal regalia weren’t worn daily, but were worn at ceremonial occasions to enhance the grandeur of the monarchy. The throne, likewise, was possibly not used often but was an important symbol. Not many of the King’s subjects would’ve seen him in his regalia & sat on his throne, but most if not all would’ve seen an image of him. The English currency was unique at the time in having an image of the King’s head on all legal currency. Even private mints (of Bishops, say) had to use the same image on their coins. A better image of the King could be found on the royal seals that sealed all royal documents, and the incidental symbolism in these representations was important. For instance Edward III’s use of the French royal arms as well as the English after 1340 when he claimed the French throne. Prestwich discussed religious ceremonies in the section on sacred Kingship, here he turns to the secular ceremonies that promoted the King’s power. For instance feasts & tournaments.

The King’s possessions & clothes were used to enhance his authority – always made from the best & most splendid materials. And buildings were also used to promote the image of the King. Henry III had Westminster Abbey rebuilt in magnificent style, and it became used as the royal mausoleum in a further display of royal splendour. In this Henry & his heirs were trying to equal or better the Capetian Kings of France – Saint Louis IX had built Sainte-Chapelle at the start of this period which gives an example of the sort of magnificence the English Kings were trying to live up to. Very much keeping up with the Joneses on an epic scale. As well as religious buildings, secular buildings were important. There were several royal castles, and although many were poorly maintained others were refurbished & enhanced – like the Tower of London and Windsor Castle as examples of luxurious royal residences & Edward I’s castle at Caernarfon as an example of a fortress.

Prestwich finishes this chapter by talking about the King’s court and the King’s household. The two terms mean different but overlapping things, and weren’t always used consistently by contemporary sources (which Prestwich expresses some scholarly frustration with!). Roughly speaking the “court” was a broader term that could be used about everyone around the King, whereas the household was more concretely defined & was used about people retained in the King’s service.

A large part of the household’s role was domestic – the provision of food for the King & all these people, the stabling & care of the King’s horses, falcons, dogs and those of the rest of the household. Also the means of transporting the household were provided internally – carts & horses or boats, and people to drive them or crew them. The main department of the household that looked after these various sections was the wardrobe, and it also played a key role in government of the country. The keeper of the wardrobe & other clerical officials were some of the King’s most important ministers. Government is the subject of the next chapter, so Prestwich moves on to some examples of details of the court or household’s expenditure on food & clothing or on the sorts of entertainment that the court had.

There’s not much evidence for particular manners for court, no guides to etiquette or whatever, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t niceties to be observed. Certainly the King seems to’ve lead a pampered existence with bevies of servants to do everything for him – like one to supervise the meat he was given, one to carve it and a third to actually serve it to him. The court’s influence on the culture of the rest of the country is debatable – there is some hint of an influence in architecture & in patronage of painters. But definitely not literature.

Government

This chapter demonstrates that running the country via a large bureaucracy with lots of red tape is not a modern invention. Prestwich says scholarly opinion is divided between the idea that England of this period “enjoyed a remarkably sophisticated bureaucratic system” or was suffering from “a surfeit of government, with quite unnecessarily complex administrative procedures that achieved little”. At the end of this chapter he concludes that it’s a bit of both – it could’ve done to be more streamlined, but it actually worked most of the time.

Much of what we know about the bureaucracy of the time comes from the complication – multiple copies of records were kept, and writs could be issued in as many as three documents (under the king’s secret seal to be sent to the privy seal office, which would instruct the chancery, which would issue the final writ). So this could cause delays, although when the matter was urgent the machinery seems to’ve moved swiftly. The language of government documents was Latin, so the majority of the population wouldn’t understand it. A lot of the surviving rolls are in very good condition, testament to how few people had need to read them.

The structure of the government was already established by the early 13th Century. Top was the King & his council. Council was defined in various ways – it could be a great council with lots of the magnate present, or a more ordinary one with a smaller handful of magnates & some judges & clerical officials etc. Sometimes this council was imposed on the King by his nobles, some were chosen by the King. But generally it was a working body with a bias towards officials, that provided expert advice & assistance to the King. In some periods the chief financial body of the government was the wardrobe, the financial arm of the King’s household. The household also provided the privy seal, which was used to issue orders to the chancery & the exchequer and came into being as a separate government body (rather than part of the wardrobe) over this period. The chancery & the exchequer were the two main state departments, which gradually became more independent over this period. The exchequer looked after the financial side of government and in some periods had control over wardrobe expenditure & sometimes not. The chancery did the issuing of writs, and was the centre of the governmental machinery. Law courts were another important part of the government. The two central ones were the King’s Bench (which heard cases appealed from lower courts, and increasingly concerned itself with criminal cases) and the court of Common Pleas (which mostly heard property cases).

If that summary sounds a little confused, that’s because I’m not sure I completely followed that section – it had the feeling of a high level & technical summary of a complicated subject. And I just got the flavour from it.

Prestwich next moves to the sort of people that were senior officials in the government. Generally these were churchmen, although sometimes laymen held offices. But it was harder to reward laymen as you couldn’t just give them a juicy bishopric, so they had to be paid more by the King. Many notable figures rose to prominence due to their administrative skills & are given their bishoprics afterwards for service rather than for piety. But there are records of bishops who became high officials with no prior government experience (and subsequently did good jobs even, the Bishop of Exeter, Walter Stapledon, was one such man in the 1320s when he was made Treasurer). Most officials were trained in their posts, but they also endowed university colleges to train clerics – Merton College & Oriel College (both Oxford) are the examples that Prestwich gives. (Exeter College (founded by the Bishop of Exeter I mention above) was founded pre-government job so it doesn’t quite fit the theme).

Moving on to local government Prestwich notes that there isn’t a clear distinction between central & local government, drawing one is a convenience for the historian not a contemporary idea. The main unit of local government was the county, with a sheriff in charge with assorted officials under him. At the beginning of this period the sheriffs were appointed (by the King or other nobles), later they were elected although sometimes this was a technicality. The sheriffs had jurisdiction over some financial matters, and presided over the county court to settle legal matters. He also visited the hundred courts (hundreds are the sub-divisions of counties) in rotation. Not all of the country was actually under the central government – the state was still more feudal than not. For instance Durham was practically independent although the perspective of the crown was that as the Bishop held the liberty in the King’s name he was acting on behalf of the King when ruling it. And the Welsh marches were even more close to independence. There were also more minor liberties where the local ruler was more firmly subordinate to the King’s central government whilst still being technically separate.

And that was another section where it feels like there’s a whole book of complexity beneath the summary in this book and I don’t quite grasp it well enough to summarise well in my turn!

Prestwich next discusses the Church which was technically run by a separate & parallel system of government to the state. Many offices & functions are duplicated in this different sphere, with a broad emphasis on spiritual matters (like organisation & governance of monasteries). And of course the Church also had a need to collect money & manage its finances. As a lot of government high officials were given bishoprics there was a high degree of cross-fertilisation despite the separation. And there were areas of co-operation as well as competition between the two systems.

And the chapter finishes with a discussion of corruption in government. Prestwich stresses that the government was fundamentally sound – he says that it was less corrupt than the time of Henry I or than it would be in 16th & 17th Century England. However there was a level of corruption present. Officials were caught taking bribes, and some lords paid judges retainers so that court cases would be resolved in their favour. This was frowned upon, however, and punished when caught.

So now Prestwich has set us up for the meat of the book – next chapter starts the chronological examination of the politics of the period.

“Plantagenet England 1225-1360” Michael Prestwich (Part 1a)

Plantagenet England 1225-1360 is one of the volumes of the New Oxford History of England. I have a vague plan to eventually buy & read the lot, but that’s a long way off (and anyway they’re not all published yet) – so far I’ve read England Under the Norman & Angevin Kings 1075-1225 (which was by Robert Bartlett) and now I’m starting this one. The break points between the volumes of the series are not at the ends of Kings reigns, nor at dynastic break points. So this volume starts part-way through Henry III’s reign, where he can be said to’ve taken control himself. And it ends with the ending of a phase of the Hundred Years War, even though that means that the full impact of the Black Death needs to be left till a later volume. This post is going to be about the first half of the introductory section* of the book, after that it goes through the politics of the time in chronological order followed by a thematic look through the society of the time.

*Originally it was going to be the whole of the introduction as I’ve finished reading it, but this post was getting very long so I’ve decided to split it up.

Orientation Dates

As it’s a more academic book the author assumes that the reader has a feel for the shape of the period – who reigned when, and how they were related, what the major political events were – the purpose of the book is to look at these things in detail. There is a chronology & genealogy at the end of the book as reference, but I’m going to pull out the Kings names & dates for orientation dates inside the subject of the book.

  • Henry III reigned 1216-1272, son of John I, married to Eleanor of Provence.
  • Edward I reigned 1272-1307, son of Henry III, married to Eleanor of Castile then Margaret of France.
  • Edward II reigned 1307-1327, son of Edward I & Eleanor, married to Isabella of France (who overthrew him & had him murdered).
  • Edward III reigned 1327-1377 initially under his mother’s regency, son of Edward II, married to Philippa of Hainault.

In my other Chapter by Chapter posts I’ve been using mostly English history to orient myself when thinking about a different country’s history, this time I’ll put a few reminders of things that happen elsewhere.

  • Saint Louis IX (builder of Sainte-Chapelle) ruled France 12261270.
  • Genghis Khan died in 1227.
  • Reconquista of Spain is well underway in this period, the last Muslim Emirate (Emirate of Granada) is founded in 1238 after the defeat of the Almohad Dynasty by the Christian Spanish Kingdoms and remains the only Muslim run region of the Spanish Peninsula from then until its defeat in 1492.
  • Seventh Crusade from 12481254.
  • Eighth Crusade in 1270.
  • Ninth Crusade from 12711272.
  • China re-unified under Kublai Khan (post) in 1279.
  • Philip VI of Valois reigned in France 13281350, starting the Valois dynasty.

(Most of those I had to resort to wikipedia for, tsk tsk!)

Introductory

The Environment

The introductory section of the book is broken into three chapters & the first one is about how the lives of the people in this era were nasty, brutish & short! Prestwich starts with a discussion of the climate across this century & a half. From the various sources (both chronicles that note weather & records of harvests) it seems that the climate gradually got colder across this period, and more unsettled. He thinks that the gradual cooling was compensated for by farmers, but the increased volatility caused problems. Particularly notable bad weather occurs in the years 1258-1259 and 1315-16. He ties the first to a known volcanic eruption which has left evidence in Greenland ice cores, but there’s no known explanation for the latter.

Population grew during the beginning of this era – peaking around 1300 and remaining roughly stable till the collapse at the Black Death. At its highest the population was probably 5 million (for reference wikipedia says the 2011 population of the Greater London built up area was 9.8 million, the population of the Greater Manchester built up area was 2.6 million). Analysis of skeletal remains shows a lot of disease in the population & that’s just what one can see traces of in bones. 90% of the population died before the age of 45, average life expectancy was around 30. But if you made it to 20 you might expect to live another 20 or 30 years, and if you made it to 50 you’d probably live till old age. People were short, but not as short as in Victorian times – average of 5’7.25″ for men, 5’2.5″ for women. Contemporary sources record much death from accident, or violence, as well as famine & disease.

Prestwich also discusses the landscape the people lived in. This was stable across the period, and was mostly composed of farmland. The exact practices of farming varied from region to region (because of tradition as well as suitability of crops) and this shaped the landscape. Most land wasn’t wooded, but there were areas of woodland & parks as well as forests & chases. The latter were a legal distinction – in a forest common law didn’t hold, instead the area was under forest law which restricted what the people who lived there could do (in favour of keeping the area suitable for royal hunting). Chases were non-royal forests.

The animals of the countryside still included wolves in remoter areas, for instance there are records of the loss of farm animals to wolves in Lancashire in 1303-4 although the number wasn’t large. Rabbits were a recent introduction & carefully looked after in warrens – the first documentary evidence for them in England was in 1235. Given how important rats are as a vector of the Black Death it’s surprising there’s not much evidence for a large population of them either in documents or via archaeology. Domestic animals were mainly horses, cattle, sheep & pigs, and they were all smaller and yielded less meat/milk/wool than their modern counterparts. Sheep were the main animals kept, with some estates having flocks of several thousand. Dogs were kept for hunting & pets included cats. Prestwich mentions documentary evidence for several plagues amongst farm animals – in particular there is evidence for a lot of animal disease in the 1310s, which also had the worst weather & worst harvests.

The buildings of the era ranged from castles to wooden shacks. There were around 400-500 castles during this time period, the figure varies depending on how you define castle, and castles defined aristocratic lordship. Many of them had building work done on them during the period, but not many new castles were built. As you move down the social scale buildings are still used to demonstrate your social standing – gentry had manor houses or moated buildings. There were about 5,000 moated sites by the end of the period, and about 70% of these came into existence between 1200 & 1325. Abbeys and churches also loomed large in the landscape, but these didn’t change much over the period with no major new monastic foundations. Peasant housing is harder to find evidence for as it was mostly built from wood which doesn’t leave much trace particularly when there’s been much rebuilding on a site. Longhouses weren’t unknown, but often the house was separate from the barn. What little evidence there is for cost of peasant housing suggests it was cheap & not well made (unsurprisingly) – Prestwich mentions a report of a house collapse which killed the woman who lived there & the value of the timber in the house was put at only 18d.

Most of England lived in villages or towns, rather than isolated farms, with settlements in the north & west more dispersed than those in the rest of the country. The growth of population through the first half of this era saw a proliferation of towns. And even walled towns show signs of expanding outside their boundaries. Even large towns weren’t particularly big – London might’ve had a population of around 70,000 by 1300 and no other town was bigger than 20,000. For reference, wikipedia says that in 2011 there were ~179k people living in the Ipswich built up area, and even the 70th most populous built up area in England has ~100k people living there. The East Kilbride built up area in Scotland has about the same population in 2011 as London did in 1300. For contemporary reference Prestwich says 1300 era London was in a similar league to Paris or Florence – however my copy of The New Atlas of World History (by John Haywood) lists Paris as the 4th most populous city of the world in 1300 at 228k (beaten by Hangzhou & Dadu in China and Cairo, all at or just above 400k). Population figures for this era are sufficiently vague & a matter of interpretation that I doubt Prestwich & Haywood actually disagree significantly. Towns don’t sound terribly nice places to live – as well as the omnipresent threat of fire they were crowded, unhygenic & smelly. And not just in modern eyes – Prestwich gives a few quotes from contemporary sources about the unpleasantness of particularly towns.

Technologically speaking there were skilled craftsmen & slow improvements to techniques, but not many striking breakthroughs. Gunpowder is introduced in Edward I’s reign, but the primitive guns don’t have much effect on the period. Timekeeping does start to change, with the beginnings of the move from measuring time by the patterns of daylight or the monastic day to clocks measuring the passing of hours & minutes. Power was provided by wind, water & animals. Again there were some developments in windmill & watermill tech but nothing groundbreaking. Use of horses for transport or power was increasingly replacing use of oxen. Bulk transport however was still cheapest on ships & boats, and land transport was much slower. Prestwich says most people didn’t travel much, which was just as well as the transport network was inadequate – and still mostly reliant on the Roman roads. If you did travel it would probably take you a week to travel around 200 miles.

Prestwich concludes with some more cheering quotes & anecdotes. Although life was in many ways grim for most of the population, people were in general proud of being English and regarded their land as a good land & a good place to live. And there were diversions & distractions from the grimness.

Tangents to follow up on: A throw-away line about towns & the problems with counting them made me realise I’m not sure I’ve learnt what the technical distinctions between villages & towns & boroughs etc are.

In Our Time: Icelandic Sagas

The Icelandic Sagas were written down in the 13th Century and tell the stories of the original colonists of Iceland and their descendants. On In Our Time the context & contents of these sagas were discussed by Carolyne Larrington (St John’s College, Oxford), Elizabeth Ashman Rowe (University of Cambridge) and Emily Lethbridge (Árni Magnússon Manuscripts Institute in Reykjavík).

Iceland was settled primarily by Norwegian aristocrats and their households from the 9th Century AD onwards. In Norway at the time the King was beginning to centralise more power which wasn’t going down well with these aristocrats, hence their move. As well as the Norwegians there were also other Scandinavian settlers, including some who had settled in parts of the British Isles first. And a not insignificant number of Celtic women from the British Isles. The society they set up in Iceland didn’t have a King, instead there were 36 or so chieftains who met at the Althingi to decide on laws & settle court cases. The sagas are often about these court cases, which makes them sound rather dry but these cases would be to settle things like family feuds which had got out of hand with lots of death on both sides so they’re anything but dry.

During the programme they told us the plot line of part of one of the sagas – the Laxdæla saga. In this two foster brothers (their genealogies are told in an earlier part of the saga) make a trip to Norway & they leave behind in Iceland a woman (Guðrún) that one of them (Kjartan) intends to marry. She would rather have made the trip with them, but was told it wasn’t appropriate. Kjartan remains in Norway longer than his foster brother (Bolli), who when he returns fails to pass on greetings from Kjartan to Guðrún and instead gives her the impression that Kjartan has found himself a new woman. Bolli & Guðrún marry, and when Kjartan returns to Iceland he’s not happy with this state of affairs. Eventually Bolli kills Kjartan, and then Kjartan’s brothers seek vengeance on Bolli & kill him. Guðrún is pregnant with Bolli’s son at this point, and when the boy grows up he seeks vengeance on his father’s killers. The saga as a whole tells the story of all four of Guðrún’s marriages.

Christianity came to Iceland around the year 1000AD, and with Christianity came the writing of books. At first religious texts were the only books written down but by the 13th & 14th Centuries the Sagas were being written. They were explaining that the coming of Christianity influenced the way these sagas were told or rather written down – in some ways the stories are divided into what might be thought of as an Old Testament & a New. So the people who lived prior to Christianity reaching Iceland are often depicted as virtuous pagans (by Christian ideas of virtue) or incidents in their stories are pre-figuring eventual conversion or reflecting biblical imagery.

Lethbridge talked about how the sagas are very much rooted in the landscape of Iceland. The places where events take place are real places that you can go and visit. And people who live nearby can tell you the stories that are associated with their local area. The sagas are still very much a piece of the identity of Icelandic culture, and the return of the physical manuscripts when Iceland became independent after the Second World War was an event that a lot of the population turned out on the streets to witness. People living in Iceland today can often trace back their family history to the people talked about in the sagas.

There is some debate about how much of the stories in the sagas are true. Clearly the supernatural parts (like the dead who don’t stay in their graves but come back to fight you) didn’t really happen. But in terms of the non-supernatural stuff some of it can be corroborated from other sources, although some can be disproved or disputed using these sources. For instance people & places exist independently of the sagas, and some of the events are recorded in more sober histories. But equally some descriptions of laws or events are clearly written long after the fact as they’re anachronistic for the time the saga is set. One of the experts said you can think of the sagas as being like historical novels – the facts are used but then dialogue & details are added to make it a good story.

The sagas generally share a narrative style. They are written fairly neutrally, and talk about what people said or what people did not what they were thinking. The narrator doesn’t take sides or judge the characters. The furthest they go is to say things like “and many men agreed this was not wise” – putting the judgement in the things other characters said at the time. There are interludes of poetry, said to be composed by the characters in the saga, which do convey something of the internal thoughts of a character and the experts were saying that this poetry was possibly composed at the time of the saga’s stories and passed down orally.

Women in Iceland in the era that this stories took place did not have legal standing – and so had to work through the men in their lives. The experts said that despite this women in the sagas are written about much like men, as real people, and the sagas will often have female characters who do act and get their own way. Even if it is through men because of the legal system, they’re still shown with agency of their own.

Near the end of the programme Bragg went off on a little diversion about language. He repeated a story he’d heard about speakers of Cumbrian dialect being able to make themselves understood to Icelandic speakers & vice versa after a little bit of time & some good will on both sides. The experts agreed that there’s sufficient Norse influence in Cumbrian dialect that this is plausible (and I think they agreed that the particular story he’d heard was true too).

Time Team: The Hollow Way; Michael Wood on Beowulf

We decided to watch a couple of programmes that we’ve had on our PVR for 3 or 4 years and somehow never got round to actually watching before. First was an episode of Time Team about a medieval village that used to exist around a farmhouse at Ulnaby, County Durham. Obviously being Time Team they only had 3 days to do a fairly superficial excavation of a handful of areas around the site. But what they did manage to discover was that the peak of the occupation seemed to be around the 13th to 14th Centuries – finding pottery & house walls, and also references in documents. The original assumption had been that it had been deserted in the Black Death (1348) or as land use throughout the country was re-organised in the 15th Century with many villages evicted. However their digging found evidence of occupation up to the 17th Century (lots of tobacco pipes) and there was also documentary evidence for the village up till then as well (names of people pardoned for being involved in the Rising of the North in 1569 (by supporters of Mary Queen of Scots against Elizabeth I). So their conclusion was that it had petered out gradually around & after that time.

And not really much else to say about it – Time Team tends to be fairly superficial, but it’s normally fun to watch.


Another programme we’d had sitting around for a while was Michael Wood on Beowulf. This was partly a retelling of the Beowulf story and partly about the poem & the world the poem was written for. The retelling part of the programme featured Julian Glover reciting/acting a modern English translation of the poem to an audience of Anglo-Saxon re-enactors in Kent who were all dressed up in their reconstruction royal hall, and had just had a feast. So that was very much “as it would’ve been” (except cleaner, lighter, politer & less drunk, I expect! 😉 ).

For the parts of the programme about the world of the Anglo-Saxons & the origins of the poem Wood spent a lot of time in East Anglia, where the earliest Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in England were. As he said, the Anglo-Saxon presence here was an immigrant one, and the poem looks back to their ancestral homelands in Denmark & Sweden. He compared it to tales of “the Old Country” told by Irish-Americans or Italian-Americans these days. He visited Sutton Hoo (of course) and talked about how there are ship burials in the poem and that’s what was famously discovered at Sutton Hoo. The King who was buried there was probably Rædwald who was not just a local King but was overlord of all the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in Britain. And he & his lineage (and subjects) were probably the target audience for the original incarnation of the poem. Wood told us that there are references to ancestors of Rædwald at various points in the poem, so it seems likely the original poet was well informed about Rædwald’s genealogy (and wanted to associate him with the heroes of old).

One of the things that is interesting about Beowulf in context is that the world it was composed for was a Christian world, but the world it was about was a pagan world. So the hero Beowulf & his companions are all presented as old pagan heroes, but there is some interestingly Christian imagery & crossover. For instance the monsters, Grendel & his mother, are referred to as the seed of Cain (so the descendants of Adam’s son Cain who kills his brother Abel). Wood visited Northumberland to talk about Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, which is a very Christian & Anglo-Saxon history. And also to tell us about The Dream of the Rood, which is an Anglo-Saxon poem which is overtly Christian & about a dream about talking to Christ on the Cross. It has a certain amount of pagan imagery, in a sort of mirroring of the Christian imagery in Beowulf. Wood was explaining this sort of cross fertilisation between the pagan & Christian worldviews as being part of the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity and of fitting the new religion into their history.

So the programme has visited areas near where we currently live and areas near where J grew up, and in discussing the relationship of the Anglo-Saxons to the history of the world around them Wood visited Weyland’s Smithy which is in Oxfordshire which completed the set (as it’s an area near where I grew up). What Wood was talking about here was that the Anglo-Saxons knew they lived in an old world – they saw the Bronze Age monuments & burial mounds in the landscape & peopled them with gods & heroes. And it is this old world that Beowulf fits into & explains.

The poem was written down around 1000AD, but was probably composed some time earlier & passed down orally. Despite being an East Anglian work (probably) the version that’s survived is written in a West Saxon dialect, as part of a compilation of “texts about monsters”. Wood visited the British Library to see the original manuscript, which was damaged in a fire in the 18th Century and is very fragile.

A good programme, I’m glad we kept it. I do have one quibble about the filming of it – all the exterior shots were very heavily processed & vignetted. Sometimes that worked (particularly on shots of bleak fenland while Wood was telling parts of the Beowulf story), but often it felt overdone.

She Wolves: England’s Early Queens; A Night at the Rijksmuseum; Horizon: Little Cat Diaries

She Wolves: England’s Early Queens is a series we’ve had sitting on the PVR for a while now – it’s presented by Helen Castor who has written a book with the same title & premise. She’s looking at the history of seven Queens of England, in medieval & Tudor times. Some of these Queens ruled in their own right, some were wives of Kings but all of them exercised power. The second episode will be about the woman who was actually referred to as a she wolf, none of them were entirely popular with their subjects. Castor’s thesis is that this is all down to the people of that time regarding power as male, so these women were slandered & put down for behaviours that would’ve been regarded as normal for a King. In this series she’s very much presenting the stories from the women’s point of view – J wasn’t so keen on this in the one we watched the other night. He thought she was too partisan, tho I think she was just obvious with her partisanship, everyone’s got biases after all.

The first two-thirds or so of the first episode covered the Empress Matilda who was never crowned, but was very nearly the first woman to rule England in her own right. Her story starts off fairly normally for a woman of the time, she is the daughter of Henry I (and granddaughter of William the Conqueror) born in 1102AD and at the age of 8 she’s married off to Henry V King of Germany and Holy Roman Emperor. She lives in Germany from then until her husband’s death nearly 16 years later when she’s 23. She wasn’t heir to the English throne at first because she had a brother, William. However he died when the ship he was travelling in from Normandy to England ran aground just outside the harbour – Castor told us that everyone on the ship was drunk when they left (it was the Prince & his entourage most of whom were teenagers) and so not paying enough attention. In the cold November water there was no way rescue could get there before they died. With the death of her brother Matilda was now the only legitimate child of Henry I, and as yet she had no children of her own. Once her husband died Henry I married her off again quickly, to try to get grandsons soon enough that they could inherit when he died.

Matilda’s second marriage was to Geoffrey, Count of Anjou. This marriage didn’t go down well with her – it was her father’s choice, both for strategic reasons (the County of Anjou bordered Normandy so was a useful ally to have) and dynastic reasons. But Geoffrey was much younger than Matilda, and very much lower status (she was an Empress after all, he was merely a Count). The couple were estranged quite quickly, but Henry I subsequently enforced a reconciliation that appears to’ve worked out – the couple had two healthy children, and even better both of them were boys.

More than once before his death Henry I had had his nobles swear allegiance to Matilda as his heir. Castor told us that there was no precedent for whether or not a woman could rule the country, as the Norman invasion had effectively reset the clock. If Henry I had managed to live long enough for one of his grandsons to grow up he would probably have named him heir, but he died long before this could happen. When her father died Matilda was in Anjou (and not on good terms with her father) so couldn’t get to England quickly. She did actually set out, but on arrival at one of the castles in Normandy she delayed her journey – this might’ve been due to complications of pregnancy as she was pregnant with her third child at this point. Castor said that a contemporary chronicler just says she remained there “for certain reasons” which is maddeningly opaque.

The delay in Matilda reaching London gave her cousin Stephen of Blois time to seize power. This is where J thought Castor’s biases were most apparent – she presented it as “and of course this worked because Matilda was a woman”, however as J points out if a male heir had delayed that long then someone else might’ve seized power. Power vacuums tend to be filled, after all. It’s just that as Matilda was a woman it was easier for Stephen to rally support to his side.

What followed was 20 years or so of civil war, a period that is called The Anarchy (we listened to an In Our Time episode about it a while ago). Stephen was the anointed King, by virtue of his coronation ceremony, but Matilda was the legitimate heir, by virtue of blood and the oaths sworn to her father. At one point, in 1141, Matilda had the upper hand and had even captured Stephen. She was preparing for her coronation in London, having got the Church and several of the powerful nobles on side. But the chronicler (who was very much on Stephen’s side) writes that she became too arrogant and unwomanly, and so the people of London rose up and chased her out of the city. Again Castor was quite sure that Matilda was only regarded as arrogant because she was a woman, and that the same behaviour in a man would’ve been perfectly fine. It’s hard to tell, tho, as all the chronicles that still exist are on Stephen’s side. Stephen was also freed not long after this, so it was back to square one. In the end Matilda had to give up her ambition to rule in her own right, but she secured the crown for her son Henry as Stephen had no heir.

The last third of the programme was about Matilda’s daughter-in-law, Eleanor of Aquitaine, who never ruled England in her own right but did do the actual ruling of the country for a while as well as have a powerful influence on the politics of the realm at other times. Eleanor was born & brought up in Poitiers, the daughter of the Duke of Aquitaine, and she inherited the Duchy on her father’s death. She was married first to Louis VII, King of France, and this was not a happy marriage. Eleanor pronounced Louis “more monk than man”, but the couple did eventually have two daughters (which wasn’t good enough, as girls definitely couldn’t inherit the Kingdom of France). Louis & Eleanor went on Crusade to the Holy Land as part of the Second Crusade, and during this expedition their marriage broke down almost completely (this is between daughters 1 & 2).

Eleanor’s close friendship with her uncle (the ruler in Antioch) caused scandal, and then to make matters worse when Louis prepared to leave Antioch & move on with the Crusade Eleanor refused to accompany him. She tried to get a divorce from him at this point, citing their relationship to each other (which was within the prohibited seven degrees) – Castor pointed out this was Eleanor trying to use the same sorts of laws that powerful men used to get rid of no longer convenient wives. But unfortunately for Eleanor she didn’t have the same sort of power as a man would and her husband’s desire to remain married trumped her desire for an annulment. The couple were reconciled, at least to a degree that meant that after their return to France they had a second daughter. Not long after this tho they were estranged again, and this time Louis was willing to divorce. 8 weeks later, Eleanor married Henry, son of the Empress Matilda & Geoffrey of Anjou (not yet King Henry II of England). Castor said that Eleanor & Henry must surely have met when Henry visited the French court not long before Eleanor divorced, but there’s no record of this.

So now Eleanor is married to the King of England, and this marriage was initially much more successful. The couple had 8 children over 15 years, with three sons surviving to adulthood. Between his own inheritance & Eleanor’s own lands Henry ruled over a pretty big empire stretching from the Pennines to the Pyrénées. After Henry’s mother’s death (Matilda definitely exercised power via her son after he took the throne) Eleanor became more important in the politics of Henry’s realm. By this time she’s 43, and she lived in Poitiers again ruling the Duchy of Aquitaine in Henry’s name. Unlike her mother-in-law who never got to rule, because Eleanor was ruling in a man’s name she didn’t have the same problems of being regarded as un-womanly. (And possibly she was better at acting in a suitably “feminine” fashion while exercising power.) Castor noted that the sorts of stories that surround Eleanor during this time focus on tales of courtly romance (this is the time & the place for the troubadors), which are suitably feminine subjects even tho there’s no evidence that any of the stories actually happened.

Once Henry II & Eleanor’s sons were teenagers they began to want to share power with their father, but he made promises and never actually delegated any power. It struck us while we were watching this that Henry II probably couldn’t win here – either he delegated power to them, and then they got too powerful & weakened his own rule, or he didn’t and then they got annoyed & rebelled which is what they did. This wasn’t unusual in itself – sons taking up arms against their father – but what was unusual was that Eleanor sided with her sons against her husband. Castor read excerpts from a letter written to Eleanor by a bishop that said she was going to bring about the ruin of all of society due to these actions! The rebellion ultimately ended in victory for Henry II – it seems Eleanor was the brains of the operation and after Henry managed to capture her the rebellion soon ended with the sons begging for mercy.

Henry II was merciful to his sons, but Eleanor lived in captivity for the next 16 years until Henry’s death. One of the first things Richard the Lionheart did when he inherited the throne was send word that his mother should be freed. She’s now about 65, and freeing her wasn’t just an act of filial affection it was a necessity. Richard needed someone to rule the country in his name while he was off on Crusade, and Eleanor was just the person for the job. She ended up holding the reigns of power for longer than anyone anticipated because Richard was captured on his way home from Crusade. She also outlived Richard, and when his younger brother John inherited she was instrumental in smoothing his way to power. She eventually died at the age of around 80, and was buried next to her husband despite their differences in life.

The next programme in the series is going to be about the wives of Edward II (Isabella of France) and Henry VI (Margaret of Anjou) who played pivotal roles in their husbands’ reigns.


The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam has been shut for 10 years while being refurbished. A Night at the Rijksmuseum was Andrew Graham-Dixon acting a bit like a child in a sweetshop while being allowed to go behind the scenes just before the re-opening of the museum earlier this year. The programme was part about the renovation & the history of the museum, and part about what the contents of the museum are & how they’re organised. So mostly “look at the pretty things” which is always hard to write about.

The original building was built in the 19th Century, designed by a Catholic architect and it reminded me a bit of the V&A Museum in style and a bit of a cathedral. Graham-Dixon said that when it was originally built the resemblance to Catholic religious architecture was a bone of contention for many of the staunchly Protestant Dutch. The new additions have kept a similar sensibility, but with a more modern style (and the architect this time was Spanish which seems about as historically inappropriate as a Catholic amongst Protestants!). The interior of the original building has also been refurbished and restored to its former glory – including parts that were whitewashed over by a particularly modernist director in the 1950s.

The refurbishment was “only” supposed to take a few years, 2 or 3. Apparently the obstacle that caused the biggest slippage in the project time was the bike tunnel. Prior to the museum being shut there was a bike route that ran through a tunnel through the building, and the original plans for the refurbishment altered this route. However people objected, petitions were organised etc etc – but somehow this wasn’t discovered to be a problem till after the plans were finalised and work had begun. So the architect had to re-design that part of the building and that cost significant amounts of time & money.

While it was shut the curators not only had the chance to completely overhaul their vision of how the collection should be displayed, but also to do conservation & research on the paintings & other objects. In a particularly overenthusiastic segment of the programme Graham-Dixon was shown the work they are & have done on X-raying & 3D-imaging of the paintings in the collection. It was kinda neat, but I didn’t really understand the levels of excitement over being able to see the brush strokes more clearly. That was the 3D-imaging, the X-ray stuff was more obviously exciting to this non-artist because you could see how the composition of a painting had changed while it was being worked on.

The objects used to be organised by type, but the new layout organises them by date. There are 8 main galleries which each cover a hundred years of Dutch history. So you have the paintings and the objects all mixed in together. It being Holland there’s a lot of maritime related stuff – paintings of ships, models of ships, cannon from ships … even the English Royal Coat of Arms from the prow of a ship the Dutch captured from us in Charles II’s time. And there’s also another wing of the museum with Asian related objects – the Dutch have traded with the Far East for several centuries, in particular they were the only Western nation allowed to trade in Japan during the Sakoku Period.

This was a fun programme to watch, but it did feel awfully like a piece of advertising for the Rijksmuseum. Kinda did the trick, I’d quite like to go to it some day, but a bit odd as a BBC programme.


Little Cat Diaries was a half-hour follow up to the previous Horizon programme The Secret Life of the Cat (post). It went into a little bit more depth about 4 of the cats that were in the first programme. As it was only half an hour this still wasn’t terribly much depth on each! There was a bit about the cat that was the best hunter (the family don’t really feed him much cat food because he eats so much of the wildlife), there was a bit about the cat that roamed furthest (his family said it was a bit like being at a parent/teacher evening & being told your child did well). And a bit about a stray cat who was spotted in people’s houses when they were filming their own cats (and he was subsequently captured & re-homed with one of the households he was visiting).

The bit that was most interesting for me was the short segment on whether one’s cat returns one’s affection. They set this up by talking to the previous & current owners of a cat that had run away – the previous owner said something along the lines of “as she got older the cat seemed to get less keen on the children, but when I got the dog it was the last straw. The cat walked in, saw the dog, the dog started to go for her and she left and never came back!”. I was left thinking that there are ways to integrate pets into a household, and that was Not It 😉 However the interesting bit was that there is research being done on whether cats are attached to their owners. This is based on a 70s experiment that shows that babies are attached to their mothers – if the mother leaves the room while a baby is being distracted by a stranger the baby is concerned, and obviously pleased to see the mother return. If you do the same experiment with a dog & its owner, the same is true. Cats however don’t get nearly as bothered by either absence or return of their owner. Of course that doesn’t actually test if a cat loves its owner, just that a cat doesn’t associate their owner with security in the way a dog does (or a baby does its mother). But still, interesting 🙂