The Stuarts; Bible Hunters

For some odd reason the BBC had a new documentary series about The Stuarts and then only aired it in Scotland. I can see that it was intended to tie in with the upcoming vote on independence but it was straightforwardly a documentary rather than a piece of propaganda. So I'm not really sure why it was kept north of the border. We only spotted it because I'd recorded something else off BBC2 Scotland to avoid a clash, and there was a trailer for The Stuarts.

The presenter was Clare Jackson, who I don't think I've seen anything by before, and her thesis was that the Stuarts were the defining royal dynasty of Great Britain - despite the actual creation of the United Kingdom only happening almost by accident at the end of the Stuart era. She took us through the whole 17th Century (and a smidge beyond) in chronological order. The first episode covered James VI & I, and the early years of Charles I. The accession of James to the English throne in 1603 after Elizabeth I's death had been a time of optimism - for James and for his new country. James's dream was to unite the two countries in the same way that the crowns were now united, however he wasn't able (even with his high degree of political skill) to persuade the English in particular to do this. Jackson also covered the seeds of Charles I's autocratic leanings - in particular she pointed at his visit to Spain, whilst he was trying (and failing) to negotiate a Spanish marriage for himself. At the court of the Hapsburgs he got a taste of how royalty "should" be treated.

The second episode covered the civil wars and the Restoration. In this episode Jackson was keen to stress how the way we're taught British history today (particularly in England) simplifies and prettifies this collection of conflicts. We're often presented with it as "democracy vs. autocracy", and the parts of the war outside England are often ignored. She said it is better compared to modern conflicts like the violence & genocide in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. And she emphasised the Irish parts of the Civil Wars, which were not pretty in the slightest and still have repercussions today. Cromwell is a divisive figure - either a hero (from a Protestant point of view) or a villain (from the Catholic point of view). She also pointed out how Cromwell was by the end King in all but name (hardly the champion of democracy that English school history would like to portray him as) and after he died his power and title passed on to his son. Who was sufficiently bad at the job that Charles II was invited back to England.

The last episode could be thought of as the long decline of the Stuarts ... we started with the disaster that was about to be James VII & II. Charles II had been fairly astutely focused on remaining King - he might've had Catholic leanings and a Catholic wife but he'd stayed a Protestant (until his deathbed, perhaps). His brother James, however, did convert to Catholicism and was fervent about it - he resigned public office rather than give up his Catholicism. Charles never managed to sire a legitimate heir, so James was next in line to the throne. Charles did his best to mitigate the problems with his having a Catholic heir - he had James's daughters brought up Protestant and married them to good Protestants (like William of Orange, a diplomatic necessity as well as an internal political one). So when James did come to the throne it was seen as a brief blip before Mary & William took over - dealable with. When James's new wife had a son this changed and it was time for more direct action, William was invited to invade (this is the Glorious Revolution) which he did and by chance he won bloodlessly. William and Mary, and then Mary's sister Anne after them were childless so after Anne the next possible Stuart heirs were the Catholic descendants of James. And this is what finally brought about the creation of the United Kingdom that had been James VI & I's dream. England wanted the Protestant Hanoverans to inherit after Anne died, Scotland would've preferred the Stuart heir - and so the crowns and thus the countries would part unless Parliament succeeded in passing the Act of Union.

A good series, I really don't know why it was confined to the Scottish bit of BBC2.


Bible Hunters wasn't a promising name for a series, but actually it turned out to be pretty good (with some flaws). Jeff Rose took us through the 19th and early 20th Century attempts to find or confirm the truth of the Bible. The first episode focussed on the New Testament, and the efforts of 19th Century scholars and explorers to find early copies of the Gospels. The idea was to show that the Gospels were indeed the inerrant word of God, and that the narrative of Jesus life and ministry was correct. Egypt was the target of these expeditions because of the early monastic tradition in the country dating back to much nearer the time of Jesus life than anything in Europe could do. Some monasteries (like that at Sinai) have been inhabited continuously since at least the 3rd Century AD. What was found shook the certainty that nothing had changed as the Bible was copied and translated over the centuries. In particular the ending of the Gospel of Mark (the oldest of the four Gospels, thought to've been written first) was different, and different in an important fashion. The modern end of that Gospel has Jesus seen after his resurrection, and the women who went to his tomb are instructed to go forth and tell people the good news. The 2nd Century version of the text ends with the women finding the empty tomb, being told by an angel that Jesus has risen, and being afraid and telling no-one. The programme built this up as being a cataclysmic blow to the faithful, and certainly it causes a lot of problems if your faith requires the words in the Bible to be literally the whole truth and literally unchanging.

The second episode looked more generally at what expeditions to Egypt showed about both the general truth of the biblical world view and the construction of the canonical texts of the Bible. As the history of Pharaonic Egypt began to be examined it cast doubt on the accuracy of the Biblical stories about the history & age of the Earth. For instance when the Dendera zodiac was found it was thought to be 12,000 years old (now known to be false, it's Ptolemaic) and how did that square with Usher's careful calculations about the Earth having been created in 4,004 BC? And other Gospels were found buried near old monasteries - which had been hidden after the official choice of the four we now know as being the canonical books. These included a Gospel according to Mary Magdalene, which gave a bigger role for women in the early church than in later times. And also Gnostic Gospels.

The format of the programme was Rose going to various places in Egypt, and also talking to various academics from a variety of institutions about the history of the people who found these things and the history of the ideas. And it was interesting to watch, but I kept running into things that made me stop and think "wait, is that really true?". Which then casts doubt on the accuracy of other things that I didn't already know something about. For example Bishop Usher's calculation of the age of the Earth was mentioned, and Rose told us that "everyone believed that the Earth was only 6,000 years old" at that time. But as far as I was aware by the time Usher was doing his calculations there were a lot of people (if not most people) who thought the Earth was much older than that - Usher was more of a last-gasp of outdated thought rather than mainstream. I could be wrong, it's not an area I know much about but things like that let the doubt in. Another example was that the EEF (forerunner of the modern EES) was presented as being solely about proving the truth of the Bible when it started - but when we visited the EES last September (post) we were told that although the biblical links were used to get more funding preservation of the ancient monuments as things in themselves not as "it's in the bible" was also an important goal. The discrepancy could well be down to spin, but again this lets doubts creep in about the accuracy or spin on the rest of the programme.

I am glad I watched it, but I don't know if I'd trust it on the details without cross-checking the facts.


Other TV watched this week:

Episode 1 of Henry & Anne: The Lovers that Changed History - two part series about Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, part dramatised documentary presented by Suzanne Lipscomb.

Episode 2 of Time Traveller's Guide to Elizabethan England - this was part of the BBC's Tudor Season in 2013. It's a series about life in Elizabethan times from the perspective of the differences between now and then, what you'd need to know if you could travel back there.

Robins of Eden and The Rabbits of Skomer - two rather retro-feeling mini nature documentaries, lasting just 10 minutes each.

The Joy of the Single - programme about singles, talking to various music industry people. Covered things like the history of the single as a phenomenon, the physical object of a 7" vinyl single and the sort of emotional impact that various singles had on these people.

Episode 2 of The Great British Year - series about British wildlife and countryside over the whole year. Lots of gorgeous shots of animals, and timelapse sequences of landscapes.

Blink: A Horizon Guide to the Senses - programme presented by Kevin Fong about the senses. Not much new footage, instead it made use of the last 40 years of Horizon to pull out illustrative bits and pieces from the archives. Some neat things to see, but in other ways it felt a bit shallow.