Big stories, huge characters... the Plantagenets are bang on trend

Programmers should call time on the Tudors and mine world history for richer seams


Anyone who gleaned their knowledge of British history from television might be forgiven for thinking that, with the exception of the Second World War, it consists largely of the Tudor period, and, of late, The Tudors: The Prequel, otherwise known as the Wars of the Roses. Poor old Henry VIII is looking very last season, as from Game of Thrones to the forthcoming BBC adaptation of Philippa Gregory's The White Queen, this year has been all about those plotting Plantagenets.

That TV adaptations often cheerfully neglect fact in favour of sensation hardly seems a discussion worth having – the actual business of historians, which is painstaking archival research and academic debate about the minutiae of economic or political change, is never going to translate to the small screen. I say this as someone who has recently been engaged in a very satisfactory correspondence with an Italian scholar about the 15th-century Dalmatian peanut trade.

TV history is, of necessity, narrative – it requires big stories, engaging characters and, for preference, lashings of sex, but since these can be found in almost any period or location of history, why, in the case of Britain, should they have coalesced around such a relatively narrow chronological framework? Perhaps commissioners should be bolder in stimulating our appetite to engage dramatically with the past?

The year 1066 might when our island story officially began, but producers looking for the next big thing might want to look even further back, to the Anglo-Danish realm of the early-11th century. In 1002, a Norman princess, Emma, married Aethelred of England in a dynastic match aimed at preventing raids from the then-Scandinavian duchy on English shores. When Aethelred died in 1016, Emma married his elected successor, the Danish king Cnut, inaugurating a power struggle in the next generation between her own sons by her husbands and Harold Harefoot, Cnut's heir from a previous marriage. Harefoot murdered Emma's son Alfred Aetheling and drove his stepmother into exile in Flanders until 1040, when she returned to set her son Harthacnut triumphantly on the throne, only to have him die in a drinking bout at a wedding in Lambeth.

Emma's second son by Aethelred, Edward, became king, and despite his mother's attempts to forge an alliance, punished her for her preference for his Danish half-brother by confiscating her wealth and confining her to a convent. Emma is the only pre-Conquest queen of whom an image survives ( the Liber Vitae at Winchester), and the extent of her wealth and patronage demonstrates that, relatively, Anglo-Saxon women were more powerful and enjoyed more autonomy than their 15th-century counterparts, while the period contains enough seduction, booze and deadly sibling rivalry to liven up the dreariest of Sunday evenings.

A couple of centuries on, the early Plantagenets proved just as scheming and sexy. Eleanor of Aquitaine is the best known of the queens from the south, but before her marriage to Henry II she had already created a controversial reputation by accompanying her first husband, Louis of France, on crusade. Many of the tales of Eleanor's exploits in the Holy Land are apocryphal – she was not present at the battle of Mount Cadmos, nor did she have an affair with her uncle, Raymond of Antioch. But Outremer, the Frankish kingdom in the Middle East which lasted for over 250 years, is a glorious backdrop for historical high-jinks.

Or what about Berengaria of Navarre, the only English consort never to have set foot on English soil, who managed to snare the most eligible (and many said most confirmed) bachelor in the West, Richard the Lionheart?

Or Isabella of Angoulême, who may have been as young as nine when Richard's brother John kidnapped her from her betrothed, setting off the civil war that lost the Angevin empire?

Naturally, the medieval chroniclers blamed John's erotic obsession with his child bride for his military failures, claiming that "Softsword" preferred to loll in bed with the queen rather than fight for his lands, and Isabella was rumoured to be a promiscuous witch, whose despairing, ensorcelled husband hanged her lovers above her bed. Once Isabella had produced an heir, John kept her in confinement, forcing her first to share a household with his dubiously divorced first wife, and then at Corfe Castle at the same time as Maud de Braose, the wife of the castellan who had witnessed John's drunken murder of the rival Angevin heir, his nephew Arthur of Brittany. Isabella was luckier than the dangerously knowledgeable and defiant Maud (who starved to death in such desperation that she tried to eat her own son), outliving John to marry the son of her former fiancé, Hugh de Lusignan, notwithstanding that he was betrothed to her young daughter.

What is intriguing about these historical shenanigans is how much they belong to women. It would be absurdly inaccurate to suggest that medieval women possessed anything like the historical agency of men, but, in narrative terms, good stories need the bedroom as much as the council chamber. No one really wants to watch the detail of Henrician ecclesiastical reform re-enacted, which is why we're stuck with perennially discussing whether Anne Boleyn did it with Mark Smeaton in the marmalade cupboard. (I suspect she did – you just couldn't make the marmalade up).

At a time when all politics was dynastic politics, women were paramount in weaving together the skeins of political power. Ruling women may now have been, to a great extent, restored to their place in the textbooks, but the historical approach of investigating the marginalised might also prove dramatically fruitful. Why not a drama set in the 15,000-strong black community of London in the 1760s, featuring characters such as the shopkeeper and writer Ignatius Sancho, correspondent of Laurence Sterne and father of Britain's first black publisher? Or in the 16th century, what about the Scottish "witch panics" of the 1590s, where paranoia about demonic treason prompted James I to write a witch-finder's manual, Daemonologie, and where many of those tried were men?

A glance around any bookshop will show that history has never been more popular, with writers illuminating even the dimmest alleyways of our past, yet television seems slow to exploit the wealth of well-researched material available.

The popularity of Call the Midwife suggests that there is also an interest in history which doesn't focus on scheming and bonking, a fascination with a more immediate past which, to a digital age, still seems impossibly remote.

David Kynaston's extraordinary histories of post-war Britain, based on evidence of ordinary lives gathered through the Mass Observation archive, provides a soap opera of characters whose existence is just as much a prism of the past as that of statesmen or famous mistresses.

As controversy over Michael Gove's projected reforms to the curriculum indicates, we have never been more alert to the contentious issue of ownership of our history, and while TV drama may take liberties with the facts, does it matter so long as the distinction is preserved?

Narrative history is fun, and our past is a vast and exciting playground; producers could stop churning out the same, safe period themes and really let history rip. Though I'm not holding my breath for a green light on the Dalmatian peanut trade any time soon.

Lisa Hilton is a writer and historian. Her new book 'The Stolen Queen' will be published this year by Atlantic

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