A Critique of Channel 5’s Britain’s Bloodiest Dynasty, Episode 3, Edward II

For those of you who haven’t seen it yet and can access Channel 5 shows in the UK, try this link:  http://www.channel5.com/shows/britains-bloodiest-dynasty/episodes/revenge-68. If this is out of date or you cannot get channel 5, then hopefully you might find the episode somewhere else (maybe, eventually, YouTube).

The episode featuring the life of Edward II was the third in a series presented by Dan Jones and based on a book of the same title, written by him. The first two episodes, on, respectively, Henry II and Henry III were both full of costumed dramatisation (complete with modern French and subtitles), violence and lots of unkempt brooding men. As to facts, they weren’t as bad as some historical documentaries but there were still some glaring errors and the usual telescoping of historical events to fit into an hour’s viewing slot.

I must admit, I was dreading watching the Edward II episode, mainly because a trailer for it showed a red-hot poker being waved around. Oh no, I thought, all of the old myths are going to be repeated and I am going to end up hoarse from all the shouting at the TV! But after steeling myself with a good glass of spiced rum I sat in front of the show with a pad of paper and pen and decided to take notes about everything that was wrong.

In the end, the program wasn’t as bad as I’d feared. Much of Edward’s story was done in a pretty OK way. Even the hot poker story, although shown in full technicolour glory, was then discredited in the next breath. Jones has Edward probably being smothered to death as he slept. Alas he never had time to go into the mystery of letters from both William Melton and Fieschi letter indicating that Edward was alive way after this event. Most of the mistakes made were actually about the Despensers, as you will see below. Again, not major bloopers – there were thankfully no mentions of Hugh the younger having raped Isabella! And the graphic scene of Hugh’s execution, although probably a bit gratuitous, was handled more sympathetically than I would have expected.

Anyway, here is a summary of the notes I made – I hope they may be of use to anyone who, having watched the show, and read this blog, feels a bit puzzled.

1. Appearances

Edward II looking very un-Edwardly and more like Guy of Gisborne

Edward II looking very un-Edwardly and more like Guy of Gisborne

OK, I know they are actors playing parts, but couldn’t they have got someone who at least went some way to looking like Edward II as he has been described in contemporary accounts (tall, handsome, strong, fair). In this documentary he was dark, regular height and rather sparsely built. And what was that black leather cape thing he was wearing at the beginning? It looked like it had been borrowed from BBC’s Robin Hood’s Guy of Gisborne. In fact much of the costume and armour was wrong. Gaveston looked like he was having a very bad wig day or else had just wandered off from the set of Hogwarts! Despenser looked a little better, but still in need of a bath and a hairbrush. Come on, Channel 5, nobles in the 14th century HAD heard of personal grooming you know!

2. Gaveston

And a long-haired Gaveston!

And a long-haired Gaveston!

We’ve covered the weird wizardly hair that Gaveston was modelling for the program, but at least that can be put down to the costume department drinking too much coffee. The minor mistakes on the other hand, cannot. Gaveston’s first exile was mentioned, as was his third, but somehow the program missed out his second exile in 1308. In fact it went as far to say that the barons failed to get rid of Gaveston that year. OK, he may have only been sent to Ireland – where he became a successful commander, but he was exiled! We were breathlessly informed that Piers was ‘hunted down’ by the barons after he returned from his third exile. Um, no he wasn’t: he was holed up in Scarborough Castle until he surrendered himself to the custody of the earl of Pembroke – a small difference perhaps, but an important one when looking at Gaveston’s character and the events that followed. Oh, and by the way, when he was executed (no, make that murdered) on Blacklow Hill, he was run through by a sword before being beheaded… a small detail but one that, I feel, matters.

3. Isabella

Isabella's children being 'ripped away' by that nasty Despenser!

Isabella’s children being ‘ripped away’ by that nasty Despenser!

Throughout, Isabella’s part in the events of Edward’s reign was presented in a positive light – for example, her part in getting Edward to agree to the exile of the Despensers in 1321. Even her taking Mortimer as a lover (presented as fact, not as a possibility) was not presented as inherently scandalous and treasonable, as it was considered at the time, but rather as something romantic and inevitable. There is no mention of her indecision as to whether to return to Edward or indeed Mortimer’s supposed threat to kill her if she did. However, the worst inaccuracy concerning Isabella was that her younger children ‘were ripped from her’ by Edward and Despenser following the start of a war with France in 1324. The language is emotive but the fact is that all royal children of that period had their own households and nurses (as did the children of the higher nobility). They did not hang around their mothers’ skirts waiting to be ripped away by whoever might so deem it. Such allegations as this, made by a few popular modern historians are not based upon anything concrete but have served to create some sort of feminist-victim icon in Isabella.

4. The Despensers

Father and son. How the program cast the Despensers.

Father and son. How the program cast the Despensers.

Oh dear, where shall we start? Well, actually with the first time the Despensers are mentioned. The program states that due to Edward’s problems with his barons, particularly Lancaster, he looked for new allies and found them in Caerphilly. They were called the Despensers. Oh dear, all kinds of wrong! For a start Hugh Despenser the elder had supported Edward throughout his reign – the only man to remain loyal from start to finish. However, he had absolutely nothing to do with Caerphilly Castle, and neither did his son Hugh the younger until 1317 when he received his wife Eleanor’s portion of the de Clare lands (these were split between the earl of Gloucester’s sisters after his death at Bannockburn in 1314, although the process wasn’t completed until 1317). There are no indications that Edward even liked Hugh the younger before 1318, in fact quite the opposite as Hugh had once been one of the Ordainers, had travelled abroad without royal licence, had attacked a man in the king’s presence in Parliament and had also seized Tonbridge Castle while waiting for the purparty issue to be settled.

Hugh the younger seems to only have become a favourite of Edward after he was made chamberlain in 1318. However the program has him becoming chamberlain after his return from exile in 1322. Other mistakes for 1322 include Hugh being at the siege of Leeds Castle with Edward – there is no record for either Despenser being with Edward until just before the Battle of Boroughbridge.

And talking of the Battle of Boroughbridge – that decisive battle that saw Edward defeat the Contrariants (with the help of Andrew de Harclay), and capture many of the rebels, including the earl of Lancaster – did the program cover that too in full technicolour gore-fest? No it didn’t. It didn’t mention it, not even a hint! Maybe it was because it showed Edward in a favourable light for once, the victor instead of the inept loser.

Dan Jones invades England

Dan Jones invades England

Later on, after Isabella’s and Mortimer’s invasion in 1326, the program has Edward and Hugh (no mention of anyone else) seemingly wandering around aimlessly on foot in Wales. They weren’t aimless (even if we modern historians aren’t 100% sure of where they were going or why). Once in Wales they took ship for some unspecified destination (probably Lundy or Ireland) but bad weather drove them back on land. They then took up in Caerphilly Castle before Edward, Hugh and a small contingent made their way to Neath Abbey. Why they went there when they would have been safer back at Despenser’s fortress is unknown, but it could have been to use the abbot’s help in negotiating with the queen.

Run away! Run away! Hugh and Edward running away after 'wandering aimlessly'. Monty Python anyone?

Run away! Run away! Hugh and Edward running away after ‘wandering aimlessly’. Monty Python anyone?

It seems to have been to no avail though because after leaving Neath on the 11th November, they were captured on the 16th at a place near Hugh’s castle of Llantrisant called Pant-Y-Brad. We can never know what they were doing in those last few days of freedom but I am sure they were not wandering aimlessly, especially as they seem to have been heading back in the direction of Caerphilly Castle. Maybe they were taking their time to avoid pursuers, who they would have known to be in the area. As to whether they were on foot or not, that is unknown.

Before their capture by Isabella’s troops (to be more precise, Henry, earl of Leicester’s men), they had already heard that Hugh’s father had been executed at Bristol. Once again, the program gets it wrong by saying that he was beheaded. In fact Hugh Snr. was hanged in his armour – a much slower and more distressing death. And on the point of Hugh the Younger’s death, he didn’t decide to starve himself after he had been sentenced… let’s face it, he probably wouldn’t have been more than a bit peckish by the time he was drawn to the scaffold. No, his self starvation started after his capture and lasted for about eight days meaning that he would have been extremely weak and close to death anyway by the time he reached Hereford (one of the reasons he was tried there and not London).

From Hugh's execution scene. That looks like a very sharp knife!

From Hugh’s execution scene. That looks like a very sharp knife!


There were many other small issues I found fault with, but if I go into everything here you will probably be asleep when I finish! The ones above were the ones that bugged me most. To be fair I think the researchers made a reasonable attempt to put forward the facts, but if it were a school report it would read: ‘Could try harder’. The mistakes about the Despenser were certainly sloppy. So, in summary, not as bad as it could have been but also not as good. 6/10 (and that’s me being generous).



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2 Responses to A Critique of Channel 5’s Britain’s Bloodiest Dynasty, Episode 3, Edward II

  1. Yvonne Ingram says:

    This is now retrospective but at the time of your post it was a smile maker to think of you climbing the walls with notepad and brew at hand. Britain’s Bloodiest Dynasty was too nasty to watch or listen to at times. Why Oh why did they have to enact THATscene – for me it was a leave the room and take the blood pressure tablets time.

    It is a joy that you can share your knowledge and also your personal opinions.

    Thank you
    Best wishes
    Yvonne Ingram

    • Julie Frusher says:

      Thankyou Yvonne. Sorry for the late reply – my spam blocker is playing up and not blocking and genuine comments keep getting lost in the oceans of other stuff. Plus WP isn’t notifying me of new comments, so I’ve only just seen yours.

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