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The Rise of the Clans

Neil Oliver‘s

latest history series has been shown through December on Monday evenings (BBC1 Scotland) and twenty-four hours later on BBC4.

The first part, of three, showed how the power vacuum caused by the sudden deaths of Alexander III and his granddaughter was resolved through the clan system and John Balliol’s abdication so that alliances were formed behind the remaining claimants Robert Bruce and John “Red” Comyn, culminating in a brawl in the Dumfries Greyfriars, during which Comyn was fatally stabbed. Robert I’s reign, including his strategic triumph as he unexpectedly arranged a pitched battle at Bannockburn is also explored.

The second part explores how, after the reign of David II, Robert I’s son, Clan Stewart evolved from a branch of the (Norman) Fitzalans, who are now Dukes of Norfolk through their Howard marriage, to supply every Scottish monarch from 1371 and every English monarch from 1603, now through the Bohemian marriage of James VI and I’s daughter. The reigns of the first three Stewarts were narrated, the weaknesses of Robert II and Robert III, the absence and the authoritarian – Lancastrian? – royal style of James I together with the conflict between Robert III‘s sons were used to show how James’ assassination and the ensuing executions, organised by his widow Joan “Beaufort”, resolved this before the end of 1437. Gradually, from James I’s time, the Stewarts succeeded in gaining power from the MacDonalds, who held the Lordship of the Isles.

Finally, we focus on Mary, simultaneously the last Stewart and the first Stuart, through her marriage to Henry, Lord Darnley (of the Lennox Stuarts), and his mysterious death at Kirk o’Fields, up to her dethronement and exile. The clan chieftains played a significant part in her initial downfall, as they plotted to reverse Knox’s organic Reformation that had taken place during her absence. At this time, her half-brother the Earl of Moray allied himself to the Earl of Morton, the leading Douglas. Then, after marrying the (Hepburn) Earl of Bothwell, Mary fled south – and her life ended at Fotheringhay where Richard III’s had begun.

As usual, this evocative series features realistic dramatisations in which Oliver appears almost as a witness in some scenes. The detail exceeds that of his A History of Scotland and, as usual, nobody featured in the episodes is beyond reproach.

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If you have watched …

… Channel Five’s http://www.channel5.com/show/secrets-of-great-british-castles, let me reassure you of something.

There really was a king named Richard III and Dan Jones has simply forgotten to mention him.

Episode 2 was about Cardiff Castle, where Richard and Anne have a window devoted to them (seasons-greetings-2016-a-2).

Episode 3 was about the structure at York, or Clifford’s Tower as it is now called, which Richard frequented during his dozen years as Lord President of the Council of the North, whilst the city walls had borne the detached heads of his uncle, father (the Duke of York) and brother. Then again, “King Richard, late mercifully reigning upon us was, through grete treason, piteously slane and murdred to the grete hevynesse of this citie”., as their macebearer John Spooner recorded soon after Bosworth.

So Richard played a very real part in the history of both cities.

There have been a few interesting parts to this series – the “Black Dinner” with James II and the Douglases at Edinburgh Castle, Curthose held and Llewellyn Bren executed at Cardiff, the witchcraft charges against Joan of Navarre and Eleanor Cobham at Leeds, John starving various enemies to death at Lancaster and elsewhere, together with Robert Aske’s execution and Margaret Clitherow’s death in York, although Henry of Huntingdon could have been mentioned in conjunction with the latter. There has, however, been too much posing by Jones in his leather jacket, T-shirt and jeans firing arrows and trying on armour as the camera focussed on the other historians, includding Hutton, Morris and Capwell being older than him, together with too much dramatisatisation of Jones’ tendentious interpretation of events. The myth of Catherine de Valois and Owain Tudor, from the Leeds episode, is another case in point.

It isn’t that difficult to make a favourable reference to Richard III, surely? Then again, given what Jones has said about John and Edward II, perhaps it is better this way.cliffordstower

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