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Timewatch: The Greatest Knight: Audio discussion

Updated Monday 14th January 2008

Timewatch set out to tell the true story of one of the Knights of old. For Saul David, it would mean taking his life in his hands...

 

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Copyright The Open University

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John Farren: Hello there, my name is John Farren and I’m the editor of Timewatch, and joining me for this discussion are Stuart Mitchell, the Open University consultant to the Timewatch series, Rachel Gibbons, a lecturer in medieval history at the Open University, and Saul David who is our presenter/guide to the history of the tournament told through the story of The Greatest Knight. Saul is also the Visiting Professor of Military History at the University of Hull.

The programme is called The Greatest Knight and essentially it turned into the life story of William the Marshal, who was a lowly born knight who went on to become the greatest protagonist of the melee tournament, which was the brutal and bloody free for all involving sometimes up to two thousand knights that preceded the courtly ritual of the 14th Century tournament. The reason that we turned it in to essentially a biography was because it just gives you a very, very straight line through the history of the tournament, of the melee tournament, because basically he was the greatest protagonist and the greatest knight as I believe he was called by his contemporaries.

Very briefly, why did I commission this programme? It’s because I am absolutely in love with medieval history, and as a television producer it’s very, very difficult to find stories that will sustain 60 minutes on medieval history. The problem is that the narratives that people demand from a 60 minute programme are actually quite hard to find in the medieval period, but when I came across this tremendous book called Tournament by David Crouch, who opened the world of the melee to me, and I’d never heard of these brutal, full scale, essentially rehearsals of warfare as opposed to what I thought the tournament was, I thought we’d got to have a go at turning this into a television programme.

So Saul, it’s about nine months ago that I came to you and said, “Do you want to have a go at presenting this programme?”, which was then called Tournament. What went through your mind?

Saul David: I think the first thing went through my mind is, “I know nothing about this period.” I knew about war but I didn’t know about William Marshal and I didn’t know the specifics of the medieval history behind this. But it quickly became clear, John, that that was the whole point. The advantage of using someone like me, finding out as I went along about the life of William Marshal and the training that he underwent, is that I would undergo it too. And I was excited and quite nervous, in particular about riding but also about using the weapons, using the weapons on horseback, of course as the combination of the two.

Now, I think the thing that struck me most forcibly during the filming was actually trying on the mail, this suit of armour that they would have used at that time both in war, but also in the melee tournament, the two being interchangeable as you already pointed out. The first thing was how incredibly constricting it was, how difficult it would have been to actually swing a weapon and climb on a horse in this incredibly tight fitting and heavy piece of armour as it’s known as. And, of course, it’s mail as interlinking pieces of iron. And I quickly realised that not only would you need to be a very strong man, you’d need to have huge upper body strength to be able to wear this equipment.

There was also the element of how long it would take you to become proficient in the sort of weapons that William Marshal was using at that time; the lance, the broadsword, the mace, particularly on horseback. Just think about this, one of the things, one of the biggest problems you’ve got when you get on a horse is just keeping the thing under control. Now you usually use two hands for this. If you’re fighting on horseback you can only ever use one hand to control the horse. If you’re not a particularly proficient rider like me that is no small task on its own, without actually having a weapon in your hand.

Now the other thing about the weapon is that you think okay, you’ve got to use it against the person but the problem you’ve got when you’re on horseback is not hitting the horse when you’re swinging this thing. So you’ve got a sword and it’s very easy to hit the – apparently a lot of medieval horses would have their ears chopped off because accidentally the swipe of the sword would catch their ears and, of course, probably more damage too. And the other thing is that when you’re fighting with a lance on horseback, you tend to use the lance across the body of the horse and that again is very easy for you just smack the horse on the head and you’ll lose control.

And so all these little things take time, and apparently it took him seven years, and I wondered about this, seven years’ training for a medieval knight, you know, from his teens onwards. But once I actually began to wield some of these weapons and wear the equipment, you realise not only did he have to become very proficient in the use of those weapons, he also had to build up his physique to become an incredibly strong man. And the classic image, at least so I gathered, of a medieval knight is a huge strong upper body but much slimmer and probably quite lean legs which were really only for use in staying on his horse.

John Farren: I have to take issue with you, you say the thing that struck you most forcibly in the filming of this was that - I think the thing that struck you most forcibly was a lance to the head wasn’t it? There's a fantastic moment in the film where let’s just see what happens when you get hit by a lance, and it kind of veers of where it’s supposed to hit and hits you full in the helmet, what was that like?

Saul David: Well I thought to myself if I’m going to try these weapons, not only am I going to actually give it a shot using them but it would be churlish of me not to allow someone to use the weapons against me, to actually feel what it’s like. Now that particular incident you’re talking about, we were trying to show how effective plate armour is against the lance. So you had me on a wooden horse, dressed up in armour, in plate armour, and you had one of the foremost exponents apparently of modern jousting galloping, or at least cantering, down the track against me and lancing me.

Now he was supposed to be hitting me on the breast bone, but two shots he missed and the third one he hit me on the head. The only place you’re vulnerable, as far as I could see, when you’re wearing plate armour is the little slit in your visor and the lance he was using is designed to shatter. My only worry was that one of these shards is going to come through and hit me in the eye, just as it happened I think to a French King, and he was actually killed by a splinter in the eye. So I think that was the father of Mary Queen of Scots, father in law of Mary of Mary Queen of Scots.

Rachel Gibbons: That's right Henry II.

Saul David: So that was the only worry. It didn’t happen but it does make, I think, rather interesting viewing.

John Farren: Stuart, I mean how do you feel when as a serious academic you see television kind of putting people in plate glass armour and galloping horses at them? Does it make you shudder or do you think, “oh, I’d love to have a go at that”?

Stuart Mitchell: Well, personally I’d like to have a go at it. I think Saul was very brave to get on the horse and to go through some of the things that he had to in order to make the programme. I think there's a, it’s much easier to construct scenes for medieval history because there isn’t the expectation that is loaded onto, let’s say, 20th Century history where there's footage available and one is expected to use perhaps, or programme producers are expected to use a certain amount of original footage, and then there can be a certain amount of tweaking of material in order to fit the footage, or to stick in footage which isn’t entirely appropriate to the narrative of the programme.

But when you’re back in the medieval period you have a scenario in which you’re pretty much free to use whatever you like. Now I suppose the difficulty is how far are the types of images that you put across, for example, in The Greatest Knight, how far those actually accurate reflections of the sort of things that have gone on in a melee. I’m no expert on the medieval period, but on the whole I get the impression that there's enough drama in there and there's enough historical accuracy to be able to carry the type of narrative that you want to put across. But I don’t know, as I say, I’m not an expert on that period but I think in television terms it’s certainly very striking and it will certainly keep the audience interest.

John Farren: I guess that when we have this discussion with historians, I mean historians fall into a number of camps, but let’s be simplistic. There are some that don’t have televisions and say, “Oh, I never watched television programmes and I think it’s all rubbish”, and there are others that kind of accept our argument that we’re not custodians of the museum, if you like, we’re the people who sell tickets outside and our job is to interest people in history. We get it as right as we can, we don’t put anything in that we know to be wrong, but when there are gaps you’re allowed to speculate as long as it’s informed speculation, informed by experts. I mean Rachel, what do you think about that?

Rachel Gibbons: Having medieval history on television if it’s accurate is fantastic, in whatever format it’s done. And there are plenty of small bits of evidence out there. Just little drawings in margins of medieval manuscripts will show you somebody riding up the quinte on a little wooden horse in fact, not even a real horse. Some smaller child getting practice in that sense, there are ...

Saul David: With wheels on?

Rachel Gibbons: With wheels on, absolutely, and being pushed along. And people literally with hoops on the end of their lance trying to place them in certain areas. There are some great manuscript illuminations of the melee with knights literally holding another knight in a headlock, of horses biting and kicking within that, the horse as a weapon itself. And you drew on those sort of imagery as well as on the narrative of the story, so absolutely, it’s great.

Stuart Mitchell: How far Rachel do you think this is, that Timewatch may be somewhat of an exception to the rule though with television history? I don’t want to go in to a monologue of about how dreadful television history is normally and that Timewatch is ...

Saul David: No, let’s make it a monologue about how great Timewatch is.

Stuart Mitchell: Okay, but Timewatch certainly seems to adhere to a greater standard of historical accuracy and scholarly standards and the correct use of evidence, if you like, than perhaps some other television productions do.

Rachel Gibbons: There is a lot less speculation, as you hinted already. And also with Timewatch, and particularly with this programme, the use of historians who are real specialists in an area rather than wheeling out general historians to talk about periods about which they don’t know.

Stuart Mitchell: We know who you are talking about.

Rachel Gibbons: For instance, it’s great to see some real medieval specialists on the programme, and if you’re talking about William Marshal in an academic community you’re going to be talking about David Crouch.

Saul David: And as far as I’m aware, you can correct me on this, I haven’t seen David Crouch used as a contributor on a programme before. And I suppose that says, first of all, very few programmes get made about the medieval period, and certainly about this specific period. And yet actually when you met him and you see him on screen, his energy, I mean he’s fizzing with energy and you suddenly realise this guy for all his disclaimers is actually quite natural on camera but he’s never had the opportunity to show those talents before.

Rachel Gibbons: And you get the enthusiasm coming across as well. If you get someone who’s talking about something about which they care passionately, as came across in this programme with all the experts you spoke to.

John Farren: And the reason that we chose you, Saul, is because I know that you’re kind of young, active, that you have a constituency who buy your books and associate you with a kind of virile military history, and that David is the doyen in this field but it would have been thoroughly unconvincing to put David on a horse and charge at him with a lance. I think we probably would have had a series of complaints about cruelty to Dons.

So it seemed to us that the best grammatical construct was to acknowledge the fact that you know a bit about military history but not about this particular area, and send you on a kind of a quest. Which, of course, particularly fitting for a medieval topic. But I think that had we not had you experiencing - I mean for me, the reason I love medieval history is because I remember the Ladybird history books, and the one thing I really wanted to know was was it really that heavy, you know, if you really fell over wearing the armour could you really not get back up. The stories about the ransom, the guy holding the knife at your throat because you couldn’t get up in the armour.

So if you couldn’t have that experience then I didn’t think the programme would work. So it is about melding. But the other glory, I agree with you, of the programme is the fact that everyone that expresses an opinion, the peer review of the expertise is God, these people really do know their stuff, and that's important to Timewatch, that we do keep that credibility within the academic community as well as within the audience.

Saul David: I mean I don’t think it would have worked anything like as well if you’d used again David Crouch literally going round his peers in the medieval fraternity and asking those sort of questions, because he knows the answers you see. Only someone who comes outwith the community can really say, “So tell me about this” in an absolutely genuine way. And I have never been so fascinated during the making of the programme of a TV programme as I was making this one because literally it was unfolding before my eyes.

I mean we had a rough idea who we were going to talk to and what they knew about but we, I personally did not know what they were actually going to say on camera and it was completely fascinating, 1) hearing the information from their own lips, and 2) as I’ve already pointed out, trying out some of the equipment. And thirdly, and if you take your history seriously this is always the key area of your research, actually looking at some of the primary documents relating to this story. And one in particular, the William Marshal biography is, so I gather from experts of the period, relatively unique.

Rachel Gibbons: And your fascination came across with that. You were going on the journey with the audience, and that was a really great balance.

Saul David: Yeah, and then it sort of makes you wonder doesn’t it, that this could be a sort of classic template for history programmes. Rather than having someone standing there saying, “I know all about this and I’m going to declaim to you like some sort of school teacher”, these are the two sort of opposite extremes, as it were, ways of making history and I know which I prefer.

Stuart Mitchell: Yes I mean you do, you carry the audience with you on that voyage of discovery, if you forgive the cliché, and they do get a much greater sense of the sort of physicality of the experience of preparation for warfare. I mean it was little short of warfare, the melee itself. That's a very useful way of engaging an audience because, in a sense, what we’re confronted with I think as a general public is a series of myths about what 12th, 13th, 14th Century tournaments were like, and you go on a voyage of discovery which, at the very least, explodes quite a few misconceptions about those particular events, those very sort of formalised tournees, and in doing so you’re, as you’re busting the myth you’re also busting the myth for the audience.

So there were two questions that sort of come out of that. One is how far is Timewatch in general, and perhaps this is a question more for John, how far does the programme conceive of itself as providing a useful social function in exploding some of the myths about the past, and secondly, how far is it that we, I don’t know, perhaps it’s difficult to talk for the audience but does the audience therefore go away with a better understanding of how history fits together and what the realities of life were like in the past?

John Farren: Yeah. It’s interesting we worked with BBC marketing about three years ago to help ourselves to understand what we do in Timewatch, and I think that we were all quite sceptical that a bunch of marketers would come in and help us, but they did. And in the end we drilled down to a one sentence encapsulation of what Timewatch is, which is human journeys into the past uncovering important new truths. And it covers a multitude of sins, but actually all programmes that we make, and certainly all the programmes that I’m really proud of, absolutely hit all of those marks.

The human journey, obviously that's Saul’s voyage of exploration into the past, well it was particularly a period that I really like and we don’t make half enough programmes on the medieval period. Uncovering important new truths? Well, I think this was an important new truth. To most people they would have thought that the tournament probably came out of a load of knights being bored, being a rich elite and kind of dreaming up this game whereby you jousted for the love of a fair lady, and nothing could be further from the truth.

It’s actually much more of an important story that kind of around about, my understanding, correct me if I’m wrong, that around about the sort of period of the 11th Century this new phenomenon, the mounted knight comes in, completely transforms the landscape of medieval Europe. And that's because of their sort of taking of military power, and to make sure that they hold onto this military power they need to be fit for purpose, they need to be good at war. So for 150, 200 years they’re practising for war, and that's what the melee is and that's what the tournament comes out of. And I had no idea, and I think it was just so absolutely fascinating a thesis that I thought we’ve got to try and drill down into it.

Saul David: Sorry, just to make one quick point. All of that's absolutely true John and it was all news to me, as it were, I genuinely was finding out about this stuff for the first time. But what is quite clear is that this material is already out there. No research was actually done specifically on the programme that overturned completely new information, and I think this is an important point to make. There's an awful lot of history out there that simply hasn’t reached anything like a kind of broad consensus because it’s considered to be the field of experts and specialists.

And of course books on this, detailing all of this, a lot of the material we get in the programme, were already out there, it’s just that people hadn’t read them, weren’t aware of them. And that is where a programme like Timewatch can do a real service, not just to history but to culture and society in general, it can actually get across some of the more specialised work in history to a broader field. And I think if it does that alone it’s carrying out a very important service.

Rachel Gibbons: I was only going to just back up what you were saying there, that the development of the tournament and the development of warfare really go hand in hand, and as the techniques of warfare change the tournament becomes necessary to provide that space to practice. Tournaments first start to be mentioned as the couch lance were, the classic position you see of a knight with the lance tucked into his armpit as that emerges as a technique on the battlefield. Virtually impossible to do off pat, as I’m sure Saul will tell you. That tournament develops literally in parallel to that, and the rise of new techniques and the rise of new equipment at the same time.

Stuart Mitchell: There's one thing I’d like to explore a little bit in terms of what happens to the melee that transforms it from this free for all which is conducted over a very long period and over a very large geographical area, that transforms it into something that is perhaps not quite the very stylised Arthurian type of tournament that we’re used to but certainly something that's a lot more formalised and that has certain greater rules in the 14th Century. What happens, why does the melee decline?

Rachel Gibbons: It’s difficult to say completely. I mean certainly in England, Edward I starts to ban tournaments more frequently because they’re distracting his knights from actual warfare. As warfare amongst the Western European states becomes more prolific they’re actually engaged in real warfare without the need for the melees. Melees are also dangerous politically. Various kings in England banned them. Henry I and Henry II banned them, which is the reason that William the Marshal is fighting in France, because there are no tournaments in England at that stage. And under weaker kings like Stephen and like Henry III, tournaments are more widespread.

And tournaments in those earlier periods, in the 12th and 13th Century are used as grounds for dissention. The Magna Carter, for instance, is formulated at a tournament. The assassination of Edward II’s favourite, Piers Gaveston, in the 14th century is formulated at a tournament. And plots and feuds and private feuds are taken out at tournaments. So they’re quite dangerous places to be, and they can be dangerous politically to kings, and that may be one of the reasons why they drop off in the 13th Century. And it becomes more interesting, the stylised, the formal, the demonstration, the writing of tournaments in the chanson de geste and the romances actually perhaps influence the way tournaments develop after that. The literature feeds into reality.

Saul David: You’re touching one of the important themes we bring out in the film, which is that there is a political consequence of the tournaments, which again this perception of it as really a game, as John’s pointed out, would never really get close to them. That of course was in purely practical terms, you’ve got a lot of the most important people in the kingdom gathering together at one place and this is a classic forum, as you’ve already pointed out, for people to discuss politics. And if all the leaders, military and political leaders, are gathered in one place you can be sure they’re going to be talking politics and power, and ultimately this can lead to plots, as we’ve already discussed.

And that is just one of the many themes that have come out of the tournament. I mean the other great thing which John alluded to earlier on is the whole social mobility that a tournament can provide. We need to put this a little bit in context. I mean William Marshal is the son of a gentleman I suppose as we’d think of them today, so he’s not from the bottom of the social strata but he is someone who has moved from really a landless knight I suppose you could put it, and there would have been plenty of them at the time, to becoming the most powerful man in the kingdom when he becomes Regent of England at the early stages of Henry III’s rein.

That is quite a leap, and he does it because of the name he makes and the wealth he accrues through tournaments. And we make the sporting analogy at one stage in the film, and I think that there is some truth in that, he literally went from nothing to becoming economically incredibly powerful, but more than that of course he had political power too, and therefore it was an opportunity I suppose for people to climb up the social ladder.

John Farren: And he was a brand before brands. It’s always, I felt very uncomfortable at the producer who actually has got an MA in medieval history, Dominic, and he came to me and said he was the David Beckham of his period. And I said, “No, no, no we’re Timewatch, don’t do the David Beckham thing”, and he was saying, “No, but he really was, he was a brand, not only was he a brand but he was the most expensive transfer of his time”, there was some astronomical figure.

Saul David: Yes a quarter, a quarter of the rents of Santomer, which according to David Crouch would have run into millions in today’s money, a figure - and this is in his words - that even David Beckham may have raised his eyebrows at. And so I think the analogy, the sporting analogy, the transfer analogy, even the analogy with an icon like David Beckham is not too far fetched.

John Farren: Timewatch does David Beckham shock.

Stuart Mitchell: Now can I pick up on something else that you’ve alluded to there, Saul, which is, what you’re suggesting is that there was a sort of melee culture, with a small c, that developed around these tournaments, how was that transmitted? How did people find out where the next melee was, who was going to be there and who changed sides, if you like, in the interim period? This does suggest a certain level of geographical social mobility and communication which I think surprised me in medieval society that this is a sort of pan-European thing.

Rachel Gibbons: Yes certainly. I mean the world in which the Marshals move in is that sort of cross-channel world of England, France and England’s possessions in France. So you’ve got this sort of link between them. I mean messengers were sent out a couple of weeks before a tournament, more notice if it was a very big high profile one, and people came.

Saul David: Would there have been, Rachel, the equivalent of a fixture list, where it’d be planned well in advance, you know, a bit like international sport? Because that again is another point you make, that often the teams were national based, or at least regionally based.

Rachel Gibbons: Yes. Certainly. I mean on the continent you’d have the French versus the Flemish quite often, and who was on which side was quite quickly set into stone, and if people did change sides there could be some dissent about that. I can’t remember the exact example but I think it was the Count of Hainault who should be fighting with the Flemish, but - it’s got another sporting edge, it sounds like a Sunday five a side team - but the French were short-handed so he went on to the French side, and this really led to a bit of a diplomatic incident with the Count of Flanders. So people knew what sides they were on.

John Farren: People knew which side they were on, but in the Marshals case it was his side. I mean what I particularly love is the kind of the anti-chivalric actions that you kind of, you gang up with the other side and say look, we’ll let you pick off our really young inexperienced but quite rich knights and then we’ll split the ransoms that we get. I think all of that stuff’s just absolutely fantastic and fascinating, and so not what one would expect. I mean how clear can we be that that really happened?

Saul David: Well we, going back to the sources, our chief source for discussing what actually went on during the sort of tournament itself, one of the chief sources that is used, certainly was used by David Crouch, is this William Marshal biography. And it’s written in verse but written in a certain amount of detail, and he doesn’t just describe the actual fighting itself of the melee, he describes the whole sequence of events leading up to it where people were quartered, the actions of the knights in preparing for battle, the sort of armour they wore and then, of course, going on to the real heart of the matter which is the sequence of events during a tournament itself.

It starts with this amazing lance charge, two sides up to, as you pointed out John, two thousand knights charging each other. I mean can you imagine the chaos and the excitement of course, adrenaline coursing through everyone. The intention was not to kill your opponent it was to take him ransom, but people did die, this was incredibly dangerous. They’re using edged weapons, it is warfare, it is practice for warfare, and one of the important points that comes out of all of this is that when, at this period - and Rachel will have to correct me if I’m talking complete nonsense, but I gather that even in wars of this period, even in battles of this period very few nobleman were actually killed. You had the cannon fodder as they would, as they would have, as we see them today, the ordinary foot shoulders who were, many of whom got killed. But actually knights and noblemen, no, very few were killed for the simple reason they were too valuable to kill.

Rachel Gibbons: And it’s again, you say non-chivalric but it is sort of chivalric. There are rules of engagement that apply to our type of people only, and that you would spare knights because you would hope to be spared in the same way when your turn comes. And there's an argument as well as to which comes first; whether the tournament culture of taking prisoners and taking ransoms transfers into war, or whether it’s the other way around. It certainly is very tempting to think that it’s the tournament that actually then decides the rules for engagement for real warfare.

Saul David: So is it, is our problem then, this perception we’ve got of chivalry? I mean an expert in the period, a medievalist would probably say no, the modern perception of chivalry is slightly skewed, and it’s partly skewed because of this whole Arthurian romance ideal we’ve got of the perfect knight.

Rachel Gibbons: Most likely. They’re operating within rules that they see as right and proper. The fact that we would like them to be slightly different and slightly more deferential and using handkerchiefs and being more Victorian chivalric, sort of mock gothic chivalric is really our problem rather then theirs I think.

Saul David: And yet the word’s entered our dictionary hasn’t it, I mean it’s quite difficult to shift that.

Rachel Gibbons: But they say there are specific virtues and rules of 12th century chivalry that are being playing out within that tournament. The ideas of prowess, of courtesy to your opponents, of loyalty to your team, of largesse to the minstrels, the armourers, the squires etc, and this completely untranslatable virtue of franchise, basically looking the part, acting like a gentleman and being a knight.

John Farren: It’s interesting that whenever we do find a medieval narrative that kind of I can convince myself that will run in a straight line more or less for 60 minutes, so therefore we can make it. So we made one about the archaeology of the Newport Ship, really very, very popular with the audience, big viewing figures and a very popular programme. The Black Death always works, partly because it’s just such an awesome narrative but partly because it gets you into that kind of medieval mindset. It’s very, very popular, but I find it really hard to identify narratives that I can clearly see. What am I doing wrong or what is it about the medieval period? It fascinates us but it’s quite impenetrable?

Rachel Gibbons: I suppose it’s the nature of records. The stories recorded, the narratives recorded are literature, and actually piecing together fact and actuality is a bit like a jigsaw puzzle, we’re dependant only on the sources that people have left behind for us. England particularly was an incredibly bureaucratic nation in the middle ages, a centralised state, and the amount of records produced were incredible. But I think 13th Century historian Michael Calanches calculated that we’ve only got 1% of the records that were ever produced, and so we’re dealing with the evidence that we’ve got in front of us.

And the same with the Marshal, we’re dealing with something that's sort of a narrative, sort of history, sort of a story and making history out of that with the use of other bits of evidence. So it’s harder work putting medieval history on the screen because you haven’t got that easy narrative source, you haven’t got the Pathe newsreels of the Stuarts period and that sort of thing.

John Farren: Just picking up on that Rachel, I mean I think one of the reasons that we in the 20th Century have a real difficulty with the medieval mindset is that we operate in a secular irreligious world and, of course, they operate in a very different framework. How did the Church get on with the melee?

Rachel Gibbons: Not too keen. The Church is, for most of the medieval period the Church is attempting to in some way control warfare or restrict it, and their attitude to the melee is quite similar to that. Saul mentioned in the programme that the Papacy actually tried to ban the melee in as far as it could in 1130, Innocent II tried to institute an excommunication of anybody who was involved in melee, and that anyone killed in that situation shouldn’t be buried in consecrated ground. And successive Popes repeated this measure right up until the early 14th Century when John XXII finally took this prescription off.

The Church’s relationship with this is I suppose twofold. In some senses they don’t like the idea that people are going to be killed for no good reason, it’s just attempting to avoid that sort of damage. But on the other side, the Church is trying to direct the nobility into fighting for proper things. This is in the early 12th Century, is a period of the height of the crusades, there are Christian kingdoms in what is now Israel and Palestinian territories and Lebanon that need to be protected and the Church, quite rightly in its own mind, would think what are you doing wasting your time killing each other on the fields of Northern France when you should be going out to the east and defending the Christian territories. So it’s trying to direct knights into fighting for a good purpose rather than for their own.

Saul David: But some did, of course, didn’t they Rachel?

Rachel Gibbons: Absolutely.

Saul David: And I suppose you could have taken the argument that if it’s training for war it’s training for crusading too, and a number of people who would have honed their skills on the tournament field will have gone out some of the later crusades.

Rachel Gibbons: Absolutely. William Marshal himself, of course, goes on crusade and this is exactly, it’s a training ground. But that, they never seem to have quite a good attitude towards it. Possibly in the same way that some states don’t. It’s a disruptive tendency. You’ve got gangs of armed men rampaging around the countryside potentially causing mischief.

John Farren: And some great Canterbury tales like incidents in the literature aren’t there, of it’s kind of total misrule and then they don’t pay due deference, they kind of rampage through the various Bishoprics doing what they want to and the church is very unhappy about their lack of deference towards the clerics.

Saul David: But what's interesting is that the structure is there, this, you know, the threat of excommunication, it doesn’t actually do much to stop tournaments. And I suppose I was quite surprised in a way at the lack of control or influence the Papacy actually had over what was quite a serious and prevalent practice for a number of years. I mean looking from outside the period I find that quite strange to be honest.

Rachel Gibbons: Yes, and it’s, just because documents say something like that papal interdiction, it doesn’t mean to say it actually took place. That's always another problem with the evidence, you need to find out what people actually did as well as what they were told to do by law.

John Farren: Absolutely and by belief, we tend to look back on Christendom as being this kind of totalitarian controlling state where everyone believed the same thing, whereas of course everyone has a relationship to what their strictures of their religion say they’re supposed to do and what they actually do. And I think that was very interesting to me, the point that Saul made that they kept on reinforcing this interdiction that clearly wasn’t working.

Stuart Mitchell: So does that suggest that they saw, the Church saw melees and the culture that surrounded them as not just a nuisance and not just an economic threat but actually as a political threat as well, or is that going too far?

Rachel Gibbons: No, possibly not. I think they saw them as a dangerous aspect, this idea that people get together, and also from earlier centuries trying to break down feuding between nobilities, neighbours in a time when that wasn’t a strong centralised monarchy. In the same way that, say, private feuds were still fought out in a melee in the 13th Century, in earlier centuries that was a very serious threat, and so stamping down on the melee could potentially in the Church’s eyes be seen as a way of keeping the peace at home.

John Farren: Okay, well I think we’re almost there. I’d just like to sum things up by kind of going round the table and asking you what you took away from this programme yourself, or what you hope our audience will take away. For me it’s just fantastic to have found a medieval narrative that I find, I think the film works really, really well and kept me watching and kept me learning all the way through. What's really interesting about commissioning a programme like this is you have a vague idea of where it’s going to take you, but it’s not until it comes into the edit suite and I see where the producer and the historians have gone with the basic idea that it shapes up, and this one was very medieval. It definitely took us away from where I thought it was going to go. Rachel?

Rachel Gibbons: I really enjoyed it, and I think the thing I’d like audiences to take away is the complexity of the Middle Ages. This isn’t just a one size fits all uniform culture, as you were saying, it’s not a dictatorship run by the Papacy, medieval Europe isn’t the same across all centuries, and the lifetime of the Marshal covers a really interesting central period of the Middle Ages where ideas were constantly in flux, warfare was changing, politics was changing, and his life very much reflects what's going on in the Middle Ages in his particular period. And, as I say, I hope audiences take away an interest to explore a little bit further.

John Farren: Stuart?

Stuart Mitchell: What I, what's really struck me about the programme is that you actually see some of the primary sources, if you like, that we work with on a daily basis as historians. So you see the manuscript, you see Saul going through the biography of the Marshal, and you see the effigies in Temple Church, and you obviously see Saul trying on the medieval armour. Which is probably quite a good distance from perhaps how we imagine medieval armour to look.

I think probably most of the audience would have been expecting sort of plate armour to have been the norm, but in fact it’s that enormous amount of padding that just covering of chain mail was, I think explodes that particular myth as well. But essentially it is the use of primary sources showing the audience how we do our work, that really struck me and it was very gratifying to see that. So we’re not just passing on received opinion, we’re showing how we go about putting history together.

John Farren: That’s great. And the final word to you Saul David?

Saul David: Well anyone who has worked on a TV programme knows what an incredibly hard process it is. You know, the daily grind of filming, getting the whole script together in the first place and then the filming. I have never worked on a programme that was more enjoyable, partly because it was a great bunch of people to work with but also the subject material was constantly fascinating. And from a military historian’s perspective, to be able to see this window into warfare in the early medieval period is something that I know very little about, I know a bit about the Battle of Agincourt, a bit about the Battle of Hastings, but this gap in between where very few noblemen were actually killed in battle and the foot soldiers were usually the ones who took most of the causalities, completely fascinating to get this different picture on warfare. And to have the opportunity as a military historian to do and see some of these things in the flesh was a great privilege.

John Farren: Okay. Rachel Gibbons, lecturer in medieval history at the Open University, Stuart Mitchell, the Open University consultant to the Timewatch series and Saul David, the presenter to the programme The Greatest Knight in the Timewatch series, thank you very much. My name’s John Farren and I’m the editor of Timewatch.

 

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