Saturday, July 24, 2010

The Pillars of the Earth

Last night we watched the first two episodes of The Pillars of the Earth. They were fantastic. The story takes place in England during the time after the death of Henry I (1068-1135) and the civil war between Stephen and the Empress Matilda (Maud).1 This is near the end of my favorite period of history—the so-called dark ages.

Judging by the first two episodes, the show does a pretty good job of capturing the flavor of the era except that everyone looks far too healthy and beautiful. They all have good teeth.

Here's a brief history.

Henry I (1068-1135) is the King of England [Henry Beauclerc] who dies at the beginning of the series. He was the youngest son of William the Conqueror and took the throne of England (and the Duchy of Normandy) from his older brothers after much fighting.

Henry had two surviving legitimate children: Matilda (1102-1167) and his heir William Adelin (1103-1120). William died when he was only 17 years old when The White Ship sank on Nov. 25, 1120 during a voyage from France back to England. The sinking of the White Ship is the opening scene of the movie. (The ship set sail at night and smashed into a rock. Most of the crew and passengers were drunk. Everyone died of exposure.)

Matilda married Henry V, Holy Roman Emperor, when she was 13 years old and she became known as Empress Matilda at that point. She returned to England when her husband, Henry V, died in 1125. In the movie she is depicted as a young girl who is present when the King learns of his son's death on the White Ship. In fact, she was already 18 years old and married to the Holy Roman Emperor when the ship went down.

Empress Matilda, known as Maud in the movie, married Geoffrey Plantagenet, Count of Anjou in 1128. They had a son who eventually becomes Henry II of England and founds the Plantagenet dynasty. (Oops, I just gave away the ending! )

Henry I tried to ensure that his daughter Empress Matilda (Maud) would become Queen of England on his death but that didn't work out. The Norman aristocracy were not prepared to accept a woman as ruler and they helped install Stephen of Blois (1096-1154) as King of England in 1135. Stephen was the son of Adela of Normandy, daughter of William the Conqueror.

Henry I had about two dozen illegitimate children by many different women. Several of them drowned when the White Ship went down. His oldest "bastard" son was Robert, 1st Earl of Gloucester (1090-1147). Robert is depicted in the movie as a strong supporter of Maud right from the beginning but the real history is much more complicated. He initially supported Stephen but later on he was the most important leader of the civil war that became known as The Anarchy.

Elizabeth, Princess of England is another of Henry's illegitimate children. She married Fergus, Lord of Galloway, ancestors of the Stewarts of Scotland.2.

1. I love it when they make movies of my relatives! I am a descendant of Andrew Ward (1597-1659) of Fairfield Connecticut who traces his ancestry back to William de Longespee (1152-1206) the illegitimate son of Henry II of England (1133-1189). [My Family and Other Emperors]. Henry II is Maud's baby in the opening episodes of the movie. UPDATE: Turns out I am NOT related to Andrew Ward after all! But I do count Geoffrey Plantagenet and Matilda as ancestors through Henry II to my Scottish Stewart ancestors.

2. I am also a descendant, via the Stewarts of Perthshire, from Elizabeth.


  1. I love it when the make movies of my ancestors. As you pointed out in another post, "As long as you have some Europeans in your past it's almost certain that you are a descendant of Charlemagne. Of course, you are also a descendant of everyone else who lived in 800 AD but that's not nearly so interesting." Personally, I find the dirt-poor illiterate peasants every bit as interesting, otherwise I wouldn't be a descendant of Charlemagne, now, would I?


  2. I read the book when it was first published. I was not impressed with the plot, but your post makes me think I failed to appreciate the historical context of the series.

    The Movie Network is showing the first two episodes tonight at 9 and 1:30 am.

    Because of your post, I'll give the miniseries a try. It helps that the cast is excellent, particularly Ian McShane.