BBC’s ‘Gunpowder’ – Too Violent For Some.

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Kit Harrington as Robert Catesby in “Gunpowder”

I like many others, spent this past weekend watching the highly anticipated BBC drama “Gunpowder”, the story of the infamous 1605 plot to blow up King and Parliament by a group of over-zealous Catholics. It was a programme that I had been looking forward to for a very long time, having long had an interest in the Seventeenth Century thanks to my undergraduate work on the Battlefield Archaeology of the English Civil War – but my interest in this era goes beyond the bloody conflict of the 1640’s. Religious persecution was rampant in these times and life itself was incredibly violent – if you were convicted of treason, then you would be condemned to the most brutal death imaginable. If you were convicted of heresy, you would be condemned. Life was brutal. Executions were a public event.

Yet I was surprised to see earlier on, as I was perusing the news, complaints towards the BBC that the programme had been ‘too violent’ and that people couldn’t stomach the gore. Bearing in mind that the programme was on after the 9pm watershed and even had a warning at the start…what on earth did people expect? Life in the Seventeenth Century was kittens and rainbows – all you need to do is pick up a history book on the era to see that. It felt to me as I was reading about the complaints that people wanted to see the story of the Gunpowder plot through rose tinted glasses, to see a version of it that didn’t involve the gruesome executions that were so, so important in both sparking the rising and ending the lives of those who took part.

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The execution of Thomas Armstrong. Wikimedia Commons

In this modern day and age it’s easy to distance yourself from the violent way of life that our ancestors lived in. But just a few hundred years ago, public executions were a public spectacle somewhat akin to watching an episode of Eastenders. It was a way of making sure that the populace were aware what would happen if you were caught out as being a criminal – and the very worst methods of death were meted out to those convicted of treachery against the Crown and the Nation.

Hanging, drawing and quartering. The very words are enough to send a shiver down your spine and set your imagination running wild. And it involved precisely what it said on the tin – you would be hung by the neck until almost dead, your internal organs would be drawn out and the body then cut into pieces. One can only imagine the sheer agony that the condemned went through, only to then have their body parts displayed about the land as a warning to others. Yes, it was brutal. Yes, it was gory. But it was the way things were back then. But in my eyes, and in the eyes of other historians, it was done in a way that showed the viewer what life was like back then – it didn’t turn a world full of religious persecution and severe brutality into a pompous costume drama full of romance. Rather it shattered the rose tinted view that so many these days have of the time, introducing them to a world that was much more violent in many ways than the world we live in today.

There are plenty of examples of brutalities from the past – execution by hanging, drawing and quartering is just one of them. What of stories of being broken on the wheel? What of condemned men being boiled alive or sawn in half? We must realise that history is full of such tales and that historical drama series are well within their rights, and wholly justified in showing such violent methods of death. It was the way the things were and we, as viewers, have the right to see authentic depictions of just how the world worked.

Six Wives with Lucy Worsley.

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Just a few days ago, the Guardian newspaper produced a review of “Six Wives with Lucy Worsley” and the history lovers of social media kicked up a storm. I became aware of the ‘review’ when Dan Jones posted something about it on facebook so, me being me, I decided to satisfy my curiosity about just why everyone was getting their knickers in a twist about this review. I kind of wish I hadn’t gone and read it now – it was full of complete and utter tripe from someone who obviously doesn’t enjoy history of any kind and who doesn’t understand that TV history like this is here to stay. The author of the piece seems to be convinced that Worsley’s latest work is going to herald the end for TV history and really didn’t like the fact that “Six Wives” had – hold on to your chairs, kids – acting in it. I sat there for a bit, stewed on what I had read and then posted about it on facebook.

I have to say I disagree with absolutely everything that the ‘review’ states. In all honesty I don’t think I’ve ever watched a documentary with Lucy Worsley that has proven to be a disappointment, and this one was no different. Whilst the story of Henry VIII’s wives has been told over and over again, I found Worsley’s offering to be a refreshing change. Rather than being spoken at for an hour by some dull as dishwater bloke in tweed, you had a wonderful mix of drama and fact giving. The acting provided the perfect accompaniment to the story that Worsley was telling – in this episode we had Henry VIII’s first marriage to Catherine of Aragon and the beginnings of his passion for Anne Boleyn – and Worsley herself got involved. She watched as the story unfolded as if she were a lady in waiting to the Queen, explaining key events and even doing a little bit of acting herself.

I was thoroughly impressed with this retelling of Catherine of Aragon’s story and the way Worsley made it fresh and accessible. It’s history like this which will awaken the love of the subject in the younger generations, something which I 110% will get behind. Lucy Worsley has done a fantastic job here and I cannot wait to watch the next episode.

And let me tell you, TV history is far from being finished.