Your RDA of Irony

The Pillory of the Facts

“The Pillars of the Earth”, cable television’s latest depiction of history, takes place in 12th century England.  I now doubt the existence of England and the 12th century.  Any historical accuracy in that series would be inadvertent.

Yes, I know the standards of cable television. So I would expect to see Queen Maude (mother of Henry II) nude more often than either of her husbands or God ever did.  And I am resigned to a film or series simplifying facts; the audience apparently can only swallow history if it is pablum.  For example, in the Cate Blanchett vehicle “Elizabeth, the Golden Age”, somehow Francis Drake and Walter Raleigh are combined into one character.  (So this super Raleigh must have sunk the  Armada by introducing tobacco to Spanish sailors.)  But “The Pillars of the Earth” is worse than your standard stupefaction.  It is a lie.

The series opens with the sight of a burning ship and the date 1120; the scrolling explanation says that the Crown Prince of England has mysteriously died.  Well, the Crown Prince did die that year, but it was a scandal rather than a mystery.  The drunken teenager, with his equally soused friends, decided to take the fastest ship in the fleet on a night cruise.  Unfortunately, the ship’s crew was as drunk as the passengers.  The ship hit a rock and sank.  However, the series insinuates that the death was a conspiracy–with several bishops smirking suspiciously.  The only legitimate heir now is Princess Maude,  just a little girl playing with her dolls,  Those nasty bishops intend to supplant her with her cousin and their stooge Stephen.  At least, that is what the series depicts.  Actually, Princess Maude was 18, already married and living with her first husband in Germany.  In fact, she was older than her drunken dolt of a brother.

The plot then skips to 1138.  King Henry I makes his nobles swear their allegiance to Maude, who is married and about to give birth.  She will reign until her royal embryo is old enough to rule in his own right.  It is a nice bit of drama; something like that actually happened in 3rd century Persia, but not in 12th century England.  The King named Maude his heir in 1123.  She had no children with her first husband, who died in 1125.  Her second husband Geoffrey Plantagenet proved more efficient at creating dynasties.  Maude’s first little Plantagenet was born in 1133; he was named Henry for his grandfather and eventually got two Oscar nominations for Peter O’Toole.  As for that loyalty oath in 1138, the presence of Henry I would have been memorable.  He died in 1135.  Either that is an indictment of medieval housekeeping or an inexplicable historical distortion.

Now, that was just the first five minutes of the show.  What happened next?  I wouldn’t know because I gave up.

p.s.  At least the following historical farce is intentional:

  1. Peg Pruitt says:

    There were similar historical “liberties” taken in The Tudors. What irks me is the reworking of historically accurate material. There is so much unrecoded drama that the producers could play with and embellish. They should leave verifiable historical material alone. I guess they lack the creativity for that.

    • Eugene Finerman says:


      “The Tudors” certainly set a standard for historical fabrication. I think that the show might have gotten even more of an audience if it had cast a woman in the role of Henry VIII. Surely it is a valid interpretation to portray Henry as a lesbian.


  2. Eugene Finerman says:

    Perusing my comments to Peg and Megan, I seem to be turning into a hidebound curmudgeon. All I need is another 150 pounds, and I can be the next William Bennett.


  3. wimple says:

    Well, I’m enjoying this series more than the Tudors (cancelled after the first installment). At least in Pillars there are enough fantasy characters that they don’t have to include the mischaracterization of the “real life” ones too often. Altho having the future Henry II born in an English castle (he was born in France) with everyone watching on was a bit much… At least Maud has bad teeth.

    • Eugene Finerman says:

      Maude’s bad teeth may have come from her English grandmother. Henry I’s wife was descended from the Angle-Saxon royal house. So through her, the landlady of Buckingham Palace can trace her royal ancestry back to 800 A.D. and boast of such ancestors as Alfred the Great and Aethelred the Unready.

      Are the “fantasy characters”–the ones who are intentionally fiction–particularly interesting? I could detect the villainess from the birthmark on her face. How subtle! The television critic of the Chicago Tribune said the usually wonderful Ian McShane was a one-dimensional bore in “Pillars”.


  4. Mary Ann Jung says:

    “Liberties” is a kind word for what they did with “The Tudors” Apparently Pillars is in the same vein-makes us want to open our own! It’s been years since I read and very much liked the Pillars book and I thought there were very few real historical characters in it. Am I losing my memory? Did Hollywood put them in just to screw with them?!

    • Eugene Finerman says:

      Mary Ann,

      I can’t wait to see Pamela Anderson as Eleanor of Aquitaine. I also think that Vin Diesel is an inspired choice to portray Thomas Becket. Of course, 300 knights will be needed to kill him, but that would make an exciting fight.


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