‘The King’ and I

Dr Hannes Kleineke, editor of the 1461-1504 section, reflects on the experience of acting as a historical adviser for the new Netflix movie ‘The King’.

What makes good television? Certainly not the often humdrum details of historical reality with which the professional historian has to concern him or herself. It is thus an interesting experience to be invited to provide historical insights to the producers of a new screenplay, as I was in the summer of 2018, and to see at first hand what aspects of history concerned or inspired the production team, what made it into the final cut, and what had to be sacrificed to the requirements of cinematography.

The film ‘The King’ was to have important scenes set in the Parliament chamber, and while we know a good deal about the technicalities of parliamentary procedure, conversations with the production team’s researcher brought home just how little we know of the physical aspects of the scene in the meeting place of (in this instance) the Lords. Would the lords invariably wear their Parliament robes? Would the bishops and abbots wear mitres? And what of the head dress, if any, worn by the temporal lords? Would those present sit in a neat hierarchical order? How would the lords address each other, or the King? How would a debate unfold? And (my particular favourite) what would peers hold in their hands during its course?

The few contemporary or near-contemporary depictions we had available, proved unhelpful. The well-known images from Wriothesley’s Garter book which purport to show Parliament under Edward I and Henry VIII respectively, and which in later centuries formed the basis for wood cuts and engravings of Parliament, postdated the scenes that were to be recreated on screen by more than a century. Chronologically closer are images from the foundation charters of King’s College, Cambridge, and Eton College, which show the Lords and Commons bare-headed at prayer, but they do not show their subjects in the setting of a parliamentary session. Illuminations from early 15th century manuscripts of chronicles depicting a (in any event fictitious) scene of Henry IV’s usurpation and Richard II’s deposition in a pseudo-parliamentary session, are colourful, but unhelpful. (I stopped short of suggesting to the researcher that he might like to prop a ladder against Henry V’s chantry chapel in Westminster abbey to get a closer look at the attire of the carved figures of bishops and lords found there!)

Depiction of the Parliament of Edward I from Wriothesley’s Garter book

The director’s assistant who consulted me took down every detail I could provide with great enthusiasm, and was not to be put off by my repeated insistence that so much of what he wanted to know was simply un-knowable. The eagerness of the production team to be as true to historical reality as possible, at least where the set was concerned was touching: some weeks later, during the filming, I took a call from the researcher to say that the clerks of Parliament who, true to the Wriothesley image, had been placed in a central location were in the camera’s way, so would I mind if they were moved to a table on one side of the room? (I did not.)  

Do the parliamentary scenes in ‘The King’ do justice to the reality of the early 15th century Parliament? Perhaps as much as we can say is that a fifteenth century peer transported from his own time onto the film set might recognise the occasion for what it was intended to be (although he might marvel at the language used). What is perhaps more tantalising for the historical practitioner is the sobering realisation of the limitations of our knowledge. Almost two centuries ago, the doyen of German medieval historiography, Leopold von Ranke, postulated that the ultimate aim of all historical inquiry should be to establish ‘wie es eigentlich gewesen’ (what it was really like). The experience of trying to inform a recreation of events, if anything, drives home just how far from that goal we still are.

H.W.K.

An up to date account of the meeting places, setting and procedure of Parliament in the first half of the fifteenth century will appear in the introductory survey to The History of Parliament: The Commons 1422-1461 ed. Linda Clark, to be published by Cambridge University Press later this year. Our Medieval MP of Month series will give you a sample of the individuals profiled in these volumes.

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