Tidewater Review - November 2013

The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made England

reviewed by

Anne Stinson

The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made England by Dan Jones. Viking. 510 pp. $30.

“There’ll always be an England,” according to the song, but in truth, it wasn’t always a sure thing, as British historian Dan Jones makes clear in this wonderfully readable record of the royals who ruled the unruly realm as it squiggled out of the Middle Ages. In fact, the author is quite candid in the preface, writing, “This is also a book written to entertain.” He has delightfully succeeded with that goal.
Rather than plunging headlong into the cast of Plantagenets who ruled England in extraordinary times, Jones backs up to start his story with King William “the Conqueror” during the Norman rule. He’s “the Bastard of Normandy” who ruled England from 1066 until 1087. After his death, his son William II (“Rufus”) ascended to the throne, followed by his brother Henry I. Time out for a 20-year civil war while the Conqueror’s grandchildren fight over who next would wear the crown.
Geoffrey Plantagenet’s son Henry became Henry II, king of the realm that included the land north as far as the border of Scotland and west until it bumps into the mountains of Wales (both of them too cranky to submit to submission), plus large patches of French territory as far south as the Pyrenees. Henry II’s wife was Eleanor of Aquitaine, a factor that definitely didn’t harm England’s status in Europe.
When the story of The Plantagenets arrives on the scene, the pattern was fixed for the ensuring two-plus centuries of family rule. In the Middle Ages, countries were constantly at war. If the current time didn’t include a battle with a neighbor, it featured a Crusade to free the holy lands from “the infidels,” or a war to take back a territory won by England from France or vice versa, or a quarrel over who should be the true Pope.
It was also an era when public relations were paramount. During brief times of peace, the king was likely to be on the move keeping an eye on the property. The more face-time, the better. Their costumes were flamboyant, lavish robes with furs, gold threads and precious stones sewn on garments, dashing tunics on long caravans of servants.
Hundreds of marchers plodded in the long parades from one castle or manor house to another. Hundreds of knights to impress the common folk ~ and a lesson in the reason for high taxes: to pay for rented mercenaries to swell the sizes of armies. Mounted archers carried crossbows, plus the latest weapon of warfare, English longbows. The king’s travels covered the realm with lots of pomp and thin circumstance.
In peacetime, the king’s journeys are part of his responsibilities. He must keep in touch with the nobles, who were always complaining over money demands for wars or for sheriffs to keep the commoners in line, and judges to relieve the king’s responsibility to hear every trial. He traveled to thank bishops for conducting a noble’s wedding, a royal coronation or blessing a new castle. Being king was no job for a slacker, although more than once the Royal family was disappointed by kinfolk who didn’t make the grade.
With the passing years Jones wraps around the rule of Plantagenets, 1154 - 1399, England changed from a lawless, dangerous country into a relatively well-ordered kingdom. During that period “were founded some of the most basic elements of what we today know as England,” Jones concludes. “The realm’s borders were established... Principles of law and institutions of government that have endured to this day were created in their essential forms...A rich mythology and legend was concocted...the English tongue rose from its uncultured, rather coarse local dialect to become the language of parliamentary debate...Great palaces, castles and cathedrals were raised ..Many of them still stand as testaments to the genius of the men who conceived them, built them and defended them against attack...Heroes were born, died and became legends; some of them were villains ~ and some of those villains wore the crown,” Jones writes.
Along with the praise, Jones doesn’t flinch at the horrors of the period. His combing through ancient records, commentaries of the clergy, minutes of parliamentary meetings, letters, and diaries, reveals the cacophony of life as it was. During those years “many acts of savagery, butchery, cruelty and stupidity were commanded,” Jones writes. He concludes that by 1399, “the chilly island had been transformed into one of the most sophisticated and important kingdoms in Christendom.” True, but men were still being sent to the Tower, where they were deliberately starved or beheaded, drawn and quartered, hanged and their intestines cut out while they were poised for the rope.
The Plantagenets were an amazing family. The reader is repeatedly able to construct a character drawn and painted from the intimate records that survive. The king whose temper tantrums are as candidly recorded as his victories on the battlefield or his passion for his wife comes to life on the page.
In many cases, the queens become visual as easily as their husbands. Henry II’s mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, came from a noble line in her own right, had been married to the king of France before she married Geoffrey Plantagenet and knew her role perfectly. She was expected to produce not just an heir, but a collection of heirs to make sure that there would be survivors to continue the line in what was calmly understood to be uncertain circumstances. She was an intelligent, brave woman who saw her job and fulfilled it.
Because Eleanor insisted on keeping the Duchy of Aquitaine in her own control, her husband sent her into what amounted to house arrest in England. Eventually, Eleanor joined her favorite son, Richard, and three of her other sons to defy their father in battle and to overturn his preference for their brother, “the Young King,” Henry, to succeed him to the crown. Young Henry died before his father, ending that possibility.
Richard I became king, tutored by his mother since childhood in the arts of war and politics, and ruled with wisdom, mending the rents in the previous upheavals. Richard I earned the tag “the Lionheart” for his valor during the Third Crusade. During his return from that war, he was captured and held for ransom by German Emperor Henry VI.
Back in England, Richard’s brother John was happy to hear that his rival brother was in an imperial prison. John did his best to raise a rebellion, planning to let Richard remain out of circulation while the task of collecting money for his ransom bail-out lagged. Except for France, Richard’s plight roused a swell of help from England as well as the continent. The ransom was a kingly sum indeed, but after a year and six weeks Richard was free and on his way to England. He had been gone for nearly four years, Jones notes.
After a rousing reception and tour to inspect the efficiency of government under its new caretaker, it was time for the king to return to France to secure the Plantagenet Empire there.
Brother John had been full of mischief while Henry VI was busy capturing a path to Jerusalem. John had granted away vital castles in Touraine and even weakened English influence in part of Aquitaine. Meanwhile, Richard was ahead in the disputes with France and a long-time truce was in order. Before that could happen, he was killed by the bolt from an enemy crossbow in a small, unimportant engagement in 1199.
John became King of England and frittered his reign away in “an appetite for power but not for a fight.” By 1215, the French possessions by more than a century of Plantagenet wars were all but gone. England sank into a long civil war. John’s quarrels with his barons had become so serious he was forced to share power with them. He was unaware that what he considered his humiliation was his triumph, the Magna Carta.
John’s son Henry III became king at the age of nine and inherited the barons’ war and invasion by France. He died in 1272 and the crown went to his cousin Edward I. Both kings spent most of their time dealing with problems at home. The Magna Carta was only the beginning of addressing the barons’ complaints, but each revision brought a more equitable practice.
Both kings were also cruel and terrifying. It was said of Edward I that he was “so fierce he frightened a man to death.” He tired of fighting abroad and decided to solidify territories at home. He concentrated on Scotland and Wales. Jones’ comment is that the two separate countries’ reaction to that “has never entirely waned.”
The legend of King Arthur was beginning to be popular in England, and Edward I fancied himself “the Inheritor” of Arthur and nearly united the island’s warring parts. Jones rates him “one of the great Plantagenets.” He follows that sentence by naming his son, Edward II, as “the worst of them.” He never comprehended the basic obligations of kingship, foreign policy, isolation from the political community and murderous civil war, among other outrages Jones lists.
Edward III, the son of the “worst,” is rated “the greatest of all the Plantagenet kings, a teenage puppet king under his mother and her lover...” He soon shook off their influence and the next three decades of history were “The Age of Glory.” Along with his son, “The Black Prince,” and his cousin, “they pulverized France and Scotland(and other enemies)in the opening phases of the Hundred Years War.”
All should have been perfect, but his grandson Richard II came to the throne in 1377 as the French began to fight back, Edward’s sons had messed up foreign policy, and, worst of all, the bubonic plaque reached England. Richard II was described as “a suspicious, greedy, violent and spiteful king” who was succeeded by Henry XIV, from the House of Lancaster. This was the first interruption to the Plantagenet dynasty.
Jones includes family trees, both English and French, maps that illustrate border changes in both realms and eight pages of paintings of some of the royals. For fans of the period and readers who simply enjoy a fascinating true tale, this is the best, an absolute gem.

Anne Stinson began her career in the 1950s as a free lance for the now defunct Baltimore News-American, then later for Chesapeake Publishing, the Baltimore Sun and Maryland Public Television’s panel show, Maryland Newsrap. Now in her ninth decade, she still writes a monthly book review for Tidewater Times.