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Book Review: The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made England, by Dan Jones

Get your Johns, Dicks, and Harrys straight — the kings of England in the Middle Ages.


The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made England

Viking, 2012, 534 pages



The first Plantagenet king inherited a blood-soaked kingdom from the Normans and transformed it into an empire that stretched at its peak from Scotland to Jerusalem. In this epic history, Dan Jones vividly resurrects this fierce and seductive royal dynasty and its mythic world. We meet the captivating Eleanor of Aquitaine, twice queen and the most famous woman in Christendom; her son, Richard the Lionheart, who fought Saladin in the Third Crusade; and King John, a tyrant who was forced to sign Magna Carta, which formed the basis of our own Bill of Rights. This is the era of chivalry, Robin Hood, and the Knights Templar, the era of the Black Death, the Black Prince, the founding of Parliament, and the Hundred Years’ War.




Americans have a perverse fascination with royalty. Many are prone to fawning over the royals from the mother country more than their own subjects do. Probably modern British citizens have become jaded and cynical about their living relics in Buckingham, while we Yanks still find the idea of an "absolute ruler" by birthright foreign and exotic. (And let's be honest, lots of Americans would be happy to live under a monarch who promises to kick ass and build a wall to keep out the barbarians.)

Most of us, however, not having grown up with English kings and queens as part of our national history, can only name a few of them. There's good old King George, of course. And Henry VIII. And the king from Robin Hood. And the guy in Shakespeare's play... And, umm.... no, King Arthur doesn't count. Look, English kings are a long string of Henrys and Edwards and Richards and Johns. Who can differentiate between them?

The Plantagenets will help you out (though honestly, I still have trouble keeping all the various Edwards straight). And it's a really interesting read for anyone interested in history or the foundations of the British empire.

The Plantagenet line ruled from 1154 (Henry II) to 1399 (Richard II) - the High Middle Ages, more or less. They were the immediate descendants of William the Conqueror. The line ended (or really, split) into the two branches of Lancaster and York, which led the War of the Roses a few generations later. While George R.R. Martin is known to have loosely based his epic on that conflict, you'll learn in this book that the Plantagenets and their rivals were playing a game of thrones long before then.

The subtitle, "Warrior Kings and Queens," is somewhat of an exaggeration. Certainly some of these kings, like Richard I and Edward III, were literal warriors who led military campaigns and actually fought in battle. And a few of their wives were directly involved in leading some of the campaigns, at least politically, but it's doubtful that any queens were actually giving orders in the field, let alone riding into battle themselves.

Uneasy Lies the Head



The king (or queen) of England has never rested easy. Even before the Magna Carta was signed by the unpopular King John, the king could never take his power for granted. Reading The Plantagenets, you have to feel sorry for the kings, even the really terrible ones. They had troubles like any modern ruler - peers and parliaments that wouldn't give them the money they wanted to go crusading or waging war in France, relatives scheming to take their throne (half the time it was the king's own wife, brothers and even sons rebelling against him!), and while some kings enjoyed periods of popularity and absolute rule, a downfall was never far away. More than one king was basically reduced to a puppet, sometimes in danger of being imprisoned or beheaded by his own people. The king couldn't just do what he wanted, and those who did inevitably discovered that payback is a bitch.

This is more relevant to American history than you might think. England, it is clear, had a long history of curbing its more excessive rulers. A king could get away with an awful lot, but London would turn on you, the people would rise against you, your own family would depose you, if you went too far. So when the American colonists rebelled against King George (by which time the power of the monarchy was already a shadow of the days when a king or queen could say "Off with his head!"), they were following a tradition that went back to even before the Magna Carta.

Besides their rulership, in which the economy of England rose and fell, and sometimes it was peace and prosperity and other times it was nothing but famine, civil wars, and the Black Death, they all had marital or family problems, periodic invasions of or by France, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales (the long grinding conflict with those countries also began with the Plantagenets), and then of course there was the Church, which long before Henry VIII was vexing and occasionally excommunicating British monarchs who didn't want to do what the Pope said.

Who were the Plantagenets? Here's a quick line-up, but of course the book goes into far more detail, making each of these characters living, breathing, flawed historical figures. The author, Dan Jones, passes a verdict on each of them, generally the one popularized by historical consensus, but whether a king is now regarded as "good" or "bad," all of them had moments of glory (or at least fortitude), and moments of ignominy.

Henry II


Henry II

Did not actually say "Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?"


Generally reckoned as the first Plantagenet. A grandson of William the Conqueror, and married to Eleanor of Aquitaine (who continued to be an influential figure after his death). Started the long, multigenerational conflict with France, and raised England from a little island kingdom to a major European power. His own wife and sons started rebellions against him. Whether or not he actually had Thomas Becket killed is still debatable (he probably wasn't sorry to see him dead at the time, but he regretted it soon enough), but whatever he actually said that incited his men to kill the priest was probably more an expression of frustration than intended as a veiled command.

Richard I


Richard I

Aka "The Lionheart."


"Richard the Lionhearted," who rebelled against his old man, then took his crown upon Henry's death, then went off crusading in the Holy Lands, leading England to be ruined by his younger brother, King John, who was openly treasonous and by all accounts a coward and a weasel pretty much his entire life. And yet, when Richard returned, he forgave his brother, and John assumed the throne after his death. This wasn't great for England. Richard was the "good guy" king in Robin Hood. (In reality, Richard was brave and chivalrous in his own way, but he was also a violent, ruthless son of a bitch, like every other medieval king.) He exchanged correspondence with his arch-rival in Jerusalem, Saladin, but the two never actually met, counter to various historical fantasies.

King Richard and Prince John

John I


John

The "Robin Hood" King.


While historians today debate whether he really deserved his reputation as the villain of Robin Hood legends, he was by all accounts not one of England's nicer kings, and certainly not its most competent. After his brother Richard died and he became king (over the objections of Richard's advisors, who already knew how much John sucked as a monarch from the years Richard was away at Crusades, not even counting his literal treason), he almost ran England into the ground. He fought (another) losing war against France, was mockingly called "John Softsword" by his contemporaries, and is the king famously forced to sign the Magna Carta when the Barons got fed up with him.

Henry III


Henry III

"Let's soak the Jews!"


Henry III was more pious than his predecessors, naming his son Edward, after Edward the Confessor, which at the time was an odd choice as it was an old Anglo-Saxon name long out of fashion. Henry's piety didn't help him much in his foreign adventures, though he did manage to make friends with King Louis in France, signing a treaty that of course would not last long. He also faced several Barons' revolts, and began the popular English tradition of squeezing the Jews when the crown owed them too much money.

Edward I


Edward I

The "Braveheart" King.


The eldest son of Henry III, Edward continued his old man's tradition of persecuting the Jews, and eventually kicked them out of England altogether. He also went on a fruitless Crusade, and cranked up the animosity between England and Scotland and Wales for centuries to come. On the plus side, he reformed a lot of English laws and was generally a good king administratively. He had a real thing for Arthurian legends, and brought King Arthur back into style, modeling his court after an imagined version of Camelot, and thus is largely responsible for the romanticized version of King Arthur popular today.

Edward II


Edward II

His bromance almost wrecked the kingdom.


Since modern historians are always looking for evidence of homosexuality in historical figures, Edward II and his "favorite," Piers Gaveston, the Earl of Cornwall, are certainly ripe for speculation. There's no proof that the two of them were lovers, but the two of them were so close that Edward hung his and Gaveston's arms on the walls at his wedding, rather than those of his wife's. His bride's family was not amused, and Edward's barons got so sick of their bromance (not so much because of alleged homosexuality, but because the king was showing such rank favoritism and Piers was such a high-handed snot) that it led to years of revolt and unrest. Edward's wife, Isabella of France, went on a "vacation" to France from which she returned with her lover who basically deposed her husband and put their young son on the throne in his place. Edward died in a dungeon, with fairly strong evidence that he was murdered.

Edward III


Edward III

Didn't suck as much as his old man, but he did start the Hundred Years War.


Edward III was put on the throne at age fourteen by his mother and his mother's lover, who was effectively in charge. His first order of business was to take the country back from his mother's lover. He then proceeded to stomp all over Scotland and France in a fifty-year reign that started the Hundred Years War. Historians generally agree that he was good at war and not so good at all the other stuff involved in managing a country.

Richard II


Richard II

Ended the Plantagenet line, but at least he got his own Shakespeare play.


Richard II was the grandson of Edward III, because his father, Edward the Black Prince, died before he could assume the throne. Richard was basically the last Plantagenet king. Initially a boy-king with most power in the hands of elder barons, Richard showed some mettle early when he personally confronted Wat Tyler during the Peasants' Revolt. However, once he took the reins of power into his own hands, he turned into something of a monster, exiling or executing anyone who looked at him sideways. His exiled cousin, Henry of Bolingbroke, invaded England and took the throne from him, throwing Richard in a dungeon where he probably starved to death. Richard was a pretty lousy king, but Shakespeare's play, Richard II, probably made him out to be even worse than he was. When Henry IV took the throne, it ended the Plantagenet line, and also set the stage for the Wars of the Roses.


This was a really fascinating read, and while I still have trouble sorting out the various Henrys and Edwards, I have a better understanding of the pivotal events in British history and what its rulers did to shape the history that followed.

Rating: 9/10






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