Dan Jones's 'The Plantagenets' is a glittering pageant of a book which brings to life 300 years of history
Image 1 of 2
The quarrelsome line of Plantagenet kings, whose history is recounted in Dan Jones's 'The Plantagenets'Photo: Alamy By Nigel Jones7:00AM BST 23 May 2012
The Normandy coastline, as the D-Day planners discovered, can be a tricky and treacherous shore. In November 1120, a large longboat, the White Ship, set sail for England from the small port of Barfleur.
It carried the cream of the Anglo-Norman nobility, including Prince William the Atheling, only legitimate son and heir of England’s King Henry I, along with a boatload of carousing courtiers. Befuddled with drink, the crew did not even manage to clear the harbour, ploughing into a set of rocks, the Quillebeuf, and tipping their passengers into the chilly winter water. Only one person, a butcher whose sheepskin clothes kept the biting cold at bay, survived.
Dan Jones opens his vivid chronicle of the Plantagenet dynasty – the monarchs who ruled England for almost three centuries from 1154 until the overthrow of Richard II in 1399 – with the wreck of the White Ship, since this contemporary Titanic was both a metaphor for the 20-year “shipwreck” of civil war that followed the death of the bereaved and heirless Henry, but also gave birth to the new ruling House.
The Plantagenets presided over England’s rise from obscure conquered province to a major European power, complete with a continental empire stretching from Ireland and Scotland to the borders of Spain.
Their name – rarely used until Shakespeare popularised it – sprang from a sprig of broom, the “Plante Genest”, habitually worn in the hat of Geoffrey Plantagenet, second husband of Henry I’s daughter Matilda. It was Matilda’s persistent, and typically Plantagenet, attempts to assert her right to succeed her father against the sexist opposition of the barons who had nominated one of their own, Stephen of Blois, as king, that triggered the 20-year chaotic “Great Anarchy”, when it was said that “Christ and his saints slept”.
Although Matilda’s arrogance, along with her gender, alienated her would-be subjects, she succeeded in forcing Stephen to accept that her son, Henry II, would succeed to the throne, becoming the first Plantagenet king.
Jones has a huge medieval tapestry to embroider, ranging from the Middle East of Richard the Lionheart’s Third Crusade to the battlefields of the Hundred Years War. His main theme, doggedly pursued across the eight reigns he covers, is consistent: the constantly renewed struggle between the Plantagenet kings, and their over-mighty subjects, the barons.
It might be objected that a biographical narrative is too traditional, even old-fashioned, an approach to the complexities of medieval society, but Jones’s grasp of his subject is so sure, and his use of sources so judicious, that the lives of his kings seems a natural way to keep the big picture firmly in view.
The hereditary genetic characteristics of the Plantagenets – alongside their physical traits of red hair, droopy eyelids and tall stature – were fierce tempers, restless energy, autocratic will and a tendency to quarrel with their own families, as well as their nobility.
Jones’s narrative dives repeatedly into bloodbaths as weak kings lose their authority and the kingdom slides yet again back into civil war. After the horrendous “Great Anarchy” caused by the void left in the wake of the White Ship, Henry II proved a strong king, exerting royal control over the barons, and acquiring a substantial slice of France via his marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine. But his Plantagenet pugnacity found an outlet in furiously sanctioning the murder of his former friend, Archbishop Thomas Becket, while in ruinously quarrelling with his wife and sons – including his successors Richard I and John – Henry negated much of what he had achieved.
John infamously and unsuccessfully warred with everyone, and Jones certainly does not go along with those revisionists who would have us believe that this horrible murderer of women and children – probably our worst ever king – was not as bad as all that. John’s wars with his barons – continued by his pious but useless son Henry III – did, however, have the unintended consequence of bringing us the Magna Carta, cornerstone of the laws that finally curbed such arbitrary regal authority.
Clearly despising John, Jones is much more indulgent towards his elder brother Richard, despite the Crusader Lionheart’s ruthless slaughter of Muslim captives at the siege of Acre. In fact, Jones rather admires all the warrior kings, recognising the grim reality that the only alternative to royal autocracy was anarchy, and that the grossest excesses occurred not during the reigns of the regal soldiers – Henry II; the castle-building Edward I, “hammer of the Scots”; Edward III, who launched the Hundred Years War with France – but under the fumbling rule of the weak ditherers: John, Henry III, Edward II and Richard II. This latter quartet combined the worst of both worlds, being tyrannical without the competence to enforce their will, and, in the cases of Edward and Richard, causing their own downfalls and deaths.
Jones is sensibly cautious about anachronistically attributing modern sexual attitudes to the Plantagenets. It appears that Richard I was what we would call gay, and Edward II more so; yet Jones suggests that Edward’s inordinate and fatal devotion to his favourite Piers Gaveston, may have been no more than a blood brotherhood modelled on the Biblical example of David and Jonathan.
Although we moderns may sympathise with those kings, like Henry III, who put their energies into beautifying churches and patronising artists rather than in making war or brutalising their subjects, their contemporaries were not so understanding. Edward II was scorned for preferring rowing and ploughing to jousts and battles, and only his son Edward III managed to combine aestheticism – he founded the Order of the Garter and revived the cult of Arthur’s Camelot – with the martial virtues.
Jones has written a magnificently rich and glittering medieval pageant, guiding us into the distant world of the Plantagenets with familiar confidence. This riveting history of an all-too-human ruling House amply confirms the arrival of a formidably gifted historian.