The Plantagenets: the Kings Who Made England by Dan Jones: review
David Horspool enjoys The Plantagenets by Dan Jones, an action-packed journey into the world of England’s longest-ruling dynasty.
Richard II as depicted in the Wilton Dyptich
By David Horspool
10:38AM BST 21 May 2012
For all its longevity, the English Crown has been short on enduring dynasties. Even the most famous royal family, the Tudors, only occupied the throne for a little more than a century. The exception is the Plantagenets, the line descended from a queen and empress, Matilda, who never quite ruled England, and her husband, Geoffrey of Anjou, who never even set foot in the country. Plantagenets (the name derives from the sprig of broom, planta genista, that Geoffrey wore) sat on the English throne for at least 250 years, or more than 300 if you count the Lancastrians and Yorkists, all of whom had Plantagenet blood, who ruled until Richard III was killed at Bosworth in 1485.
Dan Jones’s hefty book does not take us that far (though he promises to, “one day”). But his action-packed narrative covers an enormous amount of historical ground, in pursuit of a family whose only common characteristic seems to have been excess. Beginning with Henry II’s excessive energy, Jones moves through Richard the Lionheart’s excessive devotion to waging war, John’s excessive scheming, Henry III’s excessive self-delusion, Edward I’s excessive cruelty towards the Jews and the Scots, his son Edward’s excessive devotion to his favourites, and the third Edward’s excessive pursuit of military glory, before arriving at Richard II’s excessive “imperial magnificence”, which was so starkly exposed by his invading cousin (and fellow Plantagenet), Henry Bolingbroke.
Jones’s book is, above all, a great story, filled with fighting, personality clashes, betrayal and bouts of the famous Plantagenet rage, whether it is Henry II “eating the straw from his mattress” at the mention of the King of Scotland; or his youngest son John, who on successive pages “flew into a rage” and is “sent… nearly mad with rage… swearing by God’s teeth that he would pluck out priests’ eyes and clip their false tongues”. These easily offended men took a leading role in some of the most memorable events in English history: the murder of Thomas Becket, the sealing of Magna Carta, one temporary loss and two total submissions of the crown, the rise and fall of William Wallace and Robert the Bruce in Scotland and Llywelyn ap Gruffudd in Wales, the victories of Falkirk, Crécy and Poitiers, and the defeats of Bouvines, Stirling Bridge and Bannockburn.
Jones is an impressively confident guide to this tumultuous scene, roving from Jerusalem to Dublin, with the Plantagenets’ French territories rightly taking almost as prominent a place as England. As well as the natural divisions of the individual reigns, he arranges his book into seven “ages”. He begins with the shipwreck that led indirectly to the rise of the Plantagenets, when Henry I’s only son William drowned in the White Ship in 1120, and the civil war of Stephen’s reign that followed.
Jones tells us that this period “is usually known as the Anarchy, but those who lived through it and wrote of England’s darkest days preferred to call it the Shipwreck” – though one irritating consequence of dispensing with notes means that we don’t know who called it that. From the Shipwreck, we move through an Age of Empire, when Angevin lands stretched from Aquitaine to Scotland, until John lost great swathes of it.
The Age of Opposition charts the first and second Barons’ Wars against John and his son Henry III, who was temporarily disempowered by Simon de Montfort. The Age of Arthur details the rise of Edward I and his devotion to the legendary king, including an “eerie ceremony at twilight in Glastonbury Abbey” at Easter, 1278, when the tombs of Arthur and Guinevere were opened.
The Ages of Violence and Glory cover the very contrasting fortunes of Edward II and Edward III, while the Age of Revolution reaches the ultimately pathetic fall of “a paranoid king”, Richard II, consigned to a dungeon where “all his magnificence and splendour was [sic] finally and utterly subdued”.
The unrelenting pace leaves only a little room for taking stock, but Jones’s ideas about what his very different kings were trying to do seem sound, if not off-puttingly original. Henry II wanted to “secure the frontiers of his empire, and assert and deepen his authority within the areas he ruled”. John is “devious and cowardly”, but his downfall owed more to the success of his administration, whose efficiency alienated powerful barons, than its failure. Jones also makes clear that showing off – Richard I’s crown-wearing on returning from captivity, or Edward III’s addiction to jousting and other conspicuous demonstrations of chivalry – was a serious element of medieval kingship.
The Plantagenets, like the dynasty it describes, is not an unmitigated triumph. Occasionally, the tendency towards what Kingsley Amis called “compulsive vividness” slides into cliché, with troops “armed to the teeth” and celebrations “lavish”. Jones surely doesn’t mean that “it is impossible to understate the hatred that flared against Gaveston”, even if the opposite can’t quite be true either. But these are false strokes on a vast, teeming canvas. The Plantagenets succeeds in bringing an extraordinary family arrestingly to life.
The Plantagenets: the Kings Who Made England
by Dan Jones
632pp, Harper Press. t £21 (PLUS £1.25 p&p) Buy now from Telegraph Books (RRP £25, ebook £25)