Eight generations of the greatest and worst kings and queens that this country has ever seen - from the White Ship to the Lionheart, bad King John to the Black Prince and John of Gaunt - this is the dynasty that invented England as we still know it today - great history to appeal to readers of Ken Follet, Bernard Cornwell, Tom Holland England's greatest royal dynasty, the Plantagenets, ruled over England through eight generations of kings. Their remarkable reign saw England emerge from the Dark Ages to become a highly organised kingdom that spanned a vast expanse of Europe. Plantagenet rule saw the establishment of laws and creation of artworks, monuments and tombs which survive to this day, and continue to speak of their sophistication, brutality and secrets. Dan Jones brings you a new vision of this battle-scarred history. From the Crusades, to King John's humbling over Magna Carta and the tragic reign of the last Plantagenet, Richard II - this is a blow-by-blow account of England's most thrilling age.
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Dan Jones took a first in History from Pembroke College, Cambridge in 2002. He is an award-winning journalist and a pioneer of the resurgence of interest in medieval history. His first book on the Peasants' Revolt received widespread critical acclaim. This is his second book. He lives in London.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
French Kings, 1060–1422
House of Capet
House of Valois
Who were the Plantagenets? The name was not used by any of the characters in this book to describe themselves, with the exception of one: Geoffrey count of Anjou, a handsome, belligerent redheaded young man born in 1113, who wore a sprig of yellow broom blossom in his hat and decorated his shield with lions. It was from the Latin name (Planta genista) of the broom that the name Plantagenet derived, while lions passant guardant became the heraldic symbol of English kingship, carried before vast armies from the chilly Lowlands of Scotland to the dusty plains of the Middle East. There is some irony here: Geoffrey never visited England, took scant direct interest in the affairs of the realm, and died in 1151, three years before his eldest son inherited the English Crown.
Nevertheless, Plantagenet is a powerful name. The kings who descended from Geoffrey ruled England for more than two centuries, beginning with Henry II, who inherited the Crown in 1154, and ending with Richard II, who was relieved of it by his cousin Henry Bolingbroke in 1399. They were the longest reigning English royal dynasty, and during their times were founded some of the most basic elements of what we today know as England. The realm’s borders were established, as were its relationships with its neighbors—principally Scotland, Wales, France, and Ireland, but also the Low Countries, the papacy, and the Iberian states that eventually became Spain. Principles of law and institutions of government that have endured to this day were created in their essential forms—some deliberately, others either by accident or under duress. A rich mythology of national history and legend was concocted, and the cults of two national saints—Edward the Confessor and St. George—were established. The English tongue rose from an uncultured, rather coarse local dialect to become the language of parliamentary debate and poetic composition. Great castles, palaces, cathedrals, and monuments were raised; many of them still stand as testament to the genius of the men who conceived them, built them, and defended them against attack. Heroes were born, died, and became legends; so too were villains whose names still echo through the pages of history. (Some of those villains wore the crown.) Several of the most famous and dramatic battles in European history were fought, at Bouvines and Bannockburn, Sluys and Winchelsea, Crécy and Poitiers. Military tactics were revolutionized between a Norman age, in which warfare was the art of siegecraft, and the dawn of the fifteenth century, during which pitched battles were commonplace and the English, with their brave men-at-arms and deadly mounted archers, were the scourge of Europe. By the end of the Plantagenet years, the English had begun to explore the art of war on the open seas. Naval tactics lagged some way behind tactics in the field, but by the middle of the fourteenth century something resembling an English navy could be deployed to protect the coasts and attack enemy shipping. It is undeniable that during the Plantagenet years many acts of savagery, butchery, cruelty, and stupidity were committed, but by 1399, where this book ends, the chilly island realm that had been conquered by William, the bastard of Normandy, in 1066 had been transformed into one of the most sophisticated and important kingdoms in Christendom. At its heart lay the power and prestige of the royal family.
That is the process described in this book, but this is also a book written to entertain. It is a narrative history, and it tells some of the great stories of England. They include the civil war between Stephen and Matilda; the murder of Thomas Becket by Henry II’s knights; the Great War of 1173–1174; Richard I’s wars against Saladin on the Third Crusade; the Barons’ War against King John and the ratification of the Magna Carta; Henry III’s hapless attempts to deal with the barons of a later age, including his brother-in-law and nemesis Simon de Montfort; Edward I’s campaigns in Wales and Scotland; Edward II’s peculiar romance with Piers Gaveston and his dismal abdication in 1327; Edward III’s provocation of the Hundred Years War, in which he fought alongside his son the Black Prince and captured the king of France, and the subsequent institution of the Order of the Garter to celebrate England’s new martial supremacy; the scourge of the Black Death; Richard II’s heroism against Wat Tyler’s rebels during the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, which was followed by Richard’s tyranny and his final fall. These stories are exciting in their own right; they are also part of a historical canon that still, even in the cultural chaos of the twenty-first century, defines England as a nation and as a people. The Plantagenet kings did not just invent England as a political, administrative, and military entity. They also helped invent the idea of England, an idea that has as much importance today as it ever had before.
This is a long book, and it could have been longer still. For ease of reading I have divided the text into seven sections. Part I, “Age of Shipwreck,” illustrates the dismal state to which England had sunk by the end of its period of Norman rule, which began under William the Conqueror and continued during the reigns of two of his sons, William Rufus and Henry I. After the death of the latter, a vicious and paralyzing civil war engulfed England and Normandy. It was fought between rival claimants, the Conqueror’s grandson King Stephen and his granddaughter Empress Matilda, and it took nearly two decades to resolve it in favor of the latter. During that time England was effectively partitioned between two courts and two competing governments, leaving public authority splintered and the countryside a smoldering ruin, infested with mercenaries. Only with the accession of Matilda’s son—her eldest child by Geoffrey Plantagenet, a disheveled, quick-tempered, but brilliant boy known as Henry FitzEmpress—was the realm reunited and restored to good governance. Henry FitzEmpress became Henry II, and through a combination of some good fortune, immense personal energy, and a great deal of military capability and hardheaded purpose, Henry set about establishing himself, and by association the English Crown, as the master of a patchwork of territories reaching from the borders of Scotland to the foothills of the Pyrenees.
The story of Henry II’s rule over his vast dominions and their gradual, if unintended, coherence into a form of empire is the subject of Part II, “Age of Empire.” It charts Henry’s astonishing conquests, his catastrophic dispute with his onetime best friend Thomas Becket, and the king’s struggles with his feckless children and extraordinary wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, which some contemporaries believed were divine punishment for Becket’s death. “Age of Empire” also explores Henry’s revolutionary reforms of English law, justice, and bureaucracy, reforms that gave England legal processes and principles of government that endured for centuries.
Despite the feats and achievements of his astonishing reign, Henry II is one of the lesser-known Plantagenet kings. Not so his third son, Richard I, “the Lionheart,” who inherited the Plantagenet empire in 1189, during the white heat of Europe’s most enthusiastic crusading years. Richard, who spent a surprisingly small amount of time in England given the heroic status he achieved there within decades of his death, devoted his life to defending and expanding the horizons of Plantagenet power. This led him to conquests as far afield as Sicily, Cyprus, and the kingdom of Jerusalem during the Third Crusade, before he returned, via an expensive imprisonment in Germany, to fight for his inheritance against the French king Philip II, “Augustus.” “Age of Empire” ends in 1204, when Richard’s brother King John suffered a humiliating defeat to Philip, lost the duchy of Normandy, and disgraced his family’s military legacy in a reign that was to influence relations between England and France for almost 150 years.
The repercussions of John’s military failure are explored in Part III, “Age of Opposition.” After the loss of Normandy, the kings of England were forced to live permanently in England, a state of affairs that brought John rapidly into conflict with his barons, churchmen, and Celtic neighbors. “Age of Opposition” begins during the dark days of John’s reign, when military successes against Wales, Scotland, and Ireland were clouded by the unusual cruelty of a defective king. John’s use and misuse of the sophisticated system of government bequeathed to him by his father provoked one of the greatest constitutional crises in English history. In 1215 England collapsed into a long civil war, at the heart of which lay a question: How could a realm discipline a tyrannical king? It was a question that a failed peace treaty known as the Magna Carta sought unsuccessfully to answer. The Magna Carta expressed some important principles of English government, and the great charter subsequently became a rallying cry to opponents of the Crown during the reign of John’s son Henry III and the early career of his grandson Edward I. It was to the Magna Carta that all opponents of the Crown turned at moments of crisis for the rest of the thirteenth century. Chief among these opponents was a man called Simon de Montfort. Henry III’s and Edward’s wars with de Montfort eventually brought the “Age of Opposition” to a close.
Part IV begins in 1260, toward the end of the long period of intermittent civil war between Plantagenet kings and their barons. The royal hero of this time was Edward I, a tall and relentless king who was said to be so fierce that he once actually scared a man to death. Under Edward’s belligerent leadership, the English were finally induced to cease fighting one another and turn their attentions on their neighbors Scotland and Wales. Edward I’s brutal attempts to become the master not only of England but also of the whole of Britain are the subject of “Age of Arthur.” The popularity of Arthurian tales and relic hunting increased as a new mythology of English kingship was explored. Edward cast himself as the inheritor of Arthur (originally a legendary Welsh king), who sought to reunite the British Isles and usher in a great new age of royal rule. Despite flurries of outrage from his barons, who began to organize political opposition through the nascent political body known as parliament, Edward very nearly succeeded in his goals, and his influence over England’s relations with Scotland and Wales has never entirely waned.
Edward I was undoubtedly one of the great, if not one of the more personally endearing, Plantagenets. His son Edward II was the worst of them on every score. In Part V, “Age of Violence,” this book examines the desperate tale of a king who failed completely to comprehend any of the basic obligations of kingship and whose reign dissolved into a ghastly farce of failure in foreign policy, complete isolation of the political community, and murderous civil war. Edward’s disastrous relationships with his favorites Piers Gaveston and Hugh Despenser the Younger wreaked havoc on English politics, as did the brutish behavior of Edward’s cousin Thomas earl of Lancaster, who waged uncompromising war on the king until he was executed in 1322. Through Lancaster’s belligerence and Edward’s inadequacy, kingship was debased, degraded, and finally attacked by the king’s own subjects; the pages of English history between 1307 and 1330 are stained with blood. Part V aims to explain how this came to be so and how the bloodshed was eventually brought to an end.
The greatest of all the Plantagenet kings was Edward III, who inherited the throne as a teenage puppet king under his mother and her lover Roger Mortimer. He soon shook off their influence, and the next three triumphant decades of his reign are described in Part VI, “Age of Glory.” Under the accomplished generalship of Edward, his son the Black Prince, and his cousin Henry Grosmont, England pulverized France and Scotland (as well as other enemies, including Castile) in the opening phases of the Hundred Years War. Victories on land at Halidon Hill (1333), Crécy (1346), Calais (1347), Poitiers (1356), and Nájera (1367) established the English war machine, built around the power of the deadly longbow, as Europe’s fiercest. Success at sea at Sluys (1340) and Winchelsea (1350) also gave the Plantagenets confidence in the uncertain arena of warfare on water. Edward and his sons deliberately encouraged a national mythology that interwove Arthurian legend, a new cult of St. George, and a revival of the code of knightly chivalry in the Order of the Garter. They created a culture that bonded England’s aristocracy together in the common purpose of war. By 1360 Plantagenet kingship had reached its apotheosis. Political harmony at home was matched by dominance abroad. A new period of greatness beckoned.
Then, just as suddenly as it had arrived, English preeminence dissolved. Part VII charts just how rapidly fortune’s wheel, a favorite medieval metaphor for the vicissitudes of life, could turn. After 1360 Edward’s reign began to decay, and by the accession of his grandson Richard II in 1377 a crisis of rule had begun to emerge. Richard inherited many very serious problems. The Black Death, which ravaged Europe’s population in wave after wave of pestilence from the middle of the fourteenth century, had turned England’s economic order upside down. Divisions among the old king’s sons led to a fractured foreign policy, while France, revived under Charles V and Charles VI, began to push the English back once more toward the Channel. But if Richard was dealt a bad hand, he played it diabolically. Plantagenet kingship and the royal court imported trappings of magnificence; the first great medieval English writers—Geoffrey Chaucer, John Gower, and William Langland—set to work. But Richard was a suspicious, greedy, violent, and spiteful king, who alienated some of the greatest men in his kingdom. By 1399 the realm had tired of him, and he was deposed by his cousin Henry Bolingbroke.
That is where this book ends. It would be perfectly possible, in theory, to have carried on. Direct descendants of Edward III continued to rule England until 1485, when Henry Tudor took the throne from Richard III at Bosworth. Indeed, the name Plantagenet first came into royal use during the Wars of the Roses, when in 1460 the Parliament Rolls record “Richard Plantaginet, commonly called Duc of York,” claiming to be king of England. Thereafter Edward IV and Richard III awarded the surname to some of their illegitimate children—a nod to royalty outside the official family tree, whose use denoted a connection to an ancient and legendary royal bloodline.
I have defined England’s Plantagenet years as being between the dates 1154 and 1400 for three reasons.
First, this was the only period of the English Middle Ages in which the Crown passed with general certainty from one generation to the next without any serious succession disputes or wars of dynastic legitimacy. With the exceptions of Arthur of Brittany and Prince Louis of France, who made hopeful but ultimately fruitless claims at the beginning and end of King John’s torrid reign, there were no rival claimants to the English Crown during these years. The same cannot be said either for the Norman period that ended with King Stephen’s reign or for the century following Richard II’s deposition, when the Plantagenet dynasty split into its two cadet branches of Lancaster and York.
Second, I have chosen to write about the period 1154–1399 simply because it seems to me that this is one of th...
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