The Plantagenets

The Plantagenets: these were the kings under whose inconceivably turbulent and violent reign England became the country it still recognizably is today — in geography, language, political culture, and, one might even venture, national character. When the first Plantagenet king, Henry II (great-grandson of the Conqueror and son of the Count of Anjou, Geoffroi Plantagenêt — hence the name) assumed the throne in 1154, what we now call the English Channel was not a barrier but a causeway connecting the vast holdings of the Anglo-Norman inheritance. France was a patchwork of discrete territories, ruled by noblemen who were essentially warlords, owing little allegiance to any centralized authority. The Anglo-Norman ruler was a great magnate rather than a divinely appointed monarch, battling with other Continental magnates to preserve his lands — the most important of which were assumed to be the French ones. Yet by the time the last Plantagenet, Richard III, lost his life at Bosworth Field in 1485, the English kings had shed their foreign possessions along with the French language; their legal system had developed into a distinctively English one; and their relations with their closest neighbors, Wales and Scotland, were much as they are today. From being French warlords they had become British monarchs, and though they were not yet constitutional ones, the signs pointing in that direction can in hindsight be perceived.

This is the tale told with verve and a certain amount of conscious pageantry by the young English historian Dan Jones in The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made England, of which the first of two projected volumes has just been published in the United States. This takes the story from the twelfth-century “Anarchy,” the battle for the Conqueror’s patrimony between two of his grandchildren, Stephen and Matilda (and the eventual triumph of Matilda’s line), to the deposition of Richard II in 1399, when the dynasty split into two sections, launching the so-called Wars of the Roses. It’s a complex story, known to us Yanks, with our poor educational standards in European history, more from Shakespeare and Mel Gibson than from our schoolbooks. The Plantagenets makes mincemeat of the so-called “history” doled out by Braveheart and the no more reliable film versions of Robin Hood, though Jones by no means eschews their dramatic approach to storytelling, for as a historian he returns unapologetically to the sort of narrative history — exciting yarns of monarchs and “great men” — that has been unfashionable for the last fifty years, during which time academic historians have tended to concentrate on larger socioeconomic trends and the lives of ordinary people, often peasants. The Plantagenets is an old-fashioned, one might even say swashbuckling, account of a blood-soaked dynasty.

Curiously enough, Jones’s evaluation of the embattled monarchs and belligerent barons who bludgeon their way through his pages is also quite traditional. He seldom questions the chivalric standards on which leaders have traditionally been judged, stating blandly, for instance, “The greatest of all the Plantagenet kings was Edward III” — a claim that should be and indeed frequently has been challenged. What does the word great mean, when it comes to statecraft?  If we define it as the ability to win spectacular battles and to achieve triumphs in public relations, then yes, Jones has a point: Edward (r. 1327–77), aided by his glamorous son the Black Prince, laid claim to the throne of France, gained back many of the dynasty’s lost French territories in dazzling set-piece battles like Poitiers and Crécy, and created 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…. [A] culture that bonded England’s aristocracy together in the common purpose of war.” But the cost of military glory was, as ever, exorbitant, its fruits evanescent. Edward’s military tactics were brutal even by the standards of his day: “bloody rampages around enemy countryside, burning, looting, and killing with no greater strategic purpose than to demoralize enemy civilians.” His chronic warmongering plunged him into deep debts with Italian bankers (debts on which he eventually defaulted, precipitating a financial crisis in Florence and the rise of the Medici); at home the economic brunt was borne, inevitably, by the overtaxed peasantry.

A rural laborer born in 1300 would have been lucky to reach his fortieth birthday…. Had he done so, he would have lived through near-constant war on two fronts, seven years of the Great Famine coinciding with a period of plummeting wages, and onerous rates of taxation, while hearing rumors that Edward III rather enjoyed his expensive campaigns in Flanders as an excuse to hold lavish, wasteful, and costly tournaments.

And all for what? In the years since King John had lost most of the Plantagenet patrimony in Normandy and Aquitaine, these provinces had remained French while the Plantagenets were beginning to be seen as Englishmen, foreign and hence unpopular overlords in France. “[A]t the heart of Edward’s tactics,” Jones points out, “lay a paradox: although his army had inflicted a crushing defeat on the combined forces of the French king and his son, it had in no way endeared the people of Normandy to English lordship, or won favor for an English king over a French one.” The same was true in Aquitaine, where cities reconquered by Edward defected en masse back to the French Crown. The vicious revenge of the Black Prince, slowly dying from dysentery, and the unedifying dotage of Edward III revealed that the family’s claim to the French throne was a hollow fiction, and when the Black Prince’s ten-year-old son, Richard II, succeeded his grandfather in 1377 he was welcomed with relief, seen by many as God-given, even Christlike in his potential to bring peace to the realm. Of course the paranoiac and unstable Richard turned out to be totally unequal to the demands of kingship, and the disasters of his monarchy did much to reburnish Edward’s image in popular memory.

One after the other, all the early Plantagenet kings — Henry II, Richard I, John, Henry III, Edwards I, II, and III, and Richard II — emptied their treasuries for the purposes of war, pageantry, and vast building projects, and when the coffers were empty the lower echelons of society had to pony up. One might conclude (though Jones does not explicitly do so) that the reason England began during this period to develop the foundations of the relatively enlightened political and legal culture that would distinguish it until the end of the millennium is precisely because of the Plantagenets’ rapacity: with commoners taxed and pressed intolerably, and proud and once-powerful barons pushed to the sidelines, some system had to be found to contain the kings’ voracity, wanton destruction, and capricious favoritism. Magna Carta, the barons’ bargain with King John in 1215, is the most famous of the compromises that were hammered out during the Plantagenet years and that defined the limits of the monarchs’ power and gave some measure of legal redress to their subjects. But there were many others, including the Charter of Liberties (1154), the Charter of the Forest (1217), the Provisions of Oxford (1258), the Statute of Marlborough (1267), and the Statute of Laborers (1351). It might be said, then, that the Plantagenets’ destructive ways, devastating in the short term, strengthened England in the long run.

With the Plantagenets as with other political leaders, charisma, machismo, and the common touch did much to make up for crude rapacity. Edward I bludgeoned the Welsh into submission and drove the beleaguered Scots into the arms of the French, initiating the “Auld Alliance” that would plague English monarchs for centuries to come; he also expelled England’s Jewish population. Yet the noble aura he took on in casting himself as the new King Arthur has never really worn off. Richard I, “Coeur de Lion,” was as brutal as any of his line, and as spendthrift: the “Saladin tithe” he imposed on his subjects to fund the Third Crusade, his depletion of the royal treasury (he quipped that he would sell London itself if he could find a buyer), and the enormous ransom paid for his person afterward — a 25 percent tax on all income and moveables — would not have been forgiven a less attractive monarch, but the glamorous Richard got away with it, with Jones stating, “The sums he demanded may have been fed into the insatiable maw of siegecraft and bloody warfare, but they were never wasted.” This is an inexplicable claim in view of the sticky end and ultimate futility of the entire crusading venture; Richard’s tenuous gains in the Third Crusade were very soon lost again.

While Jones appears to condone popular ideas of “glory” in The Plantagenets, the facts as he relates them tell us a different story: the dynasty’s history can be seen as a devastating verdict against military adventurism, the monarchs’ more intelligent moves as those which limited rather than expanded territorial claims. King John was despised for giving up so much French territory and for retaining what he did purely as a vassal of the French king, but could this have been the inevitable, perhaps the only sensible course of action? His brother Richard I after all “had subjected his realm to some of the most severe financial demands in its history. How long would heavy taxes levied on barons and Church alike be sustainable?… How long could England bankroll the mercenaries necessary to keep Normandy on a permanent defensive footing?  How could John hope to sustain his brother’s system of alliances when all around him friends were disappearing on crusade?” Indeed, could his glorious brother Richard or their father, Henry II, have themselves succeeded in regaining Normandy?  It’s certainly doubtful.

Thirty years after the fall of the last Plantagenet, Sir Thomas More wrote a heartfelt protest against military adventurism into his 1516 satirical work, Utopia. It was without doubt directed against the thoughtless campaigns of his own monarch, Henry VIII, but it’s hard not to read a bitter indictment of centuries of Plantagenet militarism in the plea he makes his protagonist utter:

[A]ll this warmongering, by which so many different nations were kept in turmoil as a result of one man’s connivings, would exhaust [the king’s] treasury and demoralize his people, and yet in the end come to nothing, through some mishap or other. And therefore he should look after his ancestral kingdom, improve it as much as he could, cultivate it in every conceivable way. He should love his people and be loved by them; he should live among them, govern them kindly, and let other kingdoms alone, since his own is big enough, if not too big, for him.

The Plantagenets did almost the exact opposite of all these things, yet, as Jones points out, the years of their sway nevertheless show England becoming England: “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 has before.” Parts of this idea of England, such as the cults of Arthur, St. George, and St. Edward the Confessor, were purposeful creations of the Plantagenet kings. Other parts were forged in reaction to these kings, such as the country’s system of law and its distinctive political institutions. Contemporary chroniclers often referred to the early Plantagenets as “devils,” and Jones’s descriptions reinforce this image. Yet their larger-than-life personalities and dramatic reigns make great theater: viz., Shakespeare’s Richard II, Marlowe’s Edward II, and numerous more recent entertainments, such as The Lion in Winter (Henry II and his family), Becket (the same), Braveheart (Edward I), and the various Robin Hoods (Richard I, John). Jones capitalizes on the theatricality, and he keeps his treatment of the Plantagenets at the popular history level, seldom questioning traditional, often troubling assessments of the monarchs in question.