Death by buggery. Death by castration. Even death by being scared to death. Or so we are led to believe for the Plantagenets’ world. They had a lighter side, too: Henry II employed a professional flatulist with the trade-name of Roland the Farter. The longest reigning royal dynasty in English history (1154-1399), the Plantagenets offer the glaring contrast between their even balance of outstanding kings and outstandingly bad ones; this adds to the already exciting dynamics of a dramatic period, captured to great effect in Dan Jones’s big book on a big subject.
The Plantagenets were established on the English throne by the ‘incessantly busy’ Henry II. He brought with him his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine; with her extensive lands added to those of his new acquisition of England, Henry’s Angevin empire now extended from the border of Scotland to the Pyrenees, slicing France in half all the way down. By siring four legitimate but ungrateful sons (he rightly predicted they would ‘not cease to persecute me even unto death’), he quickly secured the kingdom for his new ruling dynasty.
His two surviving sons — Richard and John — followed him on the throne and built on their father’s great legal and administrative reforms. Jones has a lot of time for Richard the Lionheart, recognising the king’s prodigious military skills. The author has a great knack for vividly setting scenes throughout the book, and his account of Richard’s coronation wonderfully evokes the solemn occasion of Richard ‘being anointed God’s hammer’.
Jones notes how famously little time Richard spent in England, forever waging his wars abroad, but the narrative drive of the book does not allow for much in the way of developed analysis, and hence Jones does not really explore the implications of this. The criticism has long been that Richard’s absence was a costly, self-indulgent neglect of his kingdom; I would argue the opposite, and that it was a case of absence makes the heart grow stronger: by taking the war to France, Richard was assuring the security of England.
We only have to look at John’s disastrous reign to see the truth of this: a feeble and uninspiring military commander, John’s defeats in France ultimately led to a fully-fledged 18-month French invasion of England in 1216, the financial cost of which weakened England for years afterwards. Jones offers excellent guidance on John’s finances and his never-ending demands for money — just one of the roads to Runnymede and Magna Carta in 1215.
Over 60 pages Jones condemns John as ‘devious and cowardly’, ‘craven’, ‘sly’, ‘paranoid’ and ‘cruel’. For many, this is an outdated view; nevertheless, it is absolutely the right one. There are several famous examples of John’s counter-productive cruelty, one concerning the death of his 16-year-old nephew and rival for the throne, Arthur of Brittany. Jones discounts the version of Arthur’s demise that suggests the youth died in John’s dungeons from the shock of castration (a very plausible cause), preferring the account depicting John killing Arthur with his own hands in a drunken fury.
Despite the Barons’ Wars of 1264-68, Henry III’s reign was relatively quiet, as befitted a non-martial and somewhat introspective ruler (one can always tell a dull king when subjects — in this case Simon de Montfort — attract more interest than their monarch). War returned in full cry with the formidable Edward I, the Hammer of the Scots and Welsh, a sovereign so dread he is said to have frightened a man to death. A violent and straight-talking leader (‘a man does good business when he rids himself of a turd’), he is condemned by Jones for his financially motivated expulsion of the Jews from the country in 1290, a misguided policy that was immediately followed by ‘the biggest tax levied on England in the entire Middle Ages’. As ever, Jones does not lose sight of the personal story amidst the great concerns of government and war, revealing a softer side to the uxorious warrior king who died pathetically while being lifted from his bed for a meal.
What a disappointment his son was to him. A chronicler described Edward II as ‘fair of body and great of strength’; Jones misses one historian’s response to this: ‘sadly, he was also little of brain’. Once again, we see the roots of a king’s problems lying in misuse of patronage and, crucially, failure to perform in war. Edward was hopeless in his role as a soldier, and his humiliation at the hands of the Scots at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314 was so great it can still be exploited today (or, more precisely, in 2014, if Alex Salmond has his way).
Jones correctly identifies this period as ushering in ‘an age of violence’: fractious barons had always been treated with relatively clemency by the crown, but during Edward’s reign a new policy of murderous intolerance prevailed, with some 20 political executions taking place — an unheard of phenomenon. Edward himself came to a famously grisly end, legend has it, by the thrusting of a red-hot poker up his fundament. Jones rightly dismisses this account of Edward’s death (a verdict on Edward’s perceived homosexuality) and mentions that he may have been killed by a ‘trick’. (It would have been worth mentioning here that the Latin for ‘trick’ and ‘poke’ is sometimes confused.)
The wheel of fortune turned yet again with the mighty Edward III restoring the Plantagenets to success. Edward launched himself into fame on the stage of the developing Hundred Years War. Jones offers a terrific early account of Edward in action at the naval battle of Sluys in 1340, a resounding victory and an indication of how Edward meant to continue. Both he and his self-important successor Richard II ruled during one of the worst centuries experienced in European history. With the Black Death (‘the huge mortalyte’) claiming one-third of England’s population and the consequent Peasants’ Revolt erupting in 1381, English social and economic history now dominated over politics. Jones is at his best here, as one might expect from the author of a well-received first book on the uprising. His gripping account of Wat Tyler’s peasant army ransacking London makes for exciting reading.
Jones aims squarely at the popular market. As he states in his preface, this is ‘a book written to entertain’; he succeeds admirably. It is traditional narrative history at its best, supported by some telling anecdotes and written with style and flow. Whatever the fate of the reader, being bored to death by The Plantagenets is not one of them.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated May 19, 2012Tags: Book review, History, Non-fiction