It was an ignoble end to a royal line that shaped the English monarchy; conquered Wales, Scotland and, for a time, much of France; and unleashed the events that gave us the Magna Carta and, with it, the whole notion of legislative restraint on executives. The House of Tudor would dominate England for more than a century, while Richard’s mutilated remains were lost along with the Leicester church under which they had been hastily buried. For Americans, too, the Plantagenets have been lost in the fog of history, eclipsed by the Tudors and Stuarts who succeeded them.
Fortunately, Dan Jones has brought the Plantagenets out of the shadows, revealing them in all their epic heroism and depravity. His is an engaging and readable account — itself an accomplishment given the gaps in medieval sources and a 300-year tableau — and yet researched with the exacting standards of an academician. The result is an enjoyable, often harrowing journey through a bloody, insecure era in which many of the underpinnings of English kingship and Anglo-American constitutional thinking were formed.
It opens with the hubris-soaked sinking of the White Ship in 1120, the Titanic disaster of its day, which drowned the heir to the Anglo-Norman throne, paving the way for the ascension of a cousin, Henry II, son of a nobleman from Anjou who enjoyed wearing yellow blossoms (Planta genista) in his hair. It ends not with Richard III’s unhorsing at Bosworth but with the unthroning (and murder by starvation) of his great-uncle Richard II in 1399, an event that ended the main line of Plantagenet succession. The book could have carried on to Bosworth, Jones admits at the outset, but not if one wished to produce “a single volume light enough to read in bed.” He promises a second volume to complete the story, which many readers will eagerly await.
Those depressed about the state of 21st-century American politics take solace: Governance really has advanced since the late Middle Ages, when any lout, psychopath or 10-year-old might wind up as your chief executive, triggering a family feud, uprising, civil war or, as often as not, a combination of the three. The Plantaganets’ dysfunction surpasses anything on reality television in that the actors lead armies against one another. When Henry II (1133-1189) gives some important castles to his 6-year-old son as a wedding gift — yes, wedding — three of his elder sons are overcome with jealousy and join their mother and her ex-husband, King Louis VII of France, in a formidable 18-month rebellion. Henry II forgives the sons in the end, giving them castles and land, but only after defeating the lot in a bloody war in which cities are besieged, towns laid to waste and hundreds of soldiers slaughtered from northern France to the lowlands of Scotland.