There was some closure this year for the Plantagenets — who ruled and shaped England for three centuries — when the last of their line was confirmed to have been found, at long last, buried under a public parking lot in Leicester.
Richard III, the hunchback made infamous by Shakespeare and memorably played by Ian McKellen on the silver screen, was killed at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, the last English monarch to die in combat. “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse” were the last words Shakespeare had him say, and they may not have been far off the mark. The forensic evidence matches the contemporary chroniclers’ accounts, which assert that the king’s horse got bogged down, allowing enemy infantry to pull him from his saddle, throw him to the ground and stab and hack him to death.
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.
The Plantagenets produced some famous kings, such as Henry II and Edward III (1312-1377), but also some of the most infamous. As Jones writes, King John (1166-1216) has a reputation “as one of the worst kings in English history, a diabolical murderer who brought tyranny and constitutional crisis to his realm.” His tyrannical rule inspired both the earliest Robin Hood legends and the writing of the Magna Carta, which sought to define and delineate a king’s powers over the nobility.
We Americans tend to draw our picture of what medieval English kingship was like from the legends of King Arthur, the mythic 5th-century Briton who allegedly united the island and fought off Saxon and Roman invaders alike. Turns out the medieval kings felt the same way about Arthur. King Edward I, Jones reveals, used the chivalric warrior king as “a mental template for his whole approach to kingship.” He had the supposed grave of Arthur and Guinevere opened and the bodies reburied in a grand, black marble tomb in Glastonbury Abbey, and set out to repeat the legendary Arthurian conquests of Scotland and Wales. His grandson Edward III went further, inaugurating a “knightly society of the Round Table . . . an exclusive brotherhood through which he could bind the elite knights and noblemen of his realm to the Crown.” He modeled himself first as Sir Lionel “the humble knight of the Round Table” and later as “Arthur himself, ruling his glorious kingdom from the new Camelot, which was Windsor” and which he had spent a fortune expanding to be worthy of the comparison.
As Jones’s subtitle notes, the Plantagenets were warrior kings, personally leading troops into battle from the moors of Scotland to the deserts of the Near East. And there’s no shortage of wars to occupy them or the reader. This is the era of the Welsh conquest, the battle of Bannockburn, the Crusades and the Hundred Years War. There’s also England’s Peasants Revolt of 1381 — the topic of Jones’s previous book — in which the 14-year-old Richard II faces down a riotous peasant army on the outskirts of London.
Jones brings the world of the court, the nobility and battlefield alive, and it’s compelling reading. This book’s only shortcoming is that it often neglects to bring across how the clashes of kings, nobles and armies may have affected everyone else. Sourcing is a challenge, to be sure, but Jones no doubt has the resourcefulness and storytelling skill to bring the kingdom alive along with its kings. Perhaps he’ll do so whenever he takes on his promised sequel.
The Warrior Kings and Queens
Who Made England
By Dan Jones
Viking. 534 pp. $36