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Thursday, June 16, 2016

“The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made England”, by Dan Jones

560 pages, Penguin Books, ISBN-13: 978-0143124924

The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made England by Dan Jones is a spectacular history of England’s Plantagenet dynasty from its founding by Geoffrey of Anjou to Richard II’s loss of the Crown to Henry of Bolingbroke – i.e. from 1120 to 1399 – a timespan that saw the signing of Magna Carta, the conquest of Wales, and the first half of the Hundred Years’ War. The Plantagenet kings included some of the most well-known of all English monarchs (Richard I “the Lionheart”, bad King John, and Edward I “Longshanks”) but also several less well-known, but equally important, monarchs (Henry II and Edward III) along with less reputable rulers (Henry III, Edward II, and Richard II) along with their Queens and Heirs. Be advised: this is very much a book centered on kings, war and diplomacy, and as such it doesn’t tell dwell much (if at all) on the everyday lot of the common medieval Englishman. Instead, it tells the hard facts of the Plantagenet dynasty from its beginning to end.

Jones is very instructive in debunking myths about kings. For instance John, for all of his fearsome reputation, was no worse a tyrant than his father and older brother and actually did his best to run a fair judicial system (so much for the Robin Hood myth). But what John didn’t do, that his brother and father did, was protect the realm, and he suffered devastating military defeats at the hands of King Phillip of France, losing much of his Angevin inheritance in the process. The loss of these lands explains many of the problems later kings would have with their barons, as before John lost his Angevin Empire the barons were a cross-channel aristocracy who had every reason to support the Kings wars in France; after the losses in France (and deprived of their estates there) most English barons saw no reason to go to war in France or, more importantly, to pay taxes so the King could do so. Yet every King felt the need to get the family empire back, and this issue was forever to get English kings in trouble with their barons. The book debunks a few myths more: Simon de Montfort was a chronic debtor who managed to take advantage of general dissatisfaction with Henry III religious flakiness and ineffective leadership; Eleanor of Aquitaine really was the devilish shrew as portrayed by her enemies; Edward III, despite his much deserved reputation as the greatest English medieval King, lost his health and vigor at the end of his life and started the rot that Richard II completed; and so on. Jones sheds new light on every king and major political figure of the era.

Covering two centuries of history in a single volume is a tall order, and while Jones succeeds the task nonetheless required certain sacrifices. The Plantagenets is a history of England, but it is one told through the eyes of its kings and their struggle for power between with their barons. Jones does a particularly great job at tracking the progress of the great charters the barons kept thrusting on successive kings, and while the period covered saw the strong elective element to kingship replaced by the more direct method of Primogeniture, it conversely saw the devolution of power away from the king to the barons (and, later, beyond). Jones also goes well beyond that to show how England’s legal institutions evolved over the same period – after 1178 the royal council was stationed permanently in Westminster to hear legal cases full-time instead of following the king wherever he went.

Dan Jones has the three things that are necessary to write good history: the ability to tell a good story; an eye for detail; and, perhaps most of all, the ability to present historical figures as fully formed human beings rather than two-dimensional caricatures. Jones manages to give the reader an understanding of his subjects as people with strengths and faults and not just abstractions. Really one of the better books I have read in a while.

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