The Plantagenets: The Kings Who Made Britain by Dan Jones

This is a very big book and it holds: eight generations of Kings and Queens from 1120 to 1399; a period choc full of events, history and change. It says much for Dan Jones’ ability to marshal his facts and theories and his ability to spin a compelling (true) story that I flew threw the pages.

I knew the names, I had read many of the stories; but much of what I knew came from historical fiction, and I wanted a book that would help me to put things in the right order and fill in the gaps. This was definitely the right book for the job.

The narrative opens in the year 1120, with a drunken party aboard The White Ship. Amongst those present was William the Aetherling, grandson of William the Conqueror and the only legitimate son of Henry 1st. It had been intended that the ship would race from France to to England, but drunkenness had spread to the crew and the ship hit a rock and was wrecked. It was a catastrophe, there were few survivors, and William the Aetherling was not among them.

Henry I named his daughter, Matilda, as his heir, and took care to marry her to a strong and strategically positioned consort, Geoffrey of Anjou. But when the King died many of England’s nobles were unwilling to accept a Queen Regnant, making it easy for Matilda’s cousin Stephan of Blois, one of the few survivors of The White Ship, to seize the crown while Matilda was overseas, tied to her husband’s lands, awaiting the birth of a child.

the-plantagenetsThat began a long, dark and difficult period of English history that would be known as The Anarchy; a civil war with the country divided between supporters of two claimants to the throne. That conflict was only ended when, after the death of his only son, Stephen agreed to name Matilda and Geoffrey’s son, Henry as his heir.

He, as Henry II, would be England’s first Plantagenet King; inheriting the name from his father, Geoffrey, on whom it had been bestowed because he habitually wore a spring of yellow broom blossom (planta genista).

That story – from the sinking of the white ship to the accession of Henry II – is told ‘Age of Shipwreck’, the first of seven acts. It’s full of drama and colour, as are the six acts that follow.

‘Age of Empire’ charts Henry’s conquests, his troubled – and ultimately catastrophic – relationship with Thomas a Becket, and his struggles with his wife – Eleanor of Aquitaine – and their troublesome children who history would label the ‘Devil’s Brood’. And it continues with the story of Richard the Lionheart, who came to the throne in the age of the crusades and would spend his life defending and expanding the empire he inherited from his father. An empire that his youngest brother, King John, would lose.

After that ‘Age of Opposition’ follows the conflicts that led to those loses, the conflicts with King John’s nobles and churchmen that led to history’s most famous failed peace treaty – ‘Magna Carta’ It continues into the story of John’s son, Henry III, a very different King who would also be opposed by his nobles, chief among them Simon de Monfort.

The next inheritor of the throne – Edward I – changed things, casting himself as the inheritor of King Arthur; the story of his reign, his quest to steady his kingdom and rebuild an empire, and to establish the rights and obligations of Kings is told in the ‘Age of Arthur’.

‘Age of Violence’ tells of how all of that would be undone by his son – the notorious King Edward II – who seemingly failed to understand any of those obligations or any of the consequences of his actions, playing favourite with Piers Gaveston and Hugh Despenser, and setting into motion a chain of consequence that would send his wife, Queen Isabella, into the arms of rebel Roger Mortimer, and would end with them putting his son, the young Edward III on the throne in his place, as a puppet king.

The story of how Edward III broke free, brought stability to England and re-established the country as a military power with victories on land and at sea at the start of what would become The Hundred Years War is told in ‘Age of Glory’. It tells of his sons, who included his heir Edward, The Black Prince, and John of Gaunt.

The Black Prince’s early death signalled a change in England’s fortunes. The final act – ‘Age of Revolution’ charts that decline, the accession of the Black Prince’s son, Richard II, a boy King thrown into a difficult situation without any real understanding of his rights and responsibilities. That was disastrous, and his story would end when he was usurped by his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke.

That’s where this story ends. Not with the last Plantagenet King, but with a significant shift. You might say that it was the end of the beginning or the beginning of the end for The Plantagenets. It was the right place to break the story; good though it was this book was long enough.

There were so many stories, all well told, with enough colour and detail to make them live. I was left with some striking images, and their was more than enough to keep my intention through the few quieter period.

The author stated that his intention was to track how the government and the role of monarchy changed over the years, and he did that very well indeed. I was fascinated to learn much more that I’d known before about Magna Carta and to learn about acts and treaties and settlements I’d known little or nothing about. That may sound dry but it really isn’t; it grows quite naturally out of the changes and conflicts of the human drama that was being told.

But the human story was what I missed in this book. Even on a book this long you can’t have everything, but I wish there had been a little more room for many of England’s Queens and to understand a little more of what made England’s Kings the men that they were.

I could see that the author had favourites, and that there were other he had little time for. That’s understandable, but I was disappointed that there were times when there was room for different interpretation of events that wasn’t mentioned. I accept that space was a factor, but a little space could – should – have been made to allow that there are shades of grey, not just black and white.

That leave me a little worried about picking up the story in ‘The Hollow Crown’ – because their are definitely different views to be taken on the War of the Roses. But I will because there were so many more things about this book that I did appreciate.

I took what I wanted from this book; I’ve filled gaps and I have my Kings in order; it’s a starting point not an end, and it has me enthused about reading more to fill out the human stories and build my understanding of the history.

9 responses

  1. Excellent review, Jane. I think there’s always a risk of popular history books being a little too dry. I am reading one on the Kremlin at the moment, and although it’s interesting, I’m waiting for it to take off a little and really enthuse me! 🙂

  2. Most of my knowledge of the Plantagenets comes from historical fiction too, so I really enjoyed this book and learned a lot from it. I’ve also read The Hollow Crown and found it quite biased towards the Lancastrians/Tudors and anti-Richard III. I still thought it was worth reading, though!

    • I can see now that historical novelists have cherry picked the most entertaining and dramatic bits of this period. I’d like to read some historical fiction now, for more human stories, but I definitely plan to read The Hollow Crown.

  3. I’ve seen this around but haven’t read it myself. It sounds really interesting, and covers a lot of monarchs I know little to nothing about. Definitely one to consider reading. I hope you enjoy The Hollow Crown.

  4. Much of my knowledge of the early monarchs comes from fiction and Shakespeare so this sounds like, as you say, a good starting point and resource for filling in the gaps. Your notes of the author’s omissions are noted, though – wonder if anyone’s going to drop by to suggest resources that cover those points!

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