Richard the Lionheart was killed at the siege of Châlus-Chabrol by a defender wielding a crossbow and carrying a frying pan as a shield

Henry II to Richard II, 250 years’ worth of Plantagenet kings in 500 plus pages. Written briskly and with humor, the narrative hits all the highlights of this era in British history without missing the low points, of which there were plenty, and debunking myths along the way. Henry II hid out in Ireland for a year to let things cool off after his knights killed Thomas Becket, before appearing in Canterbury to collapse sobbing on Becket’s tomb.

He spent the rest of the day and also the whole of the following night in bitterness of soul, given over to prayer and sleeplessness, and continuing his fast for three days…With this extraordinary show of public penance Henry had won the most important propaganda battle of the war.

A cynic and a pragmatist, that was our Henry, but there was evidently no wearing of a hair shirt or walking barefoot to the shrine. Jones also proves absolutely my theory that everything in history is personal. Geoffry of Anjou was

a tall, bumptious teenager [who] liked to wear a sprig of bright yellow broom blossom (Planta genista in Latin) in his hair…Despite all this [his bride, Henry I’s daughter] Mathilda was underwhelmed. Geoffrey was eleven years her junior, and Normans saw Angevins as barbarians who murdered priests, desecrated churches, and had appalling table manners.

Boy, it’s those table manners that will get you, every time. From this joyous union came the aforesaid Henry II, who with Eleanor of Aquitaine spawned first Richard I, aka the Lionheart, who it turns out wasn’t gay after all, who spent a cumulative one year of his eleven-year reign in England, and who was killed at the siege of Châlus-Chabrol by a defender wielding a crossbow and carrying a frying pan as a shield (I just eat this stuff up with a spoon).

Henry and Eleanor also parented, badly, the execrable John I of Magna Carta fame. John reigned for seventeen years. To the English it must have felt like seventy. The Magna Carta, however much we look backward today and see it graven in stone as a monument to the beginnings of the rights of man, was not a done deal. Jones writes

This was nothing more than a contractual basis for civil war. Stating that a king should govern according to the law and making sure that he did so were, it turned out, quite separate matters. These questions would lie at the heart of every major disagreement between king and country for centuries to come.

John himself started chipping away at it immediately, as did every Plantagenet king who followed him, which gave rise to uprising after revolt after rebellion, and to more than one French invasion welcomed with open arms by the locals, who had had about enough of the English nobles turning their back yards into abattoirs. One of the rallying cries for the rebels was the death of young Arthur, the nearest claimant after John to England’s throne, and whom John most likely killed with his own hands in a drunken rage at Easter 1203. Contrast that John to the John who was fascinated by the law and who in his capacity as supreme judge of the land

…gave a reprieve to a little boy who had accidentally killed a friend by throwing a stone. He dismissed a case against a mentally deficient man who had confessed to a crime of which he was clearly innocent.

You could get whiplash, reading through John’s reign. Next up was Henry III, John’s nine year old son, a self-made saint and a man more comfortable with the outward pomposity of kingship than the hard work it took to maintain it. His son Edward I began his reign in prison and it would be ten years before he was crowned king but when he finally assumed the throne he kicked Scots and Welsh ass and built a bunch of castles that forever cemented England’s grip on the Welsh Marches, but whose expense bankrupted England time and again. And, Jones writes

Edward’s inability to empathize with the pressures brought to bear on his opponents was the cause of most of the rebellions and crises of his reign. In 1295 he managed to drive together two enemies that were to remain in each other’s arms for the following 365 years. In February 1296 the Scottish government ratified a treaty of friendship with France. The Auld Alliance was born.

See Elizabeth I of England and Mary Queen of Scots, and Bonnie Prince Charlie, for whose failed attempt at the throne the Scots had to thank for Butcher Cumberland’s Highland Clearances, which today would be called ethnic cleansing.

Edward I’s son, Edward II, had a positive knack for listening to all the wrong people and for showering money and lands on them in a manner that infuriated his barons to, you guessed it, civil war, time and again, and didn’t do the treasury any good either. He was deposed and murdered (possibly) by his wife and her lover in favor of his son, Edward III, in whose name they reigned until he deposed them in their turn. (Really, the Plantagenets might have taken the old Greeks for their template, as the only thing they didn’t do was feed their children’s flesh to their parents, although I wouldn’t put anything past them.).

Edward III lived long and his reign mostly prospered, but his son the Black Prince of Crécy and Poitiers fame predeceased him and the Black Prince’s son Richard II succeeded him, presiding over a 22-year reign of incomparable ineptitude that ended, some might even say justly, in his usurpation and murder (possibly, again) by Henry IV, son of the first of the Lancastrian dynasty.

To boil it down, Henry II created the vast Plantagenet empire and his heirs spent their reigns losing it through ineptitude and hubris, with a comparatively brief hiatus during the reign of Edward III. But in the meantime, in those Plantagenet years between 1154 and 1485, Jones writes

The office of kingship was utterly transformed…Government could be scrutinized, inadequate ministers could be impeached, and ultimately a king might be removed from office…The business of government was no longer the exclusive preserve of churchmen and clerks attendant on the king and the great magnates dominating their own territories. It was carried out by a combination of trained, bureaucratic professionals at Westminster and laymen in the shires who were drawn from the community but worked on behalf of the Crown…The principles of the Magna Carta, whose successive reissues had been pinned to virtually every church door in the realm during the thirteenth century, had permeated the consciousness of men of all classes and backgrounds.

The Plantagenet kings changed the face of war, too, Crécy and Poitiers leading to Agincourt in 1415 and cementing the English archer in the annals of military history. They changed the face of England architecturally, building Dover Castle, Westminster, Windsor, the Welsh Marcher castles, cathedrals like Salisbury (which today houses one of the last remaining copies of the Magna Carta). Linguistically, French was Henry II’s first language, but Geoffrey Chaucer was a contemporary of Richard II, and read by everyone who could read in England, who were now reading, writing and speaking in English.

I’m pretty sure I prefer reading about it to living through it, especially this book. Recommended.

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Dana View All →

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2 Comments Leave a comment

  1. I’ve read Thomas Costain’s four-volume history of the Plantagenets several times, for fun. I’m fascinated by the entire period and will definitely be reading this. Thanks for the recommendation!

    • I read all of Costain’s historical novels when I was a kid. I used his “Three Edwards” as a resource for “Silk and Song.”
      This is a terrific book, written with wit, style, and erudition. Jones never forgets his characters’ humanity.

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