Ed West is impressed by a superbly told history of medieval England

The Plantagenets
By Dan Jones

King Henry I never smiled again after being told of his son’s death in 1120. William the Atheling, so called because of his Saxon heritage through his mother Edith, had joined 200 revellers on the White Ship sailing from Normandy to England late at night. The atmosphere was boisterous, and when priests arrived to bless the vessel they were waved away with jeers and laughter. On board was the cream of the Anglo-Norman ruling class, whose grandfathers had conquered England, including two of Henry’s illegitimate children. Another of William the Conqueror’s grandchildren, Stephen of Blois, was due to sail but, unnerved by the state of the crew, claimed diarrhoea. When the ship sank, barely out of Barfleur harbour, William was dragged to a lifeboat but went back for his half-sister Matilda.

The national tragedy would bring about the “Shipwreck”, or “Anarchy”, “19 long winters” when Henry’s only surviving child Matilda fought for control of the kingdom with her cousin Stephen. It would culminate in the rise of a new dynasty, and provides an opening setting for this superbly told, finely detailed and enjoyably readable account of medieval England.

Matilda had been sent to Germany at the age of eight to marry the Holy Roman Emperor, but after becoming a widow in her 20s she was betrothed to the 15-year-old Geoffrey of Anjou, from a line of aristocrats famously violent even for the standards of the period. Geoffrey’s great-great-grandfather, Fulk III the Black, a notorious pervert and rapist, had his first wife burned at the stake in a wedding dress on discovering her adultery with a goatherd. Later subjects of the Plantagenets would claim that Satan himself was the ultimate dynastic founder.

A week before the marriage, Henry I had knighted Geoffrey in Rouen, the teenager dressed in linen and purple, with double-mail armour with gold spurs, and a sword supposedly forged by the Norse god Wayland the Smith. Geoffrey also wore a shrub called a planta genista on his lapel, and so a dynasty came to be known.

His son, who took power in 1154, was described by Gerald of Wales as “a man of reddish, freckled complexion, with a large, round head, grey eyes that glowed fiercely and grew bloodshot in anger, a fierce countenance and a harsh, cracked voice”. As a 13-year-old the precocious Henry embarked on a solo invasion of England and was paid off by Stephen. His furious temper would aggravate the central conflict of the era, with the Church, St Thomas Beckett’s murder being one of the few medieval events that has stuck in the public consciousness, but also the more hateful conflicts with his own surviving sons, four of the most monstrous individuals of the period.

Henry’s feud with Beckett had reached its bloody end only because the king had used the Archbishop of York to crown his son Henry as co-ruler. Henry the Younger had his father’s temper but without any of his sense or intelligence, and grew up with an awesome sense of entitlement, frittering away money on an entourage and expressing outrage that on his 18th birthday he was not given a kingdom. He was often feuding with second brother, Richard, although they eventually joined together in rebellion against their father, aided by brother number three, Geoffrey, a man described by Gerald of Wales as “a hypocrite in everything, a deceiver and a dissembler”.

The young Henry died in 1183, followed by Geoffrey in 1186 and by the old king three years later, expiring from exhaustion during a mini-war with Richard, his heart broken by the betrayal of his youngest and favourite John.

Henry II left a huge legacy, including the jury system and royal sheriffs who ensured that the King’s law was above everyone. Jones tackles the constitutional and social evolution of the kingdom through its formative period, but the emphasis is on the personal, and the familial relations that drove English history. The two, of course, are intertwined, as was shown during the reign of Henry’s son John, who followed his older brother in 1199 after the latter’s 10-year reign of war was ended by a French longbowman.

As Jones notes, John’s career “was pockmarked by ugly instances of treachery, frivolity and disaster”. Unlike Richard, he was never forgiving nor straight in his dealings. He was accused of raping several noblemen’s daughters, and he almost certainly murdered his 16-year-old nephew Arthur in a drunken rage. He levied tax after tax to wage war in France, a battle he lost disastrously. And, after his final, humiliating military defeat in France in 1214, unrest burst into the open. So, on May 5 1215, a group of rebel barons defied the King, renouncing homage and fealty. They were led by Robert Fitzwalter, whose daughter had been raped by the King.

What emerged was the Magna Carta, a “failed peace treaty” at the time but a document reissued on many occasions in the years immediately following John’s death, becoming central to the constitutional battles that were fought during the 13th and 14th centuries and beyond.

Jones chronicles these events with great detail and narrative skill, including the Second Barons’ War with the otherworldly Henry III, who ruined the kingdom with his architectural projects, artwork and jewels, won by his son Edward I, a man so frightening that one churchmen died of a heart attack in his presence. His heir, Edward II, was less impressive, his own father calling him “a bastard son of a bitch”. That reign began with a disastrous wedding in which Edward’s French queen, Isabella, was humiliated by the prominence given to the King’s “minion” Gaveston, and ended with almost every major figure in the kingdom violently murdered, including the King. The Plantagenet dynasty culminated in Edward III, the great warrior-king whose victories in France and attention to chivalry has made him the pinnacle of medieval kingship, although his wars ruined the country.

The story ends with Edward’s grandson Richard II, a deranged paranoid whose rule famously came to an end when he unjustly exiled his cousin Bolingbroke and then left for Ireland. Soon Richard was a prisoner, even his greyhounds having deserted him, and Bolingbroke was King.

It’s a suitable cut-off point, although it was not until the fratricidal conflicts of the 15th century that the name Plantagenet would be used, when Edward III’s descendents fought a deadly, familial conflict that had in its origin Henry IV’s usurping. England was changed forever, Richard being the last king to speak French as a first language, his dynasty having “forged England in their own image”.

The Plantagenets is published by Harper Press, priced £25