Review: The Plantagenets - the Kings Who Made England by Dan Jones

New Statesman
An 18th century engraving of Empress Matilda (centre) circa 1139. (Photo: Getty Images)

The Plantagenets: the Kings Who Made England

Dan Jones

HarperPress, 352pp, £25

In 1128, the empress Matilda married Geoffrey of Anjou. She was 26 years old, widow of the Holy Roman emperor and daughter of Henry I of England. He was “a tall, bumptious teenager with ginger hair, a seemingly inexhaustible natural energy and a flair for showmanship”. He was not at all to the taste of the refined empress. Legend had it that the Angevins were descended from Satan’s daughter. A more recent relative, Fulk III, had had his first wife burned at the stake in her wedding dress on suspicion of adultery and “his reputation as a perverted rapist and plunderer stretched from the shores of the Atlantic to the Holy Land”.

Geoffrey liked to wear a sprig of yellow broom blossom in his hat. It was this shrub’s Latin name – planta genista – that inspired the title of the dynasty the royal couple founded. The Plan­tagenets ruled England for 330 years. At their height, they commanded an empire stretching from Scotland to the Pyrenees. They projected their authority as far as the Mediterranean. They took England to the pinnacle of power and the depths of misery.

Geoffrey’s fiery Angevin temper and imposing physique were passed down to the kings who share his botanical nickname. The strongest of them all (Henry II, Richard the Lionheart, Edward I and Edward III) stamped their mark on England and her neighbours by main force. The castles louring over the Welsh countryside today are reminders of the Plantagenet ruthlessness that spread fear across the British Isles and exported itself to France and the Holy Land.

Even the weaker leaders in the dynasty – John, Henry III, Edward II, Richard II – lacked none of the Plantagenet spleen and drive for autocracy. They, too, left their mark. Magna Carta was a product of John’s tyranny and ineptitude. Parliament became more important as kings offered concessions in return for the money they needed to wage war or cling to the throne. At the heart of Dan Jones’s fascinating book is the argument that, thanks to the Plantagenets’ lust for power and instinct for self-preservation, they were able to ride the roller-coaster of medieval politics for eight generations, allowing England to escape the Norman yoke and shaping the country we know.

Henry II, fruit of the ill-starred union between Matilda and Geoffrey of Anjou, rescued England from debilitating civil war and placed the English kings at the heart of a mighty Continental empire. This gave him unrivalled power, which he used to lay down the law. That empire was lost by John, and yet, in a way, his defeat was the making of England. The Plantagenets were forced to become more English once the Channel ceased to be a highway and turned into a moat. Henry III looked back to Edward the Confessor, one of the last Anglo-Saxon kings, and built a cult around him. His son Edward I stole the story of King Arthur from the Welsh and used it as propaganda in his campaign to bring Britain under English hegemony. Edward III made St George the emblem of his ambitions to be a valorous hero. All Plantagenets paid lip-service to the cult of Thomas Becket, the saint who had to be appeased for the gravest sin committed by one of their dynasty.

By the time of Richard II, government had taken shape, as had parliament and the common law. King Arthur and Robin Hood became staples of English literature; Chaucer, Langland and Gower transformed English “from a language for dolts and serfs into a language fit for poetry and scholarship”. Even the landscape changed, under the Plantagenets’ building programme. Henry II bequeathed to his successors the tantalising but unrealisable dream of reconquering his territories; Edward III’s triumphs on the battlefield fed the national imagination with dreams of glory – something it never got over. Naval victories at Dover (1217), Sluys (1340) and off Winchelsea (1350) were for centuries as celebrated as the defeat of the Armada became under Elizabeth, and were staging posts in the creation of the myth of English maritime supremacy. Yet the history of the Plantagenets is no Whiggish tale of the onward march of liberty and nationhood: their crimes and cruelties brought instability and terror. However, the very longevity of the family had profound effects, for good and ill. Their fall led to a century of strife that jeopardised the survival of England.

This is an exciting period and Jones describes it with verve. He has a keen appreciation of how power was seized and wielded by medieval monarchs, and the way they manipulated history, religion and symbolism in the service of kingship. It makes for a long book, but I zipped through it. Medieval history is enjoying its time in the sun again thanks to some excellent writers. Heaven be praised for that. l

Ben Wilson is the author of “What Price Liberty? How Freedom Was Won and Is Being Lost” (Faber & Faber, £9.99)

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