The Plantagenets (a book review)

The Plantagenets
Preview It’s good to be the king … sometimes.

“On his wedding day Geoffrey of Anjou was a tall, bumptious teenager with ginger hair, a seemingly inexhaustible energy, and a flair for showmanship.” – From the opening chapter of The Plantagenets.

In 1128 Geoffrey count of Anjou married Empress Matilda, the daughter of Norman king Henry I. Empress Matilda’s husband had died unexpectedly three years earlier and she had no children. With Henry’s only son William dead in a shipwreck, there was no heir to the throne. Seeking a Norman match for his daughter, Henry decided on Geoffrey count of Anjou. Geoffrey was only fifteen, but already well-known. He wore a sprig of yellow broom blossom in his hair called “planta genista”. He was nicknamed Geoffrey Plantagenet, and from his marriage to Matilda sprung the line of Plantagenet kings. From Henry II in 1154, who scandalously married Eleanor of Aquitaine in secret, to the crusading Richard the Lionheart and his unsavory brother John, whose tyranny brought about the Magna Carta, to three different Edwards, and, finally, to Richard II, who ended the Plantagenet reign in 1399, England and Europe lived through almost 250 years of dynastic rule at the hands of Geoffrey’s line. Sometimes for the better, but often for the worse.

The Plantagenets is a sprawling work by Dan Jones, who covers centuries of history and kingship with a clean, clear, exciting narrative that miraculously never dulls, never confuses, and never lets up. Take that with a grain of salt though because this kind of story is right my wheelhouse. I love medieval history, especially in the British Isles. Mr. Jones delivers with an epic tale all the more fascinating because it’s true. A blurb on the back cover (paperback) from the Wall Street Journal says, “A real-life Game of Thrones…” but I think in this case that truth is definitely stranger than fiction. The plots, the double-crosses, the violence and treachery – it’ll make your head spin. But amidst the turmoil, there’s a large amount of politics as well.

Often I’ve simply thought of ancient kings as authoritarians who ruled with an iron fist and did pretty much whatever they wanted to. Dan Jones makes it clear that heading a kingdom was not just a matter of will. The Crown was often broke or heavily in debt to foreign banks, war machines broke down because of lack of funding or poorly chosen mercenary soldiers, the Church had the power to control certain decisions by the king, the great barons and earls were not necessarily obligated to participate in the king’s conquests. In fact, the Crown often had to negotiate with the elite nobility to levy taxes and distribute lands and titles. The elite expected to have a say in certain areas of government, especially when it came to their own rights and lands. Failure to recognize this relationship led to the downfall of more than one king.

Relationships with the Queen also played a vital role in the success of a king.  Mistreated  queens liked to take matters into their own hands.  Henry II’s wife, from her lands in Aquitaine and in league with their own children, openly rebelled against him.  Edwards II’s wife… If you’re not familiar with the story, that one is better left to the book.  It’s one of the more fascinating accounts of the ruin of a king.

Dan Jones weaves all of these true tails into a fierce accounting of some of the most famous, brutal, inept, and captivating rulers in history. With so much ground to cover, he keeps the minutiae at bay, yet somehow manages to bring to life significant battles and pivotal events with imagination and clarity. It’s a whirlwind tour full of action, intrigue, and even high drama, deftly morphing the political and economic landscape of England and Europe over the course of 200+ years.

It’s a lot to take in, but you’ll appreciate the ride.


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