Tuesday, April 12, 2016

The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made England, by Dan Jones

This week I'm talking about a...sort of biography by Dan Jones about the Plantagenets. I say sort of biography because the book actually covers the lives of dozens of people over about a century of history, but it's a narrative driven by the individuals that make up the dynasty referred to as the Plantagenets. Although this is today referred to as the monarchs who ruled England from Henry II to Richard II, who was deposed by his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke who became Henry IV. Really the only person who referred to themselves by the surname Plantagenet was Henry II's father, Geoffrey of Anjou, who never ruled England. However historians love giving names to things so ultimately the name has stuck, and it's much easier than saying ''those guys who were all related to each other and ruled England during that time.''

The Plantagenets are some of the most important kings in English history, both from the development of England today, as well as in the popular imagination. The Plantagenet dynasty included Richard the Lionheart, Bad King John, Edward Longshanks, Edward III, and the Black Prince, all major figures in England's historic folklore. This is no accident as several of these kings, such as Edward I and Edward III understood the power of propaganda and purposely cultivated their images for posterity. So it is no exaggeration for Jones to state that these are the monarchs who made England.

I was already passingly familiar with the history involved, if nothing else than because there are plenty of English-language sources for English history. The most interesting resource I've seen on the subject is the documentary series Monarchy with David Starkey which I highly recommend. (It used to be on Netflix but as of the writing of this post it's been taken down, which is a crying shame.) So of course there's a deal of overlap between what I already knew from Monarchy and Jones's book. There is of course the perennial problem with sources in medieval history, and sifting through to come at something approximating the truth. Chroniclers during the middle ages were hardly impartial recorders and while there are plenty of overt biases, there can be fare more subtle ones as well. How accurate Jones's sifting through sources I'm sure other historians have utilized is I cannot say, but it's still informative and interesting.

The Plantagenets are important for a couple of reasons, most importantly establishing English dominance in the British Isles and the creation of Magna Carta. Although the struggles between England, Scotland, and Ireland would continue for centuries and in some cases remain unresolved to this day, the campaigns of kings such as Henry II and Edward I established English dominance and Edward I's campaigns permanently annexed Wales as part of the English kingdom. The Plantagenet kings were also responsible for alternately extending English holdings in France, such as Henry II and Edward III did, or losing them almost entirely, like John or Richard II. The other major contribution, however, was the Magna Carta and the precedent of parliaments.

If we were to ask the Plantagenet rulers, Magna Carta, the charters that followed, and the parliaments that resulted would not be proud accomplishments. Many rulers attempted to overturn or repeal the charters and act unilaterally without the consent of Parliament. And in a way, the Magna Carta did not affect the ''little people'' when it was sealed in 1215, primarily concerned more with the rights of the barons who had rebelled against John than the commoners. However it has become enshrined in popular imagination and is generally credited today with being the origin of English democracy and the uniquely English tradition of common law. As someone who has grown up in the Anglosphere which carries on the tradition of common law, even I am not immune to the worship of these principles that go back centuries. Truly it's the Plantagenet era where the concept that the monarch rules with the consent of the governed becomes codified in the English tradition.

Overall this is a pretty good book, although it tends to focus more on the narrative and a lot of the gory details of ruling in the middle ages. There was a certain amount of big-picture stuff to keep me satisfied, but when you get to Edward II and especially the misrule of Richard II Jones doesn't hold back on the blood. If you're interested in learning more about the rulers of England during the middle ages, then this is a good resource, but I still recommend Monarchy as well.

- Kalpar

No comments:

Post a Comment