Everybody knows the stories of the good King Richard the Lionhearted, the noble Englishman, and his despicable brother John, later king himself, right? Well, after reading Dan Jones’s superb history of the Plantagenet family, you will never think of “merrie olde England” the same way.
While John was pretty despicable, both as a brother and as a king, Richard was not someone you would want to spend much time with either, nor were most of the other rulers of England in the period that Jones explores, from the 1150s through the end of the 1300s. Life was nasty, brutish, and short for lots of people, including some unfortunate Plantagenets who met a variety of untimely ends. I found myself constantly amazed at the number of reigns that ended with a murder or execution, or at least a suspicious death.
But what a cast of characters Jones has to work with–Eleanor of Aquitaine, her husband(s) and children, Henrys and Edwards almost too numerous to count, rulers and military leaders from Europe and the Middle East, and a host of minor courtiers, hangers-on, and functionaries. Jones’s clear and lucid prose style brings all of these characters to life in a most interesting, if sometimes uncomfortable, fashion. On the whole, the Plantagenets were not nice folks, nor were they really very English, at least at first. Much more of their time was spent winning and losing territory in France than in concerning themselves with England. Not until the French territories were mostly lost by John and Henry III did the focus begin shift to the “scepter’d isle” of Shakespeare’s Richard II. Richard II is, in Jones’s mind, the last of the Plantagenet kings, losing his throne, and eventually his life, to his cousin Henry Bolingbroke, later Henry IV.
Jones is an excellent writer of narrative history. He holds the reader’s interest by focusing on stories and characters in short chapters, while moving briskly through two and a half centuries of history. If you enjoyed Sharon Kay Penman’s Here Be Dragons, you can get more of the backstory here. Anyone who is interested in what things were really like in the English courts of the 12th, 13th and 14th centuries will find a great deal to enjoy here. I am looking forward to Jones’s next book on the York and Lancaster conflict leading to the Tudors.
Check the WRL catalog for The Plantagenets