Review: 'The Plantagenets' is an engrossing read

Published April 18, 2013

British historian and columnist Dan Jones has written a beautiful history of England's Plantagenet kings. Starting with Henry II, they ruled from 1154 until the forced abdication of the childless King Richard II in 1399. In those 245 years England emerged "as a vibrant and confident nation," forged in the image of the Plantagenets.

Jones has written less a history than a set of fine vignettes relating dynastic life, death, war, peace, governance and palace intrigues. The result is a history book that frequently reads like a novel and can be opened to any chapter.

Jones is at his best describing how Henry II, the first Plantagenet to wear the crown, became king, and eventually one of England's greatest kings. Jones emphasizes that both Henry and King Stephen, last of the Normans, were more French than English; they spoke French and spent most of their time on the continent.

Although Stephen had two sons, he adopted Henry and named him heir. Henry was the grandson of Henry I, through his mother, Matilda, who was married to Geoffrey Plantagenet, count of Anjou; Henry I was Stephen's uncle.

When Stephen died at age 60, Henry, "impish, scruffy" and 21, became king in a peaceful succession. He ruled from 1154 to 1189, "the preeminent ruler in Europe." His domain beyond England included Normandy, Aquitaine, Maine, Anjou and Touraine, with influence in Scotland, Wales and Ireland.

The royal council was established in Westminster, eventually becoming the Court of the King's Bench. Sheriffs took over land disputes; criminal law came under royal control. The Assize of Arms encouraged payments by aristocracy instead of supplying troops and military service, "which helped further demilitarize English barons . . . In the shires of England, the fingers of royal justice were suddenly everywhere. The power of the Crown was now firmly rooted in English soil. . . . Legally and judicially Henry had declared himself master of his own realm."

Henry and his queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, had nine children, two of whom became kings, Richard I, the Lionheart, and the infamous John, who so vexed his barons that they confronted him at Runnymede in 1215. There, he agreed to the Magna Carta, which established rules between kings and barons and led to Parliament.

The last Plantagenet, Richard II, ruled from 1377 to 1399. His court became a "center for literary and artistic ideas." Though his interest in letters was brief, "his court was at the heart of the invention of England's native tongue as a language of high literature."

Richard's models were an odd sort: the last Saxon king, Edward the Confessor, as well as King John, Henry III and Edward II. "In his own way, Richard had been a worse king than all of them combined," Jones writes. "He had believed that kingship was about prestige and magnificence instead of leadership. And he had ended up with nothing."

The Plantagenets is a brilliant and entertaining study of the roots of today's United Kingdom and its unwritten constitution.

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Jules Wagman, last book editor of the old Cleveland (Ohio) Press, reviews books in Jacksonville.