Book Review: The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made England by Dan Jones. Medieval book reviews.
This is a great book that covers the history of English Kings from White Ship disaster which killed Henry I son William (and pretty much ended the Norman dynasty) and ends with Henry Bollingbrook’s invasion and usurping of the throne from Richard II.
This is very much a kings, war and diplomacy book. It does not tell much about everyday life in medieval England. Instead it tells the hard facts of the Plantagenet dynasty from its beginning to end. The most surprising thing about the story is how few good kings England actually had. Really only Henry II an Edward III could be described as great kings and both of them left disastrous sons as heirs. Henry III was a religious flake who managed to get so cross ways with his barons he ended up being effectively disposed by Simon DeMonfort. Edward I, for all of his fame as conqueror of Wales and Hammer of the Scots, left the country bankrupt upon his death. And those two were not even particularly disastrous kings.
Then of course there were the truly bad kings. First and foremost was of course John. The book is very instructive in debunking myths about kings. John for all of his fearsome reputation, was no worse a tyrant than his father and older brother and actually did his best to run a fair judicial system (so much for the Robin Hood myth). But what John didn’t do, that is brother and father did, was protect the realm. John suffered devastating military defeats at the hands of King Phillip losing Normandy. The loss of Normandy explains many of the problems later kings would have with their barons. Before John lost Normandy, the barons were a cross channel aristocracy who had every reason to support the Kings wars in France. After the loss of Normandy and deprived of their estates there, most English barons saw no reason to go to war in France or more importantly pay taxes so the King could do so. Yet every King felt the need to get the family empire back. And this issue was forever to get English kings in trouble with their barons.
What comes through is the incredible resiliency of the English state. Despite ruinous civil wars nearly every century, unimaginably expensive wars on the continent and with Wales and Scotland and outright tyranny and bankruptcy at home, England always persevered.
The book also debunks more than a few myths. DeMonfort was a chronic debtor who managed to take advantage of general dissatisfaction with Henry III religious flakiness and ineffective leadership. Edward III, despite his much deserved reputation as the greatest English medieval King, lost his health and vigor at the end of his life and started the rot that Richard II completed. The book sheds new light on every king and major political figure of the era.
Dan Jones has the three things that are necessary to write good history, the ability to tell a good story, an eye for detail, and most of all the ability to present historical figures as fully formed human beings rather than cartoons. Jones manages to give the reader an understanding of his subjects as people with strengths and faults and not just abstractions. Really one of the better books I have read in a while.