The Plantagenets, By Dan Jones
A dashing historian goes swift with a colourful chronicle of the kings who made England.
Saturday 26 May 2012
John Masefield's The Box of Delights allowed young Kay Harker the option of going small or going swift. Historians have to make the same choice. Dan Jones's first book, Summer of Blood: The Peasant's Revolt of 1381, went small, offering innumerable intriguing details, original insights and a vivid characterisation of the petulant young Richard II.
Now Jones goes swift. He dons seven-league boots in the attempt to do justice in 600 pages to some two centuries of Plantagenet rule over not just England, but ebbing and flowing proportions of France, Wales, Ireland and Scotland.
The result will undoubtedly appeal to those who like the broad brush. It puts all manner of legendary events into context: Henry II as "a human chariot, dragging all after him", and gnashing his teeth over Thomas Becket and his murder in Canterbury Cathedral; the charismatic Richard the Lionheart's encounters with Saladin; King John's notoriously nefarious ways (though he is judged unlucky); Magna Carta and the host of subsequent legislation; the "holy but hapless" Henry III; Edward I's castles and his equally vital road-building; Robert the Bruce and disaster at Bannockburn; the Black Prince and triumph at Crécy and Poitiers; Arthurian fantasy and the Order of the Garter.
It all ends in tears for the last full Plantagenet, Richard II, who apparently did indeed sit down at the end and tell sad stories of the death of kings. "With the measure that you shall mete withal shall be measured to you again," warns the chronicler of Edward II. "Be Done By As You Did" is indeed the moral of it all.
Jones uses contemporary chronicles to make us see the people who throng his story through the eyes of those who knew them, and to appreciate the lavish ceremonial displays that made these kings and queens all but supernatural beings to the common man – albeit vulnerable to subversion by unruly barons.
One important running theme is the way that parliaments, at first mere meetings to talk, morph into an essential part of government, establishing the principle of the need for consent to both taxation and policy by the commons of the shires and boroughs as well as the lords of the council. Another is the fluctuating obsession with the reconquest of the old territories of the Angevin Empire in France. A third is the first fumblings towards a greater Britain, quashing Welsh and Irish princes and establishing a (slightly) more stable border with Scotland.
The "whys" have to be sketchy; there is space only for what happened. The economics of war and peace are confusing: time and again it seems that the country is ruined, but within a few pages wealth is once again flowing into – and out of – the royal coffers. Lacking too is a proper presentation of the profoundly religious medieval mindset. Almost all the Plantagenets aspired to being crusading kings, usually with disastrous consequences.
Jones's conclusion pulls the hectic centuries into a coherent whole, pointing to the emergence of English as a national language, and a wealth of artistic and architectural achievement. 1399 is not the end of the story. Richard II's deposition echoed that of Edward II, and the Wars of the Roses had their roots in Plantagenet pretensions. Only when Henry Tudor, scion of the persecuted Welsh, killed Edward's usurping brother Richard III and married his sister did the dynasty finally dwindle into a couple of pretenders. But its pomp and pride enormously enriched our island's story.
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