Interview with Dan Jones, author of The Plantagenets: The Kings Who Made England

 Dan Jones is an historian and an award-winning journalist, who first book, Summer of Blood: The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, was published in 2009. His second work, The Plantagenets: The Kings Who Made England, is being released in May 2012. We interviewed Dan about his latest book:

Your first book, Summer of Blood: The Peasants Revolt of 1381, focused on a single episode, but in this book you are covering about 250 years of history. Why did you want to write about such a broad period?

Well, when my publishers bought Summer of Blood, they also bought the option for a second book. Initially this was going to be a biography of Richard II, whom I think for many reasons is one of the most interesting and complex kings ever to have ruled England; but when I came to start thinking about Richard I realized two things. Firstly, that Nigel Saul had already written a magnificent biography of him in the Yale series, which was both scholarly and sublimely readable, and that to hope to better that was probably pointless – at least for the next decade. Second, I realized that to explain why everything went so wrong for Richard, you need to look at everything that had happened in the centuries since Henry II had claimed the English crown at the end of the Anarchy (or, as contemporaries called it, the Shipwreck) in which Stephen and Matilda’s civil war had virtually destroyed English kingship. I became convinced that Richard’s failures as a king ran very deep: he catastrophically failed to absorb even the most basic principles of what being a Plantagenet king meant – his hero was Edward II, who had been repeatedly humiliated, forced to abdicate and murdered – which tells you just how misguided Richard was.

Anyway, long story short: I decided that having concentrated on such a narrow time-frame for Summer of Blood, I was ready to set my sights much wider and look across the whole history of Plantagenet England, from its creation in the early twelfth century to the end of the fourteenth century, when Richard’s deposition gave way to the world of Lancaster and York. I felt that within that tapestry there was scope to tell some fantastic stories, look at some interesting and neglected characters, but also develop arguments I’d been thinking about for a long time about the development of kingship in the medieval world, and the ways in which that played out against the different personalities of the Plantagenet kings. Hopefully I’ve achieved that!

One of the themes of this book is the changing nature of kingship during the Plantagenet period. How do you think did the English kings changed between Henry II and Richard II?

They changed profoundly. But what changed more was kingship itself. Henry inherited the crown from King Stephen partly by conquest and partly by election. The realm he ruled was essentially the England that had been created by the Norman conquest: a state in which a colonizing aristocracy had parceled up the country, invested it with castles and mercenaries, and in which kingship as an office was fairly brittle – its power was almost wholly dependent on the personality of the king. Moreover, England was only a part of something we can loosely call an Empire: its first links were to Normandy, but Henry’s England was also connected to Anjou, Maine, Touraine and Aquitaine – the English crown. Over the course of the Plantagenet years, the country and kingship changed almost beyond recognition. Kingship became hereditary, it became much more institutionalised, heavily cloaked in ritual and pageantry, and wrapped up in a combination of history and legend. Geographically, meanwhile, Normandy was lost in 1204; links with the continent became mainly through English lordship in Aquitaine/Gascony, and the tensions over the exact nature of that lordship were behind the Hundred Years War, and a generations-long enmity with the kingdom of France.

Relations between the kings and their British neighours in Scotland, Wales and Ireland also changed: Wales was subjected and fortified under Edward I with the awesome ring of castles around Snowdonia; Edward also came very close to uniting the Scottish crown with the English and reviving the mythical, Arthurian kingdom of Britain. In Ireland, English authority was weaker, but both Henry and Richard played a part in trying to force English lordship onto the Irish kings in a way that really hadn’t been experienced before. And then there was a shifting pattern of relations between the English and French kings, which is a fundamental part of my story of the Plantagenets: the endless, vicious struggle for mastery and pre-eminence that lasted throughout the period.

So relations with England’s neighbours changed, but perhaps more importantly, under the kings I have written about, royal authority was totally transformed within the realm. Common law and statute law replaced a legal system based on custom and memory. Royal courts took precedence over all other courts, and the kings officers in the localities (particularly the sheriffs, who acted on royal writs to enforce the king’s will right down to village level, and the JPs who from Edward III’s reign became the main agents of royal justice) spread the king’s law deep into English society and cultural identity (think about the deep engagement with ideas about law and justice which we see in the early rhymes of Robin Hood, and other outlaw tales.) By the end of the fourteenth century even ordinary villagers were hiring lawyers to contest legal cases, and pushing their rights to use the royal courts to obtain justice.

On the flip side of that, the iconic status of Magna Carta created an enduring sense in the English mind that the king should obey his own law, and should be held to account by his political community if he tyrannized his people. Under John and Henry III that meant the barons making war on the king; by Edward III reign, it meant the commons in parliament impeaching royal ministers and, ultimately, parliamentary process being used to depose Richard in favour of Henry Bolingbroke (Henry IV). You can even read the peasants’ revolt as a rebellion concerned with the ideas and principles of Magna Carta, albeit expressed in a rather peculiar and uniquely violent way.

Alongside all that, there were obviously very marked differences in the personalities of the kings. Richard the Lionheart, Edward I and Edward III were soldiers through and through. Henry II and John were lawmakers. Henry III and Richard II were particularly obsessed with the grandeur and image of kingship. For all that the institutions of kingship (parliament, the exchequer, the royal courts, etc) developed and grew semi-independent of the person of the king, his personality still shaped the course and the politics of his reign.

You do find that England changed remarkably during this period, going from a kind of backwater to one of the most important countries in Europe. How much do you think that rise was due to the English kings themselves?

I think the growing power and complexity in the office of kingship was important, but of course – as I said above – the king’s personality mattered. The aggressive, muscular, military kingship of Henry II, Richard I, Edward I and Edward III all forced England to the fore in terms of international relations. Henry put together a vast territorial bloc that dominated every other kingdom in Europe; Richard’s crusading exploits brought unimaginable prestige and glamour to the English crown; Edward I’s belligerence towards the Scots and Welsh changed relations within the British isles; Edward III’s decision to press his claim to the French crown, and the brilliance of his friends and sons on the battlefield – especially Henry Grosmont, duke of Lancaster and Edward, the Black Prince – was of critical importance for the century that followed, and threw relations between England and France -but also Flanders, Burgundy, Castile and so on – into a near-permanent state of glorious and ruinous turbulence. England’s kingship grew very grand and sophisticated during the Plantagenet years, but its fortunes still largely depended on the political skill, intelligence and plain good luck of the man who wore the crown.

Click here to read our review of The Plantagenets: The Kings Who Made England

Click here to visit Dan Jones’ website