The Plantagenets: The Kings Who Made England
Publisher: Harper Press (2012)
Don’t let size intimidate you. Dan Jones’ recently released 600 page tome on one of England’s most intriguing dynasties is not your dry, ponderous textbook of yore. Jones takes a tumultuous family history and turns it into a sexy summer read.
The book is broken down into seven sections in chronological order: Part I ‘Age of Shipwreck'(Norman rule, Matilda and Stephen), Part II ‘Age of Empire’ (Henry II), Part III ‘Age of Opposition'(King John), Part IV ‘Age of Arthur'(Edward I), Part V ‘Age of Violence’ (Edward II), Part VI ‘Age of Glory’ (Edward III), Part VII ‘Age of Revolution’ and defines England’s Plantagenet years as 1254-1399. Why so specific? The reasoning behind this decision was it offered uninterrupted succession with little dispute from outside claimants to the crown; it was the most exciting and compelling period of England’s Middle Ages, and lastly, for practical purposes, you have to stop somewhere. Fans of the book can look forward to a second one detailing the demise of the Plantagenets under Henry Tudor. Jones has expressed a desire to continue the series and properly finish the Plantagenet story.
Part I begins with the loss of Henry’s heir, William, in a shipwreck, and his only legitimate daughter becoming heir and marrying an Anjou – Geoffrey. The first chapter reads like a novel and gets you hooked with its casual style and upbeat narration. It’s what makes the book easy to read and enjoy – you don’t feel like you’re reading a boring textbook, the stories come across as historical fiction.
William perishes, and after Henry I’s death in 1135, his barons abandon their promises to be loyal to his daughter Matilda and the crown is contested. Female rule had little precedent in the 12th century and Stephen of Blois takes his chances and seizes the throne, disinheriting Geoffrey, Matilda and their infant son, Henry. So begins the excitement.
Every King has a fair set of chapters devoted to their stories of war, politicking, plotting, triumphs and failures. Jones gives an honest portrayal of some of England’s better known medieval “reality stars” such as Thomas Becket, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Richard the Lionheart, infamous King John, and iron fisted Edward I. He brings these giants to life and you feel as though you’re reading a biography without losing the lesson behind the story. For example, Henry II’s tumultuous relationship with Becket is laid bare and Jones doesn’t demonize Henry or sanctify Thomas. I thoroughly enjoyed his fair portrayal of both flawed men. However, if you’re looking to redeem King John, it’s not going to happen in this book. Jones does point out some of John’s successful military initiatives, i.e., the incursions into Scotland and Wales, alongside his failings but they don’t manage to salvage John’s character as a tyrant or his poor
leadership. Each character is given a fairly objective treatment and I appreciated Jones’ unbiased approach to history.
Jones paints a fascinating portrait of the Kings of the Plantagenet dynasty. Jones lays out the important events without getting bogged down in boring detail yet provides enough material to accurately reflect historical fact without losing his audience. He is insightful and provides, at times, a humorous portrayal of his characters. The Plantagenets offers a candid, honest and captivating portrayal of one of England’s most enduring and complicated dynasties. History buff, Anglophile, student and avid reader alike will find this an educational and enjoyable read.