I have recently completed (finally) The Plantagenets: The Kings Who Made England by Dan Jones (1), and I’m amazed at how much I understand about what made a good king and a poor one during the late Medieval period in Britain (see my review in GoodReads). I’m actually not sure where to start – each reign was so different, though a pattern showed through and the author at the end of the book summarizes how 1400 Britain at the end of the Plantagenet dynasty, was so different from 1154 Britain when the first Plantagenet King Henry II came to power.
The Plantagenet Kings
Before providing some details about the changes resulting from the Plantagenet rule, let me first provide the dates and reigns of each of the Plantagenets kings:
|Henry II||1133||1154||1189||Geoffrey Plantagenet|
Count of Anjou
(Daughter of Henry I)
|Richard I||1157||1189||1199||Henry II||Eleanor of Acquitaine|
|John||1166||1199||1216||Henry II||Eleanor of Acquitaine|
|Henry III||1207||1216||1272||John, King of England||Isabella, Countess of Angouleme|
|Edward I||1239||1272||1307||Henry III||Eleanor of Provence|
|Edward II*||1284||1307||1327||Edward I||Eleanor, Countess of Ponthieu|
|Edward III||1312||1327||1377||Edward II||Isabella of France|
|Richard II*||1367||1377||1400||Edward III||Joan, 4th Countess of Kent|
* Deposed before his death occurring in the same year or the following year
Notice that this list stops with Richard II and does not go on to the Lancastrian Plantagenets (Henry IV [1399-1413], Henry V [1413-1422], and Henry VI [1422-1461, 1470-1471]) and the York Plantagenets (Edward IV [1461-1470, 1471-1483], Edward V , and Richard III [1483-1485]) but rather considers the Plantagenet dynasty which goes until a regular line of succession from father to son is broken by the deposition of Richard II and the assumption of the English crown by Henry Bolingbroke grandchild of Edward III’s through his third son, John of Gaunt. The reigns of the Lancastrian and York Plantagenets from 1399 to 1484 are covered by Dan Jones in a book titled the Wars of the Roses: The Hollow Crown (2).
The Changes from 1154 to 1400
When Henry II ascended to the thrown after Stephen, displacing his son Eustace according to a peace accord between Henry and Stephen several years earlier, England was an Anglo-Norman realm created upon William the Conqueror‘s defeat of King Harold II in 1066 at the Battle of Hastings. The Plantagenet years resulted in a series of changes in political philosophy and jurisprudence that reshaped the role of the King of England. In 1400 upon Henry IV’s ascension, a body of common law and statute was used to govern England and its possessions, compared to the vague charters that were granted to subjects of the king prior to Plantagenet rule. The power of the king in 1400 was dependent upon this new structure of justice and laws that governed the land including oversight and sometimes control by a parliament of lords and, by the 14th century, a commons, while the king remained the universal authority. The struggle between the desire of the king to have untied hands in ruling, going to war as he desired without the need for approval, and raising taxes to support these wars, was central to the story of the Plantagenet kings. These struggles eventually defined the duties a sovereign had to their subjects, and if respected, the subjects returned personal power to the sovereign.
Personalities of the kings and their families, and ability to win battles, became the critical factors to the power of the king. If the king won battles in France, Wales, Scotland or when on crusade, he would more support for continued taxation to support those wars than those kings who lost battles and the English Crown’s possessions. To stay ahead of their enemies at war, the kings of England were constantly improving every aspect of military strategy and tactics. Henry II, Richard I and John used siege craft to overcome castles built to deter them. This strategy was most obvious when Henry II was at the walls of Toulouse in 1159, when Richard I (Richard the Lionhearted) stormed Acre and Jaffa, and losing his life at another siege at Chalus-Chabrol, and when John lost Normandy when Phillip II lay siege to Chateau Gaillard in 1204, a castle built as a stronghold against the French by his father Henry II. By 1250 pitched battles began to be more common, a strategy honed by the English in several civil war battles, then taken to the Scots by Edward I’s forces at the battles of Falkirk and Dunbar, and many more battles won and lost by Edward I, II and III. Edward III developed the use of dismounted men-at-arms to fight at close range, and mounted archers as a counter to cavalry charges, and weaken attacking infantry. His victories at Crecy and Poitiers demonstrated the power of these military tactics, demonstrated at their best by Henry V when his small force crushed the much larger French forces at Agincourt in 1415.
In the 1400’s the English common people, i.e. lower orders, knew their role in society better than at any other time in history and maybe better than any other people in that era. In contrast, before the Plantagenets, the people were ruled from above and far away in both location and language, since they spoke Norman French and knew little, and cared little for the common language of English. Richard II’s reign was marked by the growth of an English language cultural expression by people like Geoffrey Chaucer, John Gower, William Langland and the poet who wrote Gawain.
Also by 1400 the symbols of the king were represented by (1) a pious, anointed, and sanctified king represented by the symbolism of St. Edward the Confessor, and (2) God’s warrior, represented by the symbolism of St. George. Henry III redesigned Westminster Abbey, the heart of the Kings of England where all but the least respected Plantagenets were buried, with St. Edward the Confessor’s tomb at its center. Edward III created the Order of the Garder to bind knights to an honor code of martial chivalry, and the idea of a warrior sanctioned by God. The cross of St. George was also incorporated into the official battle flag of the Order of the Garder. The British Union flag now incorporates that flag of St. George.
- “The Plantagenets.” Accessed June 1, 2020. https://www.goodreads.com/work/best_book/17229073-the-plantagenets-the-kings-who-made-england.
- “The Wars of the Roses.” Accessed June 1, 2020. https://www.goodreads.com/work/best_book/40166938-the-hollow-crown.
- “The Great Courses: Story of Medieval England: From King Arthur to the Tudor Conquest.” Accessed June 2, 2020. https://www.thegreatcourses.com/courses/story-of-medieval-england-from-king-arthur-to-the-tudor-conquest.html.