The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made England by Dan Jones
Genre: History, Nonfiction
Dates Read: February 1-25, 2019
Synopsis: A stunning achievement that brings one of the most tumultuous and fascinating periods of British history to life, The Plantagenets transports readers to the era of chivalry and the Crusades, the Black Death and the Hundred Years War. The first Plantagenet king inherited a broken, blood-soaked realm from the Normans and transformed it into an empire that would stretch at its peak from Scotland to Jerusalem. His descendants and their fiery queens, including Eleanor of Aquitaine, Richard the Lionheart, Edward II, and King John, shaped England into the country we recognize today and gave it many of the laws, contracts, and bodies of governance—like Parliament and the Magna Carta—that would shape our own nation. (from Goodreads)
I’m gonna let y’all in on a little not-so-hidden secret, I have a bit of a crush on Dan Jones. He’s like that cool tattooed professor at college who you think looks pretty sexy in a pair of tight black pants, always has a cheeky joke at the ready, and sometimes lets you have class outside at the nearby amphitheater ruins. (Okay, maybe I’m pulling from my own experience with that last one there, but my Shakespeare professor was really cute when she wasn’t making me write essays for an exam.) Because of that, I’m going to call him Dan for the duration of this review. Okay? Cool.
I’ve been interested in the Plantagenets ever since Starz produced a miniseries adapting Philippa Gregory’s The White Queen back in 2013, which I loved (I’m finally going to be reading that book soon, and hopefully I’ll like it at least half as much as I did the show). Because of that interest, I’ve acquired quite a few books over the years from the time of their rule, all the way through the Tudor years. I’m slowly making my way through them, and this was the first one to really get into them, following David Howarth’s 1066.
It’s not light reading, but it is easy to read. Dan writes in such a way that he easily pulls in modern readers and provides them with a plethora of information about tons of historical figures (many of whom share the same name — looking at all of you, Henrys, Matildas, and Williams) and events without info-dumping and losing the readers in gobbledygook. Looking at all the source materials in the back of the book and going through the index reveals that what Dan has done here is quite a feat. He keeps the chapters short, which is probably one of the things that makes this book so easy to read. Long chapters in nonfiction can really pull me out of a story because I’m always looking to see how many pages are left until the next one. The stories are both succinct and engaging and really brought home that these were real people.
There are some pretty gruesome scenes in this book. Below is the description of the murder of Thomas Becket (aka Thomas à Becket):
On December 29 four heavily armed men smashed through a side door to Canterbury Cathedral with an ax. The archbishop of Canterbury was waiting for them inside. They were angry. He was unarmed. They tried to arrest him. He resisted. They hacked the top of his head off and mashed his brains with their boots. (72)
I love the way he wrote that scene. The back-and-forth style of the narration simplifies the scene in a way that makes it seem more brutal. There’s no flowery language there. Just cold-blooded murder.
And here’s another, the murder of Simon de Montfort:
The body was then mutilated in sickening fashion. News reached the mayor and sheriffs of London that “the head of the earl of Leicester…was severed from his body, and his testicles cut off and hung on either side of his nose; and in such guise the head was sent [as a trophy] to the wife of Sir Roger Mortimer at Wigmore Castle. His hands and feet were also cut off and sent to divers places to enemies of his, as a great mark of dishonour to the deceased; the trunk of his body, and that only, was given for burial in the church of Evesham [Abbey].” (235, primary quote from English Historical Documents, vol. 3, ed. H. Rothwell )
One thing that really surprised me was that the English people didn’t really care about sexuality back in the day. Some of the kings may or may not have been gay, but all the nobles cared about was whether they could do their jobs. I guess when your biggest concerns are surviving until the next year and not being conquered, things like sexuality don’t really come up much in debate. Still, it’s very interesting considering how prominent Christianity and the Catholic Church were in England during that time.
My favorite figure to read about was Isabella of France (aka the She-Wolf of France), and now I want to read more about her. She was such a strong, independent woman and took matters into her own hands when things weren’t going her way. Her methods aren’t exactly what I would do…at all, but to take the actions she did as the wife of Edward II took some lady balls. She dressed as if in mourning of her husband (who wasn’t dead — he’d just pissed her off), had an affair with Sir Roger Mortimer, and had Hugh Dispenser the Younger tortured and murdered, eating while she watched. Damn, girl.
Now, more about that torture and murder. Dispenser tried to starve himself prior to this ordeal just to avoid it, so even he knew it was going to be bad. He was tied to a horse and dragged through town, hanged almost to the point of death above a fire from a fifty-foot gallows so that everyone could see him, had his genitals cut off, had his intestines and heart cut out and thrown into the fire, and was lowered to the ground and butchered, his head removed to be send to London and the remaining pieces of his body to be distributed throughout the country. The most chilling part is that he didn’t even make a sound throughout all of this until his intestines were removed.
If you don’t want to read this book…I’m disappointed in you — no but really, if you’d rather watch the book instead, luckily there’s a program for that! It’s also very good, and the actors even speak French prior to Henry Bolingbroke’s ascension to the throne (he, as Henry IV, was the first English king since the Norman invasion to do so). During the scenes when Dan is just narrating and there’s no acting involved, he goes around to the different locations he describes — at least the ones still in existence — drawing connections between then and now.
If you’re interested in this time period and the couple hundred years following it, I also recommend the Hollow Crown miniseries. It covers Richard II to Richard III (with some Henrys sprinkled in there of course). Dan’s book The Wars of the Roses (called The Hollow Crown in the UK) also covers the same material. There are some BIG names in that one (e.g., Sir Patrick Stewart, Ben Whishaw, Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch, Michelle Dockery, Julie Walters, etc.), and it is some high-quality stuff.
This was only my first book by Dan, even though I’ve also watched his Britain’s Bloodiest Dynasty and Secrets of Great British Castles programs, but it certainly will not be my last. I already own everything else he’s published, except for The Color of Time.
- (During his trial he claimed that his pet cat had become possessed by the devil and incited him to his crimes. The cat was also hanged.) (329-330)
- “[T]hose who are afraid can stay at home.” (381-382)