The Book of Kings: A fast-paced, blood-soaked history of the dynasty that transformed England from a loosely-governed patchwork into a powerful nation

May 17, 2013, 3:30 p.m. ET

The Book of Kings

A fast-paced, blood-soaked history of the dynasty that transformed England from a loosely-governed patchwork into a powerful nation.

By STEPHEN BRUMWELL

In April 1349, as an epidemic of bubonic plague devastated his subjects, King Edward III of England staged a lavish tournament at Windsor Castle. This spectacular festival of jousting culminated in the creation of an exclusive club, the Order of the Garter. Edward was fascinated by stories of the legendary King Arthur. In founding a new order of chivalry, he sought to establish his own Knights of the Round Table, with an expanded Windsor standing in for Camelot.

Yet as Dan Jones amply demonstrates in “The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made England,” such ostentatious display amid the horrors of the Black Death was justified by harsh personal experience: Edward’s father, Edward II, had been deposed and murdered in 1327 because of his failure to win the respect of his war-minded nobles. By inviting them to join his new fraternity, Edward III was not only rallying the military support he needed to pursue a claim to the crown of France—he had invaded the country in 1346 and warred there consistently through 1359—but taking steps to ensure that he would never share his father’s dismal fate.The Plantagenets

By Dan Jones
Viking, 534 pages, $36

 

Private Collection / The Bridgeman Art Library

Royal FamilyThe Great Seal of King Edward III (14th century). Eight Plantagenets ruled England between 1154 and 1399.

The concept of kingship, the manner in which a monarch approached his responsibilities to his realm and exercised his God-given authority, lies at the heart of Mr. Jones’s book. For all his prestige and resources, a king who frustrated the expectations of the barons—his most powerful subjects, ones with a prickly sense of honor and formidable forces of their own—risked rebellion, humiliation and death. It was, as Mr. Jones’s publishers are emphasizing, a real-life “Game of Thrones.” With this subject, the predictable blurb is for once justified.

As retold by Mr. Jones, the story of England’s Plantagenet dynasty is as dramatic and blood-soaked as any work of fantasy. Like the medieval chroniclers he quarries for juicy anecdotes, Mr. Jones has opted for a bold narrative approach anchored firmly upon the personalities of the monarchs themselves yet deftly marshaling a vast supporting cast of counts, dukes and bishops.

This decision to focus on royal “celebrities” has received timely vindication from the public interest generated by the announcement in February that the skeleton discovered beneath a municipal parking lot in Leicester was indeed that of King Richard III. While some unsporting academics carped that the resulting media frenzy detracted from the no less interesting lives of anonymous folk (peasants, merchants and such), they underestimated the sheer Shakespearean drama of that find. Here were the remains of the last English king to die in battle, bones notched and scarred by the blades that hacked him down at Bosworth Field in 1485. Even more remarkably, Richard’s deformed spine confirmed that those “hunchback” gibes were not just Tudor propaganda.

Richard III was the last English monarch of Plantagenet descent, but Mr. Jones’s book stops in 1399, with the deposition of Richard II by his cousin Henry Bolingbroke. This episode ended the run of eight Plantagenet rulers that began with Henry II in 1154. Between 1399 and 1485, by contrast, the throne was occupied by rival Lancastrian and Yorkist “cadet” branches of the Plantagenets. (Mr. Jones is currently writing a sequel that will take the story through the tumultuous 15th century, culminating in the sporadic bloodletting of the “Wars of the Roses” and their gory finale at Bosworth.)

Covering more than 250 years, the saga’s first installment is ambitious enough, reaching back into the reign of the Norman King Henry I with an atmospheric reconstruction of the wreck of the “White Ship” carrying a royal party back from France in 1120. What should have been a swift voyage from Normandy to southern England ended in disaster. Crew and passengers alike got roaring drunk, and the splendid craft had barely left port before it struck a jagged rock and foundered. That catastrophe drowned a “golden generation” of the Anglo-Norman elite, including Henry’s heir, William the Aetheling, thereby instigating a dynastic crisis that plunged England into civil war.

The anarchy only ended when Henry’s grandson—the offspring of his daughter Matilda and her husband, Geoffrey of Anjou—assumed the throne as Henry II. It was Geoffrey’s penchant for wearing a jaunty sprig of broom (Latin Planta genista) in his cap that gave the dynasty its evocative name, although it only entered common usage three centuries later. The dynasty is more strictly known as the “Angevins,” after Geoffrey’s title, Count of Anjou.

Much of the book’s appeal lies in its bewildering mix of personalities, with the same family randomly spawning born rulers and utter misfits. The hapless Edward II, for example, preferred “such peasant activities as swimming and rowing” over the pursuit of chivalric deeds, and his “dysfunctional” reign heralded a cycle of escalating violence. Yet he was the son of a ruler formidable by any measure, Edward I, “the Hammer of the Scots.” And his own son, Edward III, matured into a warrior-king to equal both his grandfather and even the second Plantagenet king, the famed crusader Richard “the Lionheart.” Edward III’s quest for glory in France was launched to blot out the shameful memory of his father’s shambolic misrule. More puzzling is the attitude of Edward’s successor, his grandson Richard II, who openly admired the murdered Edward II and ultimately shared his fate.

Fast-paced and accessible, “The Plantagenets” is old-fashioned storytelling and will be particularly appreciated by those who like their history red in tooth and claw. Mr. Jones tackles his subject with obvious relish, and such set pieces as Edward’s III’s crushing defeat of a French fleet at Sluys in 1340 convey all the bloody mayhem of medieval warfare. His prose is direct and robust, with descriptions of battle, plague, execution and murder that pull no punches. Here, for example, he recounts the notorious slaying of Thomas Becket in 1170:

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.

Given Mr. Jones’s sprawling chronology and tight focus upon the deeds and misdeeds of the monarchs themselves, many social, political and economic themes are inevitably sidelined. But “The Plantagenets” succeeds as a readable, stand-alone treatment for the general reader. Its conclusion highlights the importance of the era in forging enduring English institutions and identities, seeing the transformation of a fragile and loosely governed realm into a powerful, sophisticated and confident nation. While the individual kings who are central to Mr. Jones’s narrative always mattered, they grew increasingly reliant upon the goodwill of their subjects, as voiced in Parliament.

Not least, the same Plantagenet years saw the growing popularity of the ballads of Robin Hood and of the cult of St. George: Both myths were given reality by the archers and men-at-arms who won hard-fought victories against the odds at Crécy in 1346, and at Poitiers a decade later, their celebrated battlefield exploits helping to define the very notion of Englishness.

—Mr. Brumwell’s “George Washington: Gentleman Warrior” will be published in October.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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