Apologies to regular visitors to the blog – I’ve been somewhat busy of late with working on my first book, a biography of the poet Lord Rochester, but I will update when I get a chance (or when something interests me enough to spend an hour or so writing about it.) Here’s a reprint of a recent review that I did for The Observer.
“The prince was drunk” is the attention-grabbing first sentence of Dan Jones’s The Plantagenets. There follows an account of the 1120 wreck of royal prince William the Aetheling’s flagship, The White Ship, and the subsequent centuries of alternating triumph and disaster visited upon the Plantagenet dynasty, up until the beginning of Henry IV’s reign in 1399.
Jones, a protege of David Starkey, writes with his mentor’s erudition but also exhibits novelistic verve and sympathy. Following his acclaimed account of the Peasant’s Revolt,Summer of Blood, this is a great popularhistory, whether you are au fait with the machinations of medievalism or whether Magna Carta mystifies you.
Jones offers vivid psychological portraits of the Plantagenet kings. Richard the Lionheart is flawed but chivalric, patriotic and drawing such respect from his enemies that his great nemesis Saladin wrote to him in 1192 to say that there was no king to whom he would rather lose his empire. But his brother, the wicked King John, is given short shrift, with his habit of torturing wealthy nobles until they would pay ridiculous amounts of ransom; he was cruel even by 13th-century standards.
One of Jones’s strengths is an eye for the small but enlightening detail of character. Edward I, or “Longshanks”, persecuted all who disagreed with him, whether it be his expulsion of the Jews in 1290 or his conquest of Scotland in 1296. He was so dominant in person that he was said to have scared a man to death, unlike his son Edward II, whose incompetent rule, bedevilled with military defeats and unwise adherence to his favourites, ended with his murder in 1327. Jones notes that the method of his death, traditionally held to be by a rectally inserted red-hot poker, “is almost certainly quite untrue”. The medieval wheel of fortune is ever-present. The greatest of all the Plantagenet kings, Edward III, is succeeded in 1377 by one of the very worst, Richard II, and the whole process of civil war begins again.
The book offers unforgettable characters, and it’s always clear whether Jones loves or hates the people that he writes about, describing key figures such as Thomas Becket or Piers Gaveston as “splendid” or “insufferably arrogant”. If the book has a flaw, it sometimes seems to flit away from these people too soon, leaving the reader keen to find out more about such marginal but important men as the mystic Peter of Wakefield and the historian Geoffrey of Monmouth.
Over and over again, the point is implicitly made that the greatness of England was an accidental occurrence, rather than a planned evolution.The Plantagenets is proof that contemporary history can engage with the medieval world with style, wit and chutzpah. It is a long book at more than 600 pages, but remains engaging throughout.