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Dan Jones


Subtitle: - The Warrior Kings and Queens who Made England - Viking, NY., 2012, 534 pgs., index, Genealogical Tables, Maps, Further Reading.


Reviewer Comment - This is an excellent book, a great read full of fascinating detail. The book should be read along with Dan Jones' The Wars of the Roses, in which he describes the destruction of the Plantagenet Dynasty.
The author's obvious purpose is to tell a great story and he fulfills his purpose. His larger purpose is to show how the members of this Plantagenet dynasty and their opponents created the fundamental structure and nature of England and its society. There are also concepts and 'lessons' the attentive reader can find on his own embedded in the story. There is an excellent index and helpful maps. The author provides a useful 'further reading' for each chapter, which shows the rich reference sources, both primary chronicles and memoirs and recent biographies and studies. The author leaves out footnoting, no doubt to avoid breaking up the narrative. But within the text itself he provides extensive direct quotations cited to eyewitness accounts and contemporary historians.
The tale begins with brief background of the Norman conquerors from William I, William II, Henry I, Stephen, and his war with Henry's daughter, Empress Matilda, and her second husband, Geoffrey Plantagenet, Count of Anjou. ( their dynasty then properly is named Angevin, but since Geoffrey wore the sprig of bright yellow boom blossom in his hair, he and his heirs took on the popular appellation, Plantagenet.
The main narrative then, begins with their son, Henry II, whose reign began in 1154 and continues through seven more generations and 245 years until the deposition of Richard II in 1399.


The first concept that the reader can learn for himself is 'contingency'. This is the role of what Machiavelli called 'fortuna' and Taleb calls 'randomness' - the advent of 'black swans'. The second is the important role that individuals play in the course of history (as opposed to the 'social forces' school of historiography that maintains that individuals are not very significant as determining factors in the broad historical trends.) Then there is the interplay between individuals and personal contingencies affecting not only their lives but subsequent history. That these personal contingencies played such an important historical role is clear, the point is to recognize that they were unexpected - unforeseen - accidents of history.


Of course the first contingency (prior to our story) that affected all subsequent history was William I, the Conqueror's, victory at Hastings. (After Harold's victory at Stamford Bridge.) Then came his three sons, the warrior Robert Curthose was imprisoned by his brother - William II died in a hunting accident without heir - and Henry I married Edith of Scotland and ruled for 35 years, firmly establishing the Norman influence in England. While his younger sister, Adele, married Stephen, Count of Blois.


The second huge contingency took place when Henry's son and heir, William the Aetheling, died young in a naval accident in 1120 leaving no heir from his wife, Matilda of Anjou. And Henry had no other male heir.


The third contingency was that Henry's favored and strong daughter, Matilda, married to HRE Henry V and hence Empress of Germany, survived her first husband who died in 1125 and remarried, to Geoffrey Plantagenet, the powerful Count of Anjou. Together they formed a very potent combination of economic and military power with exceptionally strong personalities determined to exert perogatives and dominance.


The fourth contingency was that the son of Adela and Stephen of Blois, also Stephen, seized the English throne before Geoffrey could reach London and then relied on the powerful, popular preference for a male rather than female ruler. The result was civil war, only concluded when Stephen's son with Matilda of Boulogne, Eustace IV Count of Boulogne, whose wife was the sister of the King of France, died at age 23 before him in 1152. Making the way for Matilda's and Geoffrey's first son, Henry, Count of Anjou, to become Henry II, King of England, to reach agrement with Stephen and then to become king in 1154.


The fifth contingency is that the rich and powerful Dutchess of Aquitaine, Eleanor, had marital difficulties with her first husband, King Louis VII of France, before, during and after their participation in the Second Crusade and they divorced (actually their marriage was declared void on grounds of consanguinity). Immediately Eleanor, to protect her domain of Aquitaine had urged Henry, then still Count of Anjou and since 1150 also Duke of Normandy (Geoffrey died at age 49 in 1151) to come marry her. Think about a contingency!. She was 28 and Henry was 19 when they rushed to marry in 1152 in Poitiers, her capital. We might also consider the fate that had brought Eleanor to rule her duchy at age 13 with the early deaths of both her grand father, William IX, and father, William X. The marriage created a huge English empire from Normandy through Anjou, Maine, Touraine, Gascony, Bordeaux, Limousin, Auvergne and much more that embroiled England on the continent for generations after Henry also became King of England in 1154..


The sixth personal contingency came with the next generation. Henry's two eldest sons by Eleanor, William and Henry 'the young king' died before him, leaving the throne to the third son, Richard I, who was a great warrior and ruler of Angevin domains in France, but not that much interested in being king of England. He not only spent huge sums of English wealth on the Third Crusade and related fighting but then so infuriated the other Crusade leaders that he was taken prisoner and held for ransom while returning to England at a further cost of English treasure. And he spent even more on war in France plus kept his nobles occupied there as well.


The seventh personal contingency came suddenly at the siege of the minor castle of Chalus-Chabrod in Aquitaine in 1199 when Richard I was killed by a crossbow bolt. Moreover, he died without heir, leaving the throne to his grasping but incompetent brother, John, who quickly lost Normandy and incited the barons and powerful figures to force Magna Carta on him. At least he did sire numerous offspring including the great king, Henry III. Henry in turn sired more Plantagenets and spread them widely. During the 13th century, then, Plantagenet power reached a high point with dynastic relationships all over Europe. Henry's son and heir was the great warrior king, Edward I, who expanded English power throughout Wales and into Scotland. Unfortunately, Edward I's son, Edward II, didn't turn out so well, as he favored intimate personal favorites over the many landed noble families, until he was deposed and murdered. But his son, Edward III, reestablished Plantagenet royal power in England and at least held on to part of English domains in France (much of which had been lost by his predecessors.) He too, increased the number of Plantagenet family members with significant personal domains. Plus by that time the English nobility had expanded and become deadly rivals of each other.


Then came the eighth personal contingency when Edward III's great warrior son, Edward the Black Prince (victor at Poitiers) died in 1376 leaving England in turmoil and the throne to his very young son, Richard II. By this time there were multiple uncles and cousins plus many other powerful families all with personal and family stakes (even for their lives) in maintaining some control over government. Having begun very young in a personally dangerous environment of rebellions, Richard II began a reign of terror fed by paranoia until he also was overthrown and deposed.. Our author considers Richard II the last direct Plantagenet king. He was overthrown in a military campaign by Henry IV in 1399. But Henry Bolingbroke was Richard's cousin, son of Edward III's son, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. So in a sense, the House of Lancaster did preserve the Plantagenet line.


Along the way there were many other contingencies including similar family problems in France, such as when the last Capetian king, Charles IV, died and was succeeded by the Valois King Philip VI. There were also significant shifts due to Papal politics and the move of the Papacy from Rome to Avignon.


We learn that during the first several centuries of this era warfare consisted mostly of sieges of castles and towns. Castles were built all over the place both by royal command of the king and by the personal order of the multiple landed nobles. However, gradually in the 14th century pitched battles became more significant along with the increasing importance of infantry. But the popular conception of medieval warfare is that it was all about famous battles in which chivalrous knights played the decisive role.


The book is focused on the political even family (dynastic) issues and activities. In effect it is a biographical study of a family. But the economic and social social environment is apparent. In Europe 11th-14th centuries the economy was mostly agricultural with merchants and small-scale manufacturing both dependent on agricultural production and based on serving the large agricultural population (especially the upper-class landowners). Thus the great majority of the struggles between nobles was for control of agricultural land and production.


The actual power of medieval kings was both less and more than a government leader (president) today. The king's word was law, yet enforcement of his edicts was a problem. If he could capture a rebellious noble he could execute him. So one of the major functions of the king was creating and administering justice. In a sense his word was law. But at the same time he was constrained by both customary traditional law and the power of the Church and its officials to enforce their own law. One of the central themes of the book is the struggle between kings and the Catholic Church. Another is the development of secular law and the organization to administer justice. Different Plantagenet kings devoted more or less attention to this activity with greater or less success. For instance, King John took a personal interest and went around England personally acting as a judge in many local, minor judicial cases.


The king was a great - often the greatest - landowner and drew his direct financial resources from his own lands and related industry. He could in general support his own court and life-style by this income and his many fees stemming from a vast variety of feudal dues. But the king's major activity was warfare. To finance his military expeditions and castle-building programs he had to resort to taxation and custom duties. As the centuries unfolded the ability of the king to obtain tax income became more and more subject to the agreement of a wider and wider circle of other powerful individuals and institutions. At the same time the financial demands of warfare increased. The interplay of king and population over this issue forms one of the chief threads described in this story. The first kings - the Normans and early Plantagenets were able to demand feudal service from their nobles, who were established in a hierarchial structure from a few greatest direct subordinates through their own subordinates down to the individual warriors. And this was sufficient to create the army. Later kings relied more and more on soldiers hired for cash payment. The reader is struck by the actual amounts of cash that could be extorted from the English economy. But a further complication developed when the Plantagenet king lost his domains in France, both cutting off his income from these and that of his senior nobles who perforce became more dependent on their lands in England and less interested in fighting in France. Thus the original success in defending, for instance, Aquitaine with financial resources from France became a loosing proposition when it was a matter of reconquering these lands with financial and manpower resources only from England.


A related development was the increase in the role of credit in financial affairs. Faced with the increasing difficulty in raising greater and greater sums from a smaller and more reluctant financial base the Plantagenet kings turn to outright expropriation (for instance of the Jews) and then to borrowing large sums from Italian banking families. How Italian bankers came to be even interested in loaning funds to English kings is not explained, nor is the mechanism by which the funds were transferred. This means that credit was expanding as a proportion of the actual money supply. The whole subject of commercial expansion in Europe after 1200 is not explicitly discussed, only in passing do we read of various important economic developments such as the English wool trade with Flanders. But the fact that English kings could then get away with simple default - refusal to pay up - and the resulting bankruptcy of several Italian banking houses is noted. The reader, then, should take note and remember that this habit of sovereign default on government debt has not been forgotten by those interested in government finances to the present day.


The author's second theme is the way in which the Plantagenet's created the governmental institutions of England. While these institutions were modified by succeeding generations, many legal concepts remained even into the 18th century. When reading about the actions of Plantagenet kings one can see many specific policies, events, legal norms that were directly prohibited for government by the authors of the U. S. Constitution.


The author also provides an excellent view of the developing social-economic, political environment in which the Plantagenet's operated and to which they contributed greatly. Considering the changes in how monarchs - wether kings or republics - coped with the increasing financial demands of war and increasing political difficulty in retraining their legitimacy and the justification for their demands already appearing in Plantagenet England one can look ahead into the following century and see what was coming. The basis for government in 1400 had shifted and a new concept - 'the state' had appeared. In the future ruling governments would claim 'reasons of state' as the justification for diverting larger and larger quantities of wealth for warfare.


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