The Plantagenets

I’ve always thought it a great paradox that there’s no better way of relaxing than with a good crime novel.  I don’t know why this should be; it is perhaps because reading about murder and mayhem, trickery and treachery helps you to appreciate the safety and security of your own world and to put all the people who’ve annoyed you during the course of the working day into perspective: a perspective reinforced also by all the ones who’ve been especially helpful or kind (as there are many more lovely people in the world than crime writers acknowledge).

I read voraciously all the time and I like to alternate reading fiction with non-fiction, sometimes having two novels and two non-fiction books simultaneously on the go.  My preferred non-fiction subject categories are biography, memoirs, natural history, (more selectively) geography, particularly of Lincolnshire and Yorkshire, archaeology and history.  Especially history.  I love local history (again, particularly of ‘my’ two counties, as I’ve mentioned before), but I read history books about all periods and places, all of the time.  Coming back to what is most relaxing, I think that nothing can beat history books about the high middle ages – perhaps because, just like crime novels, they tell of appalling acts that are remote enough to reassure the reader that he or she is unlikely to experience them first-hand, whilst offering the opportunity to drink up the excitement that they offer.

I’ve read many more books about the Wars of the Roses than any other mediaeval period, so in my most recent expedition to a bookshop (it was Waterstones in Leeds) I decided to buy Dan Jones’ The Plantagenets: the kings who made England.  I have read accounts of individual reigns in the Plantagenet period, but until now I’ve had no broad overview of it.  Jones’ book turned out to be the ideal choice for this purpose.  He succeeds superbly well at explaining how each Plantagenet king built on the heritage of his predecessor to make England a strong, united country (they also enjoyed modest successes in Wales, made almost no headway in Scotland and none at all in Ireland) with well-defined laws.  Despite the fact that, at the beginning of the Plantagenet period, in the mid-twelfth century, the English king and nobles also held vast swathes of land in France and by the end of it, two and a half centuries later, almost all of these had been lost, the Plantagenets also transformed England from being an impoverished country largely ignored by its European counterparts to a prosperous land and international force to be reckoned with, whether for peaceful trading or highly aggressive warfare.

As with all dynasties that span long periods of time, the Plantagenets had their failures as well as their successes.  The greatest Plantagenet kings were Henry III and Edward III; the weakest were Edward II (who was spectacularly incompetent) and Richard II (who was less so, but like Edward II failed to understand the dangers of empowering his favourites).  It was directly owing to Richard II’s shortcomings that the great Plantagenet dynasty fell.  No less fascinating are the Plantagenet queens: they may have been consorts rather than rulers in their own right, but such royal wives as Eleanor of Aquitaine, Eleanor of Castile and Isabella of France were every bit as colourful, determined – and fierce – as their husbands; in each case, they were the de facto monarchs of England for significant periods of their husbands’ reigns; and in each case they defied their husbands at crucial junctures, often changing the course of history in the process:  for example, Isabella of France was directly responsible for deposing the insipid and unkingly Edward II and placing Edward III on the throne instead.  She and her lover Roger Mortimer then tried to manipulate the new king, a ploy that failed because Edward reasserted the power and pride of the Plantagenet line in all its pomp and glory.  Mortimer was executed; but Isabella carried on enjoying full regal honours as the king’s esteemed mother. One queen for whom I did feel pity as I was reading was Berengaria of Navarre, Richard I’s plain and neglected wife.  He seems to have married her simply because he was determined not to marry Alice of France, to whom he had been betrothed as a child but who had probably been seduced by his father, Henry II.  They had no children: there is some evidence that Richard was a latent homosexual (though Jones does not subscribe to this theory).

I enjoyed this long book hugely.  I have a few reservations about it: one is the portrayal of Richard I himself.  Jones seems to have accepted the version of him traditionally peddled to primary school children, of a brave and warlike king who brought honour and renown on his country by fighting against Saladin in the crusades.  Most works of scholarship now concur that it was irresponsible of Richard to abandon his country and run up huge debts, especially as he knew that his brother John would make a weak, self-interested king.  Jones also uses certain phrases irritatingly frequently: the one that grated on me the most was ‘smacks of’, which he uses in the sense of ‘seems to be’.  This is not how I would use this phrase myself, but, even if I agreed with Jones’ usage, I’d still like to see this figure of speech appear less frequently.

But these are minor quibbles.  The dark, cold winter nights are upon us now.  If you want to take a break from crime, but still want something thrilling to read that will absorb you totally in adventure and happenings stranger than fiction, this book is for you.