Monday 21 May 2012

A Rattling Good Yarn

It began with a ship wreck.  The year is 1120.  The vessel in question is the White Ship, leaving France for England, setting sail in the dark on a late November night.  All on board were in a party mood, including, according to some accounts, the crew.  The wine and ale has been flowing with liberality.  No sooner had the vessel left harbour than it hit a submerged rock.  All but one of the passengers and crew died.

Norman England might be said to have died that night also; for the drowned included William Adelin.  The grandson of William the Conqueror, he was the only surviving legitimate son and heir of Henry I.  Henry, who was to rule for another fifteen years after the tragedy, had no choice but to leave the throne to his daughter, Matilda, a kind of forlorn hope in a militant male-dominated world.  And so it proved.  No sooner had the king died than the throne was seized by Stephen of Blois, Matilda's cousin, ushering in a long period of civil war, known subsequently as the Anarchy. 

It ushered in much more; it ushered in the devil’s brood.  It ushered in the best of kings and the worst of kings.  It ushered in the Plantagenets.  Reputedly descended from a daughter of Satan, they were set to become England’s longest reigning dynasty.  There is a story worth telling. It’s a story told with enthusiasm, insight and panache by Dan Jones in the recently published The Plantagenets: the Kings Who Made England. 

The sinking of the White Ship is one important marker; the other is Matilda’s marriage in 1128 to one Geoffrey of Anjou. It was a marriage made in hell, or at least Matilda might have thought so.  A widow of twenty six, previously married to the Holy Roman Emperor Henry V, she now found herself bound to a red-headed teenager of fourteen, a marriage arranged by her father for the sake of the peace.  Geoffrey, son of the count of Anjou, had taken to sporting a sprig of yellow broom as his personal emblem- the planta genista in Latin -, hence the name of the ensuing dynasty. 

Matilda and Geoffrey were never to rule England, an honour that fell to their son, who succeeded Stephen in 1154 as Henry II.  Red in hair and red in passion, Henry set the pattern to come.  There was war, bloodshed, brutality and massacre aplenty; but there was also innovation, consolidation and development.  It was under Henry and his successors that England began to take shape as a nation, not a mere appendage of a French-speaking continental power. 

Jones is a story-teller of considerable skill.  In six hundred or so pages he simply carries one along in a strong narrative and chronological vessel, the sort of thing that was once dismissed as, well, just a tad passé by the high priests of the historical profession. 

The focus is very much on the politics and the personalities of power. When his kings are good they are very, very good and when they are bad they…have red hot pokers thrust into their bowels.  Actually, the supposed gruesome death of Edward II is one of the myths that the author hits on the head with a hammer that might very well have been borrowed from Edward I, hitherto busy hammering the Scots. 

The measure of ‘good’ here really needs to be refined.  Good means effective.  It does not mean as in good as in good; anything but, if you take my meaning.  For Jones the effective include Henry II, Richard I, Edward I and Edward III.  The bad, or rather the ineffectual, are King John (isn’t he on every list of great historical baddies?), Henry III, Edward II and Richard II. 

The former – the good -were to stamp their mark on England, through war, law making and administration.  The latter – the bad - also stamped their mark, possibly in some even more lasting ways.  John, by being bad, brought about some good, albeit unwillingly, some lasting innovations in the common law of the land, including the provisions of Magna Carta, the most important of all. 

Indeed it might also be said that it was his incompetence as a soldier that began the process of making England England, rather than greater Normandy or the jewel in the crown of the Angevin Empire.  It was thanks to John that the Channel began to serve in the office of a wall, or as a moat defensive to a house, against the envy of less happier lands.

King John was not a good man, and no good friends had he.  He stayed in every afternoon…but no one came to tea.  Dan Jones certainly did not.  He serves him up as he has been traditionally served up - an all round rotter.  This personally is where I take my leave, seeing John more as the victim of monkish chroniclers.  He was a man who could certainly sin with the best of the Plantagenets, but whose reign saw some important innovations in administration and government.  In this regard I’m a revisionist, not a traditionalist like Jones, who draws up a heavy charge sheet spread over some sixty pages, a catalogue of crime and personal failure that Matthew Paris, the medieval chronicler and character assassin, would doubtless applaud. 

As for the effective ones, John’s grandson Edward I, in his restless imperial ambitions, was to poison relations between England and Scotland for centuries.  Before that we have the example of Richard I, who cared little for England, other than as a mortgageable asset, to be used in financing the pursuit of a crusading chimera. 

The author and I can at least agree on one thing: we both admire Edward III, whom I described in a recent English Standard article as the real father of the English nation.  Although his ambitions in France were fruitless his time saw great innovations in both military and parliamentary affairs.  It was a time that saw the beginning of the end of the old England of humble peasants and hungry barons, never the twain to meet. 

It’s in his account of the ‘black’ fourteenth century that Jones is at his best, in his treatment of the highs of Edward III and the lows of Richard II, his grandson.  His handling of the reign of the latter, the first gentleman of England, is particularly good, hardly surprising in that he previously published a commendable account of the 1381 Peasants’ Revolt. 

Some might think – I did think – that his tale ends rather abruptly in 1399 with the deposition of Richard II. After all, in the Lancaster and York phases, the story of the Plantagenets continues down to the death of Richard III at Bosworth in 1485.  But I suppose this, a period that covers the final dramatic stages of the Hundred Years War and the ensuing Wars of the Roses, would be a mighty postscript in an already lengthy book.  It’s aimed at the popular market and the popular market might baulk at a work heading fast towards a thousand pages or more! 

The publishers have managed to stamp the book with the imprimatur of some impressive heavyweights, including David Starkey and Simon Sebag-Montefiore. These things always seem slightly over the top to me - clearly solicited in advance rather than drawn from a published review - , almost hysterical in their approbation.  The latter, for example, describes The Plantagenets as ‘outstanding’, a judgement echoed by Helen Castor, the best-selling author of She Wolves.  (It must be so: it says so on the cover!) 

It’s good, yes; it’s thrilling, yes; it’s a bit of a royal roller-coaster, yes.  But, really, is it ‘outstanding’?  Well, possibly, in some regards, but are we not suffering from a tendency to exaggeration and hyperbole here?  When every other new publication is described as ‘outstanding’ it tends to jade things somewhat.  Besides, does the book really need this kind of scaffolding?  I don’t think so, not when it serves its purpose, a sprightly filly galloping along nicely in a rattling good yarn.  


  1. Got to keep watch on those gingers!

  2. Hazy recollections of reading Thomas B. Costain's books about the first 400 years of Norman and Plantagenet rule. Dysfunctional hardly begins to describe those families . . . so much more interesting than the spineless political squirming of today's maggots in suits. Any family skeletons left over from those days, Ana?

    It was a period of bloody family feuds and power struggles across Europe, but also when the first schools and universities were founded, and cathedrals raised towers and spires to heaven. It was also the time when merchants and artisans first emerged as a power to rival nobility and the church. The secularization of knowledge and wealth finally broke the insidious power of religion and dispelled the Dark Age that had held men in thrall for a millennium.

    I'll have to take a look at this one, Ana.

    1. Calvin, that would be telling. :-))

      Do you know what your observation reminds me of? If concerns war, violence and creativity, on the one side, brotherly love and cuckoo clocks, on the other. I'm absolutely sure you need no further prompt. :-)

      If you do let me know what you think.

    2. Harry Lime evidently wasn't aware of the role Swiss mercenaries played in European battles from the 14th Century on - especially among the feuding North Italian cities. For over 200 years, their pike formations were pretty much invincible . . . of course, that reputation kept their homeland safe from the predatory ambitions of neighbouring powers - so perhaps the stay-at-homes did become a little lazy.

    3. Absolutely right, Calvin. The 'Switzers' were a battlefield dread from Morgarten onwards.

  3. Is that just a typo? Shouldn't it be thus:

    He stayed in every afternoon…
    But no one came to tea.

    Only yesterday was I able to begin reading another new book by one of my top authors The History of England: Foundation, the first volume goes up to the end of the reign of Henry VII but what a book it is. I've planned to read a chapter a day as I do with most books (I read about a dozen books at a time) and the very first chapter is startling in that it doesn't hark back to the Anglo Saxons but argues, quite convincingly of an native race of English people going as far back as 900000 years! The book itself is full of surprises and linkages as only Ackroyd can offer -Well worth a read if you haven't already done so.

    1. It is! Changed, dear Rehan. Yes, Ackroyd is to come. :-)