The Mighty—and Overlooked—Reign of the Plantagenets
King Richard III, whose severely wounded body disinterred from under a parking lot in the British Midlands was confirmed by DNA testing this week, was the last of the 14 Plantagenet monarchs who ruled England from 1154 until Richard's death at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. The Plantagenets are only usually in the news when an ambitious theater director with a big budget chooses to stage all eight of Shakespeare's “Plantagenet plays,” from Richard II to Richard III via two parts of Henry IV, Henry V, and three parts of Henry VI.
Sometimes written off by historians as mere medieval military oafs with nothing much more interesting to contribute than smiting, in fact the Plantagenet monarchs who ruled from Henry II to Richard III were a fairly accomplished lot. It was hardly their fault that the real literary and artistic renaissance of Britain took place after they lost power, although writers such as Geoffrey Chaucer, John Gower, and William Langland did flourish in their era.
It was under the Plantagenets, particularly Henry II, Edward I, and Edward III, that England first unified itself and then imposed unity on the rest of the British Isles. When they came to power within a century of the Norman Conquest, England was little more than a colonized realm governed from abroad, but by the time they lost their position nearly a third of a millennium later, she was a unitary state with her own administrative and legal system.
The clue to the Plantagenets' success is to be found in King Edward I's nickname, “The Hammer of the Scots,” because once the Scottish incursions in the north had been defeated it was a relatively simple matter to dominate the rest of the British Isles (with the exception of southern Ireland, always a law unto itself). With the control of mainland Britain and Northern Ireland, and the re-adoption of English as the official language in 1362, came a genuine sense of national identity.
In the realm of law it was the Plantagenet King John, who—albeit extremely reluctantly—gave the English-speaking peoples the right of habeas corpus, perhaps the very cornerstone of all our common law liberties to this day, nearly nine centuries after the signing of the Magna Carta. (Or in fact the sealing of it, since John couldn't sign his own name.) John was an appallingly bad king, yet no less an authority on the English-speaking peoples as Winston Churchill believed that “We owe far more to the vices of John than to the labours of virtuous sovereigns.”
An area where the Plantagenets labored virtuously, in a way that still can be admired today, was in building those great structures of medieval Britain that have retained the capacity to impress. The great Gothic cathedrals that were centuries later to inspire Romantic painters such as Gainsborough, the border castles in Wales that still attract millions of visitors every year, the architectural glories of Westminster Abbey, York Minster, and King's College, Cambridge were all built by Plantagenets. They found London built of wood and left it built, at least partly, with stone.
Another great achievement of the Plantagenets was that they simply lasted on the throne for 331 years, albeit with the last three decades scarred by the Wars of the Roses, which only came to an end with Richard's death at Bosworth. For a family to occupy something as lethally dangerous as a medieval throne for over three centuries was remarkable, and certainly thrashes their hated rivals, the Tudors (at 118 years), but also the Normans (123 years), Stuarts (85 years), Hanoverians (187 years), and the present House of Windsor (112 years).
The Black Death, Hundred Years' War, and Peasants' Revolt all took place during the Plantagenets' watch, along with endless barons' wars, great plagues, and the burning of Joan of Arc. Yet there was also Henry V's victory at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, perhaps the dynasty's high spot. One Plantagenet king had a red-hot poker inserted into his anus to kill him in such a way that his body could be displayed to the populace (Edward II), another was captured on his return from the Crusades and ransomed at vast expense (Richard the Lionheart), but unlike some of the Hanoverian kings, they were never boring. They weren't a particularly artistic family—except for Henry VI who, possibly not coincidentally, was one of the weakest of them all—but they certainly provided Shakespeare with a good deal of great material. And Richard III died with a sword in his hand, like a true Plantagenet.