As they say, you learn something new every day, at least if you are looking. It was only recently that I found out that the Latin name for Yellow Broom, the plant, is planta genista and that it was the heraldic device of Geoffrey of Anjou (1113-51). So, you might ask, what?
Geoffrey of Anjou was the founder of the line of Kings of England (and a few other places) from 1154 to 1485, the Plantagenets.
Wilson, D. (2014). The Plantagenets: The Kings that Made Britain. London: Quercus.
In my quest to find out what happened next (or, indeed, next next in this case, after the Anarchy), I have read the above, and interesting it was as well for someone who only has a smattering of medieval history.
I do have a few quibbles, however, mainly with the title. For example, while self-evidently, from the geography, the Kings of England had influence over Wales, Scotland and Ireland, to claim that the Plantagenets ‘made Britain’ is a bit of a stretch. Or, maybe, it is simply that unwholesome aspect of English thinking that equates England with Britain. I am not sure; the influence of the Plantagenet kings on the rest of the British Isles seems to have been fairly destructive.
The other quibble with the title is that, at the end of the book, the author concedes that ordinary people had a hand in making Britain, or England. Rioting peasants, people pursuing justice and demanding their cases be heard in the King’s Courts where they had a better chance (and it might be a bit cheaper), people trying to trade and conduct commerce and so on all had, perhaps, as large, if not larger, had in the making of England than assorted kings did.
Anyway, what we have here is a straightforward traditional history of the Kings of England from Henry II to Richard III. For reasons I have never understood the Plantagenets still have the ability to make otherwise seeming sensible and rational people all misty-eyed, declaring them to be the rightful rulers of England and decrying the Tudors (however spelt) for being usurpers, murderers and so on. Far be it from me to question these views, but I really do not understand them at all. The fact seems to be that the only right which was acquired by anyone from William the Conqueror through to Richard III was by judicious (or less so) applications of violence. Your right and true ruler of England came about by how hard you hit anyone who opposed you.
I dare say that most wargamers can cite the kings and battles of the period, and talk about the changes in warfare and the loss of the Norman possessions, Gascony and other places along the way. I will not bore my reader by reciting these bits of history, which are, so far as I can tell, as well covered here as in any general history of the same period. I will focus on a few points that are of interest.
The author draws an interesting parallel between Charles I and Edward II (p 123). Both, he observes, inherited the crown because an older brother had died, both defied parliaments, both asserted the power and dignity of the monarchy, both were humiliated in war with the Scots, both had disastrous court favourites, provoked civil war, were imprisoned by their own people and died violently in their forties. As someone who started this whole history and wargaming stuff from the English Civil War, it was bound to catch my attention, wasn’t it?
I suppose that the parallels pretty well start and stop with the paragraph. Certainly, Wilson does not extend his discussion of it, although I suppose it could be extended. But the differences are significant as well. Charles possibly comes out of the comparison as a slightly bigger chump than Edward. After all, Charles could be accused of starting a war with the Scots, while Edward really only continued it (badly) having inherited the conflict and instability from his father. Edward also really upset his wife who invaded, while Henrietta Maria remained loyal. I suppose that parallels like that should not be pushed too hard.
The other thing to notice is both depressing and encouraging. Indeed, I had a similar experience reading Parker (Parker, G. (2013). Global Crisis: War, Climate Change and Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century. Yale: Yale University Press). On the whole, kings were rubbish at ruling people. They were really only interested in themselves, their own power, honour and line. They cared about as much for the good of their people as most of the people would have cared for the rats that spread plague about the place. One of the things that I have found from reading history (and Sumption’s books on the Hundred Years War are similar) is how awful most rulers are at ruling for the common good. It is hard to find in this book or any of the others a ruler who actually gave a toss about the commoners.
That, it seems to me, is depressing. But also slightly encouraging, in the sense that however rubbish the rulers were at ruling, and however little they cared about their people, somehow the people persevered, and showed great humanity to each other, if not to their rulers. The same applies to the nobility as well: they were far too concerned with tier own honour and power, money and grandness, to actually care for their tenants. It was only when they fell out with another noble and needed to show good lordship that they actually paid attention.
For today, of course, it can hardly be said that the political scene in the Western world, at least, is studded with talent. A quick look at politics in, say Britain and the United States suggests that the bigger incompetent you are, the better you will do at the polls, at least once and possibly more than that. But still the hope of the human race goes on, in spite of, not because of, our rulers.