The Plantagenet dynasty ruled England from 1154 to 1485, longer than any other royal family. During such a lengthy period the country and the way it was ruled changed enormously. At the beginning England was just one part of a loose confederation of states, most of which lay in what is now France. Gradually the kings lost control of their lands beyond the channel and, by 1485, only Calais was left.
One reason for this contraction was that the barons, on whom the crown relied, gradually identified themselves with their English estates and lost interest in foreign adventures. The Plantagenets tried to extend their rule over Wales (successfully), Scotland (unsuccessfully) and Ireland (partially successfully). These were the centuries that witnessed the political struggles between the king and the barons – struggles that defined the basic rights of subjects and established parliament as a partner in government.
A is for Anjou
This county, largely corresponding to the modern French province of Loire et Maine, was inherited by Geoffrey V, known as ‘Plantagenet’ (because of the sprig of broom – Planta genista – that he took as his badge) in 1129. When Henry I died in 1135, Geoffrey claimed the crowns of England and Normandy in right of his wife, Matilda. Geoffrey’s son, who was to become Henry II of England in 1154, succeeded to the duchy and went on to hold it with England, Normandy and most of western France. Together, these lands formed the Plantagenet or Angevin ‘empire’.
The tomb of Henry II, England’s first Plantagenet king, in Fontevrault Abbey in Anjou, France. (AKG)
B is for Bruce
Edward I spent much of his reign trying to extend effective rule over all the British mainland and, in 1292, appointed John Baliol as a puppet king in Scotland. Robert Bruce, descended from one of William I’s barons, was a rival claimant.
In 1298, with the popular leader William Wallace, Bruce defeated an English army at Stirling Bridge. But conflict continued and after Bruce had had himself crowned in 1306 Edward drove him out of the country. After the death of Edward I in 1307, his incompetent successor, Edward II, failed to capitalise on his father’s progress. Bruce returned and achieved final victory over the English at the battle of Bannockburn in 1314.
C is for Clarendon Constitutions
This was a document presented by Henry II to his bishops at the Palace of Clarendon, near Salisbury, in 1164 in his effort to increase royal control over the English church. Its 16 points claimed ancient custom in support of the superiority of royal over ecclesiastical justice. Archbishop Thomas Becket resisted Henry’s will and fled to France, from where he encouraged those who opposed the king. Becket’s defiance would end in his murder in 1170. The relationship between ecclesiastical and civil courts continued to cause problems throughout the Middle Ages.
D is for Despensers
In about 1312 Hugh Despenser, a baron of good lineage, began to establish influence over the weak Edward II. The leading peers resented Despenser’s power and the lands and titles Edward showered on his favourite.
In 1321, the powerful Marcher lord Roger Mortimer led a rebellion against Edward before fleeing to France in 1323 – where he was joined by Edward’s queen, Isabella. Mortimer and Isabella returned to England in 1326, and captured the king and his allies. Hugh the Elder was beheaded at Bristol while Hugh the Younger suffered the same fate at Hereford. As for Edward, he was murdered in Berkeley Castle in 1327 (though his demise is disputed).
The execution of the Despensers, as depicted in the 15th-century St Alban’s Chronicle. (Bridgeman Art Library)
E is for Eleanor of Aquitaine
Eleanor was the daughter of William X of Aquitaine, whose territory embraced much of central and south-west France. She married, first, Louis VII of France and second, in 1152, the future Henry II of England and Normandy. Later, Eleanor tried to secure various provinces of Henry’s empire for their sons – so Henry kept her in honourable confinement. After Henry’s death in 1189 she exercised great influence over her two surviving sons, Richard (King of England 1189–99) and his successor, John.
Eleanor of Aquitaine marries Louis VII of France in Bordeaux, 1137. (Getty)
F is for fealty
Meaning ‘faithfulness’, this was the glue which held feudal society together because it fixed the mutual responsibility of lords and vassals. The taking of an oath, sworn on the Bible or a holy relic, was vital to the holding of any property – castle, town, manor, tenement, etc – and the obligation of the tenant involved military service or payment in cash or kind. Oaths were also key to the running of merchant guilds. However, as time passed, complications of inheritance and the sub-divisions of property rendered the feudal system complex, cumbersome and, ultimately, unworkable.
G is for Grosseteste
Bishop Robert Grosseteste was the most brilliant scholar and church leader of his generation and, because of his independent mind, is considered by many as a forerunner of the Reformation. He was a lecturer at Oxford, became bishop of Lincoln in 1235 and wrote treatises on theology, natural sciences, astronomy, mathematics, poetry and the classics.
Fearlessly he rooted out corruption in his diocese, challenged the king when he believed he was wrong and, in 1250, travelled to Rome to complain about corruption in the papal court.
An eclipse and phases of the moon in Robert Grosseteste’s 'Treatise on Astronomy'. (The Art Archive)
H is for Henry III
Henry, the longest reigning monarch of the Plantagenet dynasty, ascended the throne at the age of nine in 1216 and died 56 years later. He loved religious and royal ritual and spent extravagantly on buildings designed to emphasise the importance of the church and the crown. The rebuilding or enlarging of Westminster Abbey, Westminster Hall and the Tower of London were among Henry’s gifts to posterity.
I is for interdict
Meaning ‘prohibition’, this was an order, issued by a pope or bishop, forbidding clergy to offer individuals any of the rites of the church. This spiritual sanction was terrifying for people who depended on their priests for confession, absolution, baptism or the last rites. Popes used this ultimate sanction against kings who had displeased them: in 1170 Henry II was forced, by fear of papal interdict, to allow the exiled Thomas Becket to return. From 1208–13 England was placed under interdict by Pope Innocent III because King John refused to appoint Stephen Langton as archbishop of Canterbury.
J is for John of Gaunt
This younger son of Edward III was born in Ghent (hence his name) in 1340. When his father died in 1377, leaving the crown to his grandson Richard II, John became the leading political figure, causing controversy through his efforts to make the crown independent of the church. When his son Henry Bolingbroke rebelled against Richard, John supported the king but later backed Bolingbroke’s claim to the throne, a claim that sparked off the Wars of the Roses.
John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, shown in a painting attributed to Lucas Cornelisz. (Alamy)
K is for kingship
Conflicting ideas about royal authority underlay most of the major disputes of the Plantagenet centuries. The descendants of William the Conqueror claimed to rule by ‘the grace of God’. Ecclesiastical theorists insisted that kings must acknowledge the pope as above all earthly rulers. Barons demanded a say in the conduct of government. The main outcome of attempts to define the rights and duties of kings and subjects – including the Magna Carta – led to the development of parliament, which grew out of the king’s ‘great council’.
L is for Llywelyn the Last
Llywelyn ap Gruffudd was the last member of a native Welsh dynasty to establish independence from the Anglo-Norman invaders. From 1256–67 he threw out several English marcher lords and styled himself Prince of Wales. By the Treaty of Montgomery (1267), Henry III was forced to acknowledge Llywelyn’s position but Edward I, who succeeded his father in 1272, renewed the war. Edward won over some of the Welsh chiefs, built several castles as military outposts and imposed the Treaty of Aberconway (1277). Llywelyn was killed at the battle of Orewin Bridge near Cilmeri in 1282.
M is for Montfort
Simon de Montfort was one of Henry III’s most trusted councillors. However, his heavy-handed rule as governor of Gascony turned Henry against him. By 1258 Montfort had emerged as the leader of baronial opposition which, in the ‘Mad Parliament’, enacted the Provisions of Oxford to curb arbitrary royal power. After defeating the king in the battle of Lewes, Montfort summoned a parliament which included shire knights and burgesses – a major step in the development of parliamentary representation. Montfort was slain at the battle of Evesham in August 1265.
N is for Normandy
The Duchy of Normandy was united to the English crown during the reigns of Henry II and Richard I but, in 1204, Philip II of France grabbed it from King John. Henry III made repeated efforts to recover the duchy but, in 1259, was obliged to abandon his claim by the terms of a treaty that enabled him to retain Gascony and the Channel Islands (or îles Anglo-Normandes).
The English were never reconciled to the loss of this territory and, in 1417, Henry V reclaimed it. Normandy was controlled by his brother, the Duke of Bedford until 1435 but, during the reign of Henry VI, the French won it back.
O is for Oldcastle
Sir John Oldcastle, Lord Cobham, was a substantial landholder and a soldier who served valiantly in the French wars and was favoured by Henry V. However he was a Lollard, a believer in the ‘heresies’ of John Wycliffe. Having failed to dissuade him from his opinions, Henry allowed his friend to face trial by a church court in 1413. Oldcastle was condemned to be burned but managed to escape from the Tower. He remained a fugitive until 1417, when he was executed as a heretic and a traitor. Oldcastle’s significance lies in the widespread support that Lollard criticism of the church enjoyed at all levels of society.
The Lollard and war hero John Oldcastle is burned in chains over a fire in 1417. (Hulton/Getty)
P is for plague
Bubonic and pneumonic plague were spread by a bacterium, Yersinia pestis, and swept across western Europe on a number of occasions from the mid-14th century onwards. The worst visitation was the Black Death, which arrived in the summer of 1348, spread rapidly across the British Isles and claimed the lives of between a third and a half of the population. It disrupted every aspect of life but its most important long-term effect was hastening the collapse of the feudal system. Shortage of labourers meant that those who survived could charge high prices for their services, rather than having to accept the terms imposed by landlords.
Flagellants in the Netherlands scourge themselves in order to free the world of the Black Death, 1349. (Alamy)
Q is for Quo warranto
In 1274, Edward I set about tidying up the confusion over feudal land-holding rights which had developed, largely as a result of frequent internal wars. Commissioners were despatched, empowered by writs of Quo warranto (‘By what right’). They accepted written or sworn testimony by local people as proof of property title.
The Quo warranto statute of 1290 decreed: “Every liberty… belongs to the crown, unless he who has it has sufficient warrant either by charter or from time immemorial.” This process continued during the reigns of Edward I, Edward II and Edward III and was an important aspect of the development of statute law.
R is for Richard II
Richard came to the throne at the age of ten and had to cope with a nation badly dislocated by the effects of the Black Death. He showed courage in dealing with the Peasants’ Revolt (1381) but was unable to work with the barons. In 1388, when the ‘Merciless Parliament’ imposed severe restraints on him, he had his leading opponents arrested, executed or exiled.
In 1399, when Henry Bolingbroke (later Henry IV) defiantly returned from exile, malcontents flocked to join him. Richard was arrested and lodged in Pontefract Castle, where he died, probably murdered.
S is for the battle of Shrewsbury
Henry IV needed the support of Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, and his kinsmen to control northern England after his usurpation of the crown from Richard II. They, however, were dissatisfied with their treatment by the new king and raised a rebellion.
Northumberland, his son ‘Hotspur’, and his brother the Earl of Worcester, met Henry’s army in battle on 21 July 1403, north of Shrewsbury. In one of the bloodiest conflicts fought on British soil, Hotspur was slain and Worcester executed.
Northumberland was pardoned because Henry needed him.
T is for Wat Tyler
Wat, or Walter, the Tiler, the principal leader of the Peasants’ Revolt (1381), was articulate and violent. He headed the Kentish contingent that embarked on an orgy of looting in the capital, and also had the chancellor, Archbishop Sudbury, and the treasurer, Robert Hales, dragged out of the Tower and executed. On 15 June Richard II summoned the rebels to a meeting at Smithfield. After clashing with the lord mayor, Tyler was taken to St Bartholomew’s Hospital and beheaded.
U is for Adam of Usk
Adam, one of the most reliable of the medieval chroniclers, was a canon lawyer in the service of the archbishop of Canterbury and close to the centre of national affairs. He witnessed the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381 and was with Henry Bolingbroke’s army which deposed Richard II in 1399, after which he visited the ex-king in the Tower. As a critic of Henry IV he was forced into exile and spent most of 1402–08 in Rome. Adam’s Chronicle, covering 1377–1421, offers insights into political events, and depicts the places he visited on his travels.
V is for Valois dynasty
When Charles IV of France died childless in 1328 his Valois cousin was crowned Philip VI. Edward III, who had a more direct claim via his mother, challenged Philip, so triggering the Hundred Years’ War.
After his defeat at the battle of Poitiers (1356) John II was held captive in England but Edward settled for a huge ransom. War continued during the reigns of Charles V and Charles VI. Henry V married Charles VI’s daughter, Catherine, on the understanding that the French crown would be settled on their son but, during Henry VI’s reign, war resumed. Charles VII finally drove the English out at the battle of Castillon in 1453.
W is for William the Marshal
William, Earl of Pembroke was the outstanding political and military figure during the reigns of Henry II, Richard I and John. Henry II appointed him tutor to his eldest son, Henry, and on crusade from 1184–86 he drew praise as an example of a perfect Christian knight. In 1194, he became marshal of England (the country’s military leader). It was largely due to William’s mediation that John agreed the terms of Magna Carta. In his late 60s, William became the regent during the minority of Henry III.
The effigy of William the Marshal – one of the most influential figures of the late 12th/early 13th centuries – in Temple Church, London. (Bridgeman Art Library)
X is for exile
Kings or, in some cases, parliament could order people to leave the country, without the need for their conviction in a court of law. In the reign of Edward II, parliament forced the king to exile royal favourites Piers Gaveston and the Despensers. Parliament also impeached Richard II’s favourites, Robert de Vere and Michael de la Pole, who fled into exile.
Richard’s deposition resulted from his attempt to have Henry Bolingbroke permanently exiled. Such examples pale into insignificance beside Edward I’s exile of the entire Jewish community, numbering several thousand, in 1290.
Y is for York and Lancaster
The Wars of the Roses began when Henry IV (formerly Duke of Lancaster) was challenged by descendants of Edmund, Duke of York. The two factions vied for supremacy until 1485 when Richard III, the last Plantagenet, was defeated at the battle of Bosworth by Henry Tudor, from a cadet Lancastrian branch.
Z is for Zouche
William de la Zouche was a typical medieval politician-bishop who became archbishop of York by papal appointment – in the face of Edward III’s opposition. Despite his prickly relationship with Edward, Zouche defended the northern border faithfully as warden of the Scottish March. He died in 1352.
Derek Wilson is the author of The Plantagenets: The Kings that Made Britain (Quercus, 2011).