The Plantagenet royal dynasty: England's ultimate family drama

That a single dynasty, the Plantagenets, was able to rule England for 331 years – when disease or violence could transform the political landscape overnight – is truly remarkable, according to Robert Bartlett...

This article was first published in the December 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine

Monarchies are now rare in the world, numbering around 20 in a system of almost 200 independent states. But for hundreds of years monarchy was the way that politics worked in most countries. And monarchy meant power was in the hands of a family – a dynasty – and hence politics was family politics. It was not elections that shaped political life, but the births, marriages and deaths of the ruling family. This added further unpredictability to the unpredictable business of ruling.

Between 1154 and 1485, a period of 331 years, England was ruled by one family. Every king during that time was a descendant in the male line of a French count, Geoffrey of Anjou, whose badge, the broom plant – planta genista in Latin – is the origin of their name: the Plantagenets.

The Plantagenet dynasty had its origin in the Loire valley, and the first two Plantagenet kings of England, Henry II and Richard the Lionheart, spent much more time in France than in England. This French connection continued throughout the Middle Ages. The body of Henry III lies in Westminster Abbey, but he commanded that after his death his heart should be interred in the Plantagenet family mausoleum of Fontevrault in the Loire valley. Richard II was sometimes called ‘Richard of Bordeaux’ from the place of his birth, while Edward IV was born in Rouen.

The broom plant (planta genista), after which England’s most resilient royal family was named. © Alamy

Despite these ties with France, the Plantagenets are England’s longest-reigning dynasty. It was their births, marriages and deaths that shaped the political history of England and much of France. They provide a perfect example of what dynastic rule meant.

Most Plantagenets, like most people in the Middle Ages, died before their 10th birthday. Those who survived – who are the ones we know something about – might live a fair bit longer. The average age at death of the Plantagenet kings was 45. The unlucky ones, like Edward V, one of the ‘princes in the Tower’, did not make it to their 13th birthday. The longest survivor, Edward I, died at the age of 68.

Sudden and unexpected deaths, either through violence, like that of Richard I, or from disease, like that of Henry V, could transform the political world overnight. From both these deaths the eventual outcome was the expulsion of the Plantagenets from most of their French possessions.

But long-lived kings presented problems too. Heirs might get impatient and fractious, while the so-called dotage of Edward III (when the king was in his 60s, a relatively youthful age) created serious problems, which affected English politics and undermined the Plantagenet war effort in France. Kings were meant to have sons, but not too many. Given the high rate of infant mortality, it was best if they produced numerous children. Edward III and his queen, Philippa, had at least 12 children; nine of these survived infancy, and five of the nine were boys. This ensured that the dynasty would continue in the male line, but it also stored up trouble for the future, with many royal descendants ready to make claims if given a chance.

Richard I’s tomb at Fontevrault Abbey in the Loire valley, where the Plantagenet dynasty had its roots. Richard, like his father, Henry II, spent far more time in France than in England. © AKG

But kings without sons were vulnerable – get rid of them, and there would be no heirs to fight back and pursue revenge. When Henry Bolingbroke usurped the throne from Richard II, he faced opposition, criticism and, sometimes, rebellion, but Richard had no son to fan the flames. In contrast, when Henry VI was removed by Edward IV in 1461, there was a son, and Edward’s regime was not truly secure until the killing of that son 10 years later. A son or two was the safe formula for a medieval king.

These sons became active early. Henry II, the first Plantagenet king, started as the son of a French count, but by the time he was 20, he had fought and married his way to become one of the most powerful rulers in Europe. This early start was not unusual. This was a world in which teenagers could rule. Henry’s son Richard became Duke of Aquitaine, ruling a third of France, aged 14. Edward III took control of the government, killing his mother’s lover and sending her into permanent house arrest, when he was 18. His son, the Black Prince, won his spurs at the battle of Crécy, aged 16. Richard II confronted and won-over a crowd of armed rebels when he was 14.

But, if youthful kings and princes could certainly exercise powers of command effectively, the accession of an infant was a dangerous moment. At this juncture, learned men would quote the line from Ecclesiastes 10, 16: “Woe to the land where a child is king!” Unlike earlier periods, when an adult male was the preferred successor, the rules of succession that applied in the Plantagenet centuries took no account of the age of the heir. Henry III came to the throne aged nine, Richard II aged 10, poor Edward V at the age of 12. This meant regencies, rival factions, decisions about (and by) queen-mothers, and, of course, endless negotiations about future brides.

For a dynasty to survive, it had to reproduce. And by the 11th century, in most parts of western Europe, this meant marriage as defined by the church. Earlier, more casual arrangements had been replaced or marginalised. William the Conqueror’s alternative nickname was William the Bastard, but during the Plantagenet centuries illegitimacy was taken seriously as a bar to succession. None of the numerous illegitimate children of the Plantagenets raised a claim. When Richard III decided to take the throne from his nephews, he thought it necessary to undertake an elaborate process to declare them illegitimate. Even if no one believed his arguments, he felt it a case he had to make: if the princes were not of legitimate birth, they could not be kings.

An unusual example of illegitimate children rising high is provided by the offspring of John of Gaunt and his mistress Katherine Swynford, though they needed the backing of both pope and king to be declared legitimate. Katherine was the daughter of one of the knights of Hainault who had come to England with Philippa of Hainault, queen of Edward III. Katherine had married an English knight but had also been recognised as Gaunt’s mistress.

The high-born ladies of the royal dynasty were not amused when John of Gaunt and Katherine subsequently got married. “We will not go anywhere she is,” they said. “It would be a disgrace if this duchess, who is low born and was his mistress for a long time when he was married, should have precedence over us. Our hearts would break with grief, and with good reason.” But the ladies were ignored. The children of Gaunt and Katherine were given the aristocratic-sounding surname Beaufort; they and their descendants were to be one of the most important political families in England for the next century. And Margaret Beaufort, Katherine’s great-granddaughter, was the mother of the first of the Tudors, Henry VII.

Calais surrenders to Edward III, England’s seventh Plantagenet king, in a 15th-century illustration in Jean Froissart’s Chroniques. Only the intervention of Edward’s wife, Philippa of Hainault, prevented him from having the six burghers of the town hanged. © AKG

However, most ruling families used formal marriages as an essential part of their strategy and hence they became  a never-ending subject of debate, discussion and disagreement. Marriage was indeed one of the preoccupations of this dynastic world. There were always marriage negotiations going on, many leading nowhere. Sometimes this even involved babies being committed to future brides or bridegrooms. Henry ‘the Young King’, son of Henry II, was married at the age of five to the even younger daughter of the king of France. Contemporaries noted with some disapproval this marriage of “little children still wailing in the cradle”, but it brought Henry II the important border territory of the Vexin as the baby princess’s dowry.

Marriages at this social level were about power and property, especially the forging of links with other ruling dynasties. For the first three centuries of Plantagenet rule, the queens of England were all foreign, the majority of them French, indicating the central place of France in the Plantagenet world. Indeed, between 1066 and 1464, no English king married an English woman.

One of the jobs of queens was to produce children, especially sons. Because men are capable of fathering children longer than women are capable of bearing them, it was not uncommon for kings to remarry after the death of a queen. Edward I produced 16 children with his first wife, Eleanor of Castile. He then had three more when he was in his 60s with his young bride, Margaret of France.

Queens were also meant to be mediators, softening the harsh masculine power of their husbands. A famous example is Philippa of Hainault, wife of Edward III, pleading for the life of the burghers of Calais, six men from the French town whom Edward had ordered to be hanged. A less well-known example of the same queen’s intercession occurred early in Edward’s reign, when the wooden stands set up for Philippa and her ladies to watch a tournament collapsed. No one was badly hurt, but the carpenters would have suffered if she had not pleaded for mercy with her husband.

And queens were often fierce champions of the rights of their sons. The Plantagenet dynasty owed its crown to the determined and persistent efforts of Matilda, daughter of Henry I, who never gave up the fight until her son, the future Henry II, was recognised as heir to the English throne. She was never queen, but she kept the title ‘empress’ from her first marriage to the Holy Roman Emperor, and she lived for 13 years after Henry’s accession with her status as the king’s mother.

In the last decades of Plantagenet rule, it was Margaret of Anjou, queen of the disabled Henry VI, who led the struggle for the rights of their son, Edward, Prince of Wales. She was described as “a great and strong laboured woman”. At the low point of their cause, Margaret lobbied persistently for French support, and even agreed to an alliance with the Earl of Warwick, a former chief enemy who had fallen out with the Yorkist side. But the apparent triumph of 1470, when Warwick put Henry VI back on the throne, was followed by the crushing defeat of 1471, the deaths of Warwick, Edward Prince of Wales and Henry VI. Margaret was a prisoner but, with the death of her son, no longer had a cause for which to fight.

For the sons who did not succeed to the throne, some kind of provision had to be made. And it could be spectacular. In several cases, the younger sons of the Plantagenet dynasty aimed at crowns for themselves: John, son of Henry II, was meant to be king of Ireland and was sent a peacock crown – although he had to settle for ‘Lord of Ireland’ instead, a title the kings of England bore down to the time of the Tudors, when it was upgraded to ‘King of Ireland’.

Edmund, son of Henry III, was, famously, proposed as king of Sicily, although the only result of this scheme was an explosion of resentment among the English baronage and the civil war of 1264–65. John of Gaunt, son of Edward III, claimed and fought for the crown of Castile. The only one actually to establish himself on a distant throne, however, was Richard of Cornwall, the younger brother of Henry III, who became ‘King of the Romans’ – which meant Holy Roman Emperor elect – and was crowned in Charlemagne’s old capital of Aachen.

Dynasticism was characterised by ambitions that extended far beyond the boundaries of states. Dynasties looked out for their family interests, not for those of a nation or people (insofar as these can be said to have ‘interests’). And the horizons of the Plantagenet dynasty extended well beyond England and France. Richard the Lionheart conquered Cyprus, establishing what was to be the most long-lived of the Crusader states, and Edward I was knighted not in Westminster or Windsor, but in Burgos, on the occasion of his marriage to Eleanor of Castile.

Edward named one of his sons Alfonso, and this child was for many years his heir apparent. If Alfonso had not died at the age of 10, Edward I might have been succeeded by Alfonso I and English naming patterns could have been different to this day, with Alfonso as normal a name as Edward.

In a dynastic world, everything hung on the thread of a vulnerable human life. This life might be wiped away by illness at any time. Or it could be unbalanced, as in the case of Henry VI, whose mental illness came upon him in the summer of 1453. It is sometimes thought that Henry’s madness can be traced to his maternal grandfather, Charles VI of France, but they had very different forms of illness. Charles had remarkable fantasies, such as the belief that he was made of glass and so might break, but Henry simply slumped into a stupor, failing to register even the birth of his only son.

Henry VI’s family tree, shaped as a French lily to signify English kings’ claims to the French crown. The Plantagenet period was dominated by war in France. © AKG

Sudden sickness and madness were part of the uncertainty about the succession – a recurrent anxiety in the dynastic world. Naturally, people sought out methods to diminish that uncertainty and to have guidance for the future. Some of these methods were dangerous, as Eleanor Cobham found out. Eleanor had married Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, brother of Henry V, in 1428. She had been his mistress for some years, and once he had his first marriage annulled, she was able to become his wife. After the death of his older brother, Humphrey was next in line for the throne. If Henry VI died, Humphrey would be king and Eleanor queen.

Eleanor was perhaps unwise. She consulted two astrologers to see whether the young king would live and obtained potions from a wise woman to help her conceive – she could be the mother of kings. The astrologers – both of them respectable and learned men – told the duchess that Henry VI would suffer a life-threatening illness in the summer of 1441.

The events of that summer were in fact very different. Duke Humphrey had his enemies, as well as his ambitions, and they saw their chance when they heard that his wife had been dabbling in magic and getting predictions of the king’s illness or death. In July 1441 Eleanor was arrested and tried on charges of necromancy. She admitted that, in order to help her become pregnant, she had obtained potions from ‘a wise woman’ – a phrase that her accusers would interpret without a doubt as ‘a witch’. She was forced to repent her errors. One of Eleanor’s astrologers died in the Tower of London, the other was hanged, drawn and quartered. The ‘wise woman’ she had consulted was burned alive. Eleanor herself had to do penance, walking barefoot to the church, was divorced from Duke Humphrey and spent the remaining 11 years of her life a prisoner in remote and windy castles. She was never the mother of kings.

But another permanent threat was simple physical violence in this complex, brutal world. In the medieval period there were 58 male descendants of Count Geoffrey of Anjou (excluding those who died as babies). Of these, 23 died through violence – 16 of them (almost three-quarters) in the 15th century, the last century of Plantagenet rule.

This century clearly belongs to what the great medievalist Maitland called “the centuries of blood”, after an earlier period when the upper classes had been relatively less bloodthirsty in their feuds. And this bloodletting marked the end of the Plantagenet dynasty, as Henry Tudor picked up the bloody crown at Bosworth field. But it was certainly not the end of dynastic politics.  

Robert Bartlett is Wardlaw professor of medieval history at the University of St Andrews. He is the author of Why Can the Dead Do Such Great Things? Saints and Worshippers from the Martyrs to the Reformation (Princeton UP, December 2012)

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