It was one of the most violent periods in history, famed for the Hundred Years’ War, the Peasants’ Revolt, and the beginning of the Wars of the Roses. Yet through the chaos of the Middle Ages, the Plantagenets rose to seize control of England.
This article was first published in November 2014
The dynasty ruled England and much of France during the medieval period - monarchs included Henry II, Henry III, Edward II and the boy king Richard II - and their hatred, revenge, jealousy and ambition transformed history.
Here, writing for History Extra, historian Dan Jones reveals five things you probably didn’t know about the Plantagenets…
1) The Plantagenets weren’t just kings of England
As the French-sounding name suggests, the Plantagenet dynasty originated across the channel, and both in blood and outlook they were decidedly continental. At various times Plantagenet princes ruled – or claimed to rule – Normandy, Anjou, Maine, Touraine, Aquitaine, Brittany, Ireland, Wales, Scotland, Castile, Sicily and France.
In the 15th century Henry VI was actually crowned king of the French in Paris. The family maintained close links with the Holy Land through the crusades. This was a truly international project. Only after 200 years did English become the official language of law and parliament, and even by the time of Chaucer, most sophisticated courtiers still spoke and corresponded in French.
Despite this, however, the Plantagenets laid down the foundations of England’s laws, borders, language, public architecture and national mythology.
2) Bloodshed was an occupational hazard
Even before the bigotry of the Reformation descended, this was still a very violent age: Henry II’s great quarrel with Thomas Becket ended with the archbishop chopped down by four knights and his brains scooped out on the floor of a cathedral; the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 saw another archbishop beheaded in the street, and when Simon de Montfort, earl of Leicester, lost the battle of Evesham in 1265, he was hacked to pieces and his genitals were stuck in his mouth.
Edward II’s reign dissolved into an orgy of slaughter that ended with the king being forced from the throne and murdered, while his close ally Hugh Despenser the Younger was hanged, drawn and quartered in front of the queen, who feasted while she watched the bloodthirsty show.
3) They had to deal with drone warfare
We may associate the unmanned deployment of death from above with 21st-century US special forces, but drone warfare has a far longer history than that. During the 13th century there was a spate of devastating clashes between kings and their barons – the worst being a long-running feud between Henry III and de Montfort. In the course of all this, records show that the sheriff of Essex plotted to attack London using cockerels who would have firebombs attached to their feet.
There were a few basic flaws with this plan: cockerels cannot fly for very long distances, and feathers are somewhat flammable. So in the end there was no cockerel-led blitz. But it was an enterprising use of military technology, which is worth applauding for sheer chutzpah if nothing else.
4) You didn’t have to call them ‘your majesty’
Not until Richard II’s reign, anyway. The usual forms of address for a king for much of the Plantagenet era were ‘your highness’ and ‘your Grace’. Richard, however, had a grander and more elaborate vision of kingship than many of his predecessors, and he introduced the terms ‘your majesty’ and ‘your high majesty’ to the court vocabulary.
During his later reign, there are vivid accounts of the king sitting in splendor on his throne after dinner and glaring around the room at his assembled courtiers. Whomever his gaze rested upon was to fall to their knees in humble appreciation of his royal awesomeness.
Eventually this wore rather thin, and in 1399 Richard was deposed by his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, who took the throne as Henry IV and abruptly ended the unbroken succession of Plantagenet kings that had continued since the 12th century.
5) There’s a bit of Plantagenet in all of us
Well, most of us, anyway. According to calculations made by Ian Mortimer in his biography of Edward III, somewhere between 80 and 95 per cent of the living English-descended population of England shares some ancestry with the Plantagenet kings of the 14th century and before. In other words, there’s a pretty good chance that you are, on some level, a Plantagenet.
This is not, I should say, a mandate to start slaughtering archbishops; hanging, drawing and quartering your enemies or sticking your wife in a dungeon. But it’s pretty cool, all the same.