Reviewed by: Gwilym Dodd
Author: Jeffrey Hamilton
Price (RRP): £20
It was under the rule of the last five Plantagenet kings that the English monarchy was born. That, in a nutshell, is the conclusion to Jeff Hamilton’s lucid account of the reigns of Henry III, Edward I, Edward II, Edward III and Richard II.
There is much to be said for his argument. Between 1216 and 1399 the position of England in relation to its kings was transformed. Under the first Plantagenets (Henry II, Richard I and King John) it had formed part of the cross-channel Angevin empire stretching down to the Pyrenees, but from Henry III’s reign England became the political centre of gravity, both for the crown and the nobility. At its heart lay Westminster. Under Henry III (1216-72), Westminster was, literally, engineered to become the focus of Plantagenet rule: Westminster Palace was refurbished to allow it to discharge its role as the nation’s administrative hub, and Westminster Abbey was rebuilt to serve as a magnificent setting for royal coronations, marriages and burials. Four out of the five kings considered in this book were buried in Westminster Abbey, a new development which Hamilton regards as important evidence for the crystallisation of the idea of an English-oriented Plantagenet dynasty.
The book provides a straightforward, chronological narrative of the rule of each king, exploring the challenges they faced, their achievements and failings. Hamilton shows that the most important challenge for a king in this period was to reconcile a growing expectation on the part of the political classes to be involved in the government of the realm, with a natural desire to uphold and protect the royal prerogative.
Politics in this period was nothing if not complicated. A successful king like Edward III learnt to work with the political community, matching his interests with theirs (by fighting and beating the Scots and the French); unsuccessful kings like Edward II and Richard II ignored these interests and paid the price, losing their thrones and, ultimately, their lives. Kings may have had a heightened appreciation of the continuity of their royal lineage, but the sentiment was not shared by their subjects when their rulers were not considered to be up to the job.
Everything depended on the king’s personality. Indeed, it is the rare snippets of information revealing the sorts of people these kings really were that brings the narrative to life. Exactly what did induce Edward I to throw the coronet of his 15-year-old daughter, Princess Elizabeth, into a fire in a fit of rage? Even the infamous ‘Hammer of the Scots’, it seems, had difficulties handling teenagers. There is much to recommend this book, which skilfully interweaves into a familiar narrative the latest theories and interpretations of a period which defined not just the monarchy, but the English nation as a whole.
Gwilym Dodd is associate professor of the School of History at the University of Nottingham