The Plantagenet Dynasty
The Plantagenets were a powerful family. They were rough masters and the temper of the time was violent. From Henry I to Richard III, they ruled for more than two centuries with boundaries that had already been established by the Normans. Heroes were born but so were villains, names that would echo through history. Famous battles were fought in an age where victory meant seizing whatever you could at any cost. During this period of time, battles were commonplace and the English were the scourge of Europe.
Early Plantagenet years were full of savagery and cruelty but by the end of the dynasty, they had transformed England into a sophisticated and revered kingdom. It hadn't been easy and it was all because of the Plantagenet struggle for power.
This exciting and incredible era began with the death of Stephen and promised to be more sensational than any era before it.
This dynasty did not invent England but they made it more significant than it had ever been before.
1154 - 1189
England had great soldier-kings but there was no man with instincts like Henry II.
At the time of his father’s death, Louis VII was King in France and Henry Plantagenet was a bachelor on the prowl. Louis VII of France was regarded as the French equivalent of Edward the Confessor in every regard, practicing his devotion by day and doing penance at night. However, his hot-blooded thirty-year-old wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, a reigning princess in her own right, had warmth in her veins and complained that she had married a monk and not a king.
Eleanor was famous for her beauty and sexuality. At the age of thirteen she had been an orphan and the sole heir to one of the greatest inheritances of Europe and Louis VII of France had no hesitation in taking her for his bride. She was undoubtedly a catch.
But her life in the French court was not what she had expected. While she embraced the splendour, her husband dressed and ate like most of the monks she had seen. From the very beginning, the marriage had been doomed. Her scandalous reputation followed her wherever she went and though she gave Louis two daughters, the marriage was in serious trouble. With no male heir, she was aware that she could be replaced at any time with a newer version that suited Louis better.
When Henry Plantagenet arrived at court, he was a square-shouldered, sprightly nineteen-year-old
brimming with confidence and overflowing with energy, if you know what I mean. He was impulsive and ambitious and needed little sleep and Eleanor did not waste time coming to a decision. She petitioned Louis for a divorce on the nominal grounds that they were related by birth and two months later, she generously awarded Louis custody of their daughters on the condition that her lands were restored to her. Two months after that, she married Henry. With the marriage to Eleanor, half of France passed out of royal control right into Henry’s hands. For an ambitious youth, there could not have been a more valuable bride.
The marriage was one of the most brilliant political strokes of the age. Henry, later admitting his designs, accepted the admiration of Europe for his audacity. Everywhere men shook their heads at Henry’s nerve and the love intrigue that was unfolding.
But with the marriage, Henry found himself threatened from all sides. While England had been struggling to strengthen their ties with France, this marriage did the opposite. King Louis felt slighted, and he certainly had grounds for complaint, as did King Stephen who had disputed Henry’s title of Duke of Normandy in the first place. Then there was the Count of Champagne, the Count of Perche and Henry’s own brother, Geoffrey. All of them became spontaneously angry. To add to Louis’ anger, within another two months, news reached him that Eleanor was pregnant.
Richard I (The Lionheart)
1189 - 1199
Richard Plantagenet stood silently in Westminster Abbey as he looked down at the sarcophagus holding the body of his dead father Henry. His eyes had taken a short while to adjust to the dimness of the church and as he stood, they seemed to glow in the dimness. His eyes travelled up and down the body of the man he knew so well, dressed in the finest armour money could buy. Apart from his lips pressed tightly together, Richard’s face was blank, showing no emotion whatsoever. He noticed his father looked at peace but there wasn’t a time in his life that Richard could remember when he and his brothers weren’t viciously fighting with him. It seemed befitting that his father should die while the sky erupted in an angry summer storm above them. It summed up his father’s life exactly.
As Richard stared down, showing no grief whatsoever, his mother Eleanor of Aquitaine stood in the shadows, pride swelling in her heart at the sight of her lionhearted son who would soon be king. Towards the end, she’d hated her husband Henry just as much as her four boys had. She’d lost two sons to wars that Henry had started in France. That she could never forgive. Thankfully she still had her youngest boy John and her dearest son Richard to watch over her in her old age, although very soon Richard would be leading an army to fight far away in the crusades.
At the back of Westminster Abbey, John watched his two remaining family members maliciously: his eldest brother who always got what he wanted and his mother who never showed the least bit of love for him his entire life. Her love had been reserved for his brother Richard and she’s never hidden that fact that he was her favourite. On his father’s death, Richard had become King of England, Duke of Aquitaine and Count of Poitiers, Anjou, Maine and Nantes. He had to make do with a paltry amount of cash, and forever live off Richard’s throw-offs. But soon…very soon.
As John silently glared, Richard seemed to shake himself out of his reverie. Without so much as a second glace at his father’s body, Richard turned and walked out of the church without so much as a glance at his brother. He was eager to begin preparations. There were battles to plan, taxes to raise and money to be found. The Holy Crusades were in full swing and he desperately wanted to be a part of them. And now as King of England, he had his cash cow and a treasury full of money to help fund him.
1199 - 1216
The young courier rushed into the king’s chamber, sliding to a halt before lowering himself to his knees and bowing his head to John. His mumbled words ‘Your Majesty’ told John everything he needed to know. John snatched the scroll from the boy’s outstretched hands and read the words he had been waiting to read for ten years. His brother King Richard was dead.
He scanned quickly through the words and almost laughed out loud. How typically arrogant of his brother to die in such a fashion. Richard had been sieging a castle but after three days, the terrified people were still resisting and his brother had grown impatient. He left his tent armed with only a crossbow, a helmet and a shield and stood close to the ramparts of the castle. As Richard stood looking up, he saw a man reach over the top of the rampart carrying a crossbow in one hand and a frying pan from the kitchens as a shield in the other. Unfortunately, Richard took the time to applaud as the kitchen hand fired a lone shot. The arrow struck him in the left shoulder near the neck. By the light of a fire, a surgeon had tried to remove the shard of metal but as he dug, the wound widened and after several days, it had turned gangrenous. Richard sent word to his mother and she had ridden for two days in anguish to be at her son’ side as he died in her arms.
John almost snorted at the last part. Of course his mother rushed to Richard’s side. She’d always favoured him. ‘Lionheart’ they called Richard. ‘Stupid’ was more like it. Well, he’d have the last laugh now. After ten years of standing in his brother’s shadow, John was finally the King. England may be coming out of a terrible winter but he was determined to tap into its wealth for all he could get.
John forced himself to breath slower as he remembered hearing the whispers deep throughout the castle. So England regarded him as a bogeyman, did they? He knew that they thought he had the subtlety and cunning of a Machiavellian and from time to time during his furious rages, his cruelties were executed with cold, inhumane intelligence. He also knew his vicious temper and violent punishments were legendary. But a bogeyman?
As he crushed the letter to his heart, he smiled. Well, they hadn’t seen anything yet.
1216 - 1272
The first nine years of Henry's reign were amazing. As Henry made an almost sluggish progress into adulthood, an awful lot happened.
At the insistence of his advisers, Henry reissued the Magna Carta removing all references, not even a footnote, regarding Alexander’s claim of Scotland. To soften the blow, negotiations began for his sister Joan to marry Alexander. Alexander was twenty-three and Joan was ten.
Within two years, his nine-year-old sister Eleanor, betrothed at birth by their father John (who she had never met by the way), married thirty-four-year-old William Marshall, 2nd Earl of Pembroke. By then, Prince Louis had become King Louis VIII of France in 1223 and then died of dysentery three years later, leaving his twelve-year-old son Louis IX to rule under the regency of his mother Blanche. To top it off, Henry had been victorious in a battle against the French to regain Gascony and his sixteen-year-old brother Richard, fought valiantly beside him. The victory had given England a valuable and lucrative wine trade and as a reward, Henry gave his l little brother the title of Earl of Cornwall as a birthday gift at the beginning of the next year. All in all, everyone agreed it was a terrific start to Henry’s reign.
Passions had gradually cooled over the years so it was not until Henry reached the age of nineteen that he took over the reins of his own government.
As an adult, Henry was a good deal less than average height and like his father, inclined to be plump. He had a drooping right eyelid that covered half of the eye, which rendered him a rather sinister appearance and from his earliest years, seemed almost vague. But if he hadn’t inherited his ancestor’s strengths, he certainly inherited the Plantagenet temper and pig-headedness and often flew into rages hurling abuse, even objects, at his ministers. Despite the intensity of his attacks, he rarely stayed angry for long and he soon lapsed back into a type of lethargy. But that was going to change very soon.
1272 - 1307
The greatest quarrel of Edward I’s reign was Scotland. For many years, England and Scotland had dwelt in a semblance of friendship, only because Edward’s sister Margaret was married to Alexander III of Scotland. Then Alexander’s life turned into a series of tragedies and Edward started to sit up and take notice. In the space of nine years, Alexander lost two sons and one daughter in quick succession followed by his wife very soon after. As Alexander grieved, Edward watched as the Canmore dynasty withered on the vine. As befitting the brother of Alexander’s wife, Edward sent condolences and there seemed a genuine friendship and sorrow between the two kings. After all, Edward knew what it was like to bury children. By then, he’d already buried ten of his sixteen children.
Then two years after his sister died, Edward heard of another tragedy. Alexander himself was dead. Alexander had finished his business in Edinburgh but wanted desperately to travel the 25 kilometres and return to his palace where his new bride awaited him. His advisers begged him not to go as it was a foul night but Alexander ignored them.
His young wife waited by the window all night for him to return, getting more worried by the hour. What no one knew was that in the darkness, Alexander had ridden his horse over a cliff. His broken body was found the next day after a lengthy search and once again, Scotland was in turmoil. His heir was a three-year-old, Margaret Maid of Norway, a granddaughter from Alexander’s daughter Margaret who had married King Eric II of Norway.
Edward looked as if he mourned his brother-in-law’s death but some said they were crocodile tears. After all, he wasn’t related by blood to the Scottish king. At that moment, the dynasty was hanging by a single thread, an infant female thread, and an idea had formed in Edward’ head. The logic was simple. To unite the two families and to keep the peace, he had to arrange a marriage pact between three-year-old Margaret and his one-year-old son. If they could do that one simple thing, the antagonism between Scotland and England would cease.
There was however a bonus for Edward. Medieval women were regarded as property and what Margaret owned would instantly belong to Edward’s son as soon as they were married. With that little windfall, his son could possibly become the richest man in the world.
In any case, it turned out to be just a dream. In the autumn of 1290 at the age of seven, Margaret embarked on the trip from Norway upon stormy seas bound for Scotland with the security of Scotland resting heavily on her tiny shoulders. The trip was not a particularly dangerous one as Norway and Scotland were geographically close and Vikings had made the trip many times successfully in past centuries in less sturdy boats. By early September, she was at sea and by the third week she had landed in Orkney on her last leg to Scotland. Then in the last days of September, news reached Edward that Margaret had died on the island after a week’s illness, having eaten rotten food while at sea. Scotland was again without a ruler.
As the guardians of Scotland dithered endlessly over who would be the next ruler, Edward was taking a great deal of interest in the proceedings.
As yet, the Scots had not smelled a rat.
1307 - 1327
Edward took over the throne at a very favourable time and should have taken full advantage of it. Instead, it seemed he went out of his way to annoy everyone. He had a reputation for making friends with inappropriate people who flattered him endlessly and from the beginning; Edward was regarded with suspicion and contempt. The nobles had seen this sort of behaviour before in the past and it never turned out well.
One friendship in particular was with a handsome, intelligent and wily young man by the name of Piers Gaveston. His father had hired Piers as a suitable companion for his son but this had backfired spectacularly towards the end of his reign when the two young men became … er … close. Piers was banished from England because of their strong attachment to each other but one of the first things Edward did when he took over the throne was to bring Piers back to England from exile. First mistake.
To say Edward was homosexual is perhaps not true. A weak young man, perhaps bisexual, led along by an ambitious, arrogant man like Piers was probably more to the point. In any case, their relationship was regarded by all as unhealthy, beyond friendship and decency, and soon became intolerable for barons and scandalised his subjects.
Then Edward made his second big mistake. He gave Piers the earldom of Cornwall along with permission to marry his niece, Margaret de Clare, daughter of his sister Joan.
Cornwall was a famous Plantagenet title and had traditionally been held by his great-uncle Richard Lionhearted. This royal title brought with it land in the south east of England as well as Yorkshire and
a sizable income. Everyone was outraged in particular his step-mother, Margaret of France, who had been led to believe by Edward 1 that the title would go to one of their children, either Thomas of Brereton or Edmund of Woodstock. Flatly refusing to listen to their gripes, Edward left for France to marry Philip IV’s daughter Isabella as arranged and he left Piers as regent in his absence.
1327 - 1377
The summer of 1348 was wet. The royal family was maturing and multiplying and even though Edward III was only thirty-five and his wife Philippa was barely thirty-three, they already had nine children ranging from Edward the Black Prince, who was eighteen, down to the baby William of Windsor, who was only a few months old. It was the year when their daughter Joan boarded a ship and set sail for France to marry the man of her dreams, the King of Castile, unaware of the terrible danger that lay ahead.
When the ship finally stopped in Bordeaux on the way, the mayor rushed to the docks and told them it was not safe to disembark. A deadly plague had arrived. It had ripped through Cyprus and Italy and had reached Marseille.
For two years, Joan had waited for the moment when she would finally meet her new husband. She’d lived over and over the first embrace and she imagined being swept off her feet and taken to his castle nestling quietly by the sea. She was thirteen, buzzing with excitement and there was nothing in the world that would stop her from reaching her destination. So the mayor’s words of warning were pushed aside.
Princess Joan never wore her wedding dress made from thick imported silk embroidered with rich strands of gold. She never wore the suit of red velvet with two sets of twenty-four buttons made of silver gilt and enamel nor the five corsets woven with gold patterns of stars, crescents and diamonds. And she never reached her future husband waiting for her in Castile. Joan died horrifically at the same time as her baby brother William of died in agony in England leaving Edward devastated with the loss.
The character of the epidemic was appalling. The disease itself, with its frightful symptoms, was swift. At the onset, appeared the blotches, then the hardening of the glands under the armpit and the groin, followed by the horde of virulent pustules. After that the victim developed a hacking cough that would develop and produce blood then vomiting. Breath, sweat and excrement stank. Delirium and insanity completed the suffering.
It seemed no one was safe from a disease. No one knew how the disease spread and no one knew of the different methods of cross contamination. In an attempt to protect themselves, doctors filled a ‘beak’ containing herbs and placed it over their noses but of course, eventually everyone knew that method of protection was basically useless. Seeing a doctor with this strange contraption on his face sent dread into the hearts of the terrified people. All that could be done was to place a red cross on the doors of infected houses to inform others that the inhabitants had developed symptoms of the Black Death.
The plague entered Europe through Crimea and in the course of twenty years destroyed at least one-third of its entire population as well as two more daughters of Edward and Philippa. We hear of monasteries where half the residents perished, of dioceses where the surviving clergy could scarcely perform the last offices for their flocks, of Goldsmith’s Company who had four Masters in one year and of lawsuits where all parties died before the cases could be heard in court. A whole generation was obliterated as blank spaces appeared on all sides of society and destroyed life. This disease, along with all the other severities of the Middle Ages, was almost more than the human spirit could endure.
Sadly, it was the first of many plagues to come in the future.
1377 - 1400
When looking back at Edward III’s reign, it is astonishing to watch the speed at which his good fortune came to a grinding halt. The Black Death had resurfaced yet again and Edward’s own wife had suffered a terrible death. He was in poor health himself. At the same time, his son Lionel was returning from Ireland after the death of his wife, declaring Ireland a lost cause. Very soon, Lionel remarried but two months later, he was dead as well. Edward’s eldest son, the Black Prince, was also returning to England from Aquitaine a broken, ailing man who had fought too many battles. In his last battle, he had to be carried around on a litter. He had gradually lost his personal fortune and was returning home bankrupt, too ill of mind and body to contribute to either war or Parliament. Within a month, he would be dead along with his eldest son.
It was a terrible time for Edward. As he grieved, everyone seemed unhappy with him. His bishops were arguing constantly, the plague was raging, his government was corrupt and his mistress was prancing around in magnificent finery while she amassed jewels and land. The country was collapsing in disorder. By the time of his death, his muscles and skin were wasting away and his mistress had already taken the rings from his fingers and other movable property in the house and hastily departed.
It was a stroke that finished Edward. He died deserted by everyone with only the charity of a local priest to help him. It was a turbulent life and a magnificent long reign, but it was a sad ending for a man whose three remaining sons were all waiting for him to die so they could begin the rest of their lives.
But one thing held Edward’s sons back. Their nephew, their eldest brother’s ten-year-old son Richard, was the new heir to the throne.
Richard was never intended to be the king in the first place. He was the second son of the Black Prince and both his father and his elder brother had predeceased him. As a result, the timid ten-year-old was pushed into an unexpected early reign and it was a tremulous start from the very beginning. Because of Richard’s youth, government was in the hands of councils, which the community much preferred rather than a ‘regency’ because they knew it would be lead by Richard’s uncle, John of Gaunt.
John of Gaunt was an influential and wealthy man in his own right. He owned acres of land and castles in both England and France and he had skills in the military and diplomacy. His first wife, Blanche of Lancaster, had owned lands and titles in her own right, and all of them had naturally come to John at her death in 1368 making him even wealthier. As such, he was a natural and obvious choice to be the regent for his shy young nephew. Together with his younger brother Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester, they held a lot of influence in the government and both men were fully prepared to take the lead.