By Dan Jones
PENGUIN GROUP Viking – 560 pages
Publication Date: Apr 18 2013
This is a highly readable book. Although it is pure history, it’s so beautifully written, so lyrical it feels like a novel. Rarely has any book about this remarkable family given me the sense of destiny and the full impact of their influence and the romance of England’s premier ruling family. To a large extent, the Plantagenets defined England — perhaps even created it. This view of the Plantagenets was unique concept for me. As soon as I read it, it made complete sense. That the more than 200 year reign of this remarkable family, with its peaks and its depths continues to define British identity was something I’d never considered. Now it seems obvious, but like so many obvious things, I never noticed it until the author pointed it out.
It was wonderful to read history where the author appreciates not just the facts, but the drama, romance, story and myth. The imprint left by this ruling family on Great Britain is deep, pervasive and affects every aspect of England’s identity, even in the 21st century long after the family has — technically — disappeared. On many levels, this family can never disappear. They are part of the soil, the air, the heart of the island kingdom they ruled.
From its opening words, the book grabbed me and pulled me in. It “had” me before I had finished the preface, much less the first chapter.
Although I was predisposed to enjoy it, I had no idea how much I would enjoy it. This is a book that greatly and delightfully exceeded my expectations. I have read many books about the Plantagenets, both straight history and as literary “docudrama.” I am very familiar with the stories of each of the monarchs, the wars, the scandals, the affairs, the treachery. It could have been old news for me, but instead, it was like reading it for the first time. What a wonderful fresh voice the author brings to material that has been written about — one might think — to the point where you could reasonably question whether or not yet another tome on the subject serves any purpose.
Was anything new uncovered? Not really new information, but in many cases, a new way of looking at stuff I had read in many other forms, other books. Whether or not the information is new to you will depend on how much else you’ve read. There was no news in it for me, but I’ve been fascinated by the Plantagenets and the British Crown since I was a kid.
The debunking of characters like Simon de Montfort that seem to have surprised some readers wasn’t news to me. I have read sufficient French history of the period to thoroughly detest the man and didn’t need any more help. The same goes for most of these characters. It wasn’t new information that made the book so much fun for me, but the presentation and the obvious relish the author took in the stories and characters. His enthusiasm is infectious.
As you might expect, the book includes maps, lineage charts, all the family connections of the Plantagenets. The story covers that period from Empress Mathilda through Richard II’s loss to Bolingbroke. It stops in 1399, rather before the ascent of the Tudors. The author chose to end his narrative before the War of the Roses, leaving that long and ugly battle for England’s throne for the next volume. I look forward to reading that too.
At 560 pages, it is a long book. I had no trouble with its length other than finding enough time to read the entire thing. It wasn’t hard to become engrossed in each of its sections. Nor does it require any prior knowledge of the period, although prior knowledge certainly doesn’t hurt. You could hardly grow up an English-speaker and not have heard of most of the prominent people that strut, gallop or crawl across the pages. If you’ve read any English history at all, you have surely encountered these Kings, Queens, counselors, courtiers, ministers and more.
If you’ve read Shakespeare, you may feel you know this material well, but anything written by Shakespeare is strongly prejudiced in favor the usurping Tudors. It is untrustworthy as fact. Shakespeare is literature, not history and should be enjoyed as such.
I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It is a pleasure to read, whether you are a scholar, history buff, Anglophone or Anglophile, lover of historical novels … or innocently searching for a great read.
It’s available in hard cover, paperback, Kindle and audio. I don’t believe you could go wrong no matter what version you choose.
- Richard III, Act II, enter the lawyers with grave intent (thetimes.co.uk)
- Book Review: Plantagenet Ancestry: A Study in Colonial and Medieval Families (eogn.com)
- On Eleanor, love, and hatred (wytchofthenorth.wordpress.com)
- Conspiracy against a King: Michael Hoffman on Richard III (revisionistreview.blogspot.com)
- Skeleton Expected to be Confirmed as Richard III (eogn.com)
- Richard III legal fight to start next week (yorkpress.co.uk)
- VIDEO: Challenge over Richard III burial (bbc.co.uk)