by Dan Jones
It's no secret that George R. R. Martin based much of his world's politicking on the Plantagenet period.
What I learned from this book: the Plantagenets were so batshit crazy that they make the situations in Game of Thrones (ASoIaF) look comparatively mundane.
To start with, I had no idea that Robin Hood painted such an accurate portrait of King John, aka "Lack-land," aka "Soft-sword". He really did start penalizing poaching on forest lands to procure additional money, and actually did try to usurp Richard's throne whilst he was on the Crusades. He even tried to bribe Richard's jailers to hold him for longer. He also managed to get excommunicated, and to make matters worse, his reaction was to triumphantly seize church land and hold family members of the church for ransom. He also managed to lose practically all of the Norman territories to France. He even murdered his nephew on Easter, apparently because it seemed like a good idea at the time. (It wasn't, as Philip of France started every parley with asking him to give over his nephew.) Basically, John was a scheming slimeball who was not even remotely as crafty or clever as he believed himself to be. I was unavoidably reminded of one Edmund Blackadder.
In case you had any reverence for the Magna Carta, it originated as a failed treaty between John and his lords.
And then there's Edward II, who gave so many honours and jewels and important jobs to his "dear friend" Piers Gaveston that everyone else in the kingdom, including his wife, started to feel left out. Jones takes the conservative view that Edward and Gaveston might just have been Really (Really) Good Friends, but I have my doubts. If only the lords had taken the sensible course advised by Mitchell and Webb, yet another civil war might have been avoided.
And don't forget Richard II, whose early life and revenge schemes are so dramatic and bizarre that they make Joffrey and Littlefinger look like conservative amateurs.
As far as I could tell, every Plantagenet story has a fitting twist to the tale. For example, take the story of Stephen and Matilda (well, Empress Matilda. Confusingly, there are at least four important Matildas in the full story). When Henry I realized he had no male heir, he chose his daughter Matilda as his successor. After all, she was already an empress and an experienced administrator, even if she did have the undeniable character flaw of being female. Henry I, sensing storms ahead, made all his barons swear fealty to his daughter Matilda--twice. Even so, as soon as he died, Cousin Stephen stepped in, and, being male, promptly swayed the lords to his banner. After a decades-long civil war, Matilda retreated to France--and sent over her son, Henry II, who had the sterling qualifications of not only being the rightful heir, but also of being male. After a few brief and decisive victories, Stephen was forced to take the humiliating course of naming Henry II as heir over his own children. He died knowing his attempt at dynasty had failed, and that Matilda's long game had paid out.
I don't think a single Plantagenet died without a certain amount of dramatic irony, or some degree of contention over the succession.
Combined with some of the other histories I've read, I've come to one firm conclusion: never, ever name a prospective British monarch "Arthur." He won't make it to his twenties. It's actually impressive how many Arthurs have failed to make it to the throne.
Dan Jones packs a heck of a lot of history into his book, and he sacrifices neither entertainment nor accuracy. I've recently read a spate of what I consider truly awful pop history, where it was impossible to determine what was from the author's imagination and what was from some dubious and hyperbolic source. While not a pleasant experience, it certainly increased my admiration for Jones' Plantagenets. I don't know how he manages it, but Jones manages to conversationally attribute his information to their sources and even discuss conflicting accounts without breaking the humour, the flow, or even the suspense. When the truth is in doubt (which is often, given the time period), Jones admits the uncertainty and lays out all the facts, then, with a wry humour, plumps for the most conservative of the possibilities--all while providing the reader with the ammunition for more sensational conclusions.
My only major complaint is that he stopped at Bolingbroke.
Dear Mr. Jones:
In your forward, you promise us another volume.
Please, can you publish it soon? I'll be waiting.