My rating: 5 of 5 stars
"The prince was drunk." It's one of those memorable first sentences that draws you right in and makes you want to know more. Who is this prince and why was he drunk? Why was his being drunk important? What were the consequences of that drunkenness?
It is from such minor, sometimes seemingly insignificant threads that the entire fabric of history is woven, and Dan Jones has an eye for those threads. He teases them out and shows them to us with style and wit and in great detail throughout this popular history of one of the foundational dynasties of England. From that drunken prince, William the Aetheling, who, along with his drunken crew, was about to die in an 1120 shipwreck, to the beginning of the reign of Henry IV in 1399 - which marked the end of the Plantagenets and the beginning of the Lancasters' dynasty - Jones keeps his reader engaged in the events of this medieval world. And in so doing, he shows us that their world was not so different from our contemporary one.
That drunken, now dead, prince, William, had been the only legitimate son of Henry I, who was the son of William the Conquerer. With the death of his son and his inability to father another legitimate son, Henry took the unprecedented step of appointing his daughter Matilda as his heir. Her right to the throne was not universally accepted, however, and she and her supporters engaged in a long struggle with her cousin Stephen ("The Cousins' War) for control of the realm.
Matilda married Geoffrey of Anjou who was known for wearing a sprig of bright yellow broom blossom in his hair. The Latin name of the plant was Planta genista. From that plant, a dynasty received its name - Plantagenet.
From these beginnings, the son of Matilda and Geoffrey sprang - Henry II, the first true Plantagenet king. His queen was the redoubtable Eleanor of Aquitaine.
I well remember the first time I ever heard of Eleanor of Aquitaine. It was in my freshman history class in college. The class was just after lunch and I was sitting there dozing when my professor started talking about this amazing woman. The excitement and passion in her voice as she spoke of Eleanor woke me up for good. I decided that maybe this history thing wasn't so boring after all.
After Henry and Eleanor came their son, Richard I, the Lionheart, but, unfortunately, his reign only lasted ten years and then came his brother, John I of Robin Hood and Magna Carta fame.
Then came the period from 1216 to 1399 when it seemed that incompetence alternated with competence, and sometimes brilliance. Thus, we have the hapless Henry III, son of John I, followed by the successful Edward I who was followed by the incompetent and cruel Edward II.
Then England got lucky with the most brilliant of the Plantagenets, Edward III, who ruled from 1327 to 1377. But he was followed by perhaps the worst of the lot, Richard II, who was deposed in 1399.
This is only the barest of outlines, but Dan Jones fleshes out that sketch brilliantly with psychological portraits that are dotted with small but enlightening details of character that make these people come alive for us as fully-fleshed human beings. It is a tour de force of storytelling which once again confirms for me my conclusion in that long ago classroom. This history thing isn't so boring after all. It is Game of Thrones but for real.
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