Turn the Page Thursday: Intrigue and War!

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The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made England, by Dan Jones

The Plantagenets is a perfect example of how a writer can pluck history from the realm of obscurity and prepare it for a popular audience. Jones sets out to resurrect the histories of some of England’s most famous monarchs and dispel the myths surrounding them. Not only does he accomplish that, but he makes a complex historical period easier to understand.

Jones’ exploration begins before the Plantagenets’ rise to power and continues through the dynasty’s fracturing into the houses of Lancaster and York. The text starts in Barfleur, France, where Henry I of England and his court prepare to return to England for Christmas; however, disaster strikes when the White Ship, carrying Henry’s heir, sinks off the coast. Jones quickly covers the events that followed: Henry’s selection of his daughter, Maude, as heir; Henry’s death; the rebellion and coronation of Stephen, count of Blois, as King Stephen of England; and the first civil war in England. The book’s focus moves into the Plantagenet era after that, as Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine rise to power. What follows is the story of nearly two hundred and fifty years full of growth, intrigue, politics, crusade, rebellion, and war.

The book’s most impressive quality is its fluidity and organization. History is not simply one fact after another, which is why it’s hard to relate complex ideas and stories of multiple people. Fortunately, The Plantagenets is a streamlined account of the past. Jones focuses on multiple major events, some of which occur at the same time, but he keeps his narrative moving forward, preserving the chronological timeline and creating a story that’s easy to follow.

Although history can be difficult to untangle, Jones helps his readers as much as possible. The Plantagenet dynasty was a spider’s web of marriages and siblings, and their politics were equally as elaborate. Instead of leaving readers to fend for their own, Jones graciously provides a four-page family tree meant to help them understand the dynasty’s familial relationships. He similarly assists with political topics, showing how nobles could hold multiple landed titles and how those situations affected diplomacy and alliances. His depiction of the power struggle between England and France is especially helpful, since much historical tension between the two countries stemmed from that situation.

Other features further enhance the book’s accessibility to casual readers. Jones provides a set of maps, ranging from eastern Europe to the tip of Wales. While simple, their inclusion is useful for readers from all backgrounds. The general maps will assist those who are not geographically inclined, and the more detailed maps, such as the one of Edward I’s Welsh castles, can still help readers who are familiar with the subject matter.

Jones also succeeds in his examination of that subject matter. He relates historical events, but he also confronts ideas and myths that other historians have debated, such as Richard I’s sexual orientation and Edward II’s friendship with Piers Gaveston. Attention to historical debates is often a hallmark of thorough research and a dedication to the topic. The same is true here, and The Plantagenets certainly shines as a result.

Because Jones presents a well-rounded look at the Plantagenets, his book doesn’t lack much, but it could be stronger in two ways. While he provides a series of maps, a detailed territorial map of England would have been convenient for casual readers who aren’t from the United Kingdom and who don’t know the locations of various regions, such as Gloucester or Lancaster. Similarly, Jones leaves out footnotes, and having them would have been helpful for readers to understand his sources.

Regardless, the book excels in most other areas, and Jones definitely proves his point. Readers with an interest in the medieval era are likely to enjoy this book, and they’ll definitely learn as they read. The Plantagenets manages to be both entertaining and educational, which is why it’s worth picking up.

The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made England

By Dan Jones

Maps by John Gilkes and Jeffrey L. Ward

550 pp. Penguin Books, revised March 2014. $14.99

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