This is the history of the kings of England from Henry II (although it actually starts with a sort of prologue explaining how Henry I's son was killed in the wreck of the White Ship and how this led to anarchy as Stephen and Matilda tussled to stalemate for supremacy) up to Richard II. The essential theme is that the Plantagenet kings were at their greatest when they ruled England as the embodiment of law and at their weakest and most corrupt when they subverted law for their own profits. Thus John (with Magna Carta), Henry III (with the early Parliaments of Simon de Montfort), Edward II (deposed by Roger Mortimer and Richard II (deposed by Henry Bolingbroke were all bad kings.
To be honest, this does not reflect well on royalty. For every good king (Henry II, Edward I although his wars bankrupted his son, Edward III until he went senile) there was at least one bad king.
Another perspective on this history which Dan Jones does not really explore is that this period was throughout a tussle between the barons and the king. At the start of the period the rules of inheritance were less obvious than they are now. Thus, of the Norman kings, William was a bastard, William Rufus was a second son (and Henry I his younger brother) and Stephen was elected King over Henry's daughter Matilda. And if the king could be chosen rather than merely born then he could be deposed.
And the big problem facing all these kings was how to finance the almost continual wars they had to fight. They needed to persuade people to pay tax. Much of the growth of parliamentary representation came because the barons and later the commons demanded concessions in return for their cash.
Another theme is the regular appeals of the Kings, especially when being crowned, to the pre-Norman past. Edward the Confessor was seen as a golden age and the new kings would regularly offer charters which referred to this Saxon past.
This book is a spirited romp through 246 years. At 600 pages it is just over 2 pages a year. It cannot be other than a skim of the surface. Thus it was not really the book for me because I have read much about this period (including biographies of Edward I, and Roger Mortimer and Dan Jones' own account of the Peasants' Revolt). It is also probably too long for a casual reader who merely wants the briefest overview to the subject. In some ways a book like this has been overtaken by wikipedia in which you can start with a story and pursue it according to your own interests. Nevertheless it is well written and enjoyable.
February 2014; 601 pages
- I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57