Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Book Spotlight: The Plantagenets by Dan Jones

Publication.Date  April 18th 2014

Published By:  Penguin Books, (USA) LLC
WebsiteDan Jones

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The first Plantagenet king inherited a blood-soaked kingdom from the Normans and transformed it into an empire stretched at its peak from Scotland to Jerusalem. In this epic history, Dan Jones vividly resurrects this fierce and seductive royal dynasty and its mythic world. 

We meet the captivating Eleanor of Aquitaine, twice queen and the most famous woman in Christendom; her son, Richard the Lionheart, who fought Saladin in the Third Crusade; and King John, a tyrant who was forced to sign Magna Carta, which formed the basis of our own Bill of Rights. 

This is the era of chivalry, of Robin Hood and the Knights Templar, the Black Death, the founding of Parliament, the Black Prince, and the Hundred Year’s War. It will appeal as much to readers of Tudor history as to fans of 'Game of Thrones.

When John returned to England after his defeat at Bouvines, he was weaker than he had ever been before. Victory and the recovery of a large portion of the Plantagenet lands might have justified his extortion's, just as Richard I’s glorious achievements in Outremer and France had made good the expense of his crusading fund and king’s ransom. But John returned to England discredited. The only patch of territory in mainland France that remained loyal to the English Crown was Gascony and the area around Bordeaux, a pitiful rump of what had once been the sprawling duchy of Aquitaine. A beaten king, John returned to his realm a dangerously Baronial disquiet, which had been bubbling up since 1212, now burst into the open. The feeling growing among a broad coalition of English barons was that John’s methods must somehow be constrained, that the king who had wielded his powers and prerogatives so mercilessly should now be brought under some sort of control. The unfathomable question was what sort of bell could be tied to the cat.

Two meetings between king and barons during the winter of 1214–12 15 failed to resolve their differences. In January 1215 John met with about forty dissatisfied barons in London, where he stalled for enough time to write to Rome and place the case before his new feudal overlord, the pope. During the spring both sides wrote to Innocent III. The barons submitted demands that John should be made to obey the Charter of Liberties that had been issued by Henry I on his coronation in 1100. They proposed that the king should be forced to stand by his own coronation oath to observe good law and exercise justice and argued that demands for English barons to pay scutage or provide armed men to fight on the Continent were unfair and illegal. John’s papal envoys thought the king, as a reconciled son of Rome, ought not to be troubled by rebellions from his subjects, a position that was strengthened when John took the cross on March 4. As a crusader he was now explicitly protected from attack by fellow 

That the barons chose to appeal to the spirit of Henry I’s charter was illuminating. The Charter of Liberties, which had been confirmed by Henry II in 1154, promised (among other things) that the king would not plunder Church property or charge outrageous fees for inheritances, marriages, and widows’ remarriages, nor would he abuse ward ships or extend the royal forest. These were all requests that could fairly be directed at King John, but the choice of Henry I’s charter also demonstrated that the barons viewed their grievances as part of a grand scheme of Plantagenet government dating back more than a century. It was a reasonable position for the barons to take, but their arguments were ignored. Innocent appointed Archbishop Langton to mediate between king and barons and held legal hearings on the dispute in Rome. There, rather than attempt to arbitrate the dispute fairly, Innocent found wholly in favor of his vassal, the crusader king John. Innocent wrote to the English barons insisting that they should pay their scutage and cease making demands of the king. It was a blunt judgment that did nothing to address the serious political disquiet in England. The only possible outcome was civil war. On May 5, 1215, a group of rebels formally defied John, renouncing their homage and fealty, effectively rejecting him as king of England.The barons who opposed him were led by the plotters of 1212: Eustace de Vesci and Robert Fitzwalter, who styled himself by the magnificently pompous title of marshal of the army of God De Vesci was the foremost of a group of northern barons including William de Mowbray, Richard de Percy, and Roger de Montbegon lord of Hornby in Lancashire. The northerners were a tight-knit group, bonded by marriage, kinship, and territorial proximity; all had personal cause to dislike John in particular and Plantagenet government in general. Around these rebel leaders was a band of magnates from East Anglia and the home counties, which included most prominently Richard de Clare earl of Hertford, and his son Gilbert, and Geoffrey de Mandeville earl of Essex and Gloucester. Other barons included Robert de Vere earl of Oxford, Henry de Bohun earl of Hereford, and William Marshal’s son, William the Younger. Plenty—in fact almost all—of the rebellious barons opposed John on grounds of self-interest, and some, like Fitzwalter, were simply unscrupulous and belligerent. But the rebels were also bound together by the germ of an ideology, a sense that the government was in need of fundamental reform.

Once they had renounced their homage, however, very little reform could take place without recourse to bloody warfare. On May 10 John wrote to the rebel barons stating that he “would not arrest or disseise them or their men nor would he go against them by force of arms except by the law of the land and by judgment of their peers in his court.” He made personal overtures to those whom he had dealt with particularly severely during the buildup to the Poitou campaign. He offered to submit to arbitration by a panel of eight barons, chaired by the pope himself. His terms were rejected, and on May 12 John ordered the confiscation of rebel lands. 

The third week of May saw a dash for London between the earl of Salisbury, who had been released from prison following the defeat at Bouvines, and a group of rebel barons, led by Fitzwalter. They raced through the dark of night to reach the capital, which was crucial to the symbolic and strategic control of England. London was an economic powerhouse, a city of culture and prosperity. Its great stone walls protected the city, with William the Conqueror’s Tower of London in the east and Baynard’s castle in the west. Its skyline prickled with scores of little church towers, like needles around the central spire belonging to the vast wooden-roofed cathedral of St. Paul’s, perched proudly on top of Ludgate Hill. London was a hub of trade and of political power. Holding the city had been essential to King Stephen’s survival against Matilda, and in the spring of 1215 it once again became the key to controlling England.

From THE PLANTAGENETS by Dan Jones. Reprinted by arrangement with Penguin 

Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. 
Copyright © Daniel Jones, 2012. 

Author Bio:

Dan Jones is a historian and an award-winning journalist. His first book, Summer of Blood: The Peasants' Revolt of 1381, was published in 2009 and was an Independent book of the year. His second book, published in the UK as The Plantagenets: The Kings Who Made England, and in the USA as The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings And Queens Who Made England, was a #1 bestseller and a book of the year in the Observer, The Times and the Sunday Telegraph.

Dan studied history at Cambridge University, where he was taught by David Starkey and Helen Castor. He graduated with a First in 2002. As a journalist he writes a regular column for the London Evening Standard and is also published widely on both sides of the Atlantic, in the Times, the Sunday Times, the Daily Telegraph, The Spectator, The New Statesman, The Literary Review, GQ, The Daily Beast, Newsweek and the Wall Street Journal.
He lives in London with his wife and daughters.

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