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The House of Plantagenet

"What is a Plantagenet? Do you agree?"
1066 and All That, Test Paper II, Question 2

The longest running dynasty in English history, running from 1154 to 1485.

For much of this period, the King of England was also Duke of Normandy and ruled several other places — the first three Kings didn't speak English at all, and the first four identified themselves as French, or at least Angevin, first. French remained the official court language until 1361.

Part of the broader House of Anjou (hence the term "Angevin"), which was noted for having its members turn up just about everywhere you look in medieval European history, much like the Hapsburgs would later on (though the Angevins didn't quite reach the same scale). They also got the nickname "The Devil's Brood" from an old legend that they were descended from a union between some past Count of Anjou and the daughter of Satan himself, which offered as good an explanation as any for the family's leanings toward violence and infighting. (Interestingly, the Plantagenets themselves did little to discourage the legend.)

The Wars of the Roses kicked off towards the end of this, so monarchs changed back and forth a bit.

Note that the regnal numbers given below for the earlier kings are anachronistic. Like the Normans before them, the early Angevin kings were known only by their first name and a sobriquet, either a nickname or their place of birth. Regnal numbers were assigned by monks in the time of Edward III.note  The tradition of regnal nicknames continued until the end of the Plantagenet era, although (with a few exceptions) it wasn't used as often after Edward's reign. Each king's most common sobriquet is given here in parentheses after his regnal name.

Fifteen male monarchs here:

The Angevins (1154 ― 1216)

Henry II of England

Lived: 5 March 1133 –- 6 July 1189 Reigned: 25 October 1154 –- 6 July 1189 Consort: Lady Eleanor of Aquitaine Nicknames: Henry Curtmantle (French: Court-manteau); Henry FitzEmpress; Henry Plantagenet

It has been said that his father, Geoffrey V of Anjou, gave the Plantagenets their name from the broom-plant he wore on his chest, the Latin name of which was Planta Genista. This story, however, cannot be dated back beyond the 15th century. (Neither can members of his family using "Plantagenet" as a last name; the first was Richard, Duke of York; pretender to the throne and father of Edward IV and Richard III).

Stabilized England after the chaos of the Civil War between his mother Matilda and her cousin King Stephen (Matilda was the designated heir but, you know, she was a chick, plus married to Anjou, whose house was the traditional enemy of the House of Normandy, leading to the Civil War for all but 5 years of Stephen's disputed reign). Thanks to a combination of inheritance, marriage, conquest and treaties, ruled what would be later called the Angevin Empire (named for Anjou in western France), which comprised England, parts of Wales and Ireland, and the western half of modern France, stretching in all from the Scottish Border to the Pyrenees. It was less of a unified empire, and more of a collection of territories which happened to have the same overlord (though he still paid homage to the King of France for the French territories, it was pretty much lip service), but still damn impressive.

Famous today for three things:

1. Founded the concept of The Common Law, a legal system where the law is usually determined by court decisions, and the foundation for the legal systems of the UK, the United States and Commonwealth countries such as Canada.

2. After a dispute over who should be the High King of Ireland, he took advantage of a Papal Edict of 1158 ― issued by the only English Pope, Adrian IV (born Nicholas Breakspeare (No, really)) ― that gave overlordship of Ireland to the King of England to establish an English zone of control (The Pale) around Dublin, which had repercussions for centuries to come.

3. The most (in)famous thing was that he got into a savage argument with the original Turbulent Priest, his one time friend Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, over whether the Church was subordinate to secular authority. His expression of frustration was construed to be a Royal Command: a Rhetorical Request Blunder. Four knights made haste to Canterbury and brutally murdered Becket. The murder of an archbishop at the altar of his own cathedral on orders from the King was considered the worst crime in Christendom for a long time, and clouded Henry's reputation in history. It was something Henry appeared to truly show regret and remorse for and he was publicly whipped as penance by the canons of Canterbury Cathedral. (Becket, on the other hand, got made into a saint and had a great film made about him in which he was played by Richard Burton).

Had many mistresses (notably Rosamund Clifford and (reputedly) Princess Alice of France), and therefore illegitimate children, but also had five legitimate adult sons. William died when only two years old, Henry the Young King died from dysentery, and Geoffrey of Brittany was trampled by a horse. When his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine had had enough of his infidelity and his high-handed ness over Aquitaine, she successfully manipulated her surviving sons into rebellion against him.

Henry (the Young King)

Lived: 28 February 1155 –- 11 June 1183 Co-reigned: June 1170 –- 11 June 1183 Consort: Princess Margaret of France Nicknames: Henri le jeune roy

Son of Henry II, appointed co-regent with his father, following the French tradition. Because he predeceased his father, is not counted as Henry III, and it's often forgotten that he was ever King at all, inasmuch as, though he reigned, he never ruled, unlike his brother…

Richard I of England

Lived: 8 September 1157 –- 6 April 1199 Reigned: 6 July 1189 –- 6 April 1199 Consort: Princess Berengaria of Navarre Nicknames: Richard the Lionheart (French: Richard Cœur de Lion)

Richard I spent most of his reign abroad ― he was only in England for 6 months of his 10-year reign ― most famously leading the Third Crusade against Salah ad-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub, better known as Saladin.

A small-scale pogrom kicked off around his coronation and he was forced to order the Jews of England to be left alone. An account of the massacre used the word holocaustum to describe it.

Spent a massive amount of money on the Crusade, sold titles, raised taxes, etc.. Having managed to annoy Leopold V, Archduke of Austria, he was spotted in a village near Vienna eating roast chicken while dressed as a peasant, so was captured and held prisoner from 1192 to 1194. Cue one literal king's ransom (the sum was 2-3 times the annual income of the English crown). Richard spent most of the rest of his reign fighting Philip II Augustus of France and doing quite well. In 1199, he got shot by a crossbow bolt, was badly treated, and died. He wanted to let the fellow (in some accounts a young boy) who shot him go, but Mercadier, the captain of Richard's mercenaries, flayed him alive as soon as Richard had died, perhaps at the command of Richard's sister. Charming.

Once shared a bed with Philip while he was a prince, leading to speculation that it was that sort of bed sharing, but it was more likely entirely non-sexual and just a political thing. Men shared beds more commonly in those days, and some places do still.

While Richard I was away, Prince John, his brother, seized control of England from the regents the King had left in charge. This plays a key part in the Robin Hood mythos, with Robin Hood fighting along with his band of outlaws to keep England safe from the corrupt rule of John until Richard's return. (In the early ballads, however, it's one of the Edwards' reigns that is the setting.)

Historians differ wildly over Richard's quality. There is a statue of him, by Marochetti, outside the Palace of Westminster.

Had no legitimate heirs, so the throne went to...

John of England

Lived: 24 December 1166 –- 18 or 19 October 1216 Reigned: 6 April 1199 –- 19 October 1216 Consort: (1) Isabella, Countess of Gloucester (1189—1199) (2) Isabella, Countess of Angoul๊me (1200—1216) Nicknames: John Lackland (French: Jean sans Terre)

Fourth son of Henry II. Known as "Lackland" (since, being the fourth son, he didn't get any land to inherit at first and then when he did, he lost all the French territories) and "Soft-sword" (for supposedly being a poor general).

Henry II's youngest, he was also his most beloved son. The lacking of land was not intentional—John was supposed to become Lord of Ireland, but as Ireland had yet to be properly conquered when Henry the Young King, Geoffrey, and Richard went to war against their father, John never got his hands on the territory. Henry often showered John with gifts and responsibilities—indeed, the straw that broke the camel's back when it came to the Great Revolt was Henry II's transfer of three of Henry the Young King's castles to John. It should come as no surprise that it was John's decision to side with his brothers in the second revolt that sent Henry II, already seriously ill, catatonic to his deathbed.

Gets a reputation for being evil, and was accused of murdering his nephew Arthur. Some revisionist historians think he was reasonably good, but unscrupulous, and with an eye for the ladies. Similarly, many now believe that he was not so much an incompetent general as a ridiculously unlucky one. Fathered a lot of illegitimate kids, mostly with the surname FitzRoy (son of King) - sadly, is also known to have been a prolific serial rapist.

As mentioned, plays a key role in the Robin Hood mythos, sometimes as the Big Bad to the Sheriff of Nottingham's Dragon.

John has been blamed for losing France. Traditionally historians hold a rather mixed view of this; several centuries of nationalism in both England and France have led many to regard the Angevin Empire as something of an aberration and its demise as inevitable, or even welcome. Regardless, from a purely dynastic and personal point of view it is difficult to see it as anything other than a disaster. Anjou and Normandy were richer and more populated than most of England and their loss in 1203-04 fatally undermined his reign.

You either like him or hate him. His refusal to admit Stephen Langton as Archbishop of Canterbury caused Pope Innocent III to place the English Church under an interdict from 1208 to 1214. He was considered to be kind and friendly with the Jews, which was one of the things his enemies used to rally against him. The barons who hated him got him to sign the Magna Carta (Great Charter) in 1215, which the Pope annulled (not entirely unjustified; since John was forced to sign it, that is a pretty strong argument against its legitimacy). This caused the Barons to invite Prince Louis of France to invade England. John then died of dysentery while on campaign (though the legend persisted that he had been poisoned by a monk), and the Barons lost their appetites for French rule, so they reissued Magna Carta in the name of his nine-year-old son.
Magna Carta was hugely significant as the first document forced onto a king by his subjects, to limit his powers and enshrine certain rights and liberties of the people. Though its specific clauses have been almost all repealed or modified (or codified in a different form) over the centuries, it remains one of the symbolic foundation stones of the unwritten British constitution and an important part of the extensive historical process that led to the rule of constitutional law in the English-speaking world.

When his Grandson Edward I (then a prince) named his first son John it caused a minor scandal. Since that John died in infancy, King John is the only English King to have been named John, and will probably remain so. The popular misconception that there is a taboo in the English (later British) royal against giving sons the name John is however disproved not just by Edward I's eldest son, but also by Edward III's son John of Gaunt (father of Henry IV) and George V's youngest son, Prince John.


The Plantagenets (1216—1399)

Henry III of England

Lived: 1 October 1207 –- 16 November 1272 Reigned: 19 October 1216 –- 16 November 1272 Consort: Lady Eleanor of Provence Nicknames: Henry of Winchester

Chafed under the restrictions of Magna Carta, and desperately wanted to recapture the lands his father lost. His political machinations backfired horribly, and for the first half of the 1200's he was essentially a puppet king, while the country was ruled by parliament. This lasted until his son Edward made a daring escape from being held hostage, and won an important battle at Evesham in which the parliamentary leader Simon de Monfort was cut to pieces. Later half of his reign was rather stable, and he managed to make England economically strong again after the chaos of King John's reign. Often an overlooked monarch due to his rather mild and quietly eccentric nature, he kept a large zoo in the Tower of London. Notes left by his physicians show that he probably suffered from Alzheimer's Disease in the last year or so of his life.

Edward I of England

Lived: 17 June 1239 –- 7 July 1307 Reigned: 16 November 1272 — 7 July 1307 Consort: (1) Princess Eleanor of Castile (1254—1290) (2) Princess Margaret of France (1299—1307) Nicknames: Edward Longshanks; Hammer of the Scots

As established during his father's reign, a talented general. Also the first King truly raised as an Englishman since 1066. Didn't care too much for the French territories, and was far more interested in re-establishing Roman Britannia. Successfully conquered and annexed Wales, and started the tradition, via some clever Loophole Abuse, of the heir to the throne being named the Prince of Wales.note  Controlled large parts of Scotland around the end of the 13th Century, becoming known as "The Hammer of the Scots". Was not as evil as you see in Braveheart (Dante thought well of him), but when re-crowned on the Scottish stone of Scone (pronounced skoon), is reported to have said "A man does a good thing when he rids himself of shit." The stone was kept in Westminster Abbey until recently. Expelled all Jews from England; Jews were not allowed to return for over 350 years.

When his beloved wife, Eleanor of Castile died in 1294, he established 12 stone crosses along the route her body took to be buried in Westminster Abbey, which why it's called "Charing Cross" (although the notion that "Charing" comes from French ch่re reine = "dear queen" is a myth).

Died on his way north to handle the latest round of fighting with Scotland, leaving the throne to his son...

Edward II of England

Lived: 25 April 1284 –- 21 September 1327 Reigned: 7 July 1307 –- 25 January 1327 Consort: Princess Isabella of France Nicknames: Edward of Caernarfon

Every bit as physically tall and powerful as his father, but didn't care for war. Scotland eventually kicked him out in 1314. Spent much time indulging his passions of sailing, and granting favours and titles on his favourites. Widely rumoured to be an active homosexual, his relationships with Piers Gaveston and Hugh Despenser earned both men widespread enmity and, eventually, unpleasant deaths. Highly unpopular, he was murdered (supposedly by having a red-hot poker applied as an enema, though most historians think it was the less dramatic method of smothering with a pillownote ) by order of his wife Isabelle (the "She-Wolf of France") and her lover, who planned to rule though her fourteen-year-old son...

Edward III of England

Lived: 13 November 1312 –- 21 June 1377 Reigned: 1 February 1327 –- 21 June 1377 Consort: Lady Philippa of Hainault Nicknames: Edward of Windsor

Didn't take to being controlled very well. As soon as he was of age he seized power in his own right, executed his father's murderers and exiled his mother. Much more like his grandfather in both physical prowess and military talent. Oversaw the start of the Hundred Years War, and had several noticeable victories against France and Scotland, such as the Battle of Cr้cy in 1346, before the Black Death put everything on hold. He never quite regained the initiative after that, and eventually signed a truce in 1367, leaving England better off than when they started. Spent a lot of his time after that trying to prevent the mass social changes unleashed by the plague, but ultimately failed.

A strange belief propagated by the movie Braveheart has Edward being the son of William Wallace. Wallace died in 1305, seven years before Edward was born; worse, Edward's mother was a nine-year-old child living in France at the time of Wallace's death.

Several of his sons are notable for very important reasons, even though none of them ever became king. His eldest son was Edward the Black Prince; dashing, courageous, a great general and highly popular. (His third son was John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, and his fourth was Edmund of Langley, Duke of York — remember those titles, they'll be important later). Ultimately though, Edward died of dysentery two years before his father, so the throne went to his son...

Richard II of England

Lived: 6 January 1367 –- c. 14 February 1400 Reigned: 21 June 1377 –- 30 September 1399 Consort: (1) Princess Anne of Bohemia (1382—1394) (2) Princess Isabella of Valois (1396—1400) Nicknames: Richard of Bordeaux

Ten years old at his succession, he showed what he could do at the Peasants' Revolt of 1381, where he defused the immediate threat to London while the leader, Wat Tyler, was butchered shortly behind them, and ultimately ordered the remaining rebels to surrender, which they did. This went to his head, however, and he started the tradition of addressing the King as "Majesty" and "Highness". Like his great-grandfather, didn't care for the war with France, and was much more interested in art and architecture; he was also fond of good food, and had his cooks write a great cookbook, the Forme of Cury. A group of nobles (the "Merciless Parliament") had some of his favorites executed for abusing his youth, and he repaid them in kindness ten years later, including having his uncle smothered.

The final straw came with the banishment for life of his cousin, John of Gaunt's eldest son Henry Bolingbroke, and the seizing of his valuable Lancastrian land. The other nobles rallied against him, and under the pressure, Richard folded. Like his great-grandfather he met a nasty end, being starved to death, and the nobles proclaimed his exiled cousin the new King...


The House of Lancaster (1399—1461, 1470—1471)

Henry IV of England

Lived: 15 April 1367 -– 20 March 1413 Reigned: 30 September 1399 –- 20 March 1413 Consort: (1) Mary de Bohun (1380—1394) (2) Princess Joan of Navarre (1403—1413) Nicknames: Henry Bolingbroke

In his youth was probably the best jouster in England (an opportunity to prove it against his only serious rival was interrupted by the king), and fought in a crusade. He made a rather sharp contrast with his egotistical (and childless) cousin, the king. Considered by many (including himself) to be Richard's obvious and legitimate heir, but never recognised as such by the king. Eventually lost patience and seized the throne after the king exiled him and took his estate.

Thereafter, according to accounts, Angsted about stealing the crown a fair bit. was rather poorly, and it was up to his son to put down a rebellion intended to put a descendant of an elder son of Edward III on the throne.note  The crown instead went to Bolingbroke's son...

Henry V of England

Lived: 16 September 1386 –- 31 August 1422 Reigned: 21 March 1413 –- 31 August 1422 Consort: Princess Catherine of Valois Nicknames: Henry Monmouth

Had Richard II's body buried in Westminster, in part to assuage bad feelings caused by his father's seizing of the Crown, and in part because he had been closer to Richard than to his own father.note  He then put down a Welsh rebellion, before turning his attention to resuming the Hundred Years War, his most famous activity. Parliament made the transition from writing their documentation in French to English under his rule.

Besides being William Shakespeare's Henry V, "Prince Hal", is best known for winning the Battle of Agincourt, which in many ways was a rerun of Cr้cy 70 years earlier. Pretty much conquered most of Northern and Central France, and a treaty proclaimed him heir to the French Throne, making him the single most successful king in France since Henry II. Unfortunately struck down by dysentery two months before the French King died, so both crowns went to his nine-month old son...

Henry VI of England

Lived: 6 December 1421 –- 21 May 1471 Reigned: 31 August 1422 -– 4 March 1461; 30 October 1470 –- 11 April 1471 Consort: Princess Margaret of Anjou

Pretty much controlled by everyone around him, including his wife. His regents handled the emergence of Joan of Arc and the concept of France as a unified nation pretty badly, and the previous King of France's son was restored to the throne in 1431. Though saintly in character, generally considered weak-willed, and mentally ill in his later years. After the Hundred Years war ended in 1453 with England only holding Calais, the nobles descended from the second and fourth sons of Edward III, who had been given land in and title of York, started the rebellion known as the Wars of the Roses. They seized the throne in 1461. Henry got it back in 1470, but not for long, and according to legend had his skull smashed in while in prison, returning the throne to...


The House of York (1461—1470, 1471—1485)

Edward IV of England

Lived: 28 April 1442 –- 9 April 1483 Reigned: 4 March 1461 –- 3 October 1470; 11 April 1471 -– 9 April 1483 Consort: Elizabeth Woodville

At 6'4", the tallest Monarch in English History. During his first reign, was pretty much a puppet for his cousin Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick ("the Kingmaker"). Warwick resented the growing power Edward's wife and her family had over him, and led an army against him, allowing Henry VI to reclaim the throne in the process. In a repeat of Henry IV, Edward landed on the coast and gathered support for his cause. Warwick and Henry's son were killed in battle, and Henry was quietly disposed of, leaving the cause of Lancaster to be championed by an obscure nobleman with only a tenuous claim to the throne, Henry Tudor.

During his second reign, he had some military success against France (acquiring lots of money) and Scotland (acquiring some territory), but his health failed due to a sedentary lifestylenote  and he died in 1483. Edward had had his unreliable, alcoholic brother George Duke of Clarence killednote , leaving his favourite and youngest brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, as protector of his son...

Edward V of England

Lived: 2 November 1470 –- c. 1483 Reigned: 9 April 1483 –- 26 June 1483

Had the job two months, but was never crowned. His uncle had him imprisoned and had Edward IV's marriage invalidated, making him illegitimate and disqualified for the throne. Disappeared from the Tower of London, along with his younger brother. May or may not have been murdered by...

Richard III of England

Facial reconstruction from bones, 2013
Lived: 2 October 1452 –- 22 August 1485 Reigned: 26 June 1483 –- 22 August 1485 Consort: Anne Neville

Thanks to Sir Thomas More and William Shakespeare, the poster boy for Historical Villain Upgrade; thanks to Sir George Buck, the poster boy for revisionist history. Was almost certainly not badly deformed (though the discovery of his skeleton proves he had scoliosis), nor probably irredeemably evil. Definitely seized the throne, but there's no direct evidence he was involved in the princes' disappearance. The perception that he did, though, was enough to make him very unpopular among some people. Some people hypothesize he took the crown only because of a genuine belief that a boy-king would leave England vulnerable (as was shown by previous boy-kings) and that an adult should rule in his own right to keep England secure; he may also have acted purely in self-defense, believing that the young Edward V would be strongly influenced by his ambitious mother, who detested Richard and had been deeply involved in the condemnation and execution of Richard's brother, the Duke of Clarence.

Richard's main achievement in his reign was improving conditions in Northern England, where he was pretty popular, too. In fact, he generally improved conditions for the lower orders and was loved for it by some, while said actions antagonised the nobility. He was killed at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, the last English king to die in battle, and was succeeded by Henry Tudor as Henry VII, who beat him with foreign support (he was a Lancastrian, though several others had better claims). Through marriage, Henry VII united York and Lancaster into The House Of Tudor. The last Plantagenet claimant to the throne was executed in 1499.

His skeleton was found in 2012—2013 under a car park in Leicester. They were verified as his bones by DNA from a descendant of his sisters. Contrary to popular belief, he wasn't a hunchback but suffered from a severe form of scoliosis which may have made one of his shoulders higher than the other. A facial reconstruction from his skull is shown above.


Depictions in fiction

  • The Pillars of the Earth spans the war between Stephen and Matilda and ends in Henry II's reign.
  • The Lion in Winter about Henry II and Eleanor's power games.
  • Becket
  • Kingdom of Heaven set during the 3rd Crusade. Richard I makes an appearance.
  • The traditional setting for the Robin Hood mythos is under Prince John.
  • King John by William Shakespeare.
  • Braveheart is set during Edward I's reign.
  • Edward II, the play by Christopher Marlowe.
  • A Knight's Tale is set during the reign of Edward III, and the Black Prince features prominently.
  • Richard II, the play by William Shakespeare.
  • Henry IV Part 1 and Henry IV Part 2, also by Shakespeare.
  • Henry V also by Shakespeare.
  • Henry VI Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 also by Shakespeare.
  • Richard III also by Shakespeare.
  • The first season of Blackadder depicts the accidental murder of Richard III by the fictitious Edmund Plantagenet, leading to the reign of the similarly-fictitious Richard IV.
  • The Lord Darcy stories depict an Alternate History where the Plantagenets still rule England in the 1960s. Which is now called the "Angevin Empire", and controls half of Europe. (And is having a little cold war with the Polish Empire.)
  • The TV series The White Queen (based on Philippa Gregory's Cousins' War series of books) follows the life of Elizabeth Woodville, a woman from a traditionally Lancastrian family who married Edward IV and was the mother of Edward V and his brother ("the princes in the Tower") as well as Elizabeth of York.
  • In the short comic series The Black Dragon (set in 1193), the main protagonist is a nobleman exiled by Henry II who returns after the king's death. King Richard being absent on his crusade, Queen Eleanor makes a crucial appearance, assuming de-facto rulership of (mundane) Englandnote  to deal with the crisis instigated by the villain(s).
  • Almost every retelling of Robin Hood features Kings Richard the Lionheart and John Lackland. Few of them are remotely historically accurate.


The Knights TemplarHollywood HistoryThe Teutonic Knights
British Royal FamilyRoyalty and Nobility TropesThe House Of Tudor
The House of NormandyAdministrivia/Useful Notes Pages in MainThe House of Stuart
The House of NormandyUsefulNotes/BritainWars of the Roses

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