Book Review: The Plantagenets-the warrior kings and queens who made England, by Dan Jones

Plantagents cover

While certainly readable, The Plantagenets by Dan Jones (Viking, 2012) is a disappointment on numerous levels.  As a student of history, I find this 534 page work a pale comparison to more definitive works, such as the four volume history of this amazing dynasty by Thomas Costain, originally published in 1962.In as concise and forward manner as possible, I will detail my disappointment with this tome …

First of all, I am shocked by the lack of attention to scholarship. While there is a section at the end of the book entitled, “Further Reading, page 511,” there is no bibliography.  Mr. Jones does occasionally quote sources within the text, but here are no footnotes. So from the very get-go, one who picks up this book must understand that it is not appropriate for students or teachers of history.  This book is mere story-telling. To provide a case in point, on page 233, Mr. Jones writes, “They did not realize that Edward and Gloucester had spies among them, including a female transvestite called Margoth.” I found this sentence intriguing. I’d never heard of this individual before. Despite extensive research, the only information to a real-life individual under this name was in an entry in Wikipedia about a spy from the Eighteenth Century (Chevalier d’Eon).  Not only do I find this kind of writing slip-shod, I find it does a disservice to the reader who may want to find an external reference and further reading about this mysterious and intriguing figure.

It is without shame that I say that I like illustrations, especially color illustrations.  Between pages 198 and 199, the reader will find 4 pages of black-and-white glossy illustrations.  With the exception of the last illustration that shows a picture of John of Gaunt, third surviving son of King Edward III, the choice of illustrations are disappointing.  There are numerous images that could have been included in this history of the Plantagenet family that are not difficult to find.  For instance, at the Abbey of Fontevrault, there is a crypt that contains the remains of King Henry II, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Richard the Lion-Heart, their son and Queen Isabelle of Angoulême, the widow of bad King John, another son of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine.  Here is a photograph in the public domain that I found from aforementioned crypt.  That’s Isabelle on the left and Richard on the right.

The illustration of Edward II’s tomb is sloppy and does not reveal the grandeur of his final resting place.  If one understands the controversy surrounding the life and death of Edward II, then this may sound trivial; however, Edward III, his son went to great lengths to exhume his father’s remains and rebury them in grand style.  There are some conspiracy theorists who suggest that the remains in this particular tomb do not even belong to Edward II. (Please see Medieval Intrigue: Decoding Royal Conspiracies, by Ian Mortimer, Bloomsbury Academic, 2010.)

Edward the Second, while certainly a foolish and impolitic man, unsuitable for the role of king during the Middle Ages, was also a very unlucky man. From the start of his reign, the end of what is called the Medieval War Period (MWP) occurred. This resulted in seven years of crop failure that in turn resulted in mass starvation at an unprecedented level. (See: The Third Horseman, by William Rosen, Viking, 2014).  Following that came the Black Death.  While devoting a great deal of attention to the terrible pandemic that claimed many lives in what Barbara Tuchman famously described as the “calamitous 14th Century,” Jones devotes only one, brief and misinformed paragraph (page 326) on the implications of this great famine on the political climate in the early years of Edward II’s reign.  It’s this kind of shoddy sin of omission that riddles Jones’ effort.

The index of this book runs from pages 519 to 534.  It is fairly substantial, but as with the great famine that marred the early years of Edward II’s reign, there is no mention of this event in the index. I looked under the words, “famine,” “hunger,” “starvation,” and “crop failure.” There was no mention.  I supposed one paragraph, mentioned in passing, may not warrant a place in the index.  There are other omissions, but I will not belabor the point.  The index should serve as a guide to the major subjects of this book; however, as i noted before, this is not a work of scholarship.  If I were writing a history paper, whether for high school or college,

I would give this book a pass, as the primary sources are given short shrift. Shame on Mr. Jones! The fact that he is a popular presenter on British television and the role he played in the travesty of the recent retelling of Henry VIII and his Six Wives, recently shown on Channel 5 (UK) only indicates the degeneration of historical presentation in the popular media. It also bears noting that this very book was made into a four part series entitled Britain’s Bloodiest Dynasty: The Plantagenets,  again presented on Channel 5 (UK). Any student of English history knows for a fact that the Tudors executed and tortured more people than every other dynasty put together. Ever heard of Bloody Mary, daughter of the murderous psychopath Henry VIII? She didn’t earn that nickname by accident.

If you are interested in a light read, a superficial accounting of the age of the Plantagenets, then feel free to check out this book from your local library.  It is also available on Amazon at a fairly cheap price.  On the other hand, if you are a serious student of medieval history, English history, etc. then I suggest you give it a pass.  Below is a bibliography of other works by Dan Jones. I guess he’s laughing all the way to the bank.  Happy reading!

DAN JONES, BIBLIOGRAPHY (accessed from Wikipedia on May 4, 2016)

  • Magna Carta: The Making And Legacy Of The Great Charter, London, Head of Zeus, 2014, ISBN 978-1-781-85885-1.
  • The Wars of the Roses: The Fall of the Plantagenets and the Rise of the Tudors, New York, Viking, 2014, ISBN 978-0-670-02667-8. (Known in the UK as The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses and the Rise of the Tudors, London, 2014, ISBN 978-0-571-28807-6.)
  • The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made England, London, HarperPress, 2012, ISBN 978-0-00-721392-4 [26]
  • Summer of Blood: The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, London, HarperPress, 2009, ISBN 978-0-00-721391-7.

About Russell Smith

I was born at the American Hospital in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France. I find inspiration in the lives of so many people from Joan of Arc to Oscar Wilde. While my primary avocation is photography, I also enjoy philosophy, theology and most of all, history. My beloved wife, Robin Anne Smith, who passed away in 2013 is also an inspiration to me. My beloved partner, Dana is also a great support and inspiration to me. I'd be remiss if I did not mention my cats: Natasha, Maxwell, Tigger and Nigel.
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