Post-classical history

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Postscript – The Kings in the National Myth

For where is Bohun? Where is Mowbray? Where is Mortimer? Nay, which is more and most of all, where is Plantagenet? They are entombed in the urns and sepulchres of mortality!

Chief Justice Crewe in 1625

The place of most Plantagenet monarchs in our pantheon is a shadowy one, but once they were proudly remembered. Edward III became a hero to Henry VIII’s court through Lord Berners’s stately version of Froissart, which he translated at the king’s command, and Edward Hall’s Union of the Two Illustre Families of Lancaster and York (1548) gave some idea of England’s rulers from Henry IV onwards. The Elizabethans were familiar with the entire dynasty from Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles (1577). They also learned about the Plantagenets from the theatre. While Bishop John Bale’s Kyng Johan, written in about 1538 and portraying John as a victim of papal tyranny, was performed only once or twice, it is likely that George Peele’s bloodstained King Edward the First (1593) made more impact.

Still more important, Holinshed gave Shakespeare the material for his plays about Plantagenet kings (as he did for Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II.) Despite changes for the sake of entertainment – such as exaggerating the wildness of ‘Prince Hal’ – Shakespeare is often astonishingly near the mark, since he echoes the contemporary chroniclers from whom Holinshed took his information. A famous example is Richard II’s lament for his lost crown, which came from Adam of Usk.

But during the reigns of the first two Stuarts, although Edward I was venerated as a lawgiver by jurists who at the same time shuddered at the memory of John, the Plantagenets inspired no new dramas. Curiously, from Shakespeare until comparatively recent times, almost no plays were written about English history or English monarchs, let alone about the Plantagenets. Admittedly, even the most sanguine playwright would find difficulty in convincing himself he could improve on Shakespeare. On the other hand, the seventeenth century learned something of its former ruling family from the cartographer John Speed’s Historie of Great Britaine. Similarly, the eighteenth century was treated to the whole story in depth by David Hume, whose six solid volumes had a place on the shelves of every respectable library. Even so, most men and women of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries discovered the Plantagenets from Shakespeare, whom they read as we do novels – the great Duke of Marlborough once declared he had learned his history exclusively from the Bard.

What this meant for an understanding of the Plantagenets can be gleaned from William Hazlitt’s Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays (1817), in which Hazlitt analysed their portraits. King John was ‘more cowardly than cruel’, while Richard II was ‘a voluptuary, proud, revengeful, impatient of contradiction, and inconsolable in his misfortunes’. Henry IV was ‘humble, crafty, bold and aspiring, encroaching by regular but slow degrees, building power on opinion, and cementing opinion by power’. The summary of Henry V is particularly shrewd: ‘Because his own title to the crown was doubtful, he laid claim to that of France . . . He was a hero, that is, he was ready to sacrifice his own life for the pleasure of destroying thousands of other lives.’ Henry VI ‘wished to pass his time in monkish indolence and contemplation’. As for Richard III, he was ‘towering and lofty; equally impetuous and commanding; haughty, violent, and subtle; confident in his strength as well as in his cunning’.

Surprisingly, Plantagenets rarely featured in nineteenth-century historical novels. Scott found room only for Richard Coeur de Lion and John. However, Edward IV came into Bulwer-Lytton’s costume drama, The Last of the Barons, which portrayed him as ‘a temporizer – a dissimulator – but it was only as the tiger creeps, the better to spring, undetected, on its prey’. Bulwer-Lytton credited Richard III with a ‘soft and oily manner that concealed intense ambition and innate ferocity’. The only other well-known mention in fiction was a vignette of a youthful Richard (when Duke of Gloucester) in Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘piece of tushery’ The Black Arrow – ‘slightly deformed, with one shoulder higher than another, and of a pale, painful, and distorted countenance . . . he that rides with Crooked Dick will ride deep’. Even so, the Victorians knew all about the Plantagenet kings from Shakespeare, Charles Dickens’s Child’s History of England and John Richard Green’s phenomenally popular History of the English People. Another source was Bishop William Stubbs’s Constitutional History of England, glorifying the Lancastrians as forerunners of the Whigs, which was widely read and not just by scholars.

In the first half of the twentieth century, before the temporary decline of the historical novel, Conan Doyle and Alfred Duggan wrote stirring romances in which Plantagenet monarchs sometimes played a prominent role. But the authors who really kept their memory green during this period were ‘patriotic historians’ such as Sir Winston Churchill and Arthur Bryant, whose exuberantly written books enjoyed a vast readership, Churchill praising ‘this strong race of warrior and statesman kings’. There were also Laurence Olivier’s hugely successful film versions of Shakespeare’sHenry V and Richard III.

Today, we are less aware of them. A multicultural world is embarrassed by patriotic history, which it dismisses as ‘celebratory’ or politically incorrect, and despite the revival of the historical novel and although Shakespeare’s plays still work their magic, the Plantagenets have faded from people’s memory. Henry II is known as Eleanor of Aquitaine’s husband and for Thomas Becket’s death, Richard I is recalled for his ‘homosexuality’, John for Magna Carta, Edward I for persecuting William Wallace and Edward II for the gruesome way in which he was murdered. Richard II, Henry V, Henry VI and Richard III are more familiar because they were fleshed out by Shakespeare.

Yet the Plantagenet kings can recapture popular imagination, now that the Tudors have been almost – if not quite – worked to death. One straw in the wind is the success of Philippa Gregory’s historical romances, one of which became a TV ‘soap’. They offer a new field for dramatists. Richard III, already a cult, is attracting increased attention since the discovery of his skeleton. We can expect more new novels and soaps about him, which might revive interest in the entire dynasty.

Only a handful of medieval English men and women can be glimpsed, on a tomb or a monumental brass, in an illuminated manuscript – but even then it is stylized representation. Save for one or two rare exceptions, they have not left revealing letters or journals. In contrast, from John’s time effigies or portraits provide a vivid impression of the Plantagenet kings, while chroniclers make a point of describing them, in depth. They can be seen as human beings, so that their personalities offer unique windows on to their age.

Some of them were among the greatest Englishmen who ever lived. Presiding over the fusion of French-speaking colonists and Anglo-Saxon natives into a nation, giving us the Common Law and parliamentary government, they hammered out a kingdom that became Great Britain.

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