The French Kings of England rose . . . to an eminence which was the wonder and dread of all neighbouring nations.
In 999 a Plantagenet forebear, Count Fulk the Black of Anjou, had his young wife, Elisabeth of Vendôme, burned alive in her wedding dress in the marketplace at his capital of Angers, in front of the cathedral, after catching her in flagrante with a goatherd.2 A few days later, all Angers went up in flames, torched by unknown hands, and the townsmen suspected Fulk. There is no record of what happened to the goatherd.
The Black Count was just as merciless on campaign, slaying and destroying, robbing and raping. When, as an old man, he put down a rebellion by his equally ferocious son, Geoffrey the Hammer, he made him crawl around the floor in front of his courtiers, saddled and bridled like a horse, begging for mercy, while his father screamed, ‘You’re broken in, broken in!’ Yet on pilgrimages to the Holy Land Fulk ordered his servants to flog him through the streets of Jerusalem as he howled for God’s forgiveness. The Angevins decided that a devil’s blood must run in the veins of their sinister lord.
A story grew up that, while hunting in the depths of a forest, Black Fulk’s father or grandfather had met and married on the spot a lady of unearthly beauty but mysterious origin, called Melusine, who bore him four children. She shocked her husband and his court by rarely attending church – if she did, she left Mass after the reading of the Gospel, deliberately missing the most sacred moment, the Consecration. Finally, her husband ordered his knights to intervene: next time she tried to leave they seized hold of her cloak. Melusine reacted by slipping out of the cloak to fly up into the air, vanishing through a church window, with two sons under her arm. Neither the demon countess nor the boys was ever seen again.3 But she left behind the other sons.
This is the account given by Gerald of Wales, who was a courtier of Henry II and his son Richard I. Gerald’s friend, Walter Map, tells a similar tale in his Courtiers’ Trifles, but tactfully does not mention the Plantagenets. He describes the ‘loveliest of girls’ who captured the heart of ‘Henno with the Big Teeth’ and bore him four beautiful children. She too always left Mass before the Consecration, until, when bathing with her maid, her mother-in-law spied on her and, seeing them both change into dragons, had them sprinkled with holy water by a priest, whereupon they shrieked horribly and disappeared through the roof.4 (Behind this lie two very ancient European myths, those of the wood or water sprite and of the succubus – a female demon who seduces men in dreams.)
According to Gerald of Wales, the tale of Melusine was frequently told by King Richard, who said that with such an ancestor it was not surprising that he and his brothers quarrelled. ‘We come from the Devil and we’ll end by going to the Devil’, joked the Lionheart.5 What might be termed diabolical genes were part of the family inheritance. ‘The things we call aristocracies and reigning houses are the last places to look for masterful men,’ John Buchan suggested, just after the First World War. ‘They began strongly, but they have been too long in possession. They have been cosseted and comforted, and the devil has gone out of their blood.’6 Yet until the very end the devil never abandoned Plantagenet blood.
The royal family who reigned longest over the English, descendants of Fulk and the demon, had a strange surname – Plantagenet – which they took from a twelfth-century count who wore a sprig of broom-flower (Planta genista in medieval Latin) on his cap. Although the family did not adopt it as a cognomen until 1460, it is used throughout this book to stress the continuity of the line. Academics restrict ‘Plantagenet’ to the kings from Henry II to Richard II, but the Lancastrians and Yorkists were no less members of the dynasty.
These men from Anjou, who ended as the most English of the English, not only spearheaded the merger of Normans and Anglo-Saxons into a nation but saved the country from disintegrating into separatist parts. Henry II rebuilt England after the anarchy left by King Stephen, although there were further attempts to undo this good work, not least with the revolt of Henry’s sons in the 1170s; and even as late as the fifteenth century rebel magnates allied with the Welsh leader Owain Glyndwr to divide England between them, to be defeated by Henry IV. The Plantagenets began the colonization of Ireland and conquered Wales, if they failed to absorb Scotland. During the Hundred Years War they overran north-western France, creating an Anglo-French dual monarchy – Paris was occupied for nearly fifteen years, Normandy for thirty. However, it all ended in defeat abroad and bankruptcy at home. Divided between Lancaster and York, the family was destroyed by the series of dynastic murders and battles that became known as the Wars of the Roses, its last king dying at Bosworth in 1485.
Although they produced gifted rulers, four Plantagenets were murdered, two came close to deposition, and another was killed in battle by rebels – as Richard I had predicted, there was a diabolical streak until the end. Shakespeare’s tragedies have shaped the way in which we see no less than six of them.
This book is an attempt to provide non-specialists with a short, readable, easily accessible overview of the whole dynasty in one volume. It is based on the major contemporary sources and also reflects recent research – I use quotations from earlier historians when they are more telling than those from modern academics. At the same time, it is a very personal interpretation of my reading across the years – and no doubt, some people may disagree with how I see Henry V or Richard III.