Our longest reigning dynasty, the Plantagenets are among the most important in European history, on a par with Hohenstauffen and Habsburgs, with Valois and Bourbons. They took their name from an ancestor's habit of wearing a sprig of bloom flower in his cap although they did not use it as such until 1460.
Their contribution to our history cannot be exaggerated. They saved England's unity, unique in medieval Europe. Rebuilt by Henry II after the chaos left by Stephen, had his sons's revolt succeeded, the kingdom would have fallen apart, as it almost did at the end of John's reign when the barons tried to replace him by the Dauphin Louis. As late as the fifteenth century Henry IV had to crush an alliance of great magnates with the Welsh to divide the country between them. Yet at the same time, not only did the Plantagenets begin the conquest of Ireland and complete that of Wales, but in the Hundred Years War they overran large areas of France, creating an Anglo-French dual monarchy. Meanwhile they presided over the amazing cultural transformation of medieval England into early modern England, when Norman immigrants and Anglo-Saxon natives turned into a nation.
Although the dynasty produced some highly effective rulers, four Plantagenet kings were deposed and murdered, two came close to deposition, and another was killed in battle by rebels. An almost demonic streak appeared when they feuded with their kindred - as Bacon says, 'It was a race often dipped in their own blood.' Finally, fatally divided, they destroyed themselves in the Wars of the Roses.'
Desmond Seward was born in Paris and educated at Ampleforth and St Catharine's College, Cambridge. He is the author of many books including The Monks of War: The Military Religious Orders, The Hundred Years War, The Wars of the Roses, Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry V as Warlord, Josephus, Masada and the Fall of Judaea (da Capo, US, April 2009), Wings over the Desert: in action with an RFC pilot in Palestine 1916-18 (Haynes Military, July 2009) and Old Puglia: A Portrait of South Eastern Italy (Haus August 2009). Forthcoming is The Last White Rose: the Spectre at the Tudor Court 1485-1547 (C...
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