Lessons learned from Dan Jones’s The Plantagenets

Dan Jones’s The Plantagenets is a hugely enjoyable read, particularly if you are (as I am) already roughly conversant with the early kings and queens of England. Since I have a vague outline in my head of the course of early British history, this book might as well have been Gossip about the Plantagenets. My main takeaways were on a theme, that theme being People from History Who Were Way Worse Than You Thought.

First up: Thomas Becket. I know you learned in school that Thomas Becket was a martyr to his faith, and “will no one rid me of this turbulent priest” etc. That is true as far as it goes, but what I learned last year in rough outline and then again from The Plantagenets in some detail is that the principle in question was neither especially religious nor especially defensible on moral grounds. Henry II wanted to change a policy whereby rapists and murderers who were also members of the clergy faced trial by the church rather than the state. Becket refused to entertain this idea, and he kept right on doing church trials where the clergy people got off with light penalties or none at all. Henry II did not care for this, and neither do we modern folks.

Down with theocracy!

Also, Becket sounds very annoying. Every time he got mad at Henry and his political allies, he would order them to be excommunicated, and he did this so often that the Pope had to say, “No, don’t worry about it, y’all are still in the Church.” I’m not saying Becket deserved to die, but at a certain point it’s like, bro,  you know what century you live in. You can’t print up business cards that say Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury and Full-Time King Disobeyer and remain sanguine about your life expectancy.

NEXT AND BEST: King John. I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, But Jenny, I already know that King John was garbage. If he hadn’t been so garbage, we wouldn’t have the Magna Carta. Dude, I know. I also thought I knew what a garbage king he was. But I did not appreciate the full extent of his awfulness. I sort of thought it had been exaggerated by history. I was super wrong.

I made this gif! Yay me!
Accurate historical representation.

For one thing, he levied so many taxes on his subjects that there was a coin shortage. Just think about that for a moment. He had so many coins living in his royal coffers that there weren’t enough coins for other English people to use for purchasing goods and services. This was not ultimately beneficial to the Plantagenet leadership, as his son Henry III basically spent it all on making fancy churches fancier, leaving the kingdom in enormous debt to Italian bankers.

This one time, he imprisoned the other potential heir to the throne of England, his teenage nephew Arthur (fine), and he kept the kid in fairly dire conditions (not fine). Once when he got drunk, he ordered one of his vassals to go to Arthur’s cell and blind and castrate him, which luckily the guy chickened out of doing. But later that year, Arthur disappeared from his prison and was never seen again. It is believed that John got drunk, killed Arthur, and threw his body in the river. It is sort of hard to believe that he would do such an insane and unbeneficial thing, but on the other hand, he was all the time doing insane things that didn’t make any sense.

Maybe take a break from killing people for a little while, John old pal.

Case in point: One year, John decided that one of his barons, William de Briouze, who had been a strong ally to him all along, was probably actually plotting to destroy him. (This was not the case.) He started demanding that de Briouze pay huge sums of money to the Crown and send hostages to John’s court to ensure his good behavior. When de Briouze did not immediately comply, John sent mercenary armies to capture his castles, and then billed de Briouze for the cost of the mercenary soldiers. Like, he wanted de Briouze to pay wages to the guys who had just stolen his property.

After some ultimately unsuccessful fleeing by de Briouze and his family to Ireland, John captured his wife and son and imprisoned them in very yucky conditions in one of his castles, where they died within the year. One report says that they died of starvation, and that deBriouze’s son’s body had tooth marks on it because his mother went insane from hunger and tried to eat him.

Whether or not that particular gruesome story is true, we can all certainly agree that John I is sure to be known as John the Worst. And too bad, I think! John is an excellent king name, and thanks to rotten John Lackland (that’s a mean nickname people gave him when he was young, though not the meanest nickname he ever received; see tags), we’ll never have another King John of England.

This post could be twelve paragraphs longer, but I’ll let you digest all of this, and we’ll see about coming back to the Plantagenets in a later post. Maybe in that post I will make the disclaimer that Dan Jones has not got nearly enough footnotes and sometimes he says things as if they are fact when actually they are under some dispute by historians; but that his writing is extremely engaging and I am learning many excellent stories about the early kings of England.