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The Plantagenets 1377 - 1485

Leeds Castle, romantic retreat of Richard II

Historical judgment is a fickle business. For some authors Richard II who took the throne as a young boy in 1377, became a tyrannical king who deserved his deposition by Henry IV. For others, the traditional view of Richard was simply propaganda carefully constructed by ruthless agents of Henry IV, to justify his illegal seizing of the throne in 1399. Terry Jones, for example, sees the reign of Richard II as a brief time of light and culture in a dark age. This was a time when Chaucer was able to write The Canterbury Tales, and poke fun at the Church. But then in 1399 Richard II was deposed by Henry IV, an event which Terry Jones describes as comparable to a shift from the permissive Sixties to Stalinist Russia. When I first wrote about Henry IV I thought I'd done quite a good job of the research. I'd read some general histories, and a big, fat biography by a historian with impressive credentials. He quoted from other historians with impressive credentials. But then reading Terry Jones's Who Murdered Chaucer it seemed I had in all probability been taken in by a group of powerful history manipulators who did their work six hundred years ago. That is not to say that the usual version should simply be dismissed and forgotten about. As Richard III's biographer Michael Hicks has written: "In history what happened is often much less important than what is thought to have happened." (Richard III P199) Without a self justifying story Henry IV could not have taken control. The story he created was as much a fact of his reign as the date of his coronation, or his death, or exactly what he ate for lunch. The story was part of the dark reality of Henry IV's reign.

 

 

 

All Souls College, Oxford , built to commemorate those who died at Agincourt

Henry IV's son, Henry V is usually considered one of the heroes of English history. Henry enjoyed a wonderful reputation during his reign and this continued afterwards. He was an English hero, credited with huge military ability. While Henry did have ability as a solider, the Agincourt campaign on which his reputation rests could easily have been a disaster. But remarkably it wasn't, and as Henry IV says in Shakespeare's Henry IV Part 1 " Nothing can seem foul to those that win". If Henry V had been defeated everything that was judged as daring and heroic about his Agincourt campaign would have been seen as reckless. A hero isn't far from a villain.

Writing an overview like this it should be possible to see the sweep of history, to pick out general themes, and see a pattern of development. Some nineteenth century historians such as Bishop William Stubbs felt that they could do this. They saw history as a picture of God's work, rising dependably up to a merciful outcome. The reality is very different. Progress in one era will be met by regression in another. And historians will disagree about what constitutes progress anyway. For one historian a particular monarch will represent progress, for another the opposite. Opposing accounts of Richard II and Henry IV illustrate this. Heroes and villains can be made out of the same people.

 

 

 

Bloody Tower at the Tower of London. Edward IV's sons, the "Princes in the Tower" were imprisoned here

Following on from whatever the achievements of Henry V may have been, England could be seen as falling apart through the reign of his son Henry VI. This reign was to see a time of civil war, commonly known as the War of the Roses, in which different branches of Edward III's family struggled for power. Henry VI was deposed in 1461, by Edward IV, only to be placed back on the throne in 1470, before being finally deposed and murdered the following year. 1471 to 1483 saw Edward IV trying to recreate the Norman Empire of England and large areas of France. `Until the time of King John England had been part of a huge continental empire which dated back to the Norman invasion of England in 1066. England had been conquered and reduced to a province in what was known as the Angevin Empire. And yet it was to those days that England's new bellicose nationalism now looked. Edward IV has been portrayed by some admiring constitutional historians as instituting reforms of government. Once again a picture of progress could be presented, when in fact Edward IV's aim in many ways was to recreate a past world which never really existed. England was trying to recapture a lost empire, when that empire had never been England's in the first place. The country had merely been a province within a wider dominion centred on Normandy. Then after all this contradictory effort, Edward IV's reign was to end with his teenage son, Edward V, disappearing into the Tower of London. Edward was never seen again, while his uncle, Richard grabbed the throne as Richard III. Richard was then to be comprehensively demonised by his successor, Henry VII, first representative of the new Tudor dynasty. There had to be progress. Richard III had to be darkness, and the new king Henry VII had to be the light. The Plantagenet age came to an end on the battlefield of Bosworth in 1485, and Henry VII made sure that history showed this as a new beginning.

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