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The Plantagenets 1216 - 1399

Westminster Abbey

King John died in 1216 and was succeeded by his son, Henry III. Tensions between influential barons and the king had been a defining feature of King John's reign. This power struggle had forced the signing of the Magna Carta. Tensions between king and nobles continued and intensified under Henry III. The English nobles were furious at the way Henry welcomed "foreigners" into his inner circle of advisors. The nobles were actually furious - as they had been under King John - that the council used men of merit irrespective of status or nationality. England's nobles did not want a meritocracy. They wanted to protect their privilege, and bring their own influence to bear on the king. Much of what late nineteenth century historians deemed as progress towards the enlightenment of modern government was actually a self interested struggle of powerful barons protecting their traditional privileges. Up until the reign of John, England had been a part of a larger European empire which had dated back to the Norman conquest of 1066. By the reign of John the continental part of this empire had been conquered by France, and England was a new island kingdom. The king now had less money to maintain his position, and was forced into a closer relationship with the nobles, who were fighting for their own position. All these accidents of history began to bring about changes in government. But there was no enlightened plan driven by great men. In fact the men who drove change had their own agenda in mind, and would have been surprised at the outcome of their actions.

 

Henry III's increasingly restive council is sometimes seen as a pre-parliament. But in reviewing Plantagenet history it is not possible to see a slow and sure development of modern systems of government. John Harvey wrote that the thirteenth century was "an extraordinary epoch, compounded by advance and regression in almost equal proportions" (The Plantagenets P88). The whole of the Plantagenet story is characterised by this contradiction. Following the loss of all England's continental possessions during the reign of King John, his son Henry III rebuilt Westminster Abbey as a symbol of a new England, now apparently a forward looking independent country. His remodelling of the Abbey used the latest and most fashionable French style. But Henry took such an interest in Westminster Abbey because it was built by his eleventh century hero Edward the Confessor. Henry consciously wanted a link back to Edward, the last Anglo Saxon king to rule England as an independent kingdom before the invasion of William the Conqueror. Henry even called his eldest son Edward, recalling the royal name of old England in the boy who would carry the Plantagenet story forward.

 

But this story didn't really go forward. Following the death of Henry III his son Edward I spent a hectic reign conquering Wales, and then attempting to conquer Scotland. To some extent parliament grew in power during his reign, although, according to Edward's biographer Michael Prestwich, it is not possible to say exactly what parliament was, or what job it was expected to do. Particularly in the last few years of Edward I's reign it is difficult to see any apparent progress. The war in Scotland was not going well, and King Edward had little confidence in his son Prince Edward being able to rule effectively. The government was also massively in debt following expenditure on endless wars in Scotland. And then in the reign of Edward II things seemed to go backwards. After all the talk of parliamentary development so often lavished on the reign of Edward I, parliamentary power, for a while at least, disappeared completely. Natalie Fryde has written that the reign of Edward II "provides one of the few examples in English history of a period of tyrannical rule which, for a time, met no overt political opposition in the country" (The Tyranny and Fall of Edward II P1).

 

 

 

The Trip to Jerusalem Inn, Nottingham. Edward III entered Nottingham Castle through a tunnel leading from the inn to arrest Roger Mortimer, his mother's lover, and take the throne of England

Edward II was to be murdered by his enemies, and power taken by his wife Isabella and her lover Roger Mortimer. Once Isabella's son, a young Edward III, took back the throne, the story traditional historians wished to tell could resume. Edward III was another energetic king, fighting wars in France, building impressive buildings at Windsor and working with Parliament in a fairly orderly way. But once again the road was to be long and winding. Edward III's son, Edward the Black Prince, was to die before his father. It was the son of the Black Prince who succeeded as Richard II. Richard was in some accounts a thoughtful, cultured king who ruled over a brief golden period in English medieval history during which Chaucer wrote his great poetry. In other accounts he is a tyrant who presided over a dark age. Henry IV who deposed Richard had a vested interest in making it look as though his predecessor had achieved nothing. This is how it is in history. Even today a new government will tend to rubbish its predecessor, to give a better sense of its own progress to come. It's a repetitive story. Instead of a tale moving towards the light, this is a story where the light and the dark seem to exist together. History is like the Robert Browning poem Prospice, which includes the line: "For sudden the worst becomes the best."

 

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