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1154-1485 - Plantagenet / Angevin Kings

In the movie Braveheart King Edward of England tells his son, the future King Edward II, "I depart for France to press our rights there". Modern movies are full of depictions of English monarchs pressing claims to territory in France. From a modern perspective, in retrospect this all seems quite strange and quixotic. But this modern perspective has things slightly backwards. In 1066 William, the Conquerer, added England to his Norman realm. Normandy was [and still is] in France, and so for nearly a century, until the death of King Stephen [Pillars of the Earth] in 1154, England was ruled by French monarchs [though not the "King of France", and was one of a string of Norman holdings that spanned the whole of Europe.

Subsequently, the English crown passed to the House of Anjou, another French noble family. These Angevin Kings reigned until the House of Lancaster came to the throne in the person of Henry IV [r 1399-1413]. It is only at this point that a purely English monarch lays claim to territory in France. The Hundred Years War, which ended soon thereafter, in 1453, was simply one episode in the consolidation of the whole of France under a single monarch. This process began in earnest in the decades before the Hundred Years War ended, and concluded some decades thereafter. Yet English claims in France persisted at least until the reign of Henry VIII [r 1509-1547]. While some modern royal houses are of considerable antiquity [aren't we all?], the modern notion of a "national" monarchy with an intimate connection with the nation is a distinctly modern concept, and would find few exemplars prior to the 20th Century. Go figure.

The line of Plantagenet kings began in 1154 with Henry II, son of Queen Matilda [Pillars of the Earth] and Geoffrey Plantagenet of Anjou, and ended with Richard III in 1485. The dynasty thus lasted three hundred and thirty-one years, and embraced fourteen sovereigns. The era of the Plantagenets was a most eventful one in English history. It was under these kings that the English constitution took on its present form, and those charters and laws were framed which are rightly esteemed the bulwark of English freedom. Moreover, the wars of the period were, for the most part, attended by far-reaching consequences, and so helped to render the age memorable. The chief political events of the period were the wresting of Magna Charta from King John, the formation of the House of Commons, the Conquest of Wales, the Wars with Scotland, the Hundred Years' War with France, and the Wars of the Roses.

Henry II (1154-1189) inherited Normandy from his mother, and Anjou, Maine, and Touraine, from his father; and held Guienne and Poitou in right of his wife. Even before he succeeded, at the age of twenty-one, to the English Crown, Henry was a powerful prince. He was a vassal of the King of France, but had got so many fiefs into his hands that he was stronger than his lord and all the other great vassals of the French Crown put together. Anjou and Maine he had from his father, Normandy from his mother, and the County of Poitou and Duchies of Aquitaine and Gascony he had gained by marrying their heiress Eleanor a few weeks after her divorce from Louis VII of France.

The attempts of Henry to subject (by the constitutions of Clarendon) ecclesiastics to the jurisdiction of the temporal courts in matters purely secular, and to restrain the practice of appealing to Rome, were defeated by the pertinacity of Thomas a Becket, archbishop of Canterbury. Hoping to please the king, four knights went to Canterbury, and murdered Becket at the foot of the altar. But this bloody deed was a cause to great trouble to King Henry; for the Pope threatened to excommunicate him. In order to pacify his Holiness, the king set out on a pilgrimage to the tomb of Becket. When he entered the abbey where the tomb was situated, the whole community of monks assaulted him with rods. The king, being afraid to resist them, was soundly whipped ; and, as a reward for his patience, he received the Pope's pardon. During the reign of this king Ireland was conquered and annexed to the realms of England. It had previously been divided into several separate kingdoms.

Richard the Lion-hearted was crowned King of England in 1189. He was a valiant man, and possessed prodigious strength ; and he delighted in nothing so much as battle and slaughter. After gaining great renown in Palestine, he was, on his way back, taken and imprisoned for two years by the Duke of Austria. The English obtained Richard's release by paying a heavy ransom; but soon afterwards, while besieging a castle in Normandy, he was killed by an arrow from a crossbow.

The next king was Richard's brother John, surnamed Lackland, or Loseland. This epithet was bestowed on John because he lost the territories which the English kings had hitherto possessed in France. John was one of the worst kings that ever England had. Among other crimes he murdered his nephew, Arthur Bretagne, who was rightful heir to the crown. The barons of England were so disgusted with the onduct of John, that they assembled at Runnymede, and (impelled him to sign a written deed called Magna Charta. This famous charter was dated the 19th of June, 1215. It is considered the foundation of English liberty. It deprived John and all his successors of the despotic power which former kings had exercised.

King John died in 1216, and left the crown to his son who was then only nine years old. He was called Henry the Third. His reign continued fifty-five years ; but, though he was a well-meaning man, he had not sufficient wisdom or firmness for a ruler.

The next king, Edward the First, was crowned in 1272. The people gave him the nickname of Longshanks, because his legs were of unusual length. He was a great warrinr. and fought bravely in Palestine and in the civil wars of England. Edward conquered Wales, which had hitherto been two separate kingdom. He attempted to conquer Scotland likewise, but did not entirely succeed. The illustrious Sir William Wallace resisted him, and beat the English troop in many battles. But, at last, Wallace was taken prisoner and carried in chains to London, and there executed. Robert Bruce laid claim to the crown of Scotland, and renewed the war against Edward. But old Longshanks, determined not to let go his hold of poor Scotland, mustered an immense army, and was marching when a sudden sickness put an end to his life.

His son, Edward the Second, ascended the throne in 1307. He led an army of a hundred thousand men into Scotland. But he was not such a warrior as his father. Robert Bruce encountered him at Bannockburn with only thirty thousand men, and gained a glorious victory. By this Scotland was set free. Edward the Second reigned about twenty years. He was a foolish and miserable king. His own wife made war against him, and took him prisoner. By her instigation, he was cruelly murdered in prison.

Edward the Third, began to reign in 1327, at the age of eighteen. He had not long been on the throne, before he showed himself very unlike his father. He beat the Scots at Halidown Hill, and afterwards invaded France. The king's son, surnamed the Black Prince, was even more valiant than his father. He was also as kind and generous as he was brave. He conquered King John of France, and took him prisoner; but he did not exult over him. When they entered London together, the Black Prince rode bareheaded by the side of the captive monarch, as if he were nerely an attendant instead of a conqueror. This brave prince died in 1376, and his father lived only one year longer.

The next king was Richard the Second, a boy of eleven years old. When he grew up, Richard neglected the government, and cared for nothing but his own pleasures. During his reign, a rebellion was Leaded by a blacksmith named Wat Tyler. The rebels had also other leaders, nicknamed Jack Straw and Hob Carter. They marched to London with a hundred thousand followers, and did a great deal of mischief. King Richard was not a good ruler. His subjects grew more and more discontented, and his cousin, the Duke of Lancaster, formed the project of making himself king. Richard was dethroned and imprisoned at Pontefract castle, where he was either killed or starved to death.

The long and wasteful war between England and France is known in history as the Hundred Years' War. Upon the death of Charles IV, the last of the Capetian line, Edward III laid claim, through his mother Isabel, daughter of Philip the Fair, to the French crown. The peers of France gave the crown of the last Capetian to Philip of Valois, the cousin of the dead Charles IV. The first great combat of the long war was the famous battle of Crecy in 1346. Edward invaded France with an army of 30,000 men, and inflicted upon it a most terrible defeat on the French. The yeomanry of England there showed themselves superior to the chivalry of France. For half a century after the Peace of Bretigny, during the reigns of the English kings Richard II and Henry IV, the war was practically suspended. But Henry V invaded the country with a powerful army, and defeated the French in the great Battle of Agincourt (1415). The famous Joan of Arc, Maid of Orleans, inspiring the dispirited French soldiers with new courage, forced the English to raise the siege of Orleans, and speedily brought about the coronation of Prince Charles at Rheims (1429). From this on, the war, though long continued, went steadily against the English. Little by little they were pushed back and off from the soil they had conquered, until, by the middle of the fifteenth century, they were driven quite out of the country, retaining no foothold in the land save Calais, which place they managed to retain for about a century after their expulsion from the other parts of the country. Thus ended, in 1453, the very year which saw Constantinople fall before the Turks, the Hundred Years' War.

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Page last modified: 26-02-2016 19:15:30 ZULU