HBO’s “Game of Thrones” — which runs through May 19 — has nothing on the Plantagenets, the Rolls-Royce of English royal families. Indeed, it’s fair to say that the Plantagenets would’ve eaten the fictional characters for breakfast, spit them out and then chewed the leftover bits — all to music.
Brilliant and beautiful, cultured and sophisticated, they shared a passionate hatred of their enemies rivaled only by their hatred of one another. Sons against fathers, wives against husbands, brothers against brothers, uncles against nephews, cousins against cousins, they nonetheless managed to rule England — and, at times, parts of Scotland, Wales, Ireland and France — longer than any other royal house, more than 300 years from Henry II to Richard III (1154-1485).
The key to understanding the Plantagenets is that they weren’t really English at all, but French. They loved France so much that they kept conquering and losing parts of it, while marrying members of the French royal family to underscore their need to stay in the game. Incandescent warriors, the Plantagenets nonetheless understood that sometimes the best way to torture your archenemy was to make love not war with them.
They, their golden boy/girl looks and unusual name were derived from Geoffrey the Handsome, Count of Anjou, who wore the buttercup-colored common broom flower (in Latin, planta genista) in his cap. As Rex Hubbard writes in “The Plantagenets” (Amber Books, 2018), Geoffrey was said to have been descended from the devil’s daughter, one of whose sons — Fulk the Black, a rapist and murderer — burned his wife at the stake in her wedding dress for having the effrontery to cheat on him.
The legend stuck. “From the devil we sprang and to the devil we shall go,” joked Geoffrey’s romantic grandson, Richard the Lionheart, who would help make good on the claim by taking part with two of his brothers in a rebellion against his father, Henry II, which was abetted by their bewitching mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine. Richard, who succeeded his father, would in turn see baby bro John undermine his kingship while he was away at the Crusades. John would murder their equally power-hungry nephew, Arthur, to ensure his own claim to the throne and that of his son, who would become Henry III.
This set in motion three centuries of backstabbing, usurpation, deposition and regicide, culminating in the Wars of the Roses (1455-87) — with the Lancastrian branch of the family, headed by the mentally unstable but well-meaning Henry VI and symbolized by the red rose; and the Yorkist branch, led by its duke, Richard, a cousin of Henry’s who governed as lord protector during his mad state, and symbolized by the white rose.
Ultimately, white defeated red, with Richard’s son succeeding Henry as Edward IV. But the Yorks’ triumph would be short-lived as Edward’s sons — Edward V and his kid brother, Richard — were allegedly murdered in the Tower of London by his brother, Richard, who became Richard III. The defeat of this Richard by Lancastrian relation Henry Tudor and his subsequent marriage to Elizabeth of York, Edward IV’s daughter, united the red and the white rose in one bouquet. But it ended the Plantagenet dynasty.
So many ironies here. For all their intrigue, the Plantagenets actually knew how to reign and govern. For all their French ancestry, they made England England, with a judicial system we would recognize today. (Some of this was by default. The weakness of the treacherous King John led to the baronial bill of rights known as the Magna Carta, an inspiration for our own Declaration of Independence and Constitution.)
Under the charismatic Henry V — perhaps the dynasty’s greatest warrior king, who at the 1415 Battle of Agincourt reclaimed French lands that had been lost — English became the language of everyday business. It was the language in which William Shakespeare would enshrine this Henry’s shrewdly inclusive rallying cry (“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers”) as well as the family’s other triumphs and tragedies in a series of “Henry” and “Richard” plays. (While the Plantagenets are no Tudors when it comes to Hollywood, they nonetheless hold their own, with Timothée Chalamet starring as Henry V in the upcoming film “The King.”)
We can only imagine what might have happened to the dynasty had this Henry lived beyond his 35 years or not married Catherine of Valois, daughter of France’s mad Charles VI. What if his son had not succeeded to the throne as Henry VI as a baby? What if he had not been mentally unstable? Might the War of the Roses have been avoided and the Plantagenets have remained on the throne?
They remain a strong genetic component of England. Ian Mortimer — biographer of the great Plantagenet king Edward III — has estimated that between 80% and 95 % of the English-descended population of England has some Plantagenet blood.
More important, this medieval flower, which grew into two rival gardens, continues to bloom in the imagination.