Who were the Plantagenets?
Updated: Dec 3, 2022
You might have come across a few references to the name "Plantagenet" in connection to the monarchs we discussed in my three-part series on the Wars of the Roses. In this article, we'll be going over all the kings and monarchs that comprised the Plantagenet dynasty, starting way back in 1066 and ending in 1485. That's almost four hundred years of history to cover, so the aim of this article will be to succinctly summarise each king's reign, when they ruled and what they are best remembered for. We'll then explore some of these monarchs in more detail in upcoming articles.
September 28th,1066. William, Duke of Normandy invades England and defeats the Saxon king Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Hastings. William claims the throne and is thereafter known as the Conqueror. He rules England from 1066 - 1087 and is succeeded by his son, William Rufus. William II - as he is known - rules until his own death in1100 (having been accidentally shot with an arrow while riding in the New Forest). He is succeeded by Henry I, another of the Conqueror's sons. Debate still rages over whether Henry might have been behind the accidental shooting of his brother William Rufus. In any case, Henry himself rules until 1135. His death sparks a civil war known as the Anarchy.
The civil war is fought between Henry's daughter and heir, Matilda and his nephew Stephen of Blois. Stephen eventually gains the upper hand and is installed as Stephen I. He rules until 1154, apparently not having had a very successful reign. He is succeeded by Henry II, Matilda's son by Geoffrey, Count of Anjou (1113 - 1151). The name "Plantagenet" is a nickname that was given to Geoffrey for his habit of wearing a yellow sprig of broom blossom (or planta genista) in his helmet. Geoffrey is therefore the progenitor of what henceforth comes to be known as the Plantagenet dynasty. Henry II is its first monarch.
Image of William I of England, also known as the Conqueror
Below are brief summaries of all the Plantagenet kings, when they reigned and what they are best known for. Like all dynasties, their accomplishments and failures are a mixed bag. There are some favourites in there like Richard the Lionheart, controversial kings like Edward I, weak monarchs such as Edward II, as well as villains such as Richard III. All are thoroughly interesting to study and read about regardless and we'll be discussing some of them in greater detail in future articles.
Reigned from:19th December1154 - 6th July 1189.
Known for: Henry II is known primarily for presiding over and expanding the Angevin Empire (a swathe of territories stretching from Scotland to the Pyrenees), his administrative reforms as well as his quarrel with Thomas Becket, former friend and Archbishop of Canterbury, leading to Becket's murder in 1170. Henry is also known for his explosive temper and rages, the most famous of which led indirectly to Becket's murder. The Plantagenet temper was later inherited by several of Henry's successors, including Edward I and Edward III.
Henry is also known for the internal family disputes, and in particular those that erupted between himself and his sons, Henry the Young King (made co-ruler while his father was still alive but resentful at his lack of actual power) and his eventual successor, Richard I.
Reigned from: 3rd September 1189 - 6th April 1199.
Known for: Richard I is known for speaking almost no English and spending only six months in England, using it as a monetary resource to fund his military campaigns elsewhere during his decade-long reign.
Richard is also known for being one of the primary leaders of the Third Crusade (1191-92) fighting Saladin, the renowned Sultan of Egypt and Syria, to a stalemate and establishing a three-year truce with the Muslim leader. His personal leadership, bravery and courage during the crusade earned him the nickname Lionheart.
In 1193, Richard was imprisoned by the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry VI and released for a huge ransom a year later. He died while on campaign in France in 1199 and was succeeded by his brother, John.
Reigned from: 27th May 1199 - 19th October 1216.
Known for: John I is primarily known for the loss of English territory in France, in particular Normandy, Maine, Anjou and parts of Poitou, which led to his being called John Lackland. He is also known for raising unpopular taxes in order to fund military campaigns to recover the lost territories. Furthermore, John is known for quarrelling with the Roman Catholic Church over an Archbishop of Canterbury appointee and being excommunicated for his troubles in 1209.
Most famously, John is known for his dispute with the Norman barons and his signing of Magna Carta on 19th June 1215. Magna Carta is a document of monumental importance in English history, being one of the first attempts to curtail the power of the monarchy. You can take a look at a copy of the 1215 document here. John tried to walk it back later, and civil war seemed almost inevitable, but the king died in 1216. He was succeeded peacefully by his son, Henry III.
Reigned from: 28th October 1216 - 16th November 1272.
Known for: Henry III is known primarily for the adversarial relationship he had with most of his barons, a relationship that was compounded by the king's tendency to rule through court favourites such as the hated Lusignan brothers. In 1242 they led a disastrous and costly attempt to retake some of the lost Angevin lands in France. The strife between the king and his barons ultimately led to the Provisions of Oxford in 1258; these detailed reforms to the current system of government. You can read them here. Henry later tried to walk them back, a move that angered the barons, triggering war and rebellion.
Henry is then also known for the 1263 revolt of Simon de Montfort and the crushing of his rebellion two years later by Henry's son and successor, Edward. Montfort was himself a baron and onetime personal favourite of Henry's who rebelled due to what he saw as the king's weak and incompetent rule. Furthermore, Henry is known for the failed attempt at purchasing the crown of Sicily for his second surviving son, Edmund (b. 1245 d. 1296). Finally, Henry III is remembered for rebuilding Westminster Abbey.
Reigned from: 20th November 1272 - 7th July 1307.
Known for: Edward I is nowadays known primarily as the one dimensional villain from Braveheart. However, history as usual is more nuanced and layered than that. Edward is known for being unusually tall for the time, and his long legs earned him the nickname "Longshanks". He is also known for inheriting the famous Plantagenet temper. In 1271 (and before he became king) Edward went on crusade, and was the subject of a assassination attempt; he narrowly escaped with his life. Edward left the Holy Land shortly afterwards, but not before he concluded a truce with Baibars, leader of the Mamluks. A year later his father, Henry died, and Edward succeeded him as king.
As king, Edward instituted administrative and legal reforms and established Parliament as a distinct entity, although its role as the time was limited mainly to raising taxes on behalf of the crown. It would continue to evolve as a governmental institution. In the early 1280s, Edward's thoughts turned to more martial pursuits; in 1484 he subjugated Wales to English rule and ordered a series of castles and fortifications to be built; he also made his son and heir, Edward of Caernarvon, the first Prince of Wales, thereby instituting a title that exists today.
Edward is also known for attempting (and ultimately failing) to bring Scotland under English control. The initial spark was set off by the death of King Alexander III of Scotland in 1286. This left his granddaughter Margaret of Norway as the sole heir to the Scottish throne. Edward planned to marry her off to his own son, therefore uniting both kingdoms. However, Margaret died in 1290 on her way to Scotland, putting an end to that plan. The Scots then invited him to administer a dispute between different claimants to the Scottish crown, John Balliol and Robert the Bruce among them. Edward agreed to do so, only after being recognised as feudal overlord of Scotland regardless of which claimant ultimately triumphed. It turned out to be John Balliol. He swore fealty to Edward and was crowned King of Scotland at Scone in 1292. The relationship between Scotland and England were tense, however, as the Scottish nobles were loath to have Edward as overlord. This eventually led to a rebellion against Edward and a series of counter-campaigns by the English king, who was determined to bring Scotland under his control. Edward managed to score some victories. For example, he sacked and occupied Berwick and managed to capture Edinburgh Castle as well; Balliol renounced his crown and fled to exile in the continent. Edward also managed to beat a Scottish army at Falkirk in 1297 led by William Wallace (yes, that William Wallace). However, despite repeated campaigns, Edward was never fully able to subdue either the rebellion or Scotland as a whole. That did not stop him being posthumously labelled as "The Hammer of the Scots". He died in 1307 on another Scottish campaign and was succeeded by his son, Edward II.
Reigned from: 7th July 1307 - 20th January 1327.
Known for: Edward II is primarily known for being a weak and ineffectual ruler, which led to a relatively short reign compared to his immediate predecessors. He is also known for the disastrous defeat at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314 to a Scottish army led by Robert the Bruce. As we have seen, Edward I was ultimately unsuccessful in subduing the rebellion, so the campaign against Scotland was continued by his son, who did not have the inclination or ability for martial affairs that his father had had. This led to the defeat at Bannockburn.
Edward II is also known for being deposed by his wife, Isabella of France and her lover, Roger Mortimer. Edward, like Henry III before him, was known to have ruled through personal favourites. One of these favourites was Piers Gaveston. His relationship with Edward is not clear. It might have been platonic or it might have been sexual. In any case, he was hated by the barons and was eventually murdered by a faction of them in 1312. Edward soon found new favourites in the form of the Dispenser family, in particular a father and son duo (both called Hugh). They began a small campaign of terror across the country, renouncing political reform, confiscating estates and executing enemies. Opposition to the regime grew. In 1325 Isabella went to France with her son, the future Edward III. On the surface, this was to broker a peace treaty between England and France. However, while there she allied herself with the exiled Roger Mortimer. The two co-conspirators returned to England in 1326 accompanied by a small army. Support for Edward melted away and he fled to Wales. Both Dispensers were done away with: Hugh the Elder was hung at Bristol in 1326 with his son following a month later (the Younger Dispenser was put on show trial and executed for treason). Edward himself was captured in Wales. He was forced to abdicate the crown in early 1327 in favour of his son. He died mysteriously that same year.
Reigned from: 25th January 1327 - 21st June 1377.
Known for: Edward III is widely considered to be one of England's greatest kings. He is known for deposing Roger Mortimer, the de facto ruler of England during his minority, in 1330 and beginning his own reign in earnest. Edward was energetic and eager to make his mark on English history. He inherited the famous Plantagenet temper, although it does not seem to have been as pronounced as in Henry II or his grandfather Edward I. An able military commander in own right, and wanting to live up to the knightly chivalric ideal, he founded the Order of the Garter in 1348.
Edward is also known for having sired an unusually large brood of children: four daughters and five sons, the eldest of which was Edward of Woodstock, known to history as the Black Prince. The Black Prince would pre-decease his father by one year. The descendants of the remaining children would eventually cause and fight in the Wars of the Roses.
Furthermore, Edward III is known for declaring himself King of France in the 1330s and instigating the One Hundred Years' War (which England ultimately lost). An initial invasion of France took place in 1339 and success quickly followed a year later at Sluys when Edward all but destroyed the French naval fleet. Several years later, Edward invaded Normandy and defeated a French army under the command of King Philip VI at the Battle of Crécy in 1346. That same year Edward besieged Calais; it fell in 1347. Calais was to remain in English hands for the next two centuries. Meanwhile, hostilities in France continued. An English army under the command of Edward, the Black Prince fought and defeated the French army of King John II (son of Philip VI, who had died in 1350) at the Battle of Poitiers in 1356. King John himself was captured in the battle. A series of truces and military actions followed, the last of which was the Treaty of Calais, signed in 1360. In it, Edward renounced his claim to the French throne in exchange for the territory of Aquitaine. Eventually the treaty was repudiated by the French, and the war began anew. This time it was prosecuted mainly by the Black Prince and his brother John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, but without the success of earlier times.
Domestically, Edward is known for the on and off again hostilities against the Scots. The English were able to land a decisive blow at the Battle of Neville's Cross in October 1346, which resulted in the capture of the Scottish king, David II. Edward is also known for his vast spending in pursuit of alliances and military campaigns both at home and abroad, which almost left him bankrupt and in need of money. In order to raise the needed funds, Edward resorted to raising funds by procuring loans and taxing his own subjects; he also looked to find independent revenue streams, such as a return to subsidies on wool exports. Taxation, as always, was unpopular. The body responsible for raising taxes was of course, Parliament. Indeed, its initial power and importance sprang from this very ability. At first, however, representation in Parliament was limited only to the barons. as BBC History writes, Parliament's true influence started to be felt when representation was expanded to include representatives of the counties, towns and lower clergy: these would later be known as the 'commons' and would develop into the House of Commons. The nobility would be represented by what would become the House of Lords. Please see here for a full history of the English Parliament. By the time of Edward III, Parliament also heard grievances and accepted petitions, sought redresses for wrongs and became ever more involved in the political crises of the day. Also, the so-called Good Parliament of 1376 elected the first ever speaker of the House of Commons. Thus, it evolved into the bicameral institution we know today.
Domestic successes were offset by the onset of the Black Death in 1348-9, 1361-62 and 1369. It ravaged the country side, devastated the economy and destroyed thousands of lives. The response to the first wave in the late 40s was the Statue of Labourers in 1351. The act, meant as a response to the labour shortage created by the Black Death, kept prices and wages at pre-pestilence levels but decreased social mobility. It was difficult to enforce and unpopular among the peasantry. It ultimately led to the Peasants Revolt of 1381. Other legislative measures were passed during Edward's reign, most notably the statutes of Provisors (1350) and Praemunire (1353) as well as the Treason Act of 1351. As the Black Prince died of illness in 1376, and Edward himself died in 1377, the crown passed directly to his grandson, Richard of Bordeaux.
Reigned from: 22nd June 1377 - 29th September 1399.
Known for: Richard II is known primarily for ascending the throne at only ten years of age. He is also known for diffusing the Peasants Revolt of 1381 when he was just 14. The rebel leader Wat Tyler was killed during negotiations at Smithfield in London. The remaining rebels were hunted down and crushed in the ensuing weeks. On a personal level, Richard is known for being a patron of arts and culture, rebuilding Westminster Hall and establishing a quasi-cult of personality around his royal person.
Richard is also known for the conflict with the so-called Lords Appellant. This group first consisted of the following three members: Richard's uncle, Thomas, Duke of Gloucester, Richard FitzAlan, Earl of Arundel and Thomas de Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick. Their roster was later boosted by Henry Bolingbroke, Earl of Derby and future king of England, and Thomas de Mowbray, Earl of Nottingham. The cause of the conflict was the king's tendency to rule through a select few court favourites. Venom was particularly directed at William de la Pole, Richard's chancellor, who in 1386 sought to raise an unprecedented level of taxes for defending against French aggression. Parliament balked, refused the request and asked for de la Pole's resignation. Richard refused at first, but later had to climb down and acceded to the request. A governmental commission was then set up to hold office for a year. The court now split into two factions, those who supported the king and those who supported the Lords Appellant. Battle was joined at Radcot Bridge in 1387, resulting in a defeat for the king's forces under the command of Robert de Vere. Richard retreated back to London in humiliation to attend the so-called Merciless Parliament of 1388. The king's supporters at court were either dismissed, condemned to death in absentia or executed. It seemed that the Lords Appellant had won. However, Richard slowly re-assumed control of the government, pursuing conciliatory policies with France and lowering taxation. Indeed the next few years seem to have been relatively peaceful. However, it seems that Richard had been biding his time and fortifying his own position. In 1397 he ordered the arrest of the Lords Appellant Gloucester, Arundel and Warwick. Gloucester and Arundel were eventually executed and Warwick was banished.
Richard is also known for his increasingly authoritarian and arbitrary rule during the last few years of his reign, and this has led to the charges of tyranny and misrule that have since been levelled against him. Richard was known to have had a strong opinion on the right of kings to rule, and it seems that the rebellion of the Lords Appellant had shaken him to his core. In this context, his move against the Lords Appellant maybe seen as Richard's attempt to re-establish royal authority. Although why he waited so long to get his revenge is not quite clear. In any case, his increasing authoritarian and personal rule would eventually be his undoing. Richard ended up abdicating the throne in favour of his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, in 1399 (see my three-part series in the Wars of the Roses for more details). He died in1400.
Reigned from: 30th September 1399 - 20th March 1413.
Known for: Henry IV is remembered primarily for deposing his cousin, Richard II, and for not being particularly loved by either his peers or his subjects. Indeed, he was looked upon as an illegimate king by many, including King Charles VI of France.
Henry is also known for spending most of his reign putting down uprisings and rebellions. In 1400 a Welsh leader by the name of Owain Glyndŵr declared himself Prince of Wales and led a revolt against English rule. Then in 1403 Henry Percy, the Earl of Northumberland, rose up against Henry as well. The Percy rebellion ended in defeat at the Battle of Shrewsbury that same year. The royalist victory led to the execution of Scrope, Archbishop of York, in 1485. Northumberland himself managed to escape. He led another rebellion in 1407 and was killed a year later at the Battle of Bramham Moor. Meanwhile, the Welsh rebellion foundered. Henry IV died of illness in 1413 and was succeeded by his son, Henry V.
Reigned from: 21st March 1413 - 31st August 1422.
Known for: Henry is primarily remembered as a warrior king who achieved spectacular military victories in France, most notably the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. He is also remembered for dying at the young age of 35 of dysentery at the Château de Vincennes in France. During his lifetime he came close to becoming King of France; already he had conquered large swathes of territory, but the Treaty of Troyes (signed in 1420) stipulated that Henry would inherit the French throne upon the death of Charles VI. However, it wasn't to be. The military successes of his reign were reversed during the reign of his son, Henry VI.
Reigned from: 1st September 1422 - 4th March 1476 then from 3rd October 1470 - 11th April 1471.
Known for: Henry VI is known for inheriting the English throne while he was still an infant. He is also known for his personal piety and founding several colleges and chapels. This includes Eton College and King's College in Cambridge. Henry is also known for his peaceable, docile and unwarlike nature. He was also indecisive and easily led and controlled by those around him. This arguably made him unsuitable for the trials and tribulations of medieval kingship.
England's fortunes in the One Hundred Years' War floundered under Henry VI. In fact, several English territories were in France under his kingship, most notably Gascony, Rouen, Caen and most of Normandy. Henry did not directly participate in the military campaigns, and most of the blame was laid at the feet of Edmund Beaufort, duke of Somerset.
Henry was also known for suffering periods of stupefaction, nervous breakdowns, becoming comatose on last least two occasions. The first big breakdown came in1453, following news of the loss of the English territories mentioned above. Please see my three-part series on the Wars of the Roses for more information on what happened to Henry VI during that turbulent period in English history. The short of it is that he was deposed, restored and deposed a final time. His only son, Edward of Westminster, the Prince of Wales would die in battle in 1471, with Henry himself being snuffed out in the Tower of London that same year. His death saw the end of the Lancastrian dynasty started by Henry IV.
In a strange way, death was not the end for Henry himself though. Soon after his death, Henry began to be venerated as a saint, and pilgrims began to journey to his tomb at Chertsey Abbey. To prevent Henry's tomb from becoming an established pilgrimage site, his successor Edward IV had his remains moved to St. George's Chapel in Windsor. However, the cult continued to flourish and miracles began to be attributed to the dead king. Pilgrimages continued well into the 16th century but slowly faded away.
Reigned from: 4th March 1461 - 3rd October 1470 and then 11th April 1471 - 9th April 1483.
Known for: Edward IV is known for being one of the key players in the Wars of the Roses, deposing the Lancastrian monarch, Henry VI, and having himself proclaimed the first Yorkist king of England instead.
Edward is also known for the controversial decision to marry Elizabeth Woodville in 1464, leading to conflict with his sponsor and mentor, Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick and so called "King Maker", as well as his brother, George, Duke of Clarence. More controversially, it has been suggested that Edward was in fact illegitimate and not really the son of Richard, Third Duke of York. We'll take a look at those claims of illegitimacy in another article.
Edward is further known for being an able and charismatic warrior king when young and a greedy, overindulgent monarch in later years. His decadent lifestyle probably contributed to his early death in 1483 aged only 40. Please see my three-part series on the Wars of the Roses for more information on Edward's movements and actions during this period.
Reigned from: 6th July 1483 - 22nd August 1485.
Known for: Richard III is known primarily for usurping the throne from his nephew, Edward V. He is also known for being the last king of England to die in battle (at Bosworth Field in 1485).
Richard's reign has been the subject of much controversy and study. Rumours and misinformation about his life and reign abound. He has been portrayed as an evil, cunning, grasping, covetous, manipulative hunchback and his reign a black spot in English history. Much of this is due to later Tudor revisionism. However, there is evidence to suggest that Richard did try to be a good king and that he might indeed have been just that had he lived long enough. However, he was never able to shake off the stigma of being the ultimate cause of his nephews' final disappearance. He split the Yorkist base and made some questionable (in hindsight) decisions that contributed to his downfall. Please see my three-part series on Richard III for more information about his reign and the controversies surrounding it.
So there you have it, a quick rundown of all the kings that comprised the Plantagenet dynasty. Let me know if any particular king caught your eye and that you want to read more about. I'll be writing more articles about them, and can also recommend some books to read if you're interested. Please let me know, and as always, thank you for reading.
Plantagenet family tree taken from Wikipedia.