The House of Plantagenet oversaw major transformations in England, even if not always intentionally. During the time the Plantagenet kings reigned, two kings were deposed, Magna Carta was signed, Parliament became a permanent fixture and English was established as the primary language. Large swathes of land in France were lost, the Crusades ended and kings stopped travelling as much, spending more and more time in England. So who were the first 8 Plantagenet kings?
Henry II (r. 1154-1189)
Henry’s mother Matilda was embroiled in a civil war (known as The Anarchy) with her cousin, King Stephen, for much of the mid 12th century. When Henry inherited the throne in 1154, he proved himself to be a capable ruler, re-established royal authority and English domination of Wales, as well as ensuring his lands in France were under solid control.
His marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine further cemented his position in France: their marriage proved to be fruitful, producing 8 children in total. Henry is perhaps most famous for the murder of Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170: the culmination of years of tension as Henry tried to reform the relationship between church and state.
Unusually, Henry crowned his eldest son Henry during his lifetime in order to ensure the succession. The Young Henry, as he is known, became increasingly frustrated at his father’s inability to give him any real power: in 1173, he, along with Eleanor of Aquitaine and several of his siblings, rebelled against Henry in an event known as The Great Revolt.
Troubled relationships between father and sons continued throughout the rest of Henry’s life as they vied for power and land.
Richard I (r. 1189-99)
The third son of Henry and Eleanor, it seemed initially unlikely that Richard would inherit: however, his elder brothers all predeceased their father, leaving Richard as heir. A strong and capable military leader, Richard spent most of his reign campaigning on the Third Crusade, winning notable victories against Saladin.
Whilst Richard has become a figure of mythic proportions, known by his epithet – the Lionheart, he was far from a dutiful or good king to his subjects back home, seeing England and his subjects primarily as a source of revenue.
Known as ‘Bad King John’, John’s reign was far from successful. He lost large quantities of English lands in Normandy, leading to the collapse of the Angevin Empire established by his father, Henry II.
Attempts to regain these lands lasted for most of the rest of his reign, meaning these years were characterised by high taxes as well as military reforms and attempts to build continental alliances.
On returning to England following another defeat in 1214, John was met by a revolt from his barons. Unhappy at the high taxes and a lack of consideration for their views, they raised an army and marched on London, Lincoln and Exeter.
John met the leaders at Runnymede, where he consented to sign Magna Carta: technically a peace treaty, it was also full of proposals for broader political reform.
Despite this, neither side really attempted to stick to the bargain: the First Barons’ War consumed most of John’s subsequent reign. He died in 1216, probably from dysentery, having lost a significant part of his baggage in The Wash – one chronicler claims this baggage included the Crown Jewels.
Henry III (r.1216-1272)
Henry inherited the crown as a minor, so for the early years of his reign he was under the guardianship of William Marshal – a powerful knight appointed by John. The first ten years of his reign was predominantly focused on ending the Barons’ War and restoring royal authority: Henry assumed formal control of his government in 1227.
Instead of building on the relatively solid foundation laid down for him, Henry’s lax application of his constitutional rights and lack of discipline in court led to the gradual collapse of royal authority.
His strongly anti-Jewish policies became increasingly disliked, the presence of the powerful Poitevin faction at court caused tensions, and Henry’s increasing obsession with obtaining the kingdom of Sicily all strained relations with his nobles: by 1258, he faced a revolt from his barons.
Henry agreed to the Provisions of Oxford – an attempt to limit the ability of the king and leading nobles to abuse their power, and forcing Henry to hold triannual parliaments. These were reinforced by the Provisions of Westminster (1259), which Henry’s son and heir Edward helped push through, having allied himself with Simon de Montfort, a leading baron.
A period of instability followed, in which power was held by several jostling factions eventually culminated in the Second Barons’ War, which saw Henry and Simon de Montfort, each backed by a number of barons, clash on the battlefield. After a decisive victory at the Battle of Evesham, Henry issued the Statute of Marlborough which removed most of the curtailments on his authority, whilst tightening them on nobles.
A keen patron of art and architecture, Henry spent large sums of money on royal palaces and castles, including those at Westminster, Windsor, Dover, Lincoln and The Tower of London. He was also extremely devout, regularly going on pilgrimages, attending Mass daily and giving generously to religious causes, particularly those involved in relieving poverty.
Edward I (r.1272-1307)
Nicknamed Edward Longshanks, at 6’2″, Edward was unusually tall for his time, which many considered gave him a somewhat intimidating presence. Edward initiated war with Scotland which lasted long after his death, as well as a full scale conquest of Wales following a minor rebellion.
His harsh attitudes towards these two countries has been criticised since his death, as has the fact that in 1290, he issued an Edict of Expulsion against the Jews in England at the time.
However, Edward did initiate a range of reforms to common law, particularly surrounding feudal liberties, as well as reforming aspects of royal administration.
Parliament became a permanent fixture in Edward’s reign, mainly because it was needed to grant taxes. Expensive wars meant Edward needed a lot of these grants, enabling Parliament to become a fixture in a way it had not been previously.
Edward II (r.1307-1327)
Edward II’s reign was plagued by failure. Crowned in 1307, he married Isabella of France in 1308 in an effort to end tensions between England and France.
Edward’s reliance on male favourites, most notably Piers Gaveston, proved deeply unpopular at court: nobles demanded his banishment, and Edward’s refusal to do so fully led to a complete breakdown in relations between the king and his barons.
Combined with heavy defeats in Scotland and famine, Edward quickly lost what little popularity he had. Edward’s new favourites, the Despensers, were as unpopular as Gaveston, and further exacerbated tensions as they attempted to strengthen their grip on power.
Edward’s wife Isabella began to work against him, going rogue on a diplomatic mission to France and returning with a small army in 1326, led by her lover, the exiled Roger Mortimer. Edward was forced to relinquish his crown to his young son Edward, and died shortly afterwards: he is generally believed to have been murdered.
Edward III (r.1327-77)
One of the most popular Plantagenet kings in his lifetime, Edward III reigned for fifty years, overseeing England’s transformation into a formidable military power and the development of Parliament. Crowned aged 14 following his father’s deposition, Edward began to rule personally in 1330, overthrowing and executing Mortimer.
In 1337, Edward declared himself the rightful heir to the French throne, beginning what is now known as the Hundred Years’ War. Costly and all-consuming initially, Edward and the English Army won significant victories at Crecy and Calais, as well as a major victory in Scotland (who at that time were allies of the French).
The Black Death struck shortly after that, severely reducing manpower as more men were needed for agricultural jobs back in England. The first chapter of the war was closed with the Treaty of Bretigny in 1360, where Edward renounced his claims to the throne.
Edward’s later reign is generally perceived to be full of failures: international and domestic. Parliament’s influence grew as it was needed to grant taxation so often, and royal authority began to wane. Edward also created the Order of the Garter (which still exists today), reviving chivalry at his court as a way of cementing national identity for his nobles.
Richard II (r.1377-1399)
Largely known to people through Shakespeare’s interpretation, Richard II’s deposition marked the start of one of the most turbulent periods in English history: the Wars of the Roses. Grandson of Edward III, Richard inherited the throne in 1377, aged 10, with a series of councillors to help guide him.
The Peasants’ Revolt (1381) saw Richard play a relatively major part for a boy of 14 as he met with rebels to initially agree to their demands. Although he granted clemency, he went back on his original agreements, and suppressed the rebellion relatively harshly.
Many historians consider this to have been a pivotal moment in Richard’s understanding of kingship. He believed in absolute royal authority and his own prerogative: as a result, he attempted to lessen the overall power of the aristocracy whilst maintaining a small group of favourites on whom he became dependent.
Richard’s court was lavish and he was a keen patron of the arts: both of these things needed money to maintain, and high taxes particularly after the war with France was over, made him increasingly unpopular.
1397-99 is known by many as Richard’s ‘tyranny’: Richard arrested and tried several men who he felt were a threat to his power, acting in a way which made his nobles nervous.
In 1398, he called the Parliament of Shrewsbury, which declared that no restraints could legally be put on the king. This proved too much for his nobles: when Henry Bolingbroke, Richard’s cousin, invaded England in 1399, he received a warm welcome – Richard was deposed and Henry crowned king.