Rulers of Medieval England: The Rise of the Plantagenet Dynasty

History Hit

4 mins

21 May 2019

Having ruled for approximately 300 years, the Plantagenet Dynasty is today recognised as one of the most powerful and influential royal houses in all of British history. However, it is disputed as to when this great dynasty finds its origins.

Henry II is widely regarded as the first Plantagenet King of England. Despite this, Henry would himself have instead identified with the House of Anjou. The Angevin Kings of England (Henry and his sons), for the most part did not even reside in the country, but in France instead. However, this is not in reality as confusing as it may first seem.

The Armorial of Plantagenet.

‘The Angevin Empire’

During the 11th and 12th centuries, there were a series of power struggles amongst noblemen in France. One of these noblemen, Geoffrey of Anjou, diverged to marry Empress Matilda, the last remaining heir of King Henry I of England (following his son, William Adelin’s untimely death in the sinking of the White Ship).

The Sinking of the White Ship (Joseph Martin Kronheim, 1868).

When Henry I died, and Matilda and Geoffrey were away in Anjou, Henry’s cousin Stephen took the opportunity to seize the English throne.  Stephen’s contested accession initiated widespread civil unrest, commonly known as ‘The Anarchy.’ This period was eventually concluded with the Treaty of Wallingford in 1153.

Geoffrey of Anjou is actually where the term Plantagenet derives. His nickname Plantegenest (thought to have originated from the common broom – planta genista in medieval latin) was later adopted by Richard III, in an attempt to promote his lineage back to the Count of Anjou.

His nickname would survive him for centuries to come, Geoffrey himself dying in 1151.

The Treaty of Wallingford allowed Stephen to live out the rest of his life as king, however, he was made to name the son of Geoffrey and Matilda, Henry, as his heir. Only a year later, having also recently married Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henry acceeded to the English throne in 1154.

Henry II’s reign was plagued by familial conflict. Despite a tempestuous marriage, Henry and Eleanor would have eight children, two of which would go on to become kings often thought more notable than their father: Richard the Lionheart and King John.

Richard the Lionheart was the brother of King John.

The Angevin Kings would rule what has commonly become known as the ‘Angevin Empire’. This empire would include England, in addition to vast swathes of land in France at its peak. Despite this, there was never a formally recognised and unified Angevin state. Territories would retain their own laws and traditions, so its very existence is contested.

Rule of England

Whilst Richard the Lionheart is remembered by history for his reputation as a great military leader and warrior, King John’s legacy is less favourable. Perhaps best remembered for the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215, John remained a widely disliked character amongst his barons, eventually culminating in the First Barons’ War (1215-1217).

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As well as widespread disdain domestically, King John faced a threat from abroad as well. Namely, Louis VIII of France. During this period, King John lost the Plantagenet claim to Anjou and came close to losing much of England itself. Despite this, the Plantagenet dynasty retained control.

As much as there can be in Medieval England, the accession of Henry III marked a period of relative stability. From 1216 to 1377, Henry III and his direct descendants ruled the country. This all changed however, in 1399, when Richard II was deposed by his cousin, Henry of Bolingbrooke.

Wars of the Roses

Henry of Bolingbrooke (Henry IV) was the first royal representative of the House of Lancaster. Despite the argument that this marks the end of the Plantagenet dynasty, both houses of Lancaster and York were in fact cadet branches of the House Plantagenet.

In comparison to the years before, 15th century England is often characterised by the conflict between the rival houses of Lancaster and York, commonly referred to as The Wars of the Roses.

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The House of Lancaster had suffered a bit of a fall from grace following the madness of King Henry VI (Henry of Bolingbrooke’s grandson). The last hope for supporters of the House of Lancaster found itself in Henry Tudor. Despite being the son of a Welsh courtier, his lineage traced back (if not perhaps illegitimately) to Edward III.

The Wars of the Roses culminated in the Battle of Bosworth Field of 1485, in which Henry VII defeated Richard III of York (the last of the Plantagenet dynasty, yet the first to actually adopt the name). When Henry VII went on to marry Elizabeth of York, uniting the two houses, the Wars of the Roses finally came to an end.

The conclusion of this conflict would also see the final conclusion of the Plantagenet dynasty. Following on from them, the Tudors would go on to become one of the most famous royal families (at least in part due to Henry’s son of the same name, Henry VIII) in English history.