Who Were the Plantagenets? A Family Tree of Medieval English Kings | History Hit

Who Were the Plantagenets? A Family Tree of Medieval English Kings

Sarah Roller

12 Jan 2021
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Ruling 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. The complex Plantagenet family tree has spawned rulers and aristocrats up to the present day. However, it is disputed as to when and where this great dynasty finds its origins.

The Angevin Empire

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.

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).

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.

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Geoffrey of Anjou is actually where the term Plantagenet derives. His nickname Plantegenest (thought to have originated from the name of the plant, 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, and historians coined the term Plantagenet from the 17th century onwards.

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.

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.

Two separate dynasties?

Some historians have disputed the idea of Henry II being a Plantagenet king in any meaningful sense of the word: instead, they prefer to see the Plantagenet dynasty beginning after the invasion of Louis VIII of France and the death of King John in 1216. The losses suffered by John (including the loss of Anjou) and the instability inherited by his son, Henry III, marked a fundamental shift in European politics and the balance of power.

king john portrait magna carta
Portrait of King John by British school, artist unknown. Image credit: National Trust / CC.

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.

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.

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Plantagenet legacies

Although Henry VII had a relatively strong claim to the throne, the Plantagenet dynasty had produced at least 16 other members who had an equally strong, if not greater claim to the throne by this point.

Throughout the first half of the 16th century, families such as the Poles, Staffords, Percys and Nevilles, all Plantagenet descendants, remained powerful and influential, and there was a certain amount of mistrust between Henry and his nobles. Marriage proved a particular sticking point as Henry was keen these families should not bolster claims to the throne through marriage.

Tags: Battle of Bosworth King John Magna Carta

Sarah Roller