Written by Matthew Lewis
The Plantagenet dynasty remains England and Britain’s longest reigning royal house, providing kings of England from Henry II’s accession in 1154 until Richard III’s death at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. Its beginnings were less than auspicious, though, and the dynasty that began with the Henry II, first Angevin King of England, might well have come crashing down in the next generation. Henry famously had problems with his four sons as they all jostled impatiently for power and prestige, desperate to carve up their father’s vast empire while he still lived.
Two of Henry’s son, Henry the Young King and Geoffrey, died before their father and the other two, Richard and John, would go on to become kings. Both were in open rebellion against their father when he died, their actions driving him into the grave aged 56. Gerald of Wales, a courtier to Henry II who also lived through the reigns of Richard and John, was fond of stories about the early Plantagenets and their furious bickering. He relates one story about a mural Henry II had painted to offer a depiction of his struggles.
But it happened that there was a chamber at Winchester beautiful with various painted figures and colours, and a certain place in it which was left clear by the royal command, where a little time after the king ordered an eagle to be painted, and four young ones of the eagle sitting upon it, two upon the two wings, and a third upon the middle of the body, the fourth, not less than the others, sitting upon the neck, and more keenly watching there to peck out the eyes of its parent. But being asked by those who were on intimate terms with him what this picture might mean, he said, “The four young ones of the eagle are my four sons, who will not cease to persecute me even unto death. The younger of them, whom I even now embrace with such tender affection, will sometime at the last insult me more grievously and more dangerously than all the others.”1
Gerald had a story about the ancient origins of the counts of Anjou that also helped explain the catastrophic infighting that almost doomed the Plantagenet dynasty. There was once a Count of Anjou who seemed to have everything. His beautiful wife had provided him with four sons to secure his dynasty. As time went by, one thing began to bother the count. What began as a curiosity soon became a source of apprehension, particularly because his men began to gossip about it too. Everyone had noticed that each Sunday, the countess would stand and leave the church just before the elevation of the host.
The more the count thought about it, the more he realised that his wife was never keen to attend church, and that her devotions were, well, lacklustre. However hard he set his mind to trying to remember, the count could never recall how, or when, or where he had met his wife. It was as though he was blinded by her beauty. As his own curiosity deepened, and the voices of his men became louder and louder, mirroring his own concerns, the count decided that he had to act. The very next Sunday, the couple attended church, but when the countess rose to leave at the moment she always did, she found four of her husband’s men blocking her way. When they told her she would not be permitted to leave until the service was completed, she threw off her robe. Pushing her two oldest sons away, she grabbed the younger two and to the astonishment of all within the church, she flew up into the air. As fear gripped the congregation, the countess, revealed to be a demon, flew out of a high window. Neither she nor her two younger sons were ever seen again.
This was Gerald’s explanation of the volatile, self-destructive nature of the first two generations of what became known as the Plantagenet family. The name given to the dynasty is believed to derive from the Latin name for the sprig of broom plant often worn as a badge by Henry’s father Geoffrey, Count of Anjou. The Latin planta genista became Plantagenet, though the first known use of this name didn’t come until 1460 when Richard, Duke of York used it during his written claim to the throne occupied by Henry VI. It is from this story, this piece of foundation mythology, that the family derived the nickname of the Devil’s Brood. Gerald was adamant that it was tale King Richard I, Henry II’s son, was keen to tell whenever the opportunity presented itself. Gerald claimed that:
Moreover, king Richard was often accustomed to refer to this event; saying that it was no matter of wonder, if coming from such a race, sons should not cease to harass their parents, and brothers to quarrel amongst each other; for he knew that they all had come of the devil, and to the devil they would go. When, therefore, the root was in every way so corrupt, how was it possible that the branches from such a stock could be prosperous or virtuous?
Clerical chroniclers were always keen to find a religious explanation for events that unfolded in the world. Anything they could not explain, and much that they could, was the direct intervention of God, or the work of the devil that demanded punishment from the Lord. In this way, they consoled themselves that it was all part of a plan and that it would all end up precisely as God intended. Henry II was a descendant of this demon countess, and so his blood, and that of his sons, was tainted and doomed. The problem is that this story was a structure, a morality tale. It was applied to the troublesome Lusignan family too and in various guises to other noble families with bothersome members whose attitude needed to be explained.
It is interesting that Richard I was aware enough of his own part in the squabbles that tore his family apart and cost his father his life to embrace the fairy tale of his own demonic ancestry. Perhaps he saw the martial benefit of letting his enemies believe he was something unearthly and terrifying. Or maybe he felt some guilt for his part in hounding his own father into the grave. The Plantagenets would rule England for 331 years in total, but they could easily have been no more than a blip in a nation’s history.
Expert Contributor/Matthew Lewis
Matt is a writer and historian of the medieval period with a particular focus on the Wars of the Roses and Richard III. Matt is the author of several non-fiction books and biographies as well as two historical fiction novels. He operates a blog and can often be found on Twitter (@MattLewisAuthor), Facebook (MattLewisAuthor), Instagram (@MattLewisHistory) and YouTube (Matt Lewis).
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