The Devil’s Brood

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.

Coronation of King Henry III, British Library

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.

King Richard I

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).


Books on the Subject Written my Matt:

England’s Only Half-Spanish King: Edward II

by Expert Contributor, Kathryn Warner

Edward II ruled as king of England from July 1307 to January 1327, and is remembered as one of the country’s most unsuccessful – if not the most unsuccessful – kings in history. He was the first to be forced to abdicate his throne, and the nineteen and a half years of his reign saw endless conflict with his own barons, military defeats, excessive reliance on a parade of male ‘favourites’, and much else. Yet his turbulent reign is a fascinating one, and Edward himself was a fascinating, albeit deeply flawed, individual.

Half figure of Edward facing left with short, curly hair and a hint of beard. He wears a coronet and holds a sceptre in his right hand. He has a blue robe over a red tunic, and his hands are covered by white, embroidered gloves. His left hand seems to be pointing left, to something outside the picture. Erected at Westminster Abbey sometime during reign of Edward I, thought to be an image of the King.

Edward was born on 25 April 1284 in Caernarfon, North Wales, where his father had recently begun to build a great castle which still stands today. In 1284 it was, however, in the very early stages of construction, so Edward was perhaps born in a temporary timber building in the middle of a construction site. His father was Edward I, almost forty-five years old in April 1284 and king of England since the death of his father Henry III in November 1272, and his mother Leonor or Eleanor of Castile was forty-two, born perhaps in Valladolid in central Spain in November 1241. Rather astonishingly, Edward of Caernarfon was the youngest of his parents’ fourteen, perhaps even as many as sixteen, children. He had at least ten older sisters, of whom five lived into adulthood, and three older brothers, who all died in childhood: John (1266-71), Henry (1268-74) and Alfonso of Bayonne (1273-84). Edward was not born as the heir to his father’s throne, as his ten-year-old brother Alfonso – named after his uncle and godfather Alfonso X of Castile – was still alive in April 1284. Alfonso, however, died in August 1284, whereupon four-month-old Edward of Caernarfon became heir to their father’s throne. Unlike his three older brothers, Edward was a sturdy, healthy child, and he grew up to become an enormously strong, fit, tall, and physically powerful man.

Edward II shown receiving the English crown in a contemporary illustration
provided by the British Library  (Public Doman)

Edward’s royal ancestry was impeccable: he was crowned king of England at age twenty-three, and was the son of a king and the grandson of two more kings. His paternal grandfather was Henry III, born in 1209, king of England from 1216 to 1272, the fourth longest-reigning king in English history after Elizabeth II, Victoria and George III. His maternal grandfather was Fernando III, king of Castile and Leon, born in 1201 and ruler of two of the four kingdoms of medieval Spain. Fernando III conquered much of the territory of al-Andalus, or Muslim Spain, between the 1220s and the 1240s, including the great city of Seville, Cordoba and Jaen. He died in Seville in May 1252, when his daughter Leonor, the twelfth of his fifteen children. was ten years old. She married Lord Edward, heir to the English throne, in Burgos, northern Spain, two and a half years later. Fernando was later canonised as a saint of the Catholic Church, and is now the patron saint of the city of Seville, where he and many members of his family are buried in the cathedral.

It is a little-known fact that Edward II, that most disastrous of English kings, was the grandson of a Spanish saint, and in fact he was the first of only two half-Spanish monarchs in English history: the second was Queen Mary I, born in 1516 as the child of Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon. Eleanor of Castile was not the first Spanish queen of England, as her husband’s great-uncle Richard Lionheart (reigned 1189 to 1199) married Berengaria of Navarre in 1191, but the couple had no children, and Berengaria never set foot in England, or least not while she was its queen. Edward II’s great-grandson Henry IV (reigned 1399 to 1413) married Juana of Navarre in 1403, but she was his second wife and was not the mother of his children.

Unfortunately, it is impossible to say for sure what Edward II knew about his Spanish heritage, as his mother the queen died when he was only six years old in November 1290. Rather curiously, he inherited a county in northern France from his mother after her death. Queen Eleanor, though herself Spanish, had a French mother: Jeanne de Dammartin (c. 1220-79), queen-consort of Castile and Leon, and also countess of Ponthieu in her own right as her inheritance from her parents. Jeanne’s maternal grandmother Alix, countess of the Vexin, daughter of Louis VII of France, had been betrothed to Richard Lionheart of England for many years, and married William Talvas, the young count of Ponthieu, after Richard refused to marry her. Alix and William’s daughter Marie was the mother of Jeanne, queen of Castile, who passed on her county of Ponthieu to her daughter Eleanor, queen of England, who in turn passed it on to her youngest and only surviving son, Edward II.

Edward thus became count of Ponthieu at the age of six, and it was the first of his many titles. I’ll examine further aspects of his life, family and reign in future articles for History Lair. 

Expert Contributor/Kathryn Warner

Kathryn Warner holds two degrees in medieval history from the University of Manchester, and is a historian of the fourteenth century, specializing in the reign of Edward II. She has appeared in TV documentaries, has given a paper at the International Medieval Congress, and often gives talks about Edward to conferences, symposiums and history societies.


Books on the subject by Kathryn Warner:

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