The second history I’ve read by Dan Jones, and also the second of his published works, ‘The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made England’ spans the nearly three centuries of the dynasty from the reign of William the Conqueror’s great-grandson Henry II (1154-1189) to the end of this royal house at the death of Richard III (1452-1485) at the Battle of Bosworth Field.
If you can keep all the various kings Henry, Richard, and Edward straight, ‘The Plantagenets’ is a story filled with drama, intrigue, and battle, scheming and jockeying for supremacy, wedding and waging war to obtain and secure power over England and surrounding territories.
Here is Eleanor of Aquitaine, queen by turn of France and then England. When her first husband, King Louis VII of France puts her away after 15-years when she fails to produce a son, she is not content to be put away. And so she marries Henry, Duke of Normandy, the man who will become Henry II, king of England just two years later.
And here are two of the sons of Eleanor which she had by Henry II. First the legendary Richard the Lionheart (1157-1199) who fought against Saladin in the Third Crusade; second the ignominious John I (1166-1216), famous antagonist of the hero Robin Hood.
This is the period of English history which made Magna Carta necessary in 1215, and which saw the formation of what we now know of as the British Parliament. Here we see the idea form and face testing in English history that even the monarch must be subject to the laws of God.
Here also are the armies of Edward Longshanks (1239-1307) facing off against the Scots led by William Wallace, concluding with the arrest and public execution of that man, and the reassertion of Scottish independence under Robert I (1274-1329), known also as “the Bruce.”
So also, here is the back and forth of fighting, sometimes alongside, sometimes against, the kings of France across the English Channel.
This is the period of the Crusades, with Knights Templar – which Jones deals with in another work focused entirely on their order, the first work of his I read a few months ago – and the Plantagenets rule in England during the rise and fall of this order borne to fight and facilitate the transfer of men, materials, money, and information to and from the kingdoms of Europe in campaigns against the armies of Islam in their long and sordid contest for the Holy Land.
So also, this is the time of the Black Death and struggles between Rome and the kings of Europe for who should wield ultimate authority in matters both ecclesiastical and civil.
This then is the setup for the showdown which happened during the reign of the second king in the Tudor line which immediately followed the House of Plantagenet, with Henry VIII (1491-1547) breaking away the Church of England from the Roman Catholic Church in 1534.
That is to say that the 269-years in which the House of Plantagenet ruled and reigned – longer, it should be noted, than the 246-years in which this American Republic has now stood – should be seen as the prologue for the wars of religion and debates about separation of powers which themselves culminated in the American Revolution and the founding of the United States of America in 1776 out of thirteen British colonies which held that their king had broken faith and was trampling on their rights as Englishmen.
With the history of both Plantagenet and Tudor monarchs still fresh and doubtless in mind, Scottish minister and theologian Samuel Rutherford wrote ‘Lex Rex’ in 1644 asserting in no uncertain terms that even the king must be subject to the Natural Law, or God’s Law. What is more, if or when the king failed and refused to be so subject, it was not only the right of his Christian subjects, but even their responsibility and duty to provide accountability up to and including unmaking him king over them, just as kings of Israel are said to have been made by the assembled people of that nation.
It is easy to see in reading Dan Jones’ work here how the stream of thought ran its course that the king cannot just declare traitor anyone who seeks to provide accountability to him. He cannot just seize their lands arbitrarily and dispose of them and their wives and children however suits his imagination. No, there must be both a separation of powers and a system of checks and balances.
In sum, ‘The Plantagenets’ serves as a surprisingly relevant work for understanding how we got to where we are now, helping us to appreciate the broader historical, political, and theological context into which calls for a separation of powers arose.
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