Cry God for Harry - and the Kings Who Forged a Nation; to Mark the Start of the Brilliant Chalke Valley History Festival, a Leading Historian Salutes the Plantagenets, Who over 200 Tumultuous Years Became Our Greatest Royal Dynasty

Article excerpt

Byline: by Dan Jones

England's greatest Royal dynasty, The Plantagenets, ruled through eight generations of kings. During their remarkable reign, England emerged from the Dark Ages to become a highly organised kingdom that spanned a vast expanse of Europe. This was one of the most exciting, compelling periods in the Middle Ages, during which some of the greatest episodes in our history took place.

The Plantagenets helped define England as a nation and as a people, but these kings did not just invent England as a political, administrative and military entity. They also helped invent the idea of England - an idea that has as much importance today as ever before.

Plantagenet kings ruled for more than two centuries, beginning with Henry II in 1154, and ending with Richard II, who was relieved of the crown by his cousin, Henry Boling-broke, in 1399. By 1400, Bolingbroke, crowned Henry IV, was not just the most powerful man in the land, but his awesome rights were matched by awesome responsibilities in a complex constitutional contract with the various estates of the realm.

Whereas Norman and Saxon kings occasionally granted their subjects limited liberties, the Plantagenet years saw the growth of a highly refined political philosophy that defined the king's duties to his realm and vice--versa, and a huge body of common law that governed the land. The king was still the source of universal authority, but his power underpinned a sophisticated system of justice and law--giving.

The symbolism of kingship, too, had evolved. The country now had two national saints: St Edward the Confessor and St George. Together, they exemplified the two faces of Plantagenet kingship - a pious, anointed, sanctified king, and a warrior with God on his side.

St George, in particular, would become emblematic of English military glory. 'Cry "God for Harry, England and St George",' wrote Shakespeare, looking back on the reign of Henry V and the zenith of English fortune in the Hundred Years War.

The cult of St George finally enthused England with the cause of war across the Channel and the legacies of each of the Plantagenet kings depended largely on their success in battle.

Edward III learned much about the art of war from his humiliating defeat against the Scots at Stanhope Park in 1327. He gained revenge at Halidon Hill in 1333, and thereafter an English array on a battlefield became one of the most terrifying sights imaginable.

Military innovations that developed in Edward III's reign - his use of dismounted men-a-arms to fight at close range, and mounted archers to disrupt cavalry charges and rain sharp death upon infantry - would earn him some of English history's most famous battlefield victories.

The Hundred Years War gave England a sense of military parity with France and the names of Crecy and Poitiers still ring through the ages.

The revolution in military tactics would later be crowned by Henry V's astonishing victory at Agincourt in 1415, where the image of the indomitable English archer was cemented. The importance of these fearsome bowmen in the development of English myth, lore and legend is impossible to overstate. Stories of archers riding into battle beneath the cross of St George, and of kings of England fighting hand-to-hand with the French on enemy soil, have been romanticised by generations. …