If the recent identification of King Richard III, buried ignominiously in Leicester, awakens interest in the pre-Tudor British monarchy, and gives readers an appetite for understanding the armored world that led to the Wars of the Roses, culminating in Richard III’s 1485 death in battle, they must turn to Dan Jones and his rousing history, The Plantagenets. His book, a bestseller in the UK, gets stateside publication in April. He tells the story of the main line of Plantagenet kings, ending in 1399 when they split into the Houses of York and Lancaster. I caught up with the author for an email chat.
MH: Your book brings the Plantagenets vividly alive, even as you begin with a sinking ship and a drowning.
DJ: I’m delighted you liked that opening scene!
MH: So William the Aetheling, Anglo-Norman son of Henry I, drowned, thus shifting the line of succession to the English throne to the eldest son of his sister Matilda, through her second marriage to the Count of Anjou, Geoffrey Plantagenet?
DJ: Yes. Simple, right? Interestingly, Geoffrey of Anjou was the only Plantagenet to actually use that name. And I should say that the sinking of the White Ship in 1120 was the Titanic of its day—in fact, even more so, since it was a political disaster as well as a catastrophic and unnecessary loss of life. (Unlike the White Ship, the sinking of the Titanic didn’t lead to a civil war.)
MH: Your narrative is rich in story and character, in some ways old-fashioned in its biographical approach. Was that approach born out of the kind of histories that you yourself have loved reading?
DJ: Regarding style, I think that the best way to write history that will engage a wide readership is through biography and narrative. You could call it old-fashioned, but I prefer to call it timeless. History is, at its core, about people and their relationships. There are other approaches—and a whole scholarly apparatus that produces immensely valuable work and enables more mainstream historical writers like me to function. But as a vehicle for exploring the past, I think most people can understand things best when you’re writing about people and the drama of their lives. (That’s one reason why historical fiction is so much more popular than history as a genre.)
MH: Are there particular historians or biographers whose approach most influenced you?
DJ: The historians who have most influenced me—and who taught me, more to the point—are all those who have combined a rigorous scholarly approach and piercing intellect with the ability to really, really write. The Tudor historian David Starkey has been an important mentor to me and I tried to model my style on his when I started out. Helen Castor (author of She-Wolves) taught me medieval history and is one of the best historical writers of her generation. I still rely on her advice and friendship as I’m writing.
MH: I first learned about the kings and queens of England from Herbert and Eleanor Farjeon’s book of poems, Kings and Queens (there’s no equivalent for our presidents, although Richard Armour gave it a try). Looking back, what kind of reading in your youth, no matter how seemingly slight, was influential to you?
DJ: I was one of those kids that just read everything. I’d sit reading the cereal pack at breakfast. But I wasn’t a history geek per se until I was quite a bit older. I was just all about storytelling—anyone who told a gripping yarn got me going. Right now I’m reading my kids the same stuff I read when I was young—Roald Dahl, Enid Blyton, super-old-fashioned English writers like Richmal Crompton and Frank Richards, whose books I found in my own grandparents’ attics. Some of the stories feel pretty dated now, but my kids don’t seem to care.
MH: And what about these men and women, the Plantagenets, as readers? Tell us a little of how they experienced reading during the course of their days.
DJ: Literacy was a somewhat different—and certainly a rarer—skill in the Plantagenet era to now. But by the 14th century, which is the end of the period I have written about in the book, most educated people could read, and not just as a clerical or devotional activity.
MH: You write that while Henry II in the 1140s, arriving in England from Normandy, would have known little of the vulgar English tongue, by the time of Richard II’s death in 1399 that had changed.
DJ: Yes, writers like Geoffrey Chaucer, John Langland, and the Gawain poet were writing wonderful stories for a lay, literate, intelligent audience and were patronised in court circles. Books were highly important and prestigious items—expensive, beautifully illuminated, in many cases sacred texts. We’re on the cusp here of the 15th century where what I suppose you could call “popular literacy” really exploded. For rich people, anyway.
MH: Beyond the literacy, what else that most of us take for granted now was brought to us by these rulers?
DJ: I argue throughout the book that the Plantagenet era was one in which the most basic building blocks of English—and by extension, the modern, western polity—were created. The principle of executive power restrained by legislation came about after the Magna Carta was agreed. There’s a direct link between the ideas in your Bill of Rights and a few key clauses in the Magna Carta. The first English parliaments met from the 13th century. The relationships between England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, and France all started falling into place. The epic symbolism and pageantry of the British monarchy was forged—anyone who watched Elizabeth II’s Jubilee celebrations last year, or William’s marriage to Catherine Middleton the year before, will have seen a lot of spectacle with its roots in the Plantagenet era.
MH: To bring the medieval person alive to 21st-century readers, did you feel particular challenges? Did you envision a particular reader as you wrote?
DJ: There are not many more challenges in the medieval era than in writing any other era, I don’t think. You have a few more gaps in the source material. But the world is essentially familiar. It’s full of people not wildly dissimilar to your readers—as a historian you just have to figure out the best way to bridge the empathy gap while remaining as true as is possible to the facts.
What I think is important though is to understand the attention span of a reader, which is not as long as most writers imagine or would like. Very few normal people with jobs, families, love lives or television sets have time to read for much more than 20-30 minutes at a stretch. So I try to write my books in chapters that you can read in their entirety before you fall asleep at night. 3,000 to 5,000 words maximum. I used to test this out on my wife, who has only a passing interest in the Middle Ages. I’d read her each new chapter aloud at bedtime. (Who said romance was dead?) If she fell asleep, I knew the chapter was boring and needed more work.
MH: Does the author of a work such as this feel any pressure to include some revisionism, to offer some new take on an old villain or hero?
DJ: The pressure to revisionism, while one of the most basic imperatives of the historian, can also be dangerous. You can end up changing for the sake of change. Take King John—who appears early in The Plantagenets. Scholarship has swung back and forth. He was a murdering shit. No, wait, he was a great and misunderstood administrator. He was a good king but a bad man. And so on. And the truth is a combination of all those approaches. So the most misleading thing you can do is start out by saying “I need to have a new take on John.” Why? Just say “Let’s get John right here and try to understand why he acts as he does when he does—and why the consequences sometimes suck so much for him (and everyone else.)” I try to take into account the latest scholarly work on everything I write about. But I don’t feel under pressure deliberately to conform or not conform to a prevailing school of thought. I just want to get it right and make it interesting. Maybe I’m underthinking it.
MH: Now, about the discovery of Richard III’s skeleton under a Leicester car park. The episode seems to show once again how biography and personal stories are what captivate us. There’s no reason why the identification of Richard’s skeleton should change anyone’s interpretation of his life. And yet the media is presenting this discovery as if it will bring about serious re-examination of Richard. Could that really happen? What does this say about the world we live in and our approach to the past? As Sellar and Yeatman (1066 and All That) would ask, is it a Good Thing?
DJ: You’re quite right. The discovery and identification of Richard III’s skeleton has been an amazing, exciting process. Historically, it means pretty much nothing. We have confirmed some basic biographical information about Richard’s probable appearance and the nature of his death. We know he wasn’t really dug up and thrown in the River Soar during the Reformation. It was interesting how much that was written about Richard in the early Tudor period—so often dismissed as propaganda—would appear to have been correct: it seems he really did have crooked shoulders and weak limbs, even if he wasn’t the monster Shakespeare eventually made him. But in terms of the basic analysis of his reign—Richard was a loyal lieutenant who usurped the crown from his nephew and paid the price at Bosworth in 1485? The skeleton can’t alter that.
All that said, from a selfish point of view, I’m delighted about anything that gets people interested in and reading about the later Middle Ages. In fact, I’m tempted to go digging for some more skeletons right now.
MH: Would a TV mini-series called The Plantagenets be a Good Thing?
DJ: Absolutely, and let me introduce you to the concept of co-producer.
MH: If one were to pull a Hilary Mantel and produce a potentially Booker-winning triple-decker of novels from the perspective of an enigmatic courtier tangling with one of these rulers, what courtier and what ruler would you pick?
DJ: I don’t think there’s any bigger psycho-drama than Henry II’s relationship with Thomas Becket, which ended with Becket’s murder in Canterbury cathedral in 1170. It’s a truly epic story of friendship gone wrong, amid a struggle for political power, moral authority, and God’s favour. I need to call my agent and tell her all this.
MH: Sounds good! Just tell me, what are you reading these days that you recommend?
DJ: The best history book I have read for years is Wade Davis’s Into The Silence, about the expeditions to climb Everest in the early 1920s, and the experiences of the Great War which forged the climbers’ collective mentality. Brilliant research, gripping storytelling, and just the most extraordinary historical intelligence. I keep boring people at dinner parties by raving about it.
Otherwise, I’m writing my new book about the Wars of the Roses—it takes up the story where The Plantagenets leaves off. So I’m reading a ton of 15th-century material.
Fiction-wise, I am a sucker for James Ellroy. The “Underworld USA Trilogy” (American Tabloid, The Cold Six Thousand, and Blood’s A Rover) is one of my favourite pieces of historical fiction of all time. But if I read too much Ellroy I start getting all wound up and beating my chest like a gorilla, so I have to keep that under control.
Otherwise, weirdly, I find some of the most satisfying writing today is for the screen. I sacrificed 40-odd hours of book time to watch every episode of Breaking Bad. But it was worth it, yo.