26. The Powerful Saxon Lord Who Made and Unmade Kings
For much of the first half of the eleventh century, England was dominated by Godwin of Wessex (1001 – 1053), a nobleman who established the last Saxon dynasty. Although an Anglo Saxon, Godwin won the favor of the Danish King Canute after the latter conquered England in 1016, and the new monarch made him Earl of Wessex in 1018. When Canute perished in 1035, his demise triggered a succession crisis. His son Harold Harefoot fought for the English throne against Alfred the Aethling, son of Canute’s predecessor, Ethelred the Unready. Godwin launched a kingmaker career, and made his first king by securing the throne for Harold.
To accomplish that, Godwin feigned loyalty to Alfred, and lured him to London, where he was seized in an ambush. Alfred was then blinded and passed in captivity soon thereafter. However, Harold passed in 1040, and his heir was his half-brother Harthacanut, king of Denmark. That was awkward for Godwin, because Harthacanut also happened to be half-brother of that same Alfred whom Godwin had betrayed. The Earl of Wessex managed to worm his way out of Harthacanut’s vengeance by claiming to have acted under Harold’s orders. Between Godwin’s protestations, his lavish gifts, and offers to smooth his path to the English throne, Harthacanut let the Earl of Wessex off the hook. He limited his revenge to digging up and beheading Harold’s corpse.
25. The Man Who Restored a Saxon Dynasty After Decades of Scandinavian Rule
The passing of Harthacnut in 1042 triggered yet another succession crisis. This one was between King Magnus the Good of Norway, and Edward the Confessor, Alfred’s brother and the last surviving son of Aethelred the Unready. Godwin played kingmaker once more, and secured the throne for Edward. That restored to England the royal Dynasty of Wessex and Saxon rule, after decades of Danish domination. Godwin became the most powerful nobleman in the court of Edward the Confessor. However, kingmaker and king fell out in 1051, over Edward’s increasing reliance on Norman advisors – the king had grown up in Normandy.
Godwin was stripped of his earldom and banished, but he returned with an army, raised a rebellion, and set Edward the Confessor right. The king was forced to restore Godwin’s earldom, and the kingmaker became the most powerful man in the kingdom, until his sudden demise in 1053. His son Harold Godwinson succeeded him as England’s most powerful figure, and was crowned king after Edward’s end in 1066. He reigned until his defeat by William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings later that year.
Augustus once remarked on how Herod the Great of Judea (74 BC – circa 1 AD) treated his offspring, with the quip: “I would rather be Herod’s pig than his son“. The Roman client king and founder of the Herodian Dynasty that lasted until 92 AD built some massive projects, such as the Second Temple in Jerusalem, and the fortress of Masada. However, he is best known from the Christian Gospels as the king who ordered the Massacre of the Innocents when Jesus was born. His reign had started off well, but as it progressed, Herod grew paranoid about plots against him, some real, others imaginary. Those around Herod manipulated his fears, and he often lashed out violently. The victims of his wrath included members of his own family.
Herod was born to an Edomite father, from a people who had been forcibly converted to Judaism only a generation or two before Herod’s birth. However, he was raised as a nominal Jew, and he married into the ruling Jewish Hasmonean Dynasty, tying the knot with Princess Mariamne, one of the last Hasmonean heirs. He then disposed of her relatives to remove contenders for the throne of Judea, and got the Romans to make him king of the Jews. Understandably, that gave Mariamne plenty of cause to resent her husband. As seen below, that did not turn out well for Mariamne. It also did not turn out well for two of her sons with Herod, Alexander and Aristobulus, who resented their father’s treatment of their mother.
Mariamne was a stunning beauty, and Herod was crazy about her – but not in a good way. On the one hand, he was passionately in love with her. On the other hand, he was also crazy jealous. While Herod loved Mariamne, she did not feel the same. It was probably understandable since Herod had eliminated her brother and uncle. Also, Herod’s father had ended Mariamne’s father, then embalmed him in a tub of honey. Nonetheless, Herod had five children with her – two girls and three boys.
Herod might have been crazy in love with Mariamne, but considering how many of her relatives Herod had disposed of, she could not bring herself to love him back. Eventually, after she gave birth to their fifth child, Mariamne stopped having intimate relations with him. That fueled his suspicions that she was cheating on him. Herod’s mother and sister fanned those suspicions and added to the accusations that Mariamne planned to poison him. Eventually, Herod ordered Mariamne executed in 29 BC. That was bad enough, but things soon went from bad to grotesque.
22. To Say That The Founder of This Dynasty Had a Messed Up Family Life Would be to Understate Things
Although he had ordered Mariamne’s execution, Herod exhibited intense grief for her passing. He often broke into uncontrollable fits of sobbing, went into a deep depression, and was unable to let her go. That is, he was literally unable to let her go. According to the Talmud, Herod had his dead wife’s body preserved in honey, and he continued to make love to the corpse for seven whole years. The Talmud described it as Herod “fulfilling his animalistic desires” with the cadaver. It wasn’t just icky, but also sticky: Herod had supposedly preserved Mariamne’s corpse with honey.
Understandably, Herod’s children by Mariamne resented the fact that he had ordered their mother to be put down, or that he had continued to get it on with her corpse. So they grew up with a fractious relationship with their father. Two, in particular, Alexander and Aristobulus, did a poor job of hiding their resentment of Herod. That led him to suspect them of plotting against him to avenge their mother. So Herod imprisoned Alexander in 10 BC, and three years later, had him and his brother Aristobulus charged with treason. Both were convicted, and Herod ordered his sons strangled in 7 BC, giving rise to Augustus’ quip that it was better to be Herod’s pig than his son.
Few ruling families have been as dysfunctional, perverse, or given to more intra-familial crime, than the Ptolemaic Dynasty, which ruled Egypt from 323 to 30 BC. All fifteen kings were named Ptolemy, numbered I through XV, and of the Ptolemaic queens, there were seven Cleopatras, and four Berenices. The family had a tradition of interfamily marriages, mostly with brothers marrying sisters, with the occasional uncle-niece and nephew-aunt weddings. There was also at least one possible mother-son marriage, thrown into the mix. In addition to marrying their close relatives, they were also into eliminating each other. The dynasty’s history abounds with Ptolemies ending their brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, nieces, nephews, and even mothers.
The dynasty was founded by Ptolemy I Soter, Greek for “Ptolemy the Savior” (367 – 282 BC), a Macedonian general and close companion of Alexander the Great. After Alexander’s demise, Ptolemy was one of three Diadochi, or successors, who carved up Alexander’s empire amongst themselves. Ptolemy took Egypt as his share. There, he founded the Ptolemaic Dynasty, which ruled Egypt for three centuries, until Queen Cleopatra VII’s demise and the annexation of Egypt to the Roman Empire in 30 BC. Ptolemy was born out of wedlock to a concubine presented by a nobleman to King Phillip II of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great. Ptolemy’s father is unknown, and some ancient sources claim that his mother was already pregnant when she was gifted to Phillip II. Others assert that it was Phillip who impregnated her – which would make Ptolemy the biological half-brother of Alexander the Great.
20. The Founder of this Dynasty Hijacked Alexander the Great’s Corpse
Alexander the Great met his end unexpectedly in Babylon, in 323 BC, and there was no clear successor who could take over his massive empire. So his chief generals began to jockey for slices of the dead conqueror’s power and territory, and each vied to carve out his own realm and found his own dynasty. In the resultant struggle, the deceased monarch’s mortal remains became valuable chips in a deadly power game. Alexander might have shuffled off the mortal coil, but in the political context of the time, his corpse was a valuable item. Burying a king was a royal prerogative, so possession of King Alexander’s body symbolized legitimacy.
As a result, the corpse stayed in Babylon for over a year, while people figured out what to do with it. Alexander, who came to believe that he was the son of the god Ammon, had wanted to be buried in the Temple of Zeus-Ammon in the Egyptian desert. That was unacceptable to Alexander’s generals, who eventually decided to send his body to the traditional royal burial ground in Macedon. The corpse was placed in a giant coffin, that was placed in a ginormous funerary carriage and sent on a stately procession from Babylon to Macedon. However, Alexander never made it back home: his corpse got hijacked along the way.
19. The Great Conqueror’s Corpse Was Vitally Important for the Prestige of the Ptolemaic Dynasty
Alexander the Great’s key lieutenants had worked out a preliminary rough division of his empire amongst themselves by the time the great conqueror’s corpse began its journey back home. One of them, Ptolemy, ended up with Egypt as his share. He decided that the prestige of his new realm and dynasty would be greatly enhanced if it hosted the body of Alexander. Specifically in the city of Alexandria, founded by and named after the great conqueror. So Ptolemy set out to hijack the great conqueror’s corpse. In 321 BC, he intercepted Alexander’s funerary procession, seized the body, and took it back to Egypt.
Ptolemy and his Ptolemaic Dynasty successors built and maintained an impressive mausoleum for Alexander in Alexandria. It became one of the city’s biggest attractions. Over the centuries, powerful figures such as Julius Caesar, Augustus, and other Roman emperors, stopped by to pay their respects. Augustus accidentally broke Alexander’s nose, while other emperors pilfered mementos from the coffin. Over time, however, interest in the mausoleum waned. In 400 AD, a visitor noted that the Alexandrines did not know where Alexander’s tomb was. In the centuries since, there were scattered reports by visitors who claimed to have seen Alexander’s tomb, but without enough specificity to allow archaeologists to pinpoint a location. As of 2022, Alexander the Great’s final resting place is one of history’s unsolved mysteries.
18. This Dynasty Got Started on a Tradition of Inter-Family Relations Early On
Ptolemy I, the first ruler and founder of the Ptolemaic Dynasty, was a capable general. He had learned from and served under one of history’s greatest military geniuses, Alexander the Great. His son and successor, Ptolemy II (308 – 246 BC), did not inherit his father’s military chops. He opted instead for peaceful and cultural pursuits, patronized scientific research, and expanded the Great Library of Alexandria. In his reign, the Ptolemaic court in Alexandria reached a height of splendor that would not be seen again.
Another distinction of the second Ptolemy is that he was nicknamed Phialdelphos (“lover of his sister”). It was because he took sibling affection to lengths hitherto alien to Greeks and Macedonians, but common among Egyptian royals. He had initially been married to Arsinoe, the daughter of King Lysimachus of Thrace – who was also married to Ptolemy II’s sister Arsinoe II, which made Lysimachus his father-in-law as well as brother-in-law. After Lysimachus’ demise, Ptolemy II got rid of the Thracian king’s daughter, Arsinoe, and married his own sister, the widowed Arsinoe II, and kicked off a tradition of Ptolemaic inbreeding that lasted for centuries, until the dynasty finally fell.
17. The First of the Ptolemaic Dynasty to Dispose of His Own Mother
The rot and track record of depravity that became hallmarks of the Ptolemaic Dynasty began when Ptolemy II married his own sister. The introduction of that tradition of marrying within the family into the dynasty had long-lasting consequences. It ultimately produced a long line of unfit rulers, and transformed the Ptolemies into objects of ridicule among Hellenistic and Roman contemporaries. People in the family marrying each other was arguably eclipsed, however, by Ptolemy IV (244 – 204 BC, reigned 221 – 204 BC), who added intra-familial crime to the Ptolemaic dynasty’s repertoire, when he eliminated his own mother, Berenice II.
Ptolemy IV ascended the throne as co-ruler, alongside his mother. She was a formidable woman, who had once stemmed a battlefield rout when she mounted a horse, rallied her side’s surviving troops, and led them in a countercharge that seized victory from the jaws of defeat. Feeling intimidated and wanting to rule alone, Ptolemy IV inaugurated his reign by eliminating his mother. Despite that act of ruthlessness, he was a weak-willed ruler who was dominated by his mistress and court favorites, and an airhead who devoted himself to religious rituals. While Ptolemy IV devoted himself to fluff, Egypt was wracked by serious rebellions, that took decades to suppress. He also married his own sister, Arsinoe III, who gave birth to his heir, Ptolemy V.
When Ptolemy IV passed in 204 BC, his son and heir, Ptolemy V (210 – 181 BC), was too young to rule in his own right. Power was thus supposed to go to the child king’s mother/ aunt, Arsinoe III, who was to rule as regent. However, that arrangement went awry when some of the former king’s courtiers, who had gotten used to dominating the weak-willed Ptolemy IV. They feared that they would lose their influence, and perhaps their lives, if Arsinoe assumed power. So they beat her to the punch, offed her, and took the regency for themselves.
The new regents were themselves eliminated soon thereafter, one of them lynched on the street by an Alexandrian mob. In the aftermath, the Kingdom of Egypt grew increasingly unstable. The other Hellenistic kingdoms took advantage of the chaos along the Nile, and the Seleucids and Macedonians made a pact to divvy up the Ptolemaic Kingdom. The dynasty would have come to an inglorious end, if not for the intervention of a rising power from the other side of the Mediterranean: Rome.
15. With the Ptolemaic Dynasty in Disarray, Neighbors Were Quick to Take Advantage
With Egypt in disarray and ruled by the child King Ptolemy V, neighbors took notice and decided to exploit the situation. Kings Philip V of Macedon and Antiochus III the Great of Seleucia entered into an agreement to seize and divide amongst themselves the Ptolemaic Kingdom’s possessions. Accordingly, Philip V took the Egyptian kingdom’s holdings in Thrace and Asia Minor, while Antiochus the Great plucked Judea and Coele-Syria – a region stretching northeast from Lebanon, through Syria, to the Euphrates River.
Things got worse for the Ptolemies when Ptolemy V was succeeded in 181 BC by his son, Ptolemy VI (186 – 145 BC). He was another child ruler who reigned as a figurehead, while power was exercised by courtiers. When the new monarch’s regents demanded the return of Coele-Syria in 170 BC, the Seleucid King Antiochus IV beat them to the punch. He launched a preemptive strike, with a lightning invasion of Egypt in 169 BC. The Egyptians were routed, and Antiochus IV captured Alexandria, and seized Ptolemy VI, whom he allowed to remain on the throne as a puppet ruler.
14. It Took the Romans to Save the Ptolemaic Dynasty From an Early Collapse
As the power of the Ptolemaic Dynasty declined in the Eastern Mediterranean, that of the Roman Republic rose in the Western Mediterranean and the Aegean. Rome would ultimately gobble up Egypt and extinguish the Ptolemaic Kingdom, but in the second century BC, Rome came to Egypt’s rescue in a big way, and saved the Ptolemies from the depredations of Antiochus IV. In 168 BC, the Seleucid king launched a second invasion of Egypt, that once again routed the Egyptians. Antiochus’ invasion was stopped in its tracks by a single Roman envoy, Gaius Popillius Laenas, who met the invading army a few miles out of Alexandria.
Laenas told Antiochus that the Roman Senate demanded that he abort his attack, and return to his kingdom. When Antiochus played for time and sought to consult his advisers, Laenas used a stick to draw a circle in the sand around the Seleucid monarch, and told him not to step out of it until he gave an answer. By then, Rome had routed the Carthaginians, the Macedonians, overran Greece, and was running rampant all over the Mediterranean. Antiochus IV decided that discretion was the better part of valor, and immediately turned his army around and marched out of Egypt. The Ptolemaic Dynasty was saved, but from then on, the Ptolemies would continue on as Rome’s client kings and puppets.
13. A Brother Who Married His Sister, and Eliminated Her Son During the Wedding Feast
The Seleucid invasions of Egypt and resultant political and diplomatic machinations further added to the chaos that engulfed the Ptolemaic Dynasty and its realm. When Antiochus IV captured Alexandria and made Ptolemy VI his puppet, the people of Alexandria rioted, and chose the puppet king’s obese younger brother, Ptolemy VIII Physcon, or Ptolemy Potbelly, (182 – 116 BC) as monarch. After the Seleucids were forced out of Egypt by Roman threats, Ptolemy Potbelly agreed to a three-way joint rule with his brother Ptolemy VI, and their sister Cleopatra II, who was also Ptolemy VI’s wife.
It was an unstable arrangement, that lent itself to intrigues, conspiracies, and betrayals, and further destabilized Egypt. Ptolemy Potbelly was not in Egypt when Ptolemy VI perished in 145. Their sister Cleopatra II, the deceased king’s wife, promptly declared her son, Ptolemy VII, as king. When Potbelly returned, he convinced his widowed sister to marry him, instead, and the sibling spouses would rule jointly. He double-crossed his sister/ new wife, and her son, Ptolemy VII, ended during the wedding feast. He also reneged on his promise to rule jointly with his sister-wife and declared himself sole ruler.
Unsurprisingly, Queen Cleopatra II was hopping mad that her husband-brother, King Ptolemy Potbelly, had taken her son and reneged on his promise to share the rule with her. Then Potbelly made things worse when he seduced and married Cleopatra II’s daughter, Cleopatra III. She was his stepdaughter, as well as double niece, being the daughter of both his sister and his deceased brother, Ptolemy VI. To add insult to injury, Potbelly did not bother to divorce Cleopatra II before he married her daughter.
In retaliation, Cleopatra II engineered a revolt in Alexandria, that forced her brother/ husband/ son-in-law, and his stepdaughter/ niece/ wife, to flee the city in 132 BC. The resultant civil dispute pitted Cleopatra II, supported by the city of Alexandria, against her daughter and Ptolemy Potbelly, who was backed by the rest of Egypt. When things turned against Cleopatra II, she offered her throne to the neighboring Seleucids, but their armies were unable to rescue her, and she was forced to flee to Syria in 127 BC. Chaos reigned in Egypt, until Rome intervened once again, in 116 BC, to restore order.
11. Mothers Aren’t Supposed to Have Favorite Children, but This Mother Surely Did
Ptolemaic family intrigues complicated the reign of Ptolemy IX Soter II, nicknamed Lathyros (“Chickpea”). By then, marrying siblings was an established family tradition in the Ptolemaic dynasty, and this Ptolemy married his sister Cleopatra IV sometime before he became king. When his father, Ptolemy VIII Potbelly passed in 116 BC, his mother and the reigning queen, Cleopatra III, made him co-regent. However, it seems that Ptolemy IX had not been her favorite son, and that she had been forced to choose him because of public pressure from the citizens of Alexandria. She worked out some of that resentment by forcing Ptolemy IX in 115 BC to divorce his sister-wife Cleopatra IV, and replace her with her own sister, Ptolemy IX’s aunt, Cleopatra Selene I.
Ptolemy IX’s sister and ex-wife fled Egypt to the neighboring Hellenistic Seleucid kingdom, where she married King Antiochus IX and became queen consort in 114 BC. Her reign proved brief, however, as her husband was defeated and deposed by a half-brother. Cleopatra IV sought sanctuary in a temple, but soldiers followed her in, and eliminated her there. As to Ptolemy IX, Cleopatra III accused her son and co-regent of having tried to plot to have her eliminated, and deposed him in 107 BC. His place was taken by his brother and Cleopatra III’s favorite son, Alexander, who ascended the throne as Ptolemy X.
After she deposed her son Ptolemy IX and replaced him on the throne with a more favored son, Ptolemy X, Cleopatra III settled in to enjoy her twilight years as queen and co-regent. Her enjoyment did not last long, however, when the favorite son whom she had made king demonstrated his ingratitude in the most visceral way possible. Six years into their joint rule, Ptolemy X tired of his mother, and had her “disposed of” in 101 BC. He then made his wife, Cleopatra Bernice III, queen and co-regent.
Ptolemy X’s wife Bernice III was also his niece – the daughter of his brother, the Ptolemy IX who had been deposed by their mother Cleopatra III. A popular revolt in 88 BC overthrew Ptolemy X, who fled to Syria. He returned with a mercenary army, whom he paid by looting and melting down the golden sarcophagus of Alexander the Great. That infuriated the Alexandrians, who deposed and chased him out of Egypt again. He met his demise as he tried to flee to Cyprus, and was succeeded by his brother and father-in-law, the previous King Ptolemy IX Lathyros.
9. Generations of Interbreeding Within This Dynasty Led to Extremely Tangled Family Relationships
Perhaps none of the Ptolemies illustrates how tangled things had gotten after generations of marrying within the family than Ptolemy XI Alexander II, who ruled the kingdom for a few days in 80 BC. His uncle Ptolemy IX Lathryos had passed in 80 BC, and left the throne to his daughter Cleopatra Bernice. She briefly reigned alone as Bernice III. The Roman dictator Sulla however wanted a more pliant ruler, so he sent a young Ptolemy XI to Egypt. There, the new arrival married Bernice III, and ruled jointly with her.
Bernice, aside from being Ptolemy XI’s cousin as the daughter of his uncle Ptolemy IX, was also his half-sister, and stepmother by dint of having been married to Ptolemy XI’s father. She might even have been his actual mother – sources are confused on this point. Despite the close family ties – or perhaps precisely because of those ties – Ptolemy XI did not like his new wife. Nineteen days into the marriage, he ended her. That proved to be a mistake, because he was little known to the locals, while Bernice had been a popular ruler. Soon thereafter, Ptolemy XI was seized by an enraged Alexandrian mob, and publicly lynched.
All of the Ptolemies’ vices, intrigues, betrayals, and perversions, were present in the reign of Cleopatra VII, the most famous Ptolemaic Dynasty ruler, and the last one who wielded actual power. Carrying on the family’s tradition of sibling marriage, she married her younger brother, Ptolemy XIII. She soon fell out with him, and plunged Egypt into a civil dispute that ended with the end of her brother/ husband, after Julius Caesar intervened and took her side in the conflict. She then married another brother, Ptolemy XIV, while carrying on an affair with Caesar. She bore the Roman dictator a son, Caesarion, the future Ptolemy XV – the last nominal ruler of the dynasty.
After Caesar’s assassination, Cleopatra took up with his chief lieutenant, Mark Antony, with whom she had one of history’s most famous love affairs. The couple were eventually defeated by Antony’s rival, Gaius Octavius, the future emperor Augustus. Antony fell on his sword, and Cleopatra famously ended her life via snakebite in 30 BC. She was nominally succeeded by Ptolemy XV Caesarion, but Augustus had him put to an end when he was captured a few weeks later. The passing of Cleopatra and Caesarion brought the Ptolemaic Dynasty to an end, and Egypt was made into a Roman province.
7. This Great Emperor and Dynasty Founder Eliminated Both His Son and His Wife
Constantine the Great, founder of the Constantinian Dynasty, had many admirers in his era. Especially the Christians, who were grateful to him for taking Christianity out of the catacombs and into the palace. He gave the Roman Empire a new lease on life, relocated the capital from Rome to the newly built Constantinople, and laid the foundations for an Eastern Roman Empire whose remnants survived into the fifteenth century. However, his admirers seldom mentioned his shortcomings, such as the mercurial temper that led him to eliminate his eldest son, Crispus (circa 299 – 326).
While still in his teens, Constantine appointed Crispus commander in Gaul, and he delivered with victories in 318, 320, and 323, that secured the province and the Germanic frontier. In a civil dispute against a challenger, Licinius, Crispus commanded Constantine’s navy and led it to a decisive victory over a far larger fleet. He also played a key role in a subsequent battle that secured his father’s triumph. Then in 326, his life came to a sudden end when his stepmother, eager to remove an obstacle to her own sons’ succession to the throne, falsely accused Crispus of attempted assault. An enraged Constantine had Crispus tried and convicted before a local court, then ordered him hanged.
6. A Ruthless Mother’s Scheme to Clear the Path for Her Sons
Flavia Maxima Fausta (289 – 326), daughter of Roman Emperor Maximianus, was married to Constantine the Great in 307 to seal an alliance between him and her father. She bore Constantine three sons, but her stepson Crispus, Constantine’s eldest from a previous marriage, stood between her sons and the throne. In 326, Crispus was at the height of his power and the favorite to succeed Constantine, after he played a key role in defeating a recent challenger to his father. By contrast, Fausta’s sons, the eldest of them only ten years old at the time, were in no position to don the purple. In order for any of Fausta’s sons to succeed Constantine, something would have to happen to Crispus. So Fausta saw to it that something did.
Fausta reportedly tried to seduce Crispus, but he balked, and hurriedly left the palace. Undaunted, she falsely told Constantine that Crispus did not respect his father, since he was in love with and had tried to force himself upon his father’s wife. Constantine believed her, and had his eldest son executed. A few months later, however, Constantine discovered how his wife had manipulated him into ending Crispus. So ordered her tossed into boiling water. He then issued a damnatio memoriae (“condemnation of memory”) to erase her from official accounts – a form of dishonor issued against traitors and those who brought discredit to the Roman state.
King Richard I the Lionheart once said of his Plantagenet family: “From the Devil we sprang, and to the Devil we shall return“. Many contemporaries agreed there was something demonic about England’s Plantagenet Dynasty (1154 – 1485), who named themselves after the planta geneste, or common broom, and went at everything full tilt. They were known for their manic energies, and an inability to just sit still. They revolutionized and remade England, dominated the British Isles, conquered Wales, cowed Scotland, and subdued Ireland.
The Plantagenets created an empire that stretched from Ireland to the Spanish border, and devastated France in the Hundred Years’ War. Europe proved too small, so they exported their manic energies to the Middle East, where they wreaked havoc during the Crusades. They were also known for their fierce intra-familial rivalries, which ultimately doomed and brought their dynasty to a dramatic end. Where others tried to take them down, and failed, the Plantagenets proved quite capable of taking themselves down.
In the first half of the twelfth century, England was plunged into a bitter and chaotic civil upheaval that came to be known as The Anarchy. It pitted the reigning monarch, King Stephen, against his predecessor’s daughter, Matilda. The conflict saw numerous ups and downs, and devastated England. It finally came to a negotiated end in 1153, after Stephen agreed to designate Matilda’s son, Henry Plantagenet, as his heir. The latter ascended the throne as Henry II after Stephen’s end in 1154, and founded the Plantagenet Dynasty which ruled England for centuries.
Henry II (1133 – 1189) was probably England’s most transformative monarch. His reign, from 1153 to 1189, saw the laying of some basic foundations that shaped England ever since. He was born to Matilda, daughter of England’s King Henry I, and Geoffrey the Fair, Count of Anjou and Duke of Normandy. Henry became ruler of Anjou and Normandy after his father’s demise in 1151. A year later, he married Eleanor of Aquitaine, Europe’s greatest heiress, and added her duchy to his holdings. When he succeeded to the English throne in 1154, he became Europe’s greatest monarch, and ruled what came to be known as the Angevin Empire, whose territories stretched from the Scottish border to the Spanish Pyrenees.
Henry II saw the delivery of justice as a king’s key function. He revolutionized England by reorganizing its legal system, with the help of his chancellor, Thomas Becket. Henry eventually fell out with Becket when the latter objected to the king’s efforts to curb the power and privileges of the clergy. It ended with Becket’s demise, but while the king and chancellor had still been on good terms, they transformed England. Henry laid the foundations for the English common law system that shaped England, and through it the US and the rest of the Anglophone world.
The Assize of Clarendon in 1166 established basic criminal justice procedures, courts, and prisons to hold those awaiting trial. Henry expanded the role of the royal courts and granted them the power to settle disputes that used to be handled by alternative systems, such as ecclesiastical courts. In so doing, he imposed judicial uniformity throughout England. That uniformity was furthered by his Eyre system of circuit courts, in which royal judges traveled all around England to adjudicate criminal and civil cases. He also expanded the role of juries, and codified English law. His courts gave fast and clear verdicts, enriched the treasury, and extended royal influence and control.
2. From the Start, Members of This Dynasty Were at Each Other’s Throats
Henry II’s legal system provided a degree of stability and predictability rare in the medieval world, and rarer still as subsequent jurists and future governments strengthened and solidified it. Much of Britain’s future success as a trading, industrial, and imperial giant, rested upon the foundations laid by Henry II’s twelfth-century legal reforms. English – later British – entrepreneurs, secure in their property and trusting their legal system, could conduct business with a confidence that gave them an edge over foreign competitors who operated in less secure and stable investment environments. The future British Empire, built on commerce, owed much to Henry. What is perhaps most remarkable is that he did all that amidst a tumultuous reign in which he had to repeatedly go to battle against his own family.
Henry’s wife and children raised numerous armed rebellions against him. As a result, he spent much of his reign fighting his own Plantagenet brood, and battled his family members in 1173, 1181, and 1184. Henry commissioned a painting that depicted him as an eagle with three of its young tearing it apart with their beaks and talons, while a fourth hangs back, waiting for an opportunity to pluck out its parent’s eyes. He perished in 1189 of a broken heart upon learning that his youngest and favorite child, the hitherto loyal and obedient John (of Robin Hood and Magna Carta fame), had finally betrayed him and joined his brothers in yet another dispute against their father. John had been the fourth eaglet that patiently waited on the sidelines in the painting.
Members of the Plantagenet Dynasty were not above treachery and deceit when it suited their needs, as illustrated by how King Richard II put down a peasant revolt. The downtrodden English peasants’ discontent came to a boil in 1381, when an unpopular poll tax was enacted. That May, officials attempting to collect the tax in Essex were violently resisted. Resistance spread and caught the government of the then fourteen-year-old Richard II by surprise with its vehemence and speed. Rebels seized and burned court and tax records, emptied the jails, and visited vigilante justice upon unpopular landlords and employers who fell into their hands. They demanded an end to serfdom, lower taxes, the dismissal of unpopular officials and judges, and marched on London.
On June 13th, 1381, a contingent led by a Wat Tyler entered the city, massacred foreigners, destroyed the palace of an unpopular uncle of the king, and seized the Tower of London. The king’s chancellor and his treasurer, deemed responsible for the introduction of the hated poll tax, were captured and beheaded. The teenaged monarch agreed to meet Wat Tyler and his contingent on the outskirts of London to hear their demands. There, Wat Tyler treacherously met his end. The young Richard then claimed that he would be the rebels’ leader, promised reforms, agreed to their demands, and convinced them to disperse. As soon as sufficient military force was available, however, the king reneged, and the peasants were brutally suppressed. When a peasant delegation reminded Richard of his promises, he contemptuously dismissed them and sneered “Villeins ye are, and villeins ye shall remain!”
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading