Dan Jones’s The Plantagenents: The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made England is a masterpiece of a history book. It recaps nearly 300 years of British history, following along the rise and fall of the titular Plantagenent family that produced the longest line of monarchs that the English crown has ever known. Jones weaves the dense historical material with a deft sense of storytelling, capturing the drama of key events and the personalities of numerous key figures.
But there’s only so much of an actual review I can do of The Plantagenents, which became one of my favorite nonfiction books ever, without just becoming quickly redundant. So instead, allow me to comb through the couple hundred historical figures who play a role in the centuries of history in the book, and present the 9 people whom I’d most like to see get their own biopic movie or show. I’m a general fan of at the least the idea of biopics, and often find myself drawn to underused compelling historical figures. The one limiting factor in this list is how much representation the person has already received; Henry II is a fascinating figure, but he’s already gotten two excellent movies (1964’s Beckett and 1968’s The Lion in Winter, both times portrayed by the brilliant Peter O’Toole); likewise for Richard I or John I, etc . The following are people whose lives or stories either haven’t been done yet in popular media, have only gotten a supporting role, or haven’t been done in a high-profile way.
9. Simon de Montfort
De Montfort was the 6th Earl of Leicester, best known for his temporarily successful revolt against King Henry III. Henry III was himself an interesting character, a long-ruling and pious but weak king who followed the disastrous King John (and preceded his son, the brutal but effective Edward I of Braveheart fame). De Montfort gradually became a revolutionary against Henry’s rule, leading an uprising that surprisingly won the Battle of Lewes, capturing the king and Prince Edward and giving de Montfort effective supreme power for a time. De Montfort then used his newfound authority to call the first relatively populist Parliament in 1265 in the name of reform. But his downfall was inevitable and almost comical. Prince Edward escaped from his genteel captors in a rather farcical manner: suggesting he and his captors have a game of horse racing to determine the company’s fastest horse, then using that horse to ride away to freedom. Edward then gathered the opposition to defeat and kill de Montfort at the Battle Evesham. While it would probably be a mistake to go too far in making de Montfort a figure of true proto-democracy, he remains an interesting figure in favor of early reform and a key benchmark in the centuries-long gradual efforts to force the monarchy to answer to its subjects.
8. Queen Phillippa (of Hainult)
Much like Isabella and Mortimer later on in this list, Queen (Consort) Philippa of Hainult had one of the rare true love stories of the medieval age, or at least as close one could get back then in an arranged marriage. She and her husband, the strong King Edward III, seemed to have had genuine affection, as he took no known mistress until near the end of her life (which hardly earns him any gold stars, but was actually quite remarkable for a monarch of the era) and often had her accompany him on military campaigns — also a rarity that shows a sincere desire for her company. But Philippa was more than a doting wife and mother, though she was also quite successful at the latter, bearing 14 children in her 31 years as queen consort. She persuaded her husband not to execute the infamous Burghers of Calais, thus inspiring centuries later one of the masterworks of bronze sculpture. When she didn’t accompany Edward on campaign, she ruled England in his stead as Queen Regent. And most interesting to me, she directed the founding of Queen’s College of Oxford, a gorgeous school that was one of the best places I visited in the city; the school has notably produced alumni ranging from King Henry V to the great Rowan Atkinson.
7. Arthur of Brittany
King Richard I had no son to name as his heir, so he originally named as his heir his nephew, Arthur, the Duke of Brittany. Arthur was the son of Richard’s deceased younger brother, Geoffrey. However, on his deathbed, Richard changed his heir to his youngest brother, the now-infamous King John, probably knowing that John would try to take the crown by force anyway (Arthur was only 12 years old at Richard’s death, so certainly not strong enough to stand up to John). However, Arthur remained a duke of the English-ruled French possessions, and as such, a potent pawn for King Phillip II of France to play against John. After being coerced into a rebellion by the French, Arthur was captured and imprisoned in Normandy, in which prison he disappeared. But Jones gives a rather chilling account of his death, setting the scene for John working into a mad rage and marching into his nephew’s cell and killing him with his bare hands. It’s one of the most compelling moments in the entire book, and a key moment in John’s reign, as well, as rumors of his murdering Arthur would become powerful propaganda in the growing resistance to his reign that culminated in him being forced to sign the Magna Carta.
6. Richard II (with Wat Tyler and Henry Bolingbroke)
King Richard II forms the finale of The Plantagenents, with his overthrow ending his family’s dynasty. Richard was probably not the most inept of the Plantagenent monarchs — he’d probably rate behind both John I and Edward II — but his ineptitude was the final straw that broke the Plantagenent succession. But he didn’t start out that way, which is why I think a biopic could be fascinating by contrasting two of the key events of his reign: a high point, revolving around his action during Wat Tyler’s peasant revolt, and his downfall, revolving around Henry Bolingbroke, the future Henry IV. Richard became king as just a child, and had no real power for several years. But during that childhood kingship, a peasant revolt led by commoner Wat Tyler rose up, threatening all London nobles and the king himself. One such noble was Henry Bolingbroke, Richard’s cousin, who hid in a cupboard to avoid being torn to pieces by rioters. With a mob army of peasants backing him, Tyler soon became more powerful than the king himself, though he had no clue what to do with it. After Tyler was foolishly killed by the London mayor during a summit with the king and his advisers, the peasant army could have attacked in vengeful rage and likely destroyed the whole of the London nobility. But the 14-year-old Richard immediately rode by himself in front of the peasant army, both calming and confusing them from attacking until Richard’s own army could restore order. It was a dramatic scene that Jones writes well, and the daring bravery was probably the positive highlight of Richard’s reign.
Years later, Richard had come of age and become a truly bad king. He was unable to handle foreign pressures and acted like a tyrant toward his own people. Before long, the widespread dissatisfaction reached its boiling point, with his own cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, rising up and claiming the throne as Henry IV while Richard was away in Ireland, then defeating and capturing Richard when the deposed king tried to return and win back his crown. Richard would later die in prison under mysterious circumstances, likely murdered to remove a claimant to the throne. I think it’s a fascinating juxtaposition between young Richard II improbably saving the day against Wat Tyler’s forces through his blind courage, and the older Richard being so hated by his people that he was overthrown by his very cousin who’d once had to hide for his life during those same revolts.
5. Prince Edward, the Black Prince
Prince Edward, the oldest son of Edward III, is a tragic figure to me. Plus, of course, he has one of the better nicknames in British history: the Black Prince, likely given to him after his death, on account of his black armor (and depending on the source, partially because of his dark temper). He was enormously successful as a prince, perhaps the most strikingly prototypical prince in English history. He played a famous role at the thrilling Battle of Crecy, one of England’s seminal wins in the Hundred Years War, when his father let him loose in the thick of battle, saying it was time to let the prince win his spurs. The prince did so, dramatically, becoming a war hero at the age of 18 and basically looking like everything the British wanted in their next king. But then years passed and he fell ill and was robbed of his legendary vitality, falling into bad tempers and mostly disappearing from court for years. The young man who seemed destined for a glorious kingship never ended up ascending to the throne, dying a year before his father; the crown instead passed to his young son, the disastrous Richard II.
4. Queen Isabella and Roger Mortimer
Isabella was the daughter of the French king Phillip IV, married off to Edward II when she was still a girl to a man who was quite possibly gay (see the Edward II entry). When Edward II’s reign turned toward its final disaster, Isabella began an open love affair with Roger Mortimer, the Baron of March. The two led an army of mercenaries into England, easily defeating Edward when his armies abandoned the king. They forced Edward to abdicate in favor of his son he’d had with Isabella, Edward III; however, Isabella became regent and ruled with Mortimer for four years. Isabella and Mortimer probably also arranged for Edward II’s murder in prison, to remove a figurehead for any possible revolts against them. Their lavish lifestyle made them no more loved than Edward II, though, so when Edward III turned 18, he made a dramatic escape from the castle, then returned to depose (and execute) Mortimer; Isabella retired to house arrest (well, castle arrest), treated well for many years until her own death.
While Isabella and Mortimer’s alliance was ultimately of great political importance and, for a time, great political success, they were, by most accounts, also a true love story. There appears to have been a genuine love and passion between them in an age where that was little allowed, for married women especially; two of Isabella’s sisters-in-law had died over adultery accusations. Doomed medieval romances are arguably a dime a dozen, but this is one that at least hasn’t been told much yet; it’s particularly interesting to me because of the parallel between Isabella and her estranged husband; as much at they were at odds, Edward II and Isabella were both challenging the sexual norms of their time in their own ways, with enormous political repercussions.
3. Edward II (with Piers Gaveston and/or Hugh Despenser the Younger)
Edward II has been famously portrayed at least once before, as a supporting character in Braveheart when still a weak-willed prince. After those events, he became an even weaker-willed king, with his weakness perhaps made all the more notable for his placement between the capable kings Edward I and Edward III. But Edward II was a disaster, and a large part of it was his two famous relationships with lower nobles: first, Piers Gaveston, and later, Hugh Despenser the Younger. Edward lavished first Gaveston, then Despenser, with titles and favor far exceeding the socially acceptable amounts befitting men of their level of birth at the time. Gaveston was the more scandalous of the relationships, with Edward favoring him beyond all reason even as that favor drove his nobels into the brink of open rebellion; they finally executed Gaveston without Edward’s permission, enraging him. And yet, later in his reign, he turned around and committed similar faults with the Despenser family, having a particularly close relationship with Hugh Despenser the Younger. As explained in Isabella’s section above, his own wife ultimately led a French invasion that caused Edward to abdicate, ostensibly in favor of his son, and he died in prison (probably murdered).
Jones tries to explore the open question of sexuality raised by Edward’s close relationship with the two men, which Edward insisted on maintaining even at the cost of jeopardizing his entire reign. As Jones writes, it’s difficult to parse the truth; accusations of sodomy were raised at the time by his rivals, but it’s difficult now to say whether they were true or merely politically expedient. There’s enough evidence, though, that it certainly wouldn’t be unreasonable to paint it as true, and that would be a fascinating biopic material: combining kingship and rebellion with homosexual love stories in an era where they were almost nonexistent.
2. Sir William Marshal
Sir William Marshal, 1st Earl of Pembroke, was at the heart of one of the most dramatic moments of The Plantagenents. Marshal was a prominent figure during the later stages of King Henry II’s reign and throughout the reigns of Richard I and John I. After Richard’s untimely death, Marshal supported John’s claim to the throne because of his legal right to succeed before the more likable Arthur of Brittany. He alternately feuded with and supported John, but was on his side when it mattered most, leading John to name him as the protector to John’s son, who at just age 9 became King Henry III upon his father’s death. With the country already weakened by John’s years of misrule and a mere child now on the throne, England had never looked weaker; even before John died, King Louis VIII of France had invaded English soil, captured London, and proclaimed himself King of England. The only thing standing in the way of a complete French conquest was now the 70-year-old William Marshal.
And Marshal was up for the task. At the Battle of Lincoln, he besieged the French invaders, having to also fight against English barons who’d joined the French against John. He personally led the English charge — again, this was at age 70, during a time of much shorter lifespans — and won. The battle became the turning point as the French were soon expelled from England. With no true king to protect the realm, one old knight had rescued the country from conquest. Marshal is regarded to this day as one of history’s greatest knights and the knight who saved England.
1. Eleanor of Aquitaine
Eleanor takes the first place on this list, and is also the single person in all of history whom I most want to see get her due. The story of her life would almost have to be a series, just because a single biopic film would stand no chance at capturing how incredible her life story was: the wife to two kings, the mother of three more kings, and perhaps the most important political figure of her age. At just age 13, she became the heiress to all of Aquitaine, one of the most pivotal and wealthy duchies of France. She thus became the most important would-be bride in the country, marrying the French prince who’d soon become King Louis VII. She remained an important political figure as queen, supporting various plots and taking the cross as a symbolic pledge of Crusade, only to be cast aside after 15 years of matrimony when Louis annulled their marriage; he and Eleanor had clashed often, and she only gave him two daughters, no sons.
At 28, Eleanor was again a bachelorette and still the duchess of Aquitaine, a fascinatingly dangerous title because of the very real danger that she could be kidnapped and forced to marry by someone seeking to co-opt her wealth and power. She instead chose her own match, writing to the young Henry, Duke of Normandy, who was himself in the process of trying to secure the English crown and needed such a powerful match. He’d succeed, becoming Henry II and having one of history’s most interesting reigns; Eleanor did her part, giving him four sons who survived to adulthood: another Henry, Richard, Geoffrey, and John. But their marriage also grew sour, with Jones intelligently pointing to Henry’s disrespect toward Eleanor’s Aquitaine holding, a place where her heart always remained. Her oldest son, Henry, was crowned as a co-king with his father, with his kingship junior to Henry II but intended to ease the eventual transition between the two. But spurred on by Eleanor, her sons revolted against their father, with the younger Henry eventually dying of illness and Henry II locking Eleanor away in a tower. Richard became next in line, but Henry II toyed with the idea of passing him over in favor of Geoffrey or John; this indecision about his heir forms the basis for the superb The Lion in Winter story. Geoffrey died as well, leaving Richard as the obvious choice; when his father still hesitated, Eleanor spurred Richard into his own revolt, and Henry II died of fever before it could be resolved. Richard became her second son to be crowned and freed Eleanor from prison, and she became one of his lead advisers.
However, Richard also died without an heir, and it finally fell to Eleanor’s youngest son, John, to become her third child to be crowned King of England. Eleanor helped John secure the crown despite widespread dislike of him, and continued to advise him until her death at age 80; without her, John’s already tenuous rule fell into chaos, and he was eventually forced to sign the Magna Carta. But Eleanor had possessed all of the strength he’d lacked. The strength to rule her duchy, to become Queen of France, to survive her annulment, to choose her next match and become Queen of England, to survive her imprisonment, and to guide three of her sons into being crowned Kings of England. In a era dominated almost entirely by men, Eleanor achieved more, and with less power, than nearly any of her male counterparts.