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The Last Plantagenets

by Thomas B. Costain
Series: The Pageant of England #4
447 pages, Biography/History
Reviewed by Jeanne

A sweeping, broad-brush narrative of England in the 14th and 15th Centuries.

Plot

Picking up (and slightly overlapping) where The Three Edwards left off, Costain chronicles the last kings of England's powerful Plantagenet dynasty. Richard II, the boy-king whose passionate belief in the divine right of kings, inherited from his father the Black Prince, was to be his downfall. Henry IV who seized the throne. His son Henry V, one of the best-loved monarchs and the winner of the Battle of Agincourt. The pious but incompetent Henry VI; Edward IV of the winning ways; and finally, the reviled King Richard III.

In the style of a novelist, Costain tells the sweeping story of the Plantagenets' twilight hours and the Wars of the Roses that tore England apart.

Morality

As a historian, Costain typically relates actions without directly pronouncing judgment on them. There are times, however, when he expresses the horror of massacres or assassinations; and in general, one senses a negative tone when he refers to sins and vices. He mentions a tendency to judge the men of bygone days with modern eyes and to divorce them from their context - thereby judging them too harshly and giving them too little credit.

Some historical figures are presented as "antagonists," but pitiable ones, particularly Richard II and Henry VI. Others are painted (rightly) in starker colors: traitors, murderers, liars, thieves. There were also men during this time who opposed and even fought the king, more or less with the good of England in mind; again, such actions are difficult to judge and are laid out rather as facts than as morals.

Spiritual Content

England was at this time under the governance of Rome, but the Church was divided for much of the era by schisms like the Babylonian Captivity, when there were two and sometimes three popes at once. Many clergymen are avaricious and cruel; others are more suited to their role as spiritual leaders. Costain discusses some of the religious thought and movement, including the work of Wycliffe, and also the persecution of Lollards under Henry IV.

Henry VI, though an incompetent king, seems to have been very pious - and perhaps somewhat proud of that.

Violence

This is the era of the Wars of the Roses, the civil war between the descendants of Edward III, in which many Englishmen lost their lives. This is also a time of brutal executions (drawing and quartering was popular and Costain relates the details of the procedure) and several are specifically related; these are the most gruesome bits of the narrative.

Supposed heretics are burned at the stake. Various important figures are killed in battle or, having been captured, afterward. Kings and heirs are sometimes disposed of in mysterious ways, and mention is made of the brutal murder of Edward II (related in The Three Edwards). A king orders the execution of his traitorous brother, who may or may not have been drowned in wine, but was certainly killed in some manner.

The last several chapters discuss the reign of the much-reviled Richard III and the mystery of the princes in the Tower. Costain lays out the case (who killed the two boys and buried them under the Tower steps?), mentioning a source that asserts they were smothered to death.

Drug and Alcohol Content

A great deal of alcoholic beverages were consumed in this era, by nobles and peasants alike. Some men were drunkards; some were extreme drunkards, if that is even possible. Costain discusses the likelihood of a person having been drowned in a "butt of malmsey [a sweet wine]", as is related in the older histories.

Sexual Content

Most men of the era had mistresses, and the reader frequently stumbles across So-and-So, illegitimate son of Lord What's-His-Face. Some men, including and perhaps especially Edward IV, were womanizers and seem to have seduced every other woman they met. Some of these mistresses had a part to play in politics and so are given more of a place in the narrative, but Costain is discreet.

Crude or Profane Language or Content

"Bastard" is used correctly in reference to illegitimate children. "Sanctified" ejaculations, such as "By St. John the Baptist," are also mentioned. One archaic source mentions a conversation taking place in a privy.

Conclusion

This final work in Costain's four-book Plantagenet series, which begins with The Conquering Family, concludes on a somewhat sad note the tale of the most powerful English dynasty. The Plantagenet kings, as Costain points out, were by no means saintly; but they were "story-book" kings, almost fantastical in their historical stature, and certainly their lives make good reading. One of the most interesting parts for anyone with a taste for historic "cold cases" is the latter section, dealing with Richard III, Henry VII, and the Princes in the Tower.

Costain, himself a novelist, brings a fiction-writer's flair to these histories: even those who prefer historical novels to straight history are unlikely to be bored. He does not allow himself to get bogged down in details, but relates the history broad-brush. He also includes the lives of lesser-known people - architects, writers, inventors, and champions of the commoners. The chapters are relatively short and broken up into smaller sections, which make the book pleasantly bite-size.

As an introduction to England in the Middle Ages, a reader could do much worse than start with Costain's series. I do, however, suggest having some sort of family tree on hand, as the relationships tend to get a bit tangled.

Note: Contrary to some descriptions and reviews, this series is a work of non-fiction enlivened by a literary style - they are not essentially historical novels.

Fun Score: 4.5
Values Score: 4
Written for Age: adult

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