Rating: 4 Stars
(Before we start: this book was originally published in the UK in 2009. I am reviewing the edition published here in the US in November of 2016.)
I fear that if I fangirl over Dan Jones too many more times on Twitter, he is going to get a restraining order. But it is super easy to be totally into your favorite authors, then also kind of in awe about the fact that many of them really do run their own social media accounts. They actually take the time to respond to their fans. To me that is one of the the coolest things an author can do, so yes, I have stupid-happy fangirl moments when my favorite authors, Dan Jones of course among them, acknowledges my existence.
Let's take a moment and admire that cover, shall we? I talk a lot about cover art and how it is crucial. Judging books by covers is totally okay in some instances and this would be one of them. It is striking. I love a good cover, especially when it is a subject I am highly interested in.
One of the things that makes Jones just the author for subjects like this, is that he has the ability time and again to take something that could be considered boring to some, and weave the facts and figures together in a narrative that is appealing to a variety of people. Namely, both those like myself who are on a mission to read every book about the Plantagenet dynasty possible, and those who might have a passing interest because they saw The Tudors on HBO and aren't the Tudors and Plantagenets the same anyway? (Not kidding, someone really said this to me. I had to just shake my head no.) There seems to be this prevailing attitude among my generation and perhaps at least the one after mine that considers history dull old stories about people long dead, so why should we care? I can't even tell you how many times I have been asked why I read so much non-fiction, and history in particular - especially history of a country that is not even mine. While all of Jones' books are very well-researched and detailed, the story-telling aspect is what can keep even those less interested in the subject as a whole engaged. It is a handy to skill to have.
I like to consider myself fairly well-read when it comes to this era in England's history. I am partial to earlier Plantagenets and Plantagenets-by-marriage (hey Eleanor, I see you girl!), but find the many colorful personalities highly entertaining. This specific event, however, is one that I did not know nearly as much about, so to find a book dedicated solely to the revolt, its key players, and its aftermath was indeed helpful in clarifying things. I know a fair amount about Richard II, but only of his later rule. As Jones points out, it is easy to see how the entire event impacted him (he was only 14 at the time) and shaped his outlook and rule over his kingdom and subjects for the ensuing 19 years. While previous uprisings (such as the events that lead to Magna Carta in 1215) were spearheaded by the aristocratic class, this was something entirely different. In this revolt, often referred to as the Peasants' Revolt, the Great Rising, or Wat Tyler's Rebellion, it was the lower classes who rose up to fight the taxes and statutes passed by their rulers - the council ruling for Richard until he came of age. Time and again throughout the rebellion, they insisted they were loyal to the king, but sought to rid him of those around him who were actually in charge. No person was more hated I believe than John of Gaunt, Richard's uncle. The Duke of Lancaster was the wealthiest man in the land, had properties all over the country, and sometimes fought unnecessary and coffer-draining battles. The thing here is that he was not even in England at the time, yet he remained a target as the rebels descended on London and destroyed his residence, Savoy Palace. As an aside, it totally kills me that some of these grand palaces (think Nonsuch, Woodstock, Savoy, to name a few) are gone now, and we do not even know for sure what some of them looked like. I had this grand idea in my head for a minute to take my daughter Eleanor to Europe when she is older so we can visit any place still in existence that is connected to Eleanor of Aquitaine, before my brain said, "Hey dummy, most of those places are gone now. Have fun in France at Fontevraud seeing the effigies of Eleanor, Henry II and Richard I, even though those other dummies scattered all their bones during the French Revolution."
But I digress.
There are several great quotes that I have included here that best sum up the events of the summer in 1381 better than I can:
"As if from nowhere, a huge army of farmers, bakers, brewers, and churchmen drawn from all over England rose up and attacked their masters. They nearly brought down the government. Several of the country's most senior officials and hundreds of other people were murdered before the rising dissolved into chaos and official retribution. Those who survived were deeply scarred by what they witnessed" (page 3).
Jones takes us through the events leading up to the rebellion, making sure to note it was not ONLY about taxes. Instead he says, "...the only way to unravel the rage of the rebels in 1381 is to examine a little more closely the changes that had taken place in English society during the previous thirty years. There was no single event to blame for the revolt but several burned fiercely underneath. And the most important was the arrival of the most ruthless killer England had seen then, or has seen since: the Black Death" (page 13). The nation was completely devastated by the disease, which gave way to a depleted labor force. This in turn allowed said laborers to increase prices on their goods/services, which of course was not going to go over well with the aristocracy who needed them. It goes without saying that there was a drastic difference in lifestyles from one group to the other, but the work force saw the opportunity to change that. It didn't work out for them, as could be expected, due to the taxes levied and statutes coming from Richard's council.
As mentioned before, John of Gaunt was easily the #1 target of the rebels once they were able to get into London. They had it in their minds to destroy the men they perceived as their enemies and destroy any ill-gotten wealth they could find. While this idea is kind of admirable, I found it disturbing that while ransacking and destroying Savoy, a man was caught trying to pocket a belonging of Gaunt's by other rebels and was promptly thrown in the fire that burned the palace down.
Aside from looking at the event as a whole and its aftermath, this can also be considered somewhat of a study of Richard himself in the final pages. Though he was only 14, age can not excuse the huge mistake he had made at Smithfield in telling the rebels they could go about catching traitors and turning them in for a trial. How he could have thought that would work is beyond me, given the violence that permeated the entire uprising. If he had simply left his message that day as one of forgiveness and telling everyone to go home, who knows how may lives might have been saved? But, as history would show, Richard would not become one of the great Plantagenet kings. After more years of missteps, and outright contempt for the powerful men around him, Richard was captured by his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke (John of Gaunt's son) and imprisoned at Pontefract Castle where he was (likely) murdered, thus paving the way for his cousin to become Henry IV.
At length, Jones addresses this in the epilogue in just how much of a disaster Richard's reign became: "At the root of many of these problems was the emerging nature of Richard's kingship. The young king had come of age at Smithfield, giving on that perilous afternoon a glimpse of the selfless bravery for which his father and the best of the Plantagenet dynasty had been famous. But in the aftermath he had shown the dark inclinations of his family's character that lay buried in his breast (page 200)...Richard was restoring his royal power not through reform or assertion of the rule of law, but by a barely legal terror in which viciousness had replaced wisdom, and blind fear stalked the troubled land (page 201)...Richard's personality and judgment had already been badly warped. He emerged from childhood, and 1381 in particular, with a profound distrust of his subjects and in particular his nobility. He grew up paranoid and vindictive, incensed at any attempts to guide him or to reform his rule (page 205)...Richard's first and greatest misfortune was that he lacked any effective role model for kingship. When he was a child he saw his grandfather, Edward III, at his worst: senile and surrounded by grasping acolytes. His father did not live long enough to shape Richard in his own mold. In the end, Richard's real role model was his uncle Gaunt, as disastrous a study in rule as he could've had. The boy picked up all of Gaunt's worst faults, without displaying any of his talent. He was a bully, but not authoritative; aggressive in defending the rights of the Crown, but with no true comprehension of its awesome responsibilities; eager to pick and maintain a quarrel, but guileless in making peace (page 206)."
Whew. Yes, I realize it is a long slew of quotes strung together, but I really think it sums Richard and his reign up perfectly. If you ever needed a speedy-quick run-down of Richard II, there you have it.
In closing, I first must say that I highly recommend this one, as has been my stance on the previous books he has authored. He is able to take a complex, well-researched story and still make it accessible to anyone, regardless of academic background. I shy away from calling it 'popular history', as to me that implies this kind of quickly-consumed-and-forgotten nonsense that seems to be so, well, popular at times. It is definitely anything but that.
Lastly, I will leave you with one final quote, despite the possibility that I am drowning my own review in an overabundance of quotes. (This is easy to do when you have a highly quotable book!)
"But of course the rebellion of 1381 was not just a tax revolt or a revolt against poorly considered labor legislation. It was the first sign that the ordinary people in England were politicized, and could be made angry enough to rise against bad leadership. They cared about foreign policy, and corrupt ministers, and bad laws...There was a profound sense that those high up in society were failing in their godly duties to protect and defend those lower down. Tyler's rebels were really very conservative. Only a few would have believed in Ball's doctrine of total egalitarianism; most simply wanted society and social relations to operate normally again" (page 207).