Posts Tagged ‘Plantagenets’

A Promising Young Man

Posted in General, On This Day on September 30th, 2009 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

September 30, 1399:  Henry of Bolingbroke Gets a Job

Henry of Bolingbroke (1367-1413) had been frustrated.  First, he had the worst title in the royal family.  The other Plantagenets had more distinguished identifications like Lancaster, York or Cambridge.  Bolingbroke sounded like a skin condition.  Worse, Henry had nothing to occupy him.  Keeping his rich wife in a continual state of pregnancy was at most fifteen minutes’ activity a year.  War was the family business but France and England were at peace.  Apparently the French had won the Fifty-Two Year War, and King Richard II did not want to round it off to the nearest hundred.  Henry was not even free to indulge in vices.  If he had tried womanizing, people would have said that he was competing with his father (John of Gaunt, the Plantagenet stud muffin).  Bolingbroke did not possess the blithering smugness to be an upper class twit; besides, the King was setting was standard for that.

So in 1390 Henry decided to travel.  (His wife Mary stayed home, gestating her fourth duke.)  Bolingbroke might have gone to Italy where the artists were experimenting with a remarkable innovation called perspective.  (Actually the Romans used it but there had a 900-year-long memory lapse.)  But he preferred to go to Lithuania where he joined in the local crusade.  The Lithuanians were the last remaining pagans in Europe, so any pious Catholic was free to slaughter them.  With a Papal blessing, German knights had conquered  and forcibly converted the territories we’d recognize (vaguely) as Estonia and Latvia; but the Lithuanians successfully resisted two centuries of crusades.  Henry’s assistance to the Teutonic Knights did not turn the tide of battle but he survived unscathed, and he probably was relieved that any word in German sounds worse than Bolingbroke.  The following year he returned to England and another impregnation.  One daughter later he was off to Cyprus and Jerusalem, returning in 1493 and the ensuing pregnancy finally killed his poor wife.  The widower felt obliged to stay on the same island as his six children. 

He now took up the family’s other business: politics.  Richard II had proved an appalling king; he had the rare distinction of being both unethical and incompetent.  Anyone could have done a better job and every one of the Plantagenets was trying.  No one was actually planning to overthrow Richard, just relegate him to a powerless figurehead.  The two chief contenders to be the royal ventriloquist were the king’s uncles:  Thomas of Woodstock and John of Gaunt.  However, Richard did not appreciate their concern.  In 1397, he had Uncle Thomas imprisoned, where he promptly died.    Uncle John avoided the king’s tantrums, but cousin Henry was not so adroit.  For  questioning the case of his uncle’s death, Bolingbroke was exiled from England for ten years.         

John of Gaunt died–without help–in February, 1399.  Henry of Bolingbroke should have inherited his father’s titles and estates; the terms of his exile had not barred him from the succession.  However, contrary to the laws and basic decency, Richard confiscated the entire estate.  As King, he might commit a crime; but Richard was not strong enough to get away with it.  He commanded little loyalty.  The progressive nobles despised his blundering misrule. The conservative lords loathed his personal conduct; Richard was a bit too poetic and he practiced hygiene before it was fashionable.  (The next generation of Plantagenets was not springing from his loins.)  So, in July 1399, when Bolingbroke returned to England it was to popular acclaim and armed support.   

Bolingbroke justified his rebellion, claiming that he was only interested in the restoration of his father’s estate.  But he was making promises and alliances that indicated that he expected more than just the Duchy of Lancaster.  Richard buckled and capitulated; whether he made some superb speeches, you only have Shakespeare’s word for it.  Paraded as a prisoner on the way to London, Richard was “persuaded” to abdicate.  As of September 29, 1399: England had no king.  The following day, Parliament offered the Crown to Bolingbroke.  The wily Henry may have even acted surprise.  He now was Henry IV of England and (an unwilling) Wales.

Richard was dead within a year; someone forgot to feed him.  And Henry found that “uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.”  Usurpation can set a tempting precedence.  The Plantagenets were a large and underemployed family.  All of Henry’s cousins tried to wrest the throne for themselves; they did not succeed–at least for another two generations–but the intrigues and struggles would last 85 years and 8 plays.

Was There A Mumps Epidemic in 1400: the Blank Death?

Posted in General on July 31st, 2008 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

Impotence can be hereditary. As if Henry IV had enough problems seizing a throne and suppressing the resulting civil wars, his children failed to understand the physical requirements of a dynasty. He had four adult sons and none of them had bothered to marry. (And, no, none of them went to a British public school.) At least Henry could coerce his daughters into marrying. In fact, the two girls had yet to reach puberty when they were bartered to husbands in Pomerania and Bavaria. That diplomatic brutality, however, gave Henry him his only legitimate grandchild. Six children, one grandchild–but in Bavaria: the Lancastrian dynasty was not exactly propagating. Even the number of illegitimate grandchildren was discouraging: four sons, two bastards—and they weren’t even healthy.

So when Henry IV died in 1413 at the age of 47, the Lancastrian dynasty seemed an oxymoron. Even then, his sons continued to avoid the marital necessities of monarchy; slaughtering the French was more fun. But the French did not think so; and in a peace treaty they offered Henry V a royal princess and the succession to the French throne. How could a romantic like Henry refuse? However, he now applied himself to domesticity with impressive diligence. Married in 1420, a father in 1421…and dead in 1422. (Perhaps it was too much of an exertion.) With the death of Henry V, and only an infant on the English throne, his two surviving brothers finally succumbed to the necessity of marriage.

(The Duke of Clarence managed to avoid the responsibility by getting himself killed; apparently, one Frenchman did know how to fight back). The Duke of Bedford married a duchess of Burgundy in 1423 and finally got her pregnant in 1432; but she died in childbirth. The Duke then married Jaquetta of Luxembourg in 1433; but he died two years later leaving no heirs. Don’t blame Jaquetta, she married again and had 16 children; and her descendants include the current pensioners living at Buckingham Palace.

The Duke of Gloucester at least had some heterosexual exercise. During his brother’s reign, the brother had sired an illegitimate daughter. Perhaps he was hoping to become Minister of Education because he named his daughter Antigone. The Duke became engaged to a Dutch countess, although her husband must have objected. Fortunately, the Pope could be bribed and an annulment was forthcoming. Their marriage occurred in 1423, and the Duke had a new mistress by 1425. In 1428, the Pope (the same one!) declared that the first annulment had been invalid, so the Duke married his mistress.

Strangely enough, the Duke was faithful to this wife; so people suspected that she was a witch. In fact, formal charges of witchcraft were eventually filed against her. (In a remarkable coincidence, the charges were leveled by political enemies of the Duke. And she was “persuaded” to admit her guilt, implicating her husband and causing his imprisonment.) Whatever her supernatural powers, her natural ones did not include fertility. Other than the uniquely named Antigone, Gloucester left no heirs.

As for the infant king, Henry VI grew up but in a chronic state of insanity. He did marry, and his wife had one child, but Henry’s participation in the conception is probably polite optimism. Neither Henry nor his “son” would survive the Wars of the Roses. Those prolific Yorkists knew how to make a dynasty.

Monday Miscellany

Posted in General on June 23rd, 2008 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

Topic I: The Depths of My Depravity

This weekend I attempted to corrupt an innocent mind by telling her that John Wesley had founded the Methodist School of Acting. I even offered her a famous example of Methodist acting:

“I couldah been a contendah–which would notah been possible if we was subject to predestinarian determinism. So my one-way ticket to palookaville was a mattah of Free Will.”

Topic II: What is Chinese for Aquitaine?

I recently discovered that China has a recycling policy. No, I am not referring to the use of human waste for fertilizer or packing material. (And keep in mind, the “compost’ on your Walmart purchases may not all be from China; Walmart rarely gives its employees washroom breaks.) My revelation occurred while watching the Chinese costume epic “Curse of the Golden Flower.”

Set in Medieval China (of course, that could be only 70 years ago), the film depicts a web of palace intrigues. The Empress and the Emperor are plotting against each other; their three sons are exploited as pawns but those young princes have machinations of their own. In the first 30 minutes, I saw one poisoning, one of those marvelously choreographed martial arts duels, and two seductions (one verging on incest). For all this hectic activity, something about the film seemed remarkably familiar. Suddenly, I recognized what it was: a Chinese version of “The Lion in Winter.”

As Mr. and Mrs. Tang, Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine have lost their sense of humor but gained a much better wardrobe. Tenth century China was richer and more sophisticated than twelfth century Europe. The Tangs’ casual opulence surpassed the best that the Plantagenets had to offer. But the Tang dynasty also seems more disfunctional than the Plantagenets. At the end of “The Lion in Winter”, Eleanor is going back to prison, the princes are in rebellion, but everyone is alive and in a comparatively good mood. As “The Curse of the Golden Flower” ends, the Emperor is still cheerful, but he has beaten to death one son, forced another to suicide, and driven the Empress mad. Spare the rod…

And I am looking forward to more Chinese recycling. I anticipate an epic about a headstrong if footbound heroine during the Taiping Rebellion: “Gong with the Yin”.

Plantagenet Birth Control

Posted in General, On This Day on September 30th, 2006 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

On this day, in 1399, the Duke of Lancaster decided to promote himself King of England (and an unwilling Wales). To become Henry IV, however, he first had to oust his cousin Richard II. But no one except Richard seemed to mind.

Richard II had the rare distinction of being both unethical and incompetent. The progressive nobles despised his blundering misrule. The conservative lords loathed his personal conduct; Richard was a bit too poetic and he practiced hygiene before it was fashionable. Someone was going to murder him, and the reformist cousin Henry struck first.

But then the conservative cousins in the dynasty, pretending to avenge Plantagenet family values, tried to wrest the throne for themselves. This struggle lasted for 85 years and 8 Shakespeare plays.

By 1485, the English throne had become quite democratic. Anyone could seize it. The surviving claimant Henry VII based his right to the throne on being the illegitimate half-second cousin, once removed, of Henry VI. (He was also the illegitimate half-nephew but that family connection was less prestigious.)