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21.06.01 Andrews, Lost Heirs of the Medieval Crown

The Medieval Review

21.06.01 Andrews, Lost Heirs of the Medieval Crown


Public appetite for and fascination with medieval dynastic politics and the English crown will be well served by this volume. Its obvious rationale is to tap into and benefit from current strands of popular culture. One need look no further than the cover blurb which tells us that "History is written by the winners, but every game of thrones has its losers too..." Reference to the HBO megahit may seem little more than a cynical attempt to reach a vastly larger target audience than that normally available to academic historians. On one level this is true; but then again, what is so wrong with a little bit of blatant marketing, despite the fact that it carries about as much subtlety as Robert Baratheon's war hammer? By retelling the stories of the medieval crown with a focus on those individuals who potentially may have inherited it but never did, the author is able to set forth a fascinating narrative with murder, intrigue and self-promotion evident at every turn. And what's more, most of it is true.

The aim of the volume is to tell the stories of those members of the English royal family who, broadly speaking, held plausible but unsuccessful claims to the throne. Beyond the realms of academic specialists, many are lesser-known figures though some--notably Edward III's son the Black Prince, and the "Princes in the Tower," children of Edward IV--are more familiar. At the other end of the scale, claimants such as William Clito, a grandson of the Conqueror, or King Stephen's daughter Mary of Blois may have readers reaching for their Wikipedia pages. Despite the popular nature of the text this is undoubtedly a volume written by someone who knows the material well and is thoroughly versed in scholarly traditions surrounding the key figures under investigation. J. F. Andrews, we are told, is "the pseudonym of an academic historian who has written extensively on war and politics in the Middle Ages" (191). This is clearly apparent from the author's obvious familiarity with the essential primary and secondary sources, which are nonetheless kept very much in the background. Non-academic readers, at whom the book is aimed, can quite happily ignore the endnotes and bibliography. Those, such as this reviewer, who are keener to follow the trail of evidence, have enough to satisfy their curiosity without being overwhelmed by the apparatus of scholarly citation and attribution, nor by the relitigation of aging debates and conflicting interpretations.

After an introduction of modest scope, the book's ten chapters fall very nicely into two larger groupings: five dealing with the Norman and Angevin dynasties and five dealing with the later Plantagenets descending from Edward III, and their intricate claims and interrelationships which fed into the Wars of the Roses. Several common themes emerge in the first section on the Normans and those who came after them. One is that the rules around royal succession were unclear and this lack of certainty was frequently exploited. On the death of a monarch, power often passed to an individual who happened to be in the right place at the right time, even if others had a better theoretical claim. Another is just how quickly well-laid plans could be overturned, notably when Henry I's son and only legitimate male heir, William Adelin, drowned in the White Ship disaster of 1120. Strict rules on the succession were not yet in place. Illegitimacy had not prevented William the Conqueror himself inheriting the Duchy of Normandy and winning the crown of England. Yet by the early twelfth century, bastardy would be an unquestioned hindrance to assuming the throne. Greater doubts existed over how the succession should be passed down between various lines descending from a common ancestor, and over the question of whether women should inherit. The most well-known example of the latter is Matilda, daughter of Henry I, who fought for her claim against her cousin Stephen in the 1130s and 1140s. When competing male claimants existed, primogeniture was no guarantee of success. Thus Robert Curthose, the Conqueror's eldest son, spent most of his career incarcerated after being defeated in 1106 by his younger brother.

How to manage the ambitions of younger family members forms another point of thematic continuity. This was especially apparent during the reign of Henry II, when sufficient male children survived to adulthood to cause their father numerous headaches, including rebellions against his authority in 1173 and 1183. The story of the glamorous yet frustrated Henry "the Young King," crowned as a sort of co-monarch with his father in 1170 at the age of 15 yet given almost no real power, has been comparatively little known to those outside scholarly circles, and even there he attracted surprisingly little attention until the appearance of Matthew Strickland's authoritative biography in 2016. The Norman and Angevin section ends with the tragic story of Arthur, in all likelihood murdered by his uncle King John in order to remove a younger rival whose claim to the throne was superior.

In all of this, Andrews does not attempt to offer new interpretations, nor to challenge the scholarly consensus. The author displays admirable competence in setting forth complex narratives with clarity. The aim is simply to tell interesting stories for their own sake and this Andrews does with considerable panache. The ability to succeed in such a task rests on the author's scholarly credentials; one might speculate that the job could not be done well without them, yet they are deliberately kept as hidden from view as possible, like an incarcerated medieval prince with a claim that threatens to unseat a ruling monarch of dubious provenance. For scholars well versed in these narratives and their sources there is, it is safe to say, very little that is new here. In one sense this is disappointing, as Andrews makes little attempt to draw broader conclusions beyond the fact that events were uncertain and most of these stories had unhappy endings. Yet this would be to hold the author to an unfair standard because, as noted, it is abundantly clear that the volume is simply not aimed at an academic audience. One suspects that this provides the rationale for the pseudonym: to separate the scholarly identity from the "popular" authorship and to maintain a sharp delineation between them.

The second block of five chapters starts with the story of the Black Prince, who failed to succeed to the throne only because after an illustrious career he died a year before his father, and follows the stories of numerous contenders for kingship during the Wars of the Roses. For anyone brave enough to retell these stories, it is impossible to avoid the need to explain the dynastic basis for the competing claims among the various lines that traced themselves back to Edward III and his five sons. The potential for confusion is significant, not least because many of the principals had common names. Distinguishing between the various Edwards and Richards requires a steady hand (just as it had done for the numerous Norman Williams and Henrys); even more so to explain the relevance of the several Edmund Mortimers. Andrews succeeds well in shepherding the reader through these intricacies. Each chapter begins with a (very) simplified family tree: enough detail is provided to help situate the key figures and to understand the narrative, but not so much that the details become overwhelming and the story lost in a tsunami of genealogical irrelevance. What comes through most clearly in the Plantagenet section is the way in which the rules around succession could be manipulated to suit the ambitions of those fighting for the throne. Whether claimants were descended from earlier royals purely through a male line, or through one involving female ancestors, became one of the central political questions of the fifteenth century. Yet as Andrews shows, these debates and disputes were largely a convenient but necessary means of dressing up naked political desire in the cloak of dynastic legitimacy. This is nowhere more the case than with Richard III who, despite mistreatment at the hands of Tudor propagandists, nevertheless appears to have tried his best to undermine the political and familial legitimacy of his own nephews. Commentary on what may have happened to the Princes in the Tower is necessarily speculative, but Andrews is open about this and the theories put forward here are as plausible as any.

Thus Lost Heirs of the Medieval Crown is a thoroughly enjoyable read. The prose style is crisp, if occasionally burdened by injudicious or tired clichés inserted for dramatic effect, and the pages keep turning at a comfortable pace. The narratives and biographies that form the basis of each chapter are very well versed in existing scholarship and original sources but are intended for an audience not yet acquainted with the stories retold here. Established scholars of the period may wish to look elsewhere, but that is no criticism--merely a recognition of the book's intended market. For the Game of Thrones generation, the volume will help to reconfirm the old saw that true stories can be just as fascinating, unpredictable and filled with the wreckage of human ambition as any work of fiction.