The Plantagenets

The surname Plantagenet is rather surprisingly another anachronism that dates back to the ‘official' Whig historians' desire to label the progress of history logically and cleanly.  It is doubtful if any English king ever thought of himself as a ‘Plantagenet'.  Similarly it would appear that the name of ‘Tudor' was never used by their successors, who merely thought of themselves as heirs of Edward IV (1460-82), discounting Richard III (1482-85) who they regarded as a usurper.  Such terminology is still officially sanctioned even though it has no historical basis.  No ‘Tudor' monarch ever described themselves, or were contemporaneously described as such.  The signature of the last of them, Elizabeth R[egina], should tell anyone that. The same is true of the current dynasty of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha until they preferred to be known as Windsor.  An event that only occurred in 1917.  These are all convenient boxes to lump monarchs into to make history more digestible.

What then is meant by the use of the anachronistic term Plantagenet and what did it define?  The answer is that these were a group of initially foreign usurpers of the English Crown.  By definition usurp is to ‘take a legal title or position of power illegally or by force'.  By this definition, in 1066 King William I (1066-87), usurped the English throne which had legally (ie by the public consent of most of the aristocracy of England) belonged to King Harold II (1066), the successor to the half Norman King Edward the Confessor (1042-66).  William was then succeeded by his sons, William Rufus II (1087-1100) and Henry I (1100-35).  These were the Norman kings of England.  On Henry I's death in 1135 he wanted to be succeeded by his grandson, who eventually became Henry II (1154-89), but King Stephen, Henry I's nephew, seized the throne between 1135 and 1154.  As such he is sometimes called Stephen of Blois from his home county, but he founded no English royal dynasty.

King Henry II (1154-89) is said to be the founder of the English house of Anjou or the Angevin dynasty.  Once again this is a title that was never used during the lifetime of his descendants whose kingly posterity numbered between 14 and 16 depending on your point of view.  These monarchs and their descendants are also anachronistically named Plantagenets.  Thus were the English monarchs carefully collected into labelled boxes, although little attention was paid to the Anglo-Saxon predecessors who tended to be lumped together as pretty irrelevant.

Where then did the name Plantagenet come from?  Two relatively contemporary sources named Count Geoffrey of Anjou (d.1151) as having the nickname, Plantagenet, but nowhere is it explained by a contemporary what this meant.  The current nineteenth century ideas that it comes from genet or genista - a sprig of broom - have no foundation in history other than a guess by William Camden published in 1605.  Indeed the early kings, like the later ‘Tudor' ones had no surname, they were simply king, Empress or queen. 

Writing around 1160-70, Master Wace who was born about 1100, wrote:

E al contre Giffrei son frere,
que l'en clamont plante genest,
qui mult amout bois e forest.

so here we have Geoffrey who was called Plantagenet who much loved the wood and forest.  Of this description, the meaning of which is most unclear, plante, could come from the Middle French meaning a plant or possibly from the verb planter to plant.  Genest is even more problematical.  It could come from the Middle German genesen, to survive or recover after a long illness, or from genesta-genestrae - a broom plant.  This form is also found in the Old French genesen.  Geoffrey's other early mention was by the chronicler John Marmoutier writing for Henry II (1154-89).  Both men, of course, were writing after Geoffrey's death for his famous son, Henry II.  The name only really became known when Duke Richard of York (d.1460) adopted the name Richard Plantaginet in 1460 when claiming the throne from the feeble Henry VI (1422-71). 

Some later Medieval writers in England, namely Matthew Paris writing in the period 1254-59, write of Geoffrey of Anjou in 1128 as being known as Plantagenet (cognomento Plantegenest); the author of the Flores Historiarum records the marriage of Galfrido Plantegenest to the Empress Matilda in 1127; Ralph Diceto (d.1202) records Count Geoffrey several times as Gaufrido Plantegenest and twice has Henry II as the son of Count Geoffrey Plantegenest.  Finally in England, Ralph Coggeshall (d.1227) and the Peterborough chronicle mention the marriage of the Empress with Galfrido Plantegenest/Plantenest.  Geoffrey also appears under this name in chronicles south of the Channel, viz Gaufridus Plantegenest in the History of the Counts of Anjou and Geoffrey Vigeois.

Regardless of this apparent usage of the name, it never appears in any official document - leastways in any that has survived.  That said Geoffrey is given the nickname handsome (formosus) in a charter to Fontevrault abbey and has otherwise been recorded as later writers as Geoffrey le bel.  A later and inaccurate French chronicle, Chronicon Turonense Magnum, wrongly has as brothers of King Henry II (1154-89), William Longspey (d.1227) and Geoffrey Plantagenet.  Count Geoffrey (d.1151) did have a son, Geoffrey (d.1158), but there is no other evidence that he was called Plantagenet and the fact that Henry II's illegitimate son William Longspey was equated to his uncle William (d.1164), rather negates the usefulness of this source in this matter.  The same error occurs in the chronicle of William Nangis.

Finally, the story that Richard I (1189-99) liked to boast of his ancestors' descent from Melusine and the devil was a calumny poured on his head from the bitter lies of the royal family's chronicling enemy, Giraldus Cambrensis (d.1223).  Sadly Gerald is not a reliable witness and was regarded by Archbishop Theobald of Canterbury (d.1205) as well as by Pope Innocent III (1198-1216) as a notorious forger.  To this day he is still known to the Irish that remember him as Gerald the Liar.

In summary, Plantagenet was a name given to a series of related kings who ruled England from 1154 to 1485/1603, depending on your point of view.  As ever the true history of these monarchs and their relatives is still much debated.


Copyright©2023 Paul Martin Remfry

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