Anyone who has seen 'The Lion in Winter' will remember the vicious, compelling world of the Plantagenets: the towering, almost psychopathic Henry II, commander of the slaughter of Thomas a' Becket, at war with both his wife the formidable Eleanor of Aquitaine and his sons (including the subjects of this remarkable book, Richard and John). And readers of the romance of Robin Hood will be familiar with the type-casting of Good King Richard, defending Christendom in the Holy Land, and Bad King John who usurps the kingdom in his absence. The images are mother's milk to every Hollywood producer and every British schoolchild. But how much do these popular stereotypes correspond with reality?
Frank McLynn, known for a wide range of historical studies which are scholarly, punchy and wonderfully readable, has returned to the original sources to discover what the Plantagenets were really like and how their history measures up to their myth. In a substantial but riveting narrative he turns the tables on modern revisionist historians by showing exactly how bad a king John was, despite his intellectual gifts, and in contrast how impressive Richard was - brilliantly successful in war, accomplished artistically and the nearest we are likely to get to the medieval ideal of chivalry. In a narrative that spans most of Europe and the middle east he shows these larger-than-life characters as they really were - Crusading, fighting vicious wars in France, negotiating with the papacy, engaging in ruthless dynastic intrigue, often against each other: in Richard's case, holding the kingdom together even when fighting in the Holy Land; and in John's, losing Normandy, catastrophically antagonizing the barons over Magna Carta and losing the Crown Jewels in the Wash.
This is history at its most revealing and enjoyable. It conjures up a vanished world in vivid primary colours and in the process gives us the nearest we are likely to get to the truth about two compelling historical archetypes.