Western Footprints – Three King Richards and a Broom Plant
By Anna Lee-Ames Frohlich
Anna Lee is wearing a tiara that belonged to her great grandmother, Alma Strettell Harrison, who was in the same line of descent from Anne of York, Richard III’s sister.
King Richard III of England, whose skeleton was recently found and identified 527 years after his death in 1485, was the last king in the line of descent of the Plantagenet dynasty. Richard did not refer to himself as a Plantagenet. It was not a surname, but the name of a dynasty that had started in 1154. Surnames were only just coming into use in the 1400s.
Richard was the last of the medieval kings. The Renaissance came to England about 1500 during the reign (1485-1509) of Henry VII who defeated Richard’s troops at the Battle of Bosworth where Richard was killed.
From the time of William the Conqueror’s victory over England (1066), all the kings of England were descended from William I, but there was not a straight line of descent. It went from father to son, brother to brother, grandfather to grandson and nephew to uncle. The crown passed by natural death and often when a usurper, wanting the throne, helped themselves to it.
The first Plantagenet king was Henry II, who was King of England from 1154-1189. His father Geoffrey, Count of Anjou, married Empress Matilda, granddaughter of William I and widow of the Holy Roman Emperor. Count Geoffrey, a tall and handsome man, became known as Geoffrey Plantagenet, because he wore a sprig of broom plant, Planta Genista in Latin, in his hat. Thus the Plantagenet dynasty was born.
Henry II’s son Richard I was the next king (1189-1199). He became known as Richard the Lionheart. This name described his skillfulness in war and his valor. It also described his great “Plantagenet rages.” People felt both fear and admiration for him. He was King of England but spent little time there as he was mostly involved with his European provinces. He was involved in the third Crusade, and died of a arrow wound in a minor skirmish. He was buried at the Plantagenet Abbey of Fontevrault in France.
Nearly two hundred years passed before there was another Richard ruling England. Richard was only 10 years old when he became king. He ruled from 1377-1399 and led troops into battle when he was only 14. He developed an appreciation of the arts, which led to the beautiful portrait in the Wilton Diptych, c. 1395-1399, which remarkably still exists in good condition at the National Gallery in London. It folds in two, one side shown here, and in it Richard is backed by his three patron saints: John the Baptist, Edward the Confessor and Edmond the Martyr. He is wearing a neckpiece made of the Plantagenet symbol, broom-cods. Richard II’s reign was one of much internal (within his court) and external conflict. His beloved wife Anne of Bohemia calmed him, and her death left him emotionally unbalanced. He was captured in 1399 and forced to abdicate in exchange for his life. He was murdered in Pontefract Castle in 1400.
Eighty-four years later, Richard III became king. When his brother King Edward IV died, Richard was supposed to be the protector of his two young nephews. The eldest nephew, Edward V, reigned for only two months until he and his brother, another Richard, disappeared from the Tower of London. The assumption has long been that Richard III had his nephews murdered in order to become king. This has never been proven. It could just have well been done by Henry, the 14th Earl of Richmond, who was from both the House of Lancaster and the House of Tudor and who had his eye on the crown of England.
After Richard III was killed at the Battle of Bosworth, Henry VII became the first Tudor king. He married Elizabeth of York, a niece of Richard III, thus effectively ending the lengthy War of the Roses that had divided the House of Plantagenet into the Lancastrian and Yorkist factions.
A century passed during which the Tudor’s had plenty of time to further vilify Richard III. When Shakespeare came along, Richard made his perfect villain, and he wrote an entire play about him, Richard III. The Bard was able to use poetic license. He exaggerated Richard’s physical infirmity making it a severely humped back instead of one shoulder lower than the other due to scoliosis of the spine. He also used Richard’s reputation to create a truly evil character.
Back to the beginning of this story when Geoffrey stuck that piece of Planta Genista in his hat thus leading to the name of the Plantagenet Dynasty – it began with a plant, the broom plant from the family FABACEAE. There are several genus names in the family including Genista and Erinacea. Erinacea anthyllis is hedgehog broom.
The animal, hedgehog, belongs to the subfamily Erinaceinae. Shakespeare referred to hedgehogs as rather nasty little beings. In his play Richard III Act 1, Scene 2, Lady Anne’s line, “Dost grant me, hedgehog?” could refer to his prickly nature, or is she also alluding to the name “Plantagenet,” as it ties in to hedgehogs through plant nomenclature?
A parting thought beginning with that sprig of broom plant in Geoffrey’s hat, think forward to Yankee Doodle! “He stuck a feather in his hat, and called it Macaroni.” “Macaroni” means in vogue or in fashion. It seems that that fashion changed little over 600 years.