The Conquering Family


Thomas Costain




Date Reviewed:

November 25, 2011

he Conquering Family is the first book in a set of four books that tells the story of the reigns of the English monarchs. The Amazon review of this book inaccurately states: "Thomas B. Costain's four-volume history of the Plantagenets begins with THE CONQUERING FAMILY and the conquest of England by William the Conqueror in 1066, closing with the reign of John in 1216." This book does NOT start with the story of William the Conqueror and the battle of Hastings in 1066, instead it begins with the death of King Henry I (I am not sure which year Henry died, Costain's use of dates is sparse, and his use of maps is non-existent. I really would have appreciated a map that showed where all the French provinces were that the English and French fought over so incessantly - I can point to Normandy and Brittany on a map, but I do not know where Anjou or Aquitaine are located). The death of Henry I results in a Civil War between Stephen and Matila. William the Conqueror is barely mentioned in the whole book.

Costain claims he is writing a novel, rather than a non-fiction work of history. Classifying this book as a novel allows Costain to occasionally tell us what someone is thinking or give a little bit of invented dialogue. But other than those small bits of author-license, Costain does not create any thing of his own. This is not a novel in a tradional sense of having a plot and a story to tell. This book reads more like a series of long encyclopedia articles. True, it well written and I read the whole book because I am interested in history, but the book is devoid of suspense or plot. I am the sort of person that can find articles on history interesting. But if you a looking for a book that dramatizes English history, it is probably best to look else where.

A lot of ground is covered in this book. From the death of King Henry I, Costain shows us the civil wars between Stephen and Matilda, which ended eventually in the long rule of King Henry II, followed by the reigns of Richard the Lionhearted and Evil King John. King Henry I died in 1135, and King John died in 1216, so this book roughly covers 100 years of history.

A good deal of attention is paid to the famous feud between King Henry II and his good friend Thomas Becket, whom he awarded the position of Archbishop of Canterbury, one of the most important positions in the English church hierarchy. Everyone knows what happened next - once installed as Archbishop, Becket suddenly ceased being King Henry's friend and took positions contrary to the King's interest, instead, Becket's decisions favored the Church. This lead to constant strife between the two former friends, until soldiers murdered Becket. Reading the story of Henry and Becket as related by Costain, it seemed to me that Becket acted like a real jerk, but this is not an in depth portrait of these two men.

Nor does King Richard the Lionhearted fair particularly well in Costain's telling. Richard comes across as a tremendous warrior but a poor administrator. But if Richard's portrayal is bad, Costain's depiction of King John shows him an awful villain. King John's forces himself upon any woman that he fancies, he oppresses his citizens with outrageous taxes, he mismanages foreign affairs to such a degree that by the end of his reign all English territories in France have been lost. Indeed, King John is such a poor monarch that the barons rebel against his rule and ultimately force him to sign the Magna Carta, which is the first step in limiting the power of Kings and starting Western Europe on to the long road to democracy.

One big complaint I have with this book is that Costain includes the entire text of the Magna Cartz, which seems like nothing so much as filler. Anyone interest in the exact contents of that document could easily research it. Putting the text into a "novel" makes no sense.

Over all, this was an interesting book to me because my knowledge of English history is quite limited. I have read The Sunne in Splendor, so it will be interesting to compare Costain's portrayals of Edward III and Richard II to Sharon Kay Penman's description. As of this writing, I do intend to read the remaining three books in this series, eventually.