The story begins in 1128 with the marriage in Le Mans cathedral of Geoffrey, Count of Maine and Anjou to Matilda, grand-daughter of William the Conqueror and widow of a powerful German emperor. Among the wedding gifts was the prospect of the thrones of England and Normandy (at that time independent of France as we know it today). Geoffrey loved to hunt and would often stick a sprig of yellow broom – in French the plante known as genet – into his cap, and it was this that earned him the nickname, ‘Plantagenet’.
The count and his bride had a son, Henry, born in the county palace (now the Hotel de Ville) in Le Mans in 1133 and baptised in the cathedral. In 1152, the year following his father’s death, Henry married Eleanor of Aquitaine, a powerful woman whose marriage to Louis VII had been annulled only two months earlier. With her she brought vast estates extending from the Loire to the Pyrenees.
Two years later, Henry became king of England, the first of fourteen hereditary kings, later collectively referred to as the Plantagenets, a dynasty that now owned a huge empire reaching from Scotland to the Pyrenean borders with Spain. The 15th century, however, saw great division in the Plantagenet ranks as the House of York battled with the House of Lancaster in the English civil war that later became known as the War of the Roses. Only in 1485, with the death of Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field did the dynasty finally end.
It is an interesting aside that when, in 1063, with the many counts of France vying to fill a power vacuum, William (‘the Bastard’, as he was known) sought to gain a base in Le Mans, but was rejected by its people. Three years later his attention crossed the Channel with devastating and long-lasting effect. If only the people of Le Mans had been as accommodating then as they are now!