What happened to Edward II?
- The Perfect King: The Life of Edward III, Father of the British Nation by Ian Mortimer
Pimlico, 536 pp, £8.99, April 2007, ISBN 978 1 84413 530 1
Here the glory of the English; the flower of past kings; the form of future kings; a merciful king; the peace of his peoples; Edward III, completing the jubilee of his reign; an unconquered leopard; victorious in battle like a Maccabee . . . he ruled mighty in arms; now in heaven let him be a king.
So (in translation) run the verses around the tomb of Edward III in Westminster Abbey, erected soon after his death in 1377. Edward, the initiator of the Hundred Years War, the victor of Sluys and Crécy, the conqueror of Calais, achieved legendary status in his lifetime, and was long revered after his death. Dr Johnson, in his poem London, called on ‘illustrious Edward!’ to survey the current crop of degenerate Britons: ‘Lost in thoughtless ease, and empty show . . . the warrior dwindled to a beau’. Perhaps the only comparable hero in British history has been Churchill, and as with Churchill, Edward’s reputation survived a long period of dotage. In the 19th century, as Ian Mortimer shows in the introduction to his new biography, Victorian rectitude and a preoccupation with constitutional history caused feelings about Edward to change. Bishop Stubbs, ‘peering down on the Middle Ages from the twin heights of an episcopal throne and a professorial chair’, as Mortimer puts it, condemned Edward as ‘ambitious, unscrupulous, selfish, extravagant and ostentatious’.
In more recent times, historians have continued to enter reservations. ‘He practised appeasement at home to pursue war abroad’ is a judgment undergraduates are frequently asked to address. Thus Edward has been seen as careless of the rights of the Crown, too little concerned with the maintenance of law and order, too generous in his patronage of nobles, too ready to hand local government over to a corrupt ‘bastard feudal’ combination of magnates and gentry, and too accommodating to the demands of the Commons in Parliament. All this, it is suggested, created difficulties for his successor and grandson, Richard II, and even laid some of the foundations for the Wars of the Roses. These views have not gone unchallenged. In the 1950s May McKisack wrote a sturdy defence of Edward (rightly praised by Mortimer). Then, in the 1980s and 1990s, in a series of books and articles based on extensive work in the record sources, Mark Ormrod argued vigorously that Edward had been a conscientious, ‘hands-on king’ who successfully asserted royal authority.
It is not Mortimer’s intention to enter into these debates or to examine Edward’s government in any detail. This is a narrative biography, with Edward’s personality, martial exploits and way of life very much to the fore. Mortimer’s tone is confident and his writing style dramatic. His approach is reflected in the chapter titles: ‘A Treasonable Youth’; ‘The Devil for Wrath’; ‘Absolute Royalty’; ‘Warrior of God’; ‘The Vow of the Heron’; ‘Chivalry and Shame’ and so on. In his conclusion, he praises Edward for five major achievements: the restoration of royal authority after his father’s disastrous reign; the maintenance of domestic peace; the reassertion of England’s power on the international stage; the development of Parliament; and the practice of ‘modernised warfare’. ‘Whether we like it or not,’ he tells us, ‘Edward was to warfare what Mozart was to music’: the ‘perfect king’. Although written for a popular audience, the book’s judgments, and the narrative that underlies them, are based on a considerable amount of work in both primary and secondary sources, as is clear from a hundred pages of appendixes and endnotes. Nor is Mortimer shy of developing his own ideas. Indeed, the first part of the book is informed by an original hypothesis for which he has become renowned. Edward, he argues, concealed the fact that his father, Edward II, remained alive after his deposition and supposed death in 1327. The first phase of his reign needs, therefore, to be seen in an entirely new light.
Vol. 29 No. 13 · 5 July 2007
David Carpenter says my work on the fake death of Edward II is ‘intriguing and ingenious’ (LRB, 7 June). However, I will not be flattered into withholding my observation that his review suffers from methodological flaws and an underlying assumption that the evidence for the ex-king’s death has a reliable foundation. Although Edward II is traditionally said to have died in 1327, there are many texts indicating that political leaders believed he was still alive in 1330. For example, those at the Parliament of March 1330 saw the Earl of Kent executed for trying to make Edward II king again. Historians who do not like their professional certainties questioned have simply ignored this evidence, or written it off as the idiocy of the Earl of Kent (even though his career shows he was no idiot).
I resorted to information science (my original professional discipline) to identify ‘who knew what and when they knew it’. I proved that the whole idea of Edward II’s ‘death’ in 1327 rests on a single message sent by Lord Berkeley to Edward III, which arrived on the night of 23 September 1327. Three years later Lord Berkeley stated in Parliament that ‘he did not know about the king’s death until that present moment.’ However you interpret this, it is plain that it raises a question about the veracity of that crucial first message. We simply cannot assume, as Carpenter does, that it was true. Texts showing a widespread belief that Edward II was alive in 1330 cannot be ignored.
No one has yet demonstrated a fault in my argument, yet Carpenter does not believe it. I cannot object to this per se but I do object to his misrepresentation of both my methodology and the evidence. First, he uses guesses as to the protagonists’ motives as evidence; this is methodologically prejudicial, like locking up the usual suspects. Second, he states ‘there is no evidence’ for my assertion that the ex-king’s face was obscured during his lying-in-state, even though this was then customary (I cite several sources). Third, he says things are ‘certain’ without a shred of evidence, as when he claims that ‘many people would certainly have seen the body itself before’ the lying-in-state. Who? Where? The body was in Berkeley Castle, under guard, and enveloped in cerecloth. If anyone has any doubts that Edward II was alive and well in 1330, I urge them to read my peer-refereed article in the English Historical Review (Vol. 120, 2005).
University of Exeter
Vol. 29 No. 15 · 2 August 2007
Ian Mortimer says that ‘no one has yet demonstrated a fault’ in his argument for Edward II’s survival (Letters, 5 July). I had thought my review of his book The Perfect King had demonstrated a series of them. I am at a loss to understand why it is illegitimate to consider what possible motive Roger Mortimer had for faking Edward’s death, especially as I was responding to Ian Mortimer’s own suggestion that the aim was in some way to trap Edward III. Ian Mortimer persists in quoting only the second half of Lord Berkeley’s statement to Parliament in 1330. As I said in my review, when the sentence is quoted in full, by far the most natural reading of ‘he did not know about that death’ is that he did not know Edward had been murdered, not that he didn’t know he was dead. Ian Mortimer suggests that the body could not have been identified because its face would have been covered in the embalming process. But Adam Murimouth says that many abbots, priors, knights and burgesses of Bristol and Gloucester viewed the body. The whole point of this exercise was to prove that Edward II was dead. The embalming is irrelevant: the evidence Ian Mortimer himself cites for Richard II shows that it was perfectly possible to remove any cloth covering the face. The problem with the viewing of Edward II was that this proof was only available to a local audience, and there were soon rumours that Edward was still alive. But this does not mean they were true, any more than they were true in the case of Richard II. Mortimer urges anyone with doubts to read his ‘peer-refereed’ article on the subject in English Historical Review. I have an article coming out in EHR myself. I assume this means that the editor and referees think it is worth publishing. I do not assume everyone will agree with my conclusions.
King’s College London