What happened to Edward II?

David Carpenter

  • 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.

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