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A new history of Edward III
on 10 September 2014
Ian Mortimer does an excellent job in rehabilitating Edward III, in a sense. Nineteenth- and twentieth-century historians were extremely critical of this king. Mortimer redresses this negative historiography by exploring in some detail the brilliance of Edward's reign.
Particularly enjoyable was Mortimer's analysis of Edward's cultural achievements and his interests in architecture, religion, music, chivalry, fashion, and culture more generally. He was an undoubtedly complex individual who lived a truly spectacular life. In many ways, as Mortimer notes, he was contradictory: capable of profound cruelty yet merciful and tolerant; spiritual yet promiscuous; straightforward yet mysterious. I came away from this book with a respect and admiration for Edward's remarkable achievements.
However, I did feel the book could have explored Edward's relationship with his mother more. Mortimer insists that Edward II survived his imprisonment in Berkeley Castle and was not in fact murdered there in 1327; but was Isabella a party to the plot to deceive the population of England about her husband's death, or was she, like Edward III initially, none the wiser? Mortimer does not really explore her in any detail. Granted, this is a biography of her son, but if mother and son were as close as Mortimer says they were, then one would feel he would surely have explored Edward's relationship with his mother in much greater detail. Mortimer also refers to Isabella as being Roger Mortimer's lover, when there is no actual evidence that she was. I believe Lisa Benz St John is one historian who stresses caution in identifying the two as being lovers.
The same could be said for Edward's relationship with his wife, Philippa of Hainault. The couple were undeniably close, having twelve children and enjoying a marriage of some forty-one years before Philippa's death in 1369. Mortimer refers to Philippa as Edward's helpmate and supporter, and she probably was. But beyond that Philippa is not explored in very much detail. This is probably due to the nature of the book: it is a male-dominated story, with very little focus on women and their influences on Edward beyond some references to chronicles. Although there is no biography of Philippa to date, and so this cannot be laid at Mortimer's door, it is a shame that he did not consult any texts on medieval queenship that might have informed his understanding of Philippa's role and her relationship with Edward. This results in some misinterpretation. For example, Mortimer castigates historian Paul Strohm (n. 52 to the tenth chapter "Edward the Conqueror") for suggesting that Philippa played an intercessionary role in 1347, claiming: 'the gender reading here says much more about the modern reader's quest for novel interpretation than the historical events of 1347'. While Mortimer makes the valid point that men, as well as women, could play influential intercessionary roles,this dismissal of Strohm's convincing interpretation results from his failure to consult any works on queenship. If he had done, he would have realised that medieval queens were expected and encouraged to play intercessionary roles in order to strengthen their husband's authority. Philippa successfully did this on a number of occasions. Therefore, the author could have explored how her acts of intercession actually strengthened Edward's hand. Perhaps she could have been given more credit. In the chapter "Chivalry and Shame", Mortimer contradicts himself by on the one hand asserting that the royal couple's marriage 'was strong enough to withstand the most damaging personal accusations made by the senior prelate in England', but on the very next page, he writes that Edward's marriage was 'in jeopardy'. Which is correct?
Most readers have commented on Mortimer's argument that Edward II, father of Edward II, actually did not die in 1327, but survived and resided in Europe until he died in about 1341. I feel Mortimer makes a valid argument for Edward II's survival, but I don't think it can be asserted with certainty that he DID survive. Appendix Two provides some interesting evidence for Edward's survival, which cannot be dismissed. In other chapters, Mortimer suggests that Edward III sought information from the pope about his father's survival and whereabouts and, when he learnt his father was travelling with pilgrims in Normandy, caused him to set off immediately with some men trying to locate him ("Absolute Royalty"). In September 1338, Mortimer believes Edward III came face to face with his father in Koblenz: 'this meeting had been planned well in advance'. Apparently, the penniless hermit and his son, now king of England, discussed their ancestor Edward I, for which we have no evidence. Mortimer therefore builds up a complex and, at times, difficult argument to follow in support of the notion that Edward II survived.
However, while Mortimer draws together a range of evidence to support his position, it seemed to me that he neglected the most basic and obvious questions. Firstly: why did Edward III want to get back in touch with his father? What did meeting him achieve? (yes, it may have proven that it really was his father and not his imposter, but after that?) Was Edward content to leave him in Europe living as a pilgrim/hermit, or was he intending to bring him back to England? Secondly: if it was known in Europe that Edward II was still alive, why were there no attempts to restore him to the throne? The medieval view of monarchy regarded the anoited king as God's chosen on earth. To remove him unlawfully, which had been the case in 1327 (Edward only 'abdicated' under duress), constituted usurpation and an offence to God. Edward II may not have been a successful king, but he was still king. God had chosen him. So it is never made clear why people did not attempt to restore Edward II to the throne. Was it because not many people actually knew, or was it because Edward III enjoyed strong support and others felt his father's rule would merely weaken the kingdom? Thirdly, the Fieschis may have been related to the English royal family, but what did they hope to achieve by sheltering or helping Edward II?
Perhaps most importantly, what were Edward II's feelings himself? Was he surely content to be a pilgrim in Europe? Evidence presented both in this book and in other works concerning Edward II convince me that he strongly believed he was God's anoited on Earth and was extremely conscious of his regal majesty. He believed he was destined for kingship. But if the argument presented in this book is to be accepted, he suddenly was content to let his son rule the kingdom while he enjoyed a less arduous life on the continent. Was it because he suddenly experienced a religious revelation that convinced him he should serve God in another capacity? Was it because of some unrecorded agreement between father and son, since (according to Mortimer) they met and conversed with one another? These questions are never answered. One might also question why Lord Berkeley sent letters to Edward III in September 1327 informing him of his father's sudden death, but, at the parliament of November 1330 condemning Roger Mortimer and his adherents, suddenly declared he had never before known of Edward II's demise. Perhaps the obvious answer is that he was lying at this parliament in an attempt to save his own skin. Mortimer was hanged as a traitor - perhaps Lord Berkeley was attempting to avoid the same gruesome fate by insisting he had no knowledge and was not involved in the former king's death.
I am not necessarily disputing Mortimer's suggestion that Edward II survived. I do feel he provided some thoughtful and powerful evidence in support of the notion that the king did survive. But I feel the Scottish answer of 'not proven' is most appropriate here. Instead of reiterating that Edward II 'almost certainly' survived as if it were fact, it might have been better to conclude that it cannot now be known with any certainty, one way or the other, if Edward II died in Berkeley Castle in 1327 or whether he did survive.
Aside from these issues, a very entertaining, thorough and thought-provoking account of the life of Edward III that readers who enjoy medieval history should read.