A warrior who lifted the crown

The Perfect King

December 22, 2006

History is written at many levels. The learned article in The English Historical Review may impress members of research assessment exercise panels, but it may have little more than tens of readers. History of a very different kind sells in airport bookshops; if it is about religious conspiracies and the Holy Grail, there are huge profits to be made. Can both the academic and popular markets be satisfied? The late Richard Fletcher, with books such as The Quest for El Cid and Bloodfeud, showed that it was possible.

Ian Mortimer's study of Edward III intends to attract a wide audience, but, unusually, solid manuscript research underlies many of its pages. The character of the King is the centrepiece. For Mortimer, "beneath the lighthearted exterior was a deeply committed and serious core of ambition".

This is surely right, but to go further and see him as "a warrior monk to whom the military guidebook of Vegetius was like a bible" is too much. The fact that his mother borrowed a copy of Vegetius does not prove that Edward read it, and his prayers were no more than what could be expected from a conventional man of his time. At the same time, Edward is rightly seen as romantic, a man who enjoyed the excitement of a secret mission and who was prepared to take surprising risks.

He was courageous and he had the charisma required of a great military leader. But Edward was much more than a brilliant soldier, as Mortimer makes clear. Under him, the monarchy recovered from the low point of Edward II's deposition. Through skilful political manoeuvres, an able use of patronage, an appeal to chivalric virtues and a sense of grandeur and display, the monarchy was not merely restored, but taken to new heights.

War, however, was the key to Edward's reign; it was the triumphs of Crecy and Poitiers that did most to re-establish the monarchy.

Long-held interpretations of English intentions in the Hundred Years War have been challenged recently by Clifford Rogers, an American scholar.

Countering the traditional view that the English put pressure on the French through savage, destructive raids and fought battles only when their armies had their backs to the wall, Rogers argues that there was truth in English propaganda claims that Edward's aim was to seek battle.

Mortimer follows this. Edward did indeed look to fight, but only on his terms and on a field of his choosing. This makes sense, and the success at Crecy in 1346 was the result. Mortimer's portrayal of the battle demonstrates his descriptive gifts and brings out the full horrors of medieval warfare. But it provides only one of the many possible interpretations. Much is made, for example, of Edward's use of guns, but it is far from clear from the sources that these were used for more than defence of the baggage train.

There can be little doubt that sex does more to sell books than constitutional history. The political crisis of 1341 is covered in three and a half pages; the extraordinary and surely fictitious tale of the king's brutal rape of the Countess of Salisbury occupies five and a half.

The king, we are told, "definitely enjoyed and encouraged the multiple flirtations of his sexually charged court". An extraordinary suggestion is that Edward's devoted queen, Philippa, in her final illness, hinted to Alice Perrers, "a sexually desirable servant at court", that she might "please the king". There were indeed some curious goings-on in Edward's court circle. The love-match between the Black Prince and Joan of Kent, who had previously been married to two men simultaneously, was remarkable. Yet Edward III was faithful to his queen, and then to his mistress; and while he may have been no puritan, there is little to show that he encouraged sexual licence at court.

The extravagant display of Edward's court emerges clearly from detailed surviving accounts. Coats for the king, his small son and Sir William Montague were embroidered with gold trees featuring silk birds and angels holding a crossbow made of silver and pearl. In 1337, the king wore a black hood with images of tigers and a castle embroidered on it, which was decorated with almost 400 pearls. Great building programmes, most notably Windsor Castle, emphasised the crown's authority. This was arguably a grander and more ostentatious court than even that of the Tudors.

There have to be compromises to accommodate a wider readership. The story that the king's father, Edward II, escaped the threat of a red-hot poker and lived into the 1340s may seem to be a bid for headlines and a descent into conspiracy theory. It is even suggested that Edward III met his father in 1338 in Germany, where they discussed Edward I. This is guesswork piled on hypothesis, yet there are arguments in favour of this story. Mortimer is convinced of its veracity; there is no ultimate proof.

The title of this book, with its reference to Edward as father of the English nation, reads like a throwback to a Victorian age. It is intended very differently. An appendix argues that more than 99 per cent of children now born to parents of English origins are descended from Edward III, and so "the virtues and weaknesses of this man have passed into the entire English people, in every walk of life". Yet this argument surely means that most of today's population is also descended from the many other 14th-century couples who had a large number of children. What this book loses in the bid for a popular readership is some of the academic arguments and alternative interpretations. What it gains is readability and sales.

Students should use it with caution, but if it raises interest in an extraordinary period of English history, it will serve a valuable purpose.

Michael Prestwich is professor of history, Durham University.

The Perfect King: The Life of Edward III, Father of the English Nation

Author - Ian Mortimer
Publisher - Jonathan Cape
Pages - 560
Price - £20.00
ISBN - 0 224 07301 X

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