Edward III

Helen Castor finds a fine-grained narrative on a medieval monarch quite compelling

February 2, 2012

It's an unfortunate irony that this fine book may well reach a relatively small readership for precisely the same reason that it deserves to find a large one. At more than 700 pages, it is a dauntingly large volume, filled with the extraordinary detail - sometimes day by day - of a reign that lasted half a century. But I hope that readers with a general, rather than professional, interest in history won't be put off by its sheer scale. We don't need to know, for example, that Edward III bought himself a new steel hauberk for his campaign against the Scots in 1333; but this glinting scrap of information forms part of the pointillist process by which Mark Ormrod builds up a remarkable portrait of a king who ruled his kingdom through active participation at the heart of events, rather than detached command from on high.

Edward came to the throne at the age of 14 in perhaps the least propitious circumstances of any medieval king. His father, Edward II, was deposed and murdered by his mother, Queen Isabella, and her lover Roger Mortimer - a coup made possible by the fact that a crisis-filled reign had culminated in the tyranny of a grasping favourite, Hugh Despenser. The people of England welcomed the queen as their saviour, only to find that she and Mortimer were no less self-serving than the regime they had replaced. It was left to the young puppet-king, Edward III, to offer his country genuine salvation - and he did so in 1330 at the age of just 17, in a coolly executed coup of his own, when his men emerged from a secret tunnel below Nottingham Castle to arrest Isabella and Mortimer and seize control of government.

From then on, Edward's rule - as Ormrod shows with nuance and conviction - was founded on a powerful sense of the public responsibilities of kingship, an almost unerring ability to articulate aims that the political classes were prepared to buy into, and a remarkable capacity to heal the deep wounds that his parents had inflicted on the body politic. The wars with Scotland and France into which he led his people cost a great deal in both money and human suffering, and the task of maintaining the financial supply and political support on which they depended was never less than challenging. But the fact that Edward's great victories at Halidon Hill, Sluys, Crécy, Calais and Poitiers brought England not only glory but also diplomatic and defensive advantage meant that he was able to carry his country with him, even while it reeled, after 1348, under the horrifying assault of the Black Death.

For a period whose historians lack the easy intimacy of private letters and diaries, Ormrod still finds ways to humanise his king, whether we glimpse Edward dressed as a pheasant for a fancy dress party in an arresting outfit made of copper piping covered with feathers, or fighting incognito - the epitome of chivalric derring-do - on the streets of Calais to repel a French attempt to recapture the town. Again and again it is the intensely personal quality of medieval politics that Ormrod conveys with vivid clarity, along with the overwhelming significance to his protagonists - to an extent almost unimaginable today - of the codes of chivalry. In 1356, the guest of honour at the feast to celebrate England's triumph at the Battle of Poitiers was the captured French king, Jean II; and eight years later the same French king surrendered himself once again into English hands in place of his son who had dishonourably absconded from custody.

In the end, Edward's ambition to add the throne of France to his crown of England proved to be a chimera. Of more lasting significance, it turned out, were the developments in domestic government - from the emergence of the justices of the peace to the statutory definition of treason - that helped to underpin his war effort, and those, like the process of impeachment, that evolved during the dark days at the end of the reign when Edward's majesty faded into the humiliations of physical and mental decline.

As Ormrod remarks: "Edward III lived...too long to allow any easy generalisations about his personality, career and reign." And it's precisely the absence of easy generalisations that makes this lucid, fine-grained narrative so compelling.

Edward III

By W. Mark Ormrod

Yale University Press, 644pp, £30.00

ISBN 9780300119107

Published 24 November 2011

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