The publication of Michael Prestwich’s volume in the New Oxford History of England means that the series is now complete for the central and later Middle Ages. In their form and approach Prestwich’s Plantagenet England, Robert Bartlett’s England under the Norman and Angevin Kings 1074-1225 and Gerald Harris’s England 1360-1461 are very different, but they are equally masterly in their scholarship.
Prestwich’s task was formidable, especially when compared with that of his predecessors in the original Oxford series. There, Sir Maurice Powicke covered the period from 1216 to 1307, and May McKisack that from 1307 to 1399, 91 and 92 years respectively. Prestwich was assigned the entire period from 1225 to 1360, some 135 years, and thus had to embrace Henry III’s personal rule, the Montfortian wars, Edward I’s reform of the realm and the conquest of Wales, which were all in Powicke; as well as Bannockburn, the disastrous reign of Edward II, the first phase of the Hundred Years War and the initial impact of the Black Death, which were all in McKisack. Prestwich also had to deal with the gigantic amount of new work published since Powicke and McKisack wrote in the 1950s and 1960s, work that has opened up many new subjects and transformed understanding of politics and government, society and the economy.
Prestwich’s response to these challenges is to divide his book into three parts. The first, “Introductory”, covers the environment, crown and kingship, and government. Chapter one - on climate, health, landscape, animals, buildings and transport - is particularly imaginative and effective in drawing readers into the book.
Part two, dealing with politics and wars, provides a brisk and lucid narrative of the reigns of Henry III, Edward I, Edward II and (up to 1360) Edward III. Here, as throughout the book, Prestwich makes wide and meticulously footnoted use of the work of other historians. He also draws on his knowledge of the primary sources, many of them unpublished. Thus telling use is made of the letter of Hugh Despencer, Edward II’s unscrupulous favourite and minister, in which he brazenly stated that his aim was “to be rich and attain our ends”. This makes it all the more likely that the royal letters that at this time in the 1320s urged the Exchequer to act “so that we may become rich” were the work of Despencer rather than the hapless Edward II, who preferred to relax with actors and labourers and could not get up in the morning to hear Mass.
It is perhaps part three of the book, on society and people, that marks most clearly the advances in historical scholarship since the days of Powicke and McKisack. Prestwich examines fully and carefully a whole series of questions explored and debated by recent historians. These include the so-called transition from “feudalism” to “bastard feudalism”, and whether the composition of magnate retinues changed significantly in this period; the decline in the number of knights in the 13th century, and whether this was related to a social and economic crisis; the extent of lawlessness and corruption, and whether the king increasingly handed local government over to magnates and gentry; the characteristics of towns, and the impact of supporting London on its hinterland; the rise in the population and its consequences for peasant living standards; and the numbers killed by the Black Death and whether it was caused by bubonic plague. (The exiguous evidence for rats makes this less likely, although one complete corpse with fur and whiskers has been found in a grave in Salisbury.)
Prestwich treats these questions with perception and judgment, as befits someone twice chosen to chair the research assessment exercise panel in history. He is wary of overarching hypotheses and oversimplified answers, but there are major themes. One is the impact of war on government and society. Another is the development of general taxation and thus the emergence of the Commons in Parliament, which alone could grant it. The establishment of this “fiscal state” meant that, potentially, monarchy was more soundly based at the end of the period than at the beginning. However, a new type of kingship, one that reached out to a wide political society, was required to exploit the potential. It was that which was supplied by Edward III, the victor of Crecy, and the most effective king in this period.
Edward III liked a good song. Prestwich’s eye for telling and human detail is found throughout the book. We learn, for example, of Bishop Stapledon’s spectacles, very necessary for one who reorganised the documents of the Exchequer; of William Clinton’s concern that the canons of his new Augustinian house should have good voices, important as they were to offer prayers for his soul; of Agnes de Haldanby, blinded by assailants who cut out her tongue and “and let her go inhumanly as a beast”; and of Ralph Duram, a merchant, whose letter regretting his separation from his wife, mother and sister, concluded: “I’ve nothing else to tell you, except that I’m thinking of you.” Prestwich never strains after stylistic effect, but there are pithy and arresting sentences. “Urban life,” we are assured, “was not just a matter of muck, crime and prostitution.”
Prestwich frankly admits that his book has little on intellectual and artistic life, and includes no set-piece treatment of the Church and religion. If these are omissions, they are shared by Powicke’s earlier volume, and are partly remedied by the way Prestwich weaves the friars, reforming bishops and the pastoral movement into other parts of the story. Plantagenet England , wide-ranging, judicious, humane and surely Prestwich’s masterpiece, ends on an inspiring note: “The real wonder of 13th and 14th-century England liesÉ in the strength, stability and resilience that was shown by the English people.”
David Carpenter is professor in medieval history, King’s College London.
Plantagenet England 1225-1360
Author - Micheal Prestwich
Publisher - Oxfrod University Press
Pages - 664
Price - £35.00 and £19.99
ISBN - 0 19 822844 9 and 922687 3