Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Edward III: The Perfect King, by Ian Mortimer

Today I'm looking at a biography of Edward III, a king who definitely influenced English society for many years after his death and to some extent today, but is usually overlooked in popular histories of the English monarchy. Just looking on Goodreads it looks like Mortimer has done a lot of writing about this time period and he has very good credentials. I bring this up because Mortimer makes a very, very bold claim in this book which contradicts most of conventional history for the past six hundred years. On the one hand, I don't want to be reactionary and dismiss Mortimer's arguments simply because they don't fit established dogma. But on the other hand, I feel like Mortimer's argument isn't completely proof against criticism. Unfortunately I simply don't know enough about Edward III to determine whether these facts are correct.

For the sake of simplicity I shall refer to the author as Mortimer through this review while Roger Mortimer will be referred to as Roger.

The main issue with this book is Mortimer's assertion that Edward II did not die in 1327, which has been generally accepted as true for the past six hundred years. Mortimer asserts that Edward II actually lived in exile for at least another decade, finally dying possibly sometime in the early 1340's. Mortimer draws extensively on the Fieschi Letter, a document from about 1337 written by a papal notary to Edward III explaining the whereabouts of Edward II for the past decade and where he was currently. The letter claims that Edward II escaped his captors, managed to make his way to Ireland, and then eventually France where he traveled as a pilgrim, visited the pope in Avignon, and eventually headed to Italy where he lived as a recluse. Mortimer argues that instead of escaping Edward II's jailers released Edward and, realizing he could never gain the political capital necessary to take back the throne, spent the rest of his life in exile.

I did some digging on my own and I did find that the Fieschi Letter is considered to be genuine, that is it is from the fourteenth century and probably written by Fieschi. The debate largely centers around whether the facts argued in the letter are true. Personally I find a couple of things with this argument that don't make a lot of sense. First is Mortimer's assertion that Roger Mortimer and Queen Isabella let Edward II flee England. While I could understand Isabella not wanting to off her husband, I'm not sure why Roger would be willing to let Edward disappear. Through his actions it definitely looks like Roger was set to supplant Edward III as king given the right opportunity and establish his own dynasty. Having previous monarchs around alive is usually problematic for a usurper because rebellions can rally around the deposed monarch and the cause to reestablish them on the throne. Edward II, as unpopular as he was, would simply be too dangerous to Roger alive and his political position would be much more secure with Edward II safely (and very publicly) dead.

Another problem is Mortimer's assertion that Roger used the knowledge that Edward II was still alive after 1327 to blackmail Edward III. Mortimer supports this with the Earl of Kent's rebellion in 1330 on rumors that his half-brother Edward II was still alive, followed by Kent's capture and execution at the behest of Roger. Mortimer argues that Roger used the fact Edward II was still alive as a threat to Edward III with the son potentially being replaced by the father. Personally, I don't think this makes terribly much sense. I think it would be all too easy for Edward III to reveal that Roger had lied to him, the king, and put Roger in an untenable position. Roger had already gone through the effort of having Edward II effectively deposed by Parliament and put into prison so the underage Edward III could take over with Roger as regent. If Roger wanted to exert control on the young Edward III, I think he could have just as easily used the threat of deposition and death on Edward III. Roger's done it to one king already, why should he have scruples about doing it to another?

I'm just not sure if Mortimer makes enough of an argument for Edward II living past 1327 for it to be fully convincing. It's certainly within the realm of possibility, but Mortimer just doesn't seem to have enough evidence. Plus, the fact that he gets incredibly defensive about his hypothesis in his writing and makes some disparaging remarks about the historical ''establishment'' doesn't help his case at all.

Understandably, this major departure from what we know about Edward III, as well as lack of evidence, does make me doubt the veracity of the rest of his book. What I know about Edward III mostly comes from David Starkey and his student Dan Jones. Quite a bit of what Mortimer described matches up with what Starkey and Jones covered, so I want to tentatively say that otherwise this is a pretty good biography but I simply don't know enough about Edward III to say definitively one way or the other. Plus, the incomplete and inaccurate nature of documentation from the time means there are going to be confusions and inaccuracies

I think if you're looking for an in-depth biography on Edward III, this is definitely worth your time to read, although you might need some context. I know I had to look up what exactly the wool subsidy was as it related to taxation. The biggest issue really is the Edward II hypothesis and I've already gone into that into detail.

- Kalpar

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