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Not our finest hour

Ever since Edward II’s deposition and grisly murder in the dungeons of Berkeley Castle in 1327, his reign has always been regarded as a particularly embarrassing interlude in English history.

12 May 2010

12:00 AM

12 May 2010

12:00 AM

Edward II Seymour Phillips

Yale, pp.679, 25

Ever since Edward II’s deposition and grisly murder in the dungeons of Berkeley Castle in 1327, his reign has always been regarded as a particularly embarrassing interlude in English history.

Ever since Edward II’s deposition and grisly murder in the dungeons of Berkeley Castle in 1327, his reign has always been regarded as a particularly embarrassing interlude in English history. In 1908, when there was still some pretence that such subjects had a place in the classroom, teachers were advised that the period should be ‘passed over in discreet silence’. Not only was it one of fruitless civil war; Edward was also thought to have been a homosexual, who doted on favourites and was killed by a red-hot poker thrust into his anus.

Yet here is a biography, written by a distinguished expert for the prestigious Yale English Monarchs series, which argues that the beleaguered sovereign was actually ‘not fundamentally different from most of his predecessors and successors on the English throne’. This is an interesting proposition, but anyone who absorbs the full 613 pages of text, including the extensive footnotes, is likely to conclude that there is still much sense in the old orthodoxy. Edward was, frankly, a complete disaster — and quite a nasty piece of work besides.

The facts speak for themselves. When Edward came to the throne in 1307, it would not be too much of an exaggeration to say that England was peaceful, prosperous and stable. Wales had been annexed and Scotland appeared to be going the same way. Justice, meanwhile, was apparently entering a new era of sophistication, with the common law, though still in its infancy, superseding the old principle that every nobleman was king of his own fiefdom.

Twenty years later, England was a poor country, politically dysfunctional and on the verge of the first act of regicide since Anglo-Saxon times. Law had effectively ceased to operate, since anyone capable of flattering the king could obtain a pardon, no matter how grave their transgressions. This encouraged a series of ever-more grasping courtiers — Piers Gaveston, Roger Damory and Hugh Despenser the Younger — to take what they liked from their enemies, safe in the knowledge that no writ would ever be allowed to run against them.

Seymour Phillips’ attempt to salvage Edward’s reputation in the face of these facts is admirable, but unconvincing. He goes well beyond the usual defence that any king would have struggled to rule England after the reign of his father, Edward I, who may have raised the expectations of medieval kingship unsustainably. His portrait of a ruler who was humane, intelligent and misunderstood jars terribly with the facts he so diligently recounts.

The monarch in question was a man who had his most loyal commander, Sir Andrew Harclay, hanged, drawn and quartered less than a year after he single-handedly defeated the core of the baronial opposition at the Battle of Boroughbridge in 1322. Harclay’s crime was no greater than to make a sensible peace treaty with the Scots, whom Edward had allowed to run amok in the northern counties since his crushing defeat at Bannockburn in 1314. Though Phillips may be sympathetic to Edward’s ‘feelings of betrayal’, contemporaries were only too well aware of the king’s ingratitude, short-sightedness and sheer incompetence.

Phillips is more amusing when he attempts to refute the popular assumption — immortalised by Christopher Marlowe’s play — that Edward was a homosexual. In doing so, he grandly dismisses various important chronicles as being ‘like today’s tabloids’, while urging the reader to believe that it was quite normal for medieval kings to enjoy the spectacle of ‘naked dancers’ instead of hunting or promoting tournaments. The story of the red-hot poker, meanwhile, is dismissed as either being an invention of his homophobic enemies or a fabrication of his pious supporters; Phillips cannot decide.

His suggestion that Edward’s wife, Isabella, did not have an affair with the exiled nobleman, Sir Roger Mortimer, is even more perplexing. Were this contention true, it is hard to fathom why the queen would have risked everything by allying herself with another man, or why the treasurer, Walter Stapelton, would have referred euphemistically to their ‘keeping company both in and out of doors’ shorty before their successful coup d’état in 1326-7. Of course, it is possible that she was motivated by a higher ideal than adulterous love; but this would be hard to reconcile with the author’s judgment that the regime was considerably less hated than hitherto supposed.

With these examples of revisionism, Phillips not only contradicts his own work — notably his masterly Aymer de Valance, published some 40 years ago — but also the recent biography by Roy Martin Haines (2003), which scarcely gets a mention. He prefers instead to quote extensively from Hilda Johnstone’s 70-year-old Edward of Caernarvon, which has the sole virtue of being the only decidedly ‘pro-Edward’ book in the great heap of scholarship through which he has trawled.  

These criticisms excepted, it would be an exaggeration to say that Phillips’ book, described on the fly-jacket as the ‘definitive biography’, is just a lengthy apologia for a useless king. Like the other volumes in the series, it is not intended to be a lively read packed with the author’s personal analysis, but rather a compendium of facts designed primarily with university students in mind. One can’t help but feel that the author thought it incumbent on him to offer a startling new account of the reign. If so, it is to be regretted.

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