Edward II: The Unconventional King by Kathryn Warner
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|Edward II: The Unconventional King by Kathryn Warner|
|Reviewer: John Van der Kiste|
|Summary: Traditionally regarded as one of the worst English kings of all, this rich and sympathetic yet balanced biography shows that the story of a reign filled by reliance on male favourites, constant threats of civil war, endless baronial quarrels, the worst English military defeat ever to take place on British soil and abdication is not the full story. This rounded portrait, praising his virtues while not attempting to conceal his failings. In her final assessment she notes that he was left a difficult legacy by his mighty father (a more recent parallel with Tsar Alexander III and the ill-fated Nicholas II comes to mind), ands was forced to try and fill a role he had little aptitude for or interest in. Altogether this is a sad story, but extremely well told.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 336||Date: May 2017|
|External links: Author's website|
Edward II has come down to us as one of the worst English kings of all. With a reign filled by reliance on male favourites, constant threats of civil wars, endless quarrels with his barons, unsuccessful military campaigns (including what was perhaps the worst English military defeat ever to take place on British soil), abdication and – so we are led to believe – a brutal death in captivity - the balance sheet is a pretty poor one. But is it the full story?
Kathryn Warner, who has devoted years to a study of the King, suggests, nay proves that it is not, and indeed that it is not totally accurate. Judged against the standards of his time he was indeed a failure, but some of the traits for which he was condemned might be seen as positive virtues by present day standards. In the introduction, we learn that he was one of only two people in history to found colleges at both Oxford and Cambridge, that he enjoyed the company of the common man and eagerly joined in their activities such as thatching roofs, shoeing horses and digging ditches, and that near the end of his reign he happily spent time living in a cottage rather than one of his luxurious palaces. The barons probably did not know what to make of a monarch who was not ashamed to reveal such rustic, down-to-earth tastes and often seemed happier behaving like a peasant than a lord.
When trying to assess the character of Kings – or for that matter any public figures – who lived so long ago, and in such a brutal age, we are dependent on chroniclers who often had an axe to grind. It is said on slender evidence that he was a disappointment to his father, one of the heroes of the baronial civil wars during his father Henry III's reign and an eager participant in crusades to the Holy Land. His obsession with male favourites, notably Piers Gaveston in the early years and the Despensers, father and son in later years, showed a major miscalculation on his part. Gaveston seems to have been comparatively harmless, but Hugh Despenser the Younger was over-ambitious and harboured a desire to become ruler of England in all but name. The King's marriage to Isabella of France was successful enough for several years, and the stories about her being threatened by an abusive husband may well have been legends. Likewise, some of the scandalous stories about extra-marital and even incestuous affairs are shown to have probably been the inventions of later medieval writers, keen to embroider the most skeletal of life histories with scurrilous assertions in the interests of a good story. Tabloid journalism of a sort was alive and well several hundred years ago.
Having survived a disastrous campaign against the Scots, culminating in the ignominious (for him) battle of Bannockburn, Edward might well have kept his throne for longer had it not been for his unwise choice in favourites and also for a war with France. Ms Warner suggests that his reign began to stagger towards its miserable end when he sent Queen Isabella to France to negotiate a peace settlement with her brother King Charles IV. She returned eighteen months later – with an invasion force. By that time Edward had lost control of his kingdom and been forced to surrender the Great Seal. His infant son, another Edward, succeeded him. After that, tradition has it, he was imprisoned and as all the histories tell us, horribly executed with a red-hot poker, then given a splendid funeral.
In fact, Edward of Caernarvon, as he became known after his abdication, was still alive. Several modern historians dispute this, and of course we can never know for certain, but Ms Warner cites evidence that he lived in comfortable seclusion for some years. She has done this much-maligned sovereign a major service in providing us with a rounded portrait, praising his virtues while not attempting to conceal his failings. In her final assessment she notes that he was left a difficult legacy by his mighty father (a more recent parallel with Tsar Alexander III and the ill-fated Nicholas II comes to mind), and was forced to try and fill a role he had little aptitude for or interest in. Altogether this is a sad story, but extremely well told.
Kathryn Warner has also written an excellent biography of Edward's consort, Isabella of France: The Rebel Queen. For further reading we also recommend A Great and Terrible King: Edward I and the Forging of Britain by Marc Morris, a biography of his father; and for a more scholarly read, another examination of the 'Edward II was not killed in 1327' issue, Medieval Intrigue: Decoding Royal Conspiracies by Ian Mortimer.
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You can read more book reviews or buy Edward II: The Unconventional King by Kathryn Warner at Amazon.com.
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