Medieval Intrigue: Decoding Royal Conspiracies by Ian Mortimer

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Medieval Intrigue: Decoding Royal Conspiracies by Ian Mortimer

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Category: History
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: Written for an academic readership, this book examines controversial questions in English medieval history, including examinations of Edward II's reputation and the author's comment on critical reaction to his earlier writing.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 400 Date: September 2010
Publisher: Continuum
ISBN: 978-1847065896

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Over the last few years Dr Mortimer has established himself as one of the foremost writers of British historical biography covering the 14th and early 15th centuries. However his previous books have been quite accessible to the general as well as the scholarly reader. This present volume is aimed more at the latter audience, assuming as it does a detailed knowledge of King Edward II and his successors. This is hinted at in his introduction, in which he points out that history is the most conservative of all professions, and a radical historian is generally branded a maverick by the mainstream.

The book itself consists mostly of ten chapters, focusing on such aspects of the medieval era as 'The rules governing succession to the Crown, 1199-1399', demonstrating that the crown did not always automatically pass to the obvious male heir, 'Edward III and the moneylenders', and 'Regnal legitimacy and the concept of the royal pretender'. In the first chapter, 'Objectivity and information', he asks in his opening paragraph as to what extent can historians claim to know any aspect of the past with certainty, and calls the basic ground rules of historical information and research into question. Can history, particularly of the ancient and medieval periods, ever be more than a matter of opinion, and how incorrect are some of our long-accepted ideas and beliefs?

A second looks in detail at the life and particularly the personal reputation of Edward II, generally considered one of the most inept of British monarchs. It casts the gravest of doubts on the long-accepted traditional story that he was deposed and met his death soon afterwards in Berkeley Castle on the end of a red-hot poker. This was far from the truth, Mortimer argues, as he suggests and provides evidence that the former sovereign took the name of William de Galeys, lived abroad, was presented to his successor and son (then reigning as Edward III) in 1338, and died two or three years after that. In his examination of royal pretenders, which he points out had been known in the ancient world since the age of Tacitus and Nero, he writes that the belief was widespread that Richard II was still alive and well and living in Scotland for some years after he was supposed to have been quietly put to death at Pontefract Castle.

The most remarkable part of this book, 'Twelve angry scholars', is a summary of issues raised by the original publication of his article in a journal (also reproduced in this book) on the death of Edward II and doubts raised on the traditional version of events by the Fieschi letter, discovered in the mid-19th century, claiming that the imprisoned King had escaped from captivity. He takes some of his critics to task, asserting that his work has been misunderstood and misinterpreted, going through their commentaries on his article with a fine-tooth comb, commenting that in his view, they state that specific facts are 'certain' when they are a matter of personal opinion, and there is plenty of evidence to the contrary, this being the sort of rhetoric that has brought academic history into disrepute with philosophers and critical theorists over the last forty years. On the next page, he remarks that senior common room colleagues mutually praising one another's work as 'excellent' may temporarily preserve the façade of academic authority in the face of an intellectual attack but this sort of behaviour brings the profession into disrepute. I found his prose quite startling in places, yet when all is said and done, sometimes one has to respond to one's critics head on.

It may be worth pointing out that there is only one illustration in the whole book, a black and white photograph taking up just half a page. The source notes and bibliography are extensive. Needless to say it is scrupulously researched, as are all Dr Mortimer's books, but I feel this is certainly more one for the university student or the well-informed specialist than the general reader.

Our thanks to Continuum for sending a copy to Bookbag.

For further reading on the general subject area, may we recommend the author's The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England: a Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century, or The Fears of Henry IV: The Life of England's Self-Made King.

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