The Medieval Review 11.03.09

Phillips, Seymour. Edward II. Yale English Monarchies. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010. Pp. xx, 679. 45.00 ISBN 978-0-300-15657-7. .

Reviewed by:

Joel Rosenthal
State University of New York, Stonybrook

This massive and masterful treatment of Edward II (1307-1327) is the latest volume in the "Yale English Monarchs" series. In it Seymour Phillips leaves but limited scope for a critical reviewer, the volume being so comprehensive, so thoroughly grounded in primary sources and modern scholarship, and so sensible and convincing in its judgments. There seems little to do except to single out some of its strong points and to admire the author's contribution to our understanding of fourteenth-century English history.

The "Yale English Monarchs" series has made a major contribution to scholarship; some volumes have also enjoyed a fair amount of popularity with a wider audience. Having begun with volumes published by Eyre & Spottiswoode and then by the University of California Press, we can go as far back as David Douglas's William the Conqueror (1964) and pay tribute to the entire series. Over the years the volumes have tended to grow larger; more scholarship to incorporate, more sources available in print and in electronic fashion, more reader-curiosity (or so we hope). Our good fortune is made even richer because long-awaited volumes on Edward III (by Mark Ormrod) and on Henry IV (by Chris Given-Wilson) are soon to appear.

Phillips has written a volume that is likely to be the definitive word for some years on things pertaining to Edward II. The scholarship is rich: 3447 footnotes (and at the bottom of the pages, enhancing both access and their connection to the text), and many of the notes are short dialogues and point us in all sorts of intriguing directions. Medievalists are wont to say that for our period biography cannot "really" be written, given the nature of the sources: Phillips comes close to proving us wrong. Because he tells the tale in a series of short sub-titled sections within the long chapters (10 chapters for the life and reign plus an introductory one on historiography ["The Reputations of a King"] and a concluding one ["After Lives"]), the long and complex chain of events and characters is easy to follow. We are almost in the "page turner" category, even though we know in advance "who did it."

The biographer of Edward II has some obligatory items on the agenda, demons to exorcise and rumors and myths to confront. One obligation is to assess the legacy of Edward I and how it weighed upon the shoulders of a very-different son. Another, and of greater interest to the general reader, touches various topics of perennial and prurient interest: were Edward and Piers Gaveston lovers, were Isabella and Mortimer lovers, did Edward II die by way of the hot poker, and--paradoxically--did Edward actually survive his death and burial at Gloucester Abbey in 1327 and live for another decade or so as a wandering hermit? Phillips addresses these questions, in serial order: no evidence for this that we can trust, perhaps yes but not necessarily so, unlikely, and no. His need to clear the ground has been made more difficult because of the bombast of Christopher Marlowe and the cinematic liberties of Mel Gibson. And to add to the debunking list, there is little reason to believe that Edward I ever held his new-born son up before the Welsh lords and told them they would now have a prince born in Wales, speaking no English.

There is another problem that confronts the biographer of Edward II, this time a serious historiographical one. Despite warnings about Whig History and how the academic historian learns to hack through the moral and behavioral thickets of the past, it is hard to follow a biographically-oriented narrative without some moments of partisanship. In a book of 600-plus pages there are likely to be "good guys" and "bad guys" (and "guys" includes women in both categories). However, in the story of Edward II and his difficult and ultimately unsuccessful reign, there are very few good guys at all--be they male or female, royal or aristocratic, ecclesiastical or secular, English or French or Celtic, whereas the string of "bad guys" is a long one as they await their moments to come onstage. With the possible exception of Aymer de Valence, earl of Pembroke (d. 1324) (about whom Phillips wrote in 1972) almost every major character has trouble gaining--and certainly in holding--our sympathy. Not just an unlovely bunch--from the aging Edward I through to Roger Mortimer and his gang over 30 years later--but one that seemed to have no interest in or ability to learn any lessons from what had gone before, either about people or policy.

We can begin with the king himself, or rather, with how Phillips presents and assesses this complex and up-again/down-again figure who stands at the center of it all. Because of his noted failures in his military ventures it is tempting to think of Edward as a closet dove, forced by his role to assume hawk's armor. Not so; he was as eager to press his claim to Scotland as his father had been, nor was he greatly deterred by a string of humiliating defeats and failures. Neither was he reluctant to go to arms against his English opponents, as the bloody victory at Boroughbridge and the executions that follow indicate. And after 1322 he was as vicious and unforgiving about pursuing those who had opposed him as were other medieval monarchs of ill repute, and Phillips points out that after the execution of Thomas of Lancaster all idea of due process and a fair hearing disappeared from political trials and sentencing. Phillips gives us an Edward who was not without political skills: "considerable ability when it came to exploiting divisions among his enemies and mobilizing diplomatic and financial support" (220, with a comparable assessment, p. 320). What Edward could not or would not learn--for reasons that will always escape us--was the price of over-dependence on one or a few unpopular and arrogant favorites: "Edward and his advisors who yet again fatally underestimated the ingenuity of their opponents" (348). Did he think that the lord's anointed could never be brought to account? Or, in less sacramental terms, did he simply think that the kingdom was his and he could just do whatever he damn pleased?

Nor, of course, was it just the king. When we read the puzzling and often enfuriating sagas of Piers Gaveston and of the Hugh Despenser the Younger it is hard not to ask what was wrong with these people. How much did they think they could get away with, even with the king's favor and promises of protection--and Despsenser would have seen how little this had been worth in Gaveston's case. Gaveston's role at Edward's coronation (where he bore the crown of St. Edward the Confessor) or his penchant for assigning nicknames to the nobles seem to be a test of how much he could get away with. That such behavior cost him his life at the hands of the nasty Earl of Warwick seems--to us and to many at the time--as predictable as the sunrise or taxes. The Younger Despenser rose even higher in terms of power and the perquisites he felt entitled to grab, and by the time in the mid-1320s when the Queen was openly saying she feared for her life against him it was clear that the fabric of political culture had been irreparably torn apart. Though the records of English history were searched to determine the role of the steward (at Thomas of Lancaster's insistence), no one--including that unlovely Thomas himself--showed any ability to grasp a learning curve about high politics and the price of faction and failure. Queen Isabella, at least, was probably more sinned against than sinning--only driven to oppose her husband and join her fate to Mortimer's when married life left her in personal danger, in a humiliating position regarding her entourage and her royal kinsmen, and when her exclusion from the inner circles of advice and domestic relations looked to be total and permanent. Almost from the time of Edward's coronation we can think in terms of "an accident waiting to happen" as we go through episode after episode of bad faith, personal animosity, and failed enterprises.

There are several aspects of the reign that Phillips makes central to his narrative. One concerns the Ordinances of 1311. This attempt to "reform" the king's style of government loomed large in all the political confrontations of the next decade, involving the pope (asked to annul them) as well as the English court. They dominated all discussions, whether they had been meant to play this role or not. The other theme is the heavy emphasis on Edward's relations with the French monarchy and his role as a great French nobleman. In fact, as we know but tend to under-estimate, the king of England was also claimant to the throne of Scotland, hereditary feudal lord of Gascony and Aquitaine, ruler of (much of) Ireland and Prince (and then king) of Wales. If insular matters were the most important and constant, at least as we generally read the story, those imperial and the feudal connections and aspirations often loomed just as large and pressing in contemporary eyes. Neither were these issues that easily separated or distinguished from more provincial business at Westminster. When Robert Bruce's brother invaded Ireland he posed a threat to English rule on several fronts, though he too proved to have bitten off more than he could chew and the threat from the west never really materialized.

In terms of sending a student to use this biography, some shortcomings that are probably inherent in biography do seem worth noting. Not faults, but rather casualties of the biographical paradigm, we might say, noting the slight treatment of the great famine of 1315-17, the lack of attention paid to ecclesiastical matters and developments other than Edward's relations with the papacy at Avignon and with his bishops, the neglect of urban development and of London beyond its partisan stance and the need to be courted, and not much on the general economic, demographic, or social construction of the realm. For these matters we must turn elsewhere, though given Phillips' focus we can hardly complain. For individual figures to compliment the focus on the king, we have been well served for Thomas of Lancaster by J. R. Maddicott (1970), for Piers Gaveston by J. S. Hamilton (1988), for Roger Mortimer by I. Mortimer (2003), and for the queen by some recent short papers F. D. Blackley (1980 and 1983) and P. C. Doherty (1975 and 2003). But 600-plus pages of clear and readable narrative with an authorial voice that blends sources and scholarship and balanced judgment, in addition to offering 28 pages of bibliography and 24 illustrations, leaves us well served. This is a large and important book and it is one whose long-awaited appearance we now welcome.