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15.06.34, Warner, Edward II

The Medieval Review

15.06.34, Warner, Edward II

Kathryn Warner states her purpose in writing this biography of Edward II as "to demolish some of the myths invented about him which have come to be widely and wrongly seen as historical fact" (16). In this she has achieved mixed results, demolishing some myths while embracing others. Unfortunately, she begins by perpetuating a myth of her own, stating that: "probably the royal messenger told Edward that his father, on his deathbed, had ordered him not to recall Gaveston to England" (18). Similarly, she accepts at face value Guisborough's highly colored account of a violent confrontation between Edward I and his heir that likely never took place, and certainly not as described by the chronicler. Throughout the book, there is a tendency to use the most dramatic chronicle account--sometimes with a qualifying statement, but often without.

Chapter one, on Edward's life prior to his accession, completely omits any reference to his military training and experience as prince of Wales. Since the author chides him for this lack at several subsequent points, this is a surprising omission. No one will confuse the military abilities of Edward II with those of Edward I or Edward III, and yet he did show great energy and ability during the Despenser War, and even at Bannockburn, while his leadership was clearly lacking, his courage was not. Throughout the book there are numerous offhanded comments dismissing military activities as inevitable failures: for example, "predictably, the siege was a failure" (130); and "it is hardly worth noting that the campaign, the last one Edward would ever lead, ended in failure and disaster" (164). Only hindsight makes these failures "inevitable," and thus preserves a stereotype if not a myth.

Edward's sexuality is another area where Warner sends mixed signals. She goes into some length in describing the circumstances of Edward's paternity of his illegitimate son Adam, yet elsewhere on the same page remarks rather flippantly that "although Edward II had many faults, lusting after prepubescent girls was not one of them" (30). On the other hand, Warner does a fine job throughout this book of presenting the relationship between Edward II and his wife Isabella as functional and very likely genuinely affectionate. This is one of the signal contributions of the work. She is also very judicious in her analysis of the role of Eleanor Despenser in the lives of both Edward and Isabella, and in her analysis of the exact nature of the relationship, sexual or otherwise, between Isabella and Roger Mortimer.

Another of the "myths" of Edward II that Warner does a very good job in establishing as fact, rather than demolishing, is his love for a variety of manual activities--and those who pursued them. She goes beyond the well-known quotations from the Vita and the chronicle of Lanercost about his love of digging, thatching, and driving carts, and supplies fascinating examples of his interest in activities related to the water and to crafts. She details his gifts in 1325 to various Thames fisherman who spent time with him and to a group of carpenters who travelled with him for five days. On another occasion at Thorne near Doncaster he rewarded a group of ten fishermen who fished in the king's presence. Another time he went to Temple Hirst to talk with his blacksmith, John Cole. In June 1325 Edward dined more than once with a barge-master, Adam Cogg, and finally, in 1326 he spent two pounds on "masts, cables and other equipment for ships," specifically said to be for the king's use, and soon thereafter met with a group of London shipwrights whom he had summoned to Kenilworth.

Edward's literacy is another mythical subject. Was he rex illiteratus as some hostile chroniclers claimed? Certainly not. Although it is likely that his French was better than his Latin, neither the delivery of his coronation oath in French, nor the translation of a papal letter from Latin into French support the idea that he was incapable of understanding Latin. To say that "[t]he writ revoking Gaveston's exile was written in French, not the usual Latin, which probably means that Edward himself drafted it; he could not have managed it in Latin" (66) is an unsupported allegation. We simply do not know what he could manage in any language. In any case, Edward II is not known to have been able to write, and he certainly did not "sign" any treaties or other documents, although this usage appears more than a dozen times in this book.

The title of the final chapter of the book, "The Curious Case of the King Who Lived," is an obvious play on Harry Potter, which may be appropriate since fantasy and fiction merge with fact in the discussion of the "afterlife" of Edward II. Warner states categorically "Edward was not dead" (247). This remains a controversial opinion, supported by a good deal of circumstantial evidence, some better than other, but ultimately unprovable. Much ink has been spilled on the authenticity and reliability of the Fieschi letter, yet it remains suspect. William le Galys could be Edward II, or at least someone claiming to be him, but would Edward really choose William as his alias, not Piers? Too much agency is ascribed to Isabella during this period, without evidentiary support, and motives are assigned to the earl of Kent that can only be a matter of supposition.

All in all, Warner has presented a rich portrait of Edward II, the man. She has done an excellent job in searching for the king's own voice in correspondence and chronicles, and has made particularly good use of chamber accounts housed in the library of the Society of Antiquaries. If at times she may attribute a thought or belief to Edward that cannot be known, she can be excused on the basis of her tremendous empathy for him. Warner's book is a highly readable biography of Edward II. While it does not have the scholarly depth or the range of coverage of Seymour Phillips' recent Edward II, and will not replace that work on the shelves of academic historians, it will appeal to a broad reading public searching for the man behind the regal trappings, the unconventional king.