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22.10.03 Neal, The Letters of Edward I

22.10.03 Neal, The Letters of Edward I

Kathleen Neal’s monograph offers valuable new insights into the practice of politics and diplomacy in the reign of Edward I by providing an in-depth analysis of letters and their production. Based primarily on analysis of documents housed in the National Archives, it is valuable as a study of both diplomacy and diplomatic, with important conclusions that illuminate the practice of letter-writing and the nature of power and authority. The focus of this analysis is by necessity “high” rather than “popular” politics, elucidating the king’s relationship with the aristocracy (in England and abroad) and his agents rather than the wider populace.

In the first chapter, “Royal Letters: The Authority of a Form,” Neal deals with form rather than content. She carefully explains the constituent parts of the letters (salutatio, arenga, narratio and so on); scholars are encouraged to consider each part of a letter, rather than to focus only on the narratio. She then details the various influences on late thirteenth-century English chancery practice. By this time, it had been moulded by various precedents: royal letters still echoed the form of writs that had been issued since the early medieval period (increasingly codified from the reign of Henry II), but now the influence of the ars dictaminis, the papal cursus, and other continental letter-writing practices was also felt. Although royal letters were in many ways formulaic, there remained ample room to tailor letters to specific situations. Neal offers an exemplar in close reading, for instance demonstrating the significance of use of the first person (representing the king’s own voice) rather than third person, and clarifying the distinctions between rogare, mandare and precipere.

Chapter 2, “Rhetorical Refinement: Epistolary Editing and its Implications,” furthers Neal’s argument that much attention was paid to how formulae might be employed in particular contexts. This wonderful and detailed exploration of how Edward’s letters were drafted is the book’s strongest chapter. Neal shows that a hierarchy of professionals worked together to hone epistles, and that the king was himself involved on occasion. The archival work reveals indications of dictation; the case studies clearly demonstrate behind-the-scenes strategising. For instance, several drafts of a letter concerning Gascony in 1295 show how “Scribe W,” who seems to have specialised in high-level diplomatic correspondence, and his collaborators painstakingly debated word order, vocabulary, and other details in order to produce the final version. In one 1295 draft (Appendix, no. 11), the Scottish King John is addressed “your Nobility,” but this was later changed to “you.” The addition of this “significant diplomatic insult” (59), along with other amendments, created the direct and commanding tone desired. Three drafts in two days of a 1279 letter to Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, prince of Wales, reveal the delicacy of the political situation between Edward’s two Welsh campaigns. Words had to be chosen carefully so that Edward’s authority and legal position were asserted, but so that the prince was not unduly provoked. The example also shows that the king’s councillors consulted previous correspondence when drawing up letters. Drafts of a reply to the same prince in 1280 show how “the silences and emphases of the narratio reveals the royal reply to be a more complex and combative document than might be assumed by readers unacquainted with its political and rhetorical context” (73).

Chapter 3, “Announcing the Message: Communities of Reception and Royal Ideology,” moves onto how the letters were communicated to and received by recipients. While some letters were to be read only by a select elite, others were intended to be “events…public, oral performances” (75) for much larger audiences. The king’s choice of audience in turn fashioned and consolidated “communities of reception,” encouraging relationships not only between the king and recipients, but between types of recipients. Neal uses literary texts to discuss the aural reception of letters and how courtiers’ sense of “belonging” to a particular social and political community was increased by being members of a community of reception. Letters proclaimed publicly provided a means to disseminate royal ideology: they were composed with this in mind. She further shows that scribes punctuated such letters to facilitate oral delivery and audience comprehension.

The fourth chapter, “‘Dear Cousin’: Affect and Epistolarity Beyond Borders,” focuses on informal diplomacy. Neal argues that Litterae de statu, which were typically sent between aristocratic kin and were very formulaic (“empty of content” [100]), nevertheless performed important diplomatic functions. The avoidance of specific requests or references to the context in which the letter was sent was “an important feature of the format.” Crucially, they maintained communication and solidified friendly relations between senders and recipients—"goodwill networks”--via “the rhetorical tools of kinship, affect, favour and gratitude” (123). This informal diplomacy had mixed results: Edward’s letters to the three living queens of France (Marguerite of Provence, Marie of Brabant, Jeanne of Navarre) during the Gascon crisis in 1294 did little to advance the king’s interests, but in 1304 Marie of Brabant (now Edward’s mother-in-law) convinced Edward to meet with her stepson, Philip IV of France, seeding “a new, intensive phase of diplomatic rapprochement” (105). Letters sent to and by women (though by no means exclusively) were important in the context of intercession, in particular in periods of diplomatic tension.

Chapter 5, “Keeping Friends Close: Strategies of Epistolary Alignment,” explores how the king responded to crises and how he employed “harmonizing strategies” when writing to his officials and magnates. It addresses the practicalities of governance in the late thirteenth century, in particular focusing on Edward’s letters to his regent, Edmund earl of Cornwall, while the king was in Gascony in the 1280s. The king’s need to keep his nobility onside while he was abroad was paramount if his orders were to be enforced. The governance of Gascony posed a particular challenge for Edward, for there he was duke rather than king. Maintaining the loyalty of the Gascons in the face of threats from France was a crucial enterprise, one frequently undertaken via letters.

The final chapter, “Rhetoric under Strain: Re-writing Royal Epistolarity,” argues that there was a tonal shift in royal letters from the 1290s, when Edward I was forced to deal with various crises. The king’s letters became more authoritative and less concerned with the reactions of the recipients. Edward’s earlier rhetoric--emphasising justice, counsel, and gratitude--was replaced with a more autocratic attitude. Yet this shift in strategy when communicating with his subordinates did the king no favours. The Scottish nobility resisted writs directed to them in 1294, for instance, perhaps permanently damaging the relationship even once Edward returned to a more conciliatory means of address. Similarly, the so-called “struggle for the charters” in 1297 concerned political discontent relating to military service, “but it was also a crisis of confidence in the king’s epistolary persona” (179). Edward’s later reign and his autocratic rhetoric in turn coincided with increased use of the privy seal and use of French rather than Latin. The chapter thus shows that, although letters are a one-sided means of communication, correspondence that failed to consider recipients could have serious consequences.

An appendix provides twenty-two letters newly transcribed and translated--from Latin or Anglo-Norman--from the National Archives’ SC1 series. As well as demonstrating Neal’s arguments, for instance the use of drafts, these chronologically arranged letters make available material previously difficult to access by historians and students.

The Letters of Edward I offers value to a number of fields, but particularly the study of thirteenth-century rhetoric and politics. Academics and their students will benefit from this exemplary demonstration of how form--however formulaic royal letters at first appear--needs to be understood and considered alongside content. Although there are occasional technicalities--for those who do not work on letter-writing, the value of the word “epistolarity” is not entirely clear--Neal explains the niceties and practicalities of letter-writing in this period clearly. She shows how skilfully and self-consciously Edward I employed this mode of communication, illuminating important changes of the reign, including the development of parliament, the emerging concept of “community of the realm,” and England’s political relations with Scotland, Wales, Gascony, and France. More broadly, Neal provides an important new contribution to our understanding of diplomatic, rhetoric (and its limits), how institutions wielded power and authority, the manipulation of language, and letter writing. Her monograph is thus of importance to a wide range of scholars and students.