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I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Saturday, 15 August 2009

"The Perfect King" by Iam Mortimer

This is a biography of Edward III. It is most noticeable for the astounding suggestion that Edward II was not murdered after his assassination (by a red hot poker inserted into his anus) but was taken to Italy and kept there for many years until his death. Edward III was told that his father had died (after being deposed and held captive), accepted the story, told it to others, accepted that he was true king (initially a puppet of his mother, Isabella, and her lover Roger Mortimer) and did not find out until after Edward III had in turn deposed Mortimer.

The book is well written. It begins with the breathtaking coup against Mortimer in which some bold knights entered Nottingham Castle through a secret passage and kidnapped Mortimer. One cannot keep up at this sort of romantic level but there is loads of excitement in Edward's life: he won battles in France and Scotland against all the odds using the then revolutionary tactics of projectile warfare (Britain had longbowmen); there were jousts and tournaments and chivalric knights battling alone against many opponents and then escaping and swimming the moat; there were intrigues and politics and important new laws; and Edward invented the Order of the Garter. This is a film script waiting to happen.

Mortimer starts with Edward's childhood, pointing out that "of all the stages in the life of a resourceful and imaginative individual, childhood is the most important and the most difficult to understand." Even for a king. Edward's childhood was in particular conditioned by the deposition and imprisonment of his close and affectionate father by his mother and Roger Mortimer, a man (and more or less a step-dad) whom Edward must have admired for his courage and administrative and political skills but must also have feared and hated for keeping him, Edward, a subservient puppet.

Edward, born in November 1312, was brought up first in the manor house at Bisham which had belonged to the Knights Templars until their 1312 dissolution and then taken to Wallingford Castle which had been the home of his father's 'friend' Piers Gaveston.

In January 1324 Mortimer persuaded parliament to depose Edward II. Edward III refused the throne until Edward II had abdicated (which he did reluctantly having been convinced that he could abdicate in favour of his son or he could let Mortimer seize the throne). For the next few years Edward III was a puppet king, even after the announcement that his father was dead. Mortimer fought with the Earl of Lancaster (one of Edward II'scousins) until the Earl capitulated "near Bedford" (I cannot find a clearer reference than the Annales Paulini) in 1328. Soon after, in 1330, the Earl Of Kent (a brother of Edward II) discovered (some say he was set up) that Edward II was still alive and conceived of a plot to spring him from Corfe Castle; this being discovered, Mortimer demanded that Kent be executed for treason and Edward III was obliged to confirm this sentence although the soldiers all refused to carry out the sentence and they had to find a latrine cleaner, himself sentenced to death, to behead the Earl in exchange for a pardon.

This was March. By October the coup against Mortimer had been staged; he was taken to the Tower and, because he had escaped there in 1323, he was walled in. He was hanged at Tyburn.

By 1332 Edward was sponsoring Edward Balliol who was trying to regain his father's Scottish crown. At Dopplin Moor, Balliol's army was well out-numbered by that of Donald Earl of Mar but the English archers destroyed the force of the Scottish cavalry, for the first time showing the destructive power of longbows. In this campaign a Scottish pirate called John Crabb who was harassing English ships off Berwick was captured by Edward's Sir Walter Manny; he became Edward's expert on naval warfare. Still later, Edward Balliol was surprised at Annan and escaped by riding bareback in his nightshirt to Carlisle. Edward also developed cannon. Already, in 1327, when Edward was on campaign in Scotland with Roger Mortimer, the army had used what they called 'crakkis of wer' which were probably bronze, vase-shaped cannon which shot arrows more than 1km. Edward manufactured both cannon and gunpowder at the Tower of London. Edward finally led his men into battle against the Scots at Halidon Hill outside Berwick where the English annihilated the Scots in a fight to the death.

Religious debates were important in Edward's time. Wycliffe attended his court and William of Ockham was around.

In March 1337, Edward created his son Duke of Cornwall. This was England's first Duke. Ian Mortimer argues that the boy could not become Prince of Wales until Edward II (who had not abdicated that title) was truly dead; this is ancillary evidence to the theory that Edward II survived (on 6 September 1338 Edward met 'William le Galeys' (William the Welshman) who Mortimer believes was his father). Edward also created six Earls choosing mostly men who had helped him overthrow Mortimer: Montagu (Salisbury), Henry of Grosmont (Derby), William Bohun (Northmapton), Hugh Audley (Gloucester), William Clinton (Huntingdon) and Robert Ufford (Suffolk).

There is a suggestion that Edmund, Edward's seventh child, was illegitimate. He was born at least 16 days pre term if Edward conceived him. He was born at King's Langley (which had been Edward II's favourite manor); he was belatedly made an earl at an age much later than his brothers; he was not mentioned in his father's will.

Edward supported John de Montfort in his claim for the Duchy of Brittany against his half-niece Jean who had married the French king's nephew Charles de Blois.

The Prince of Wales crest of 3 Ostrich feathers originally belonged to the blind King John of Bohemia who had commanded the French vanguard at the battle of Crecy (yes, despite being blind) and, realising the battle was lost, had ridden into battle and died with his knights holding his bridle. When Edward II met the Black Prince after the battle the Prince handed his father the ostrich plumes with the words Ich Dien (I serve). The archery-led English victory at Crecy annihilated the French, killing eleven potentates and many thousands of Frenchmen for an English loss of 300 men. Crecy was the victory of dirty little commoners with longbows against aristocratic knights; it led to the death of feudal society. The power Edward had now led to the capture of Calais (despite King Phillip of France bringing an army to Sangatte; he retreated before fighting). During the siege in 1348 Edward was told that King David II of Scotland had been captured after the battle of Neville's Cross in Durham. King David lived in various places during his long captivity (11 years) including Odiham Castle which had been built by King John's, probably because it was half way between Windsor and Winchester.

William of Wykeham directed the rebuilding of the royal apartments in Windsor Castle in 1358. Wykeham also worked on Sheen Palace in 1358. Edward also built Eltham Palace in 1350, Henley in 1351 and, in 1353, a manor house at Rotherhithe where he spent £1,064. All this was during the aftermath of the Black Death. Wars, plague; England must have had a fundamentally very sound economy!

At the Battle of Poitiers, in 1356, the Black Prince commanded an outnumbered army which again destroyed a French army, this time capturing the King of France (by now John). So Edward had two kings in captivity at the same time, surely an unequalled feat. The French King John was lodged in the Savoy Palace.

Edward started JPs and Quarter Sessions. This legislation which he enacted in 1361 set up a system which is still going today more than 600 years later.

Edward's son Lionel married the daughter of Galeazzo Visconti, Lord of Milan; Petrarch attended the wedding. Chaucer's father was Edward's butler; Chaucer got captured on one of Edward's French campaigns and Edward contributed to the ransom. Langland wrote in Edward's time. It was during Edward's days that English became used in parliament and a law required court proceedings to be in English; this was the moment that English became the dominant language of England as attested by the birth of English literature at this time.

Edward held many (almost annual) parliaments and became the first monarch to regularly grant parliamentary requests; his legislative programme was therefore mainly shaped by the people. In return for this he received generous taxes to prosecute his wars and build his palaces. The first speaker (who became quite critical of Edward) was the steward of the Earl of March (Roger Mortimer's great-grandson!) called Peter de la Mare.

Finally, Ian Mortimer believes that the majority of English people of English ethnicity will have Edward III in their family tree! He might have been my ancestor!

A brilliant book.

August 2009, 402 pages

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