Book review – Edward II

Nicholas Vincent considers the unhappy reign of a murdered king

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Reviewed by: Nicholas Vincent
Author: Seymour Phillips
Publisher: Yale University Press
Price (RRP): £18.99

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He was by reputation lazy, unkinglike, and sexually infatuated with young men. It’s little wonder then that King Edward II has long been a contender for the hotly contested title ‘England’s Worst Ruler’.

His reign was punctuated by rebellions, beheadings, famine and one of the greatest defeats in English military history, by the Scots at Bannockburn. It ended in his deposition
in 1326 and almost certainly his murder (the following year) as the first king of England to be permanently removed from the throne since the ill-fated Harold after Hastings.

No wonder that until 1908 the English Board of Education recommended that school history lessons leave the story of Edward II to “be passed over in discreet silence”.

Most previous studies of the reign have concentrated upon one or other of the king’s aristocratic contemporaries: Piers Gaveston, Thomas of Lancaster, or Aymer de Valence. Seymour Phillips offers instead a gripping yet well-balanced account; a true biography, with Edward’s perplexing personality as its focus.

Despite the vast accumulation of detail, there is both balance and artistry here. Sceptical of the more lurid stories of the king’s homosexuality, of the red hot poker as indeed of the supposed survival of Edward into Italian retirement, Phillips is never blind to the failings of a man unable to master the first rule of successful kingship, to keep both his friendships and his enmities within bounds.

The final years of tyranny, abetted by his most terrible of favourites, Hugh Despenser, witnessed revenge and rapacity on a scale to rival even the Borgias.

One chronicler, recording Edward’s last journey into Wales, reported that the king fled accompanied by Hugh Despenser “his husband”. Mastered by this ‘husband’, yet betrayed by Isabella of France, his wedded wife, Edward II was in the end less potentate than pawn. His tragedy is here retold on an epic scale.

Nicholas Vincent, professor of medieval history at the University of East Anglia and author of A Brief History of Britain 1066–1485 (Robinson, 2011)
 

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