Medieval Intrigue

Nicholas Vincent is troubled by a fierce defence of a controversial theory

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Reviewed by: Nicholas Vincent
Author: Ian Mortimer
Publisher: Continuum
Price (RRP): £20

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Ian Mortimer has earned a well-deserved reputation as a writer capable of communicating the fascination of medieval history to an audience well beyond the academic mainstream. His speciality is the peculiar and the personal: the hidden springs by which the actions of the past were moved.

Over several works, he has advanced a fascinating and, at least in part plausible, theory about the final years of King Edward II. 

Edward, he has suggested, neither died of natural causes nor was murdered in 1327. Instead, secretly snatched from captivity at Berkeley Castle, the king was the subject of a conspiracy that in public proclaimed his death while in secret kept him alive, at first as a tool with which to blackmail his teenage son, Edward III; later, after Edward III himself seized power, as an embarrassing family skeleton in an Italian attic.

Mortimer is by no means the first historian to question the ‘official’ version of Edward II’s death. Indeed, rumours of the king’s survival were in circulation within a few months of his supposed death. The problem is that Mortimer’s doubts have burgeoned into a theory which itself has failed to win approval from the academic establishment.

While praising his appeal to a popular audience and while applauding the vigour of his detective work, critics have, on the whole, either sat firmly on the fence or just as firmly rejected his tottering tower of conjectures.

Most writers would at this point pass on to better things. Not Mortimer, who has now brought together a collection of essays intended not only to restate his theory but to indict his critics with grave crimes: a lack of professionalism, a herd mentality, a refusal to entertain ideas beyond the accepted consensus.

He has even devised a general theory of history, said to be based upon ‘information streams’ and ‘objective inconsistencies’ though derived very largely from his own work, to explain why he is telling the truth whereas others are too timid and small-minded to break with accepted falsehood.

Since he deals so harshly with his detractors, he will perhaps welcome a few plain words in his critics’ defence. His conjectures with respect to Edward II are certainly interesting and were well worth stating once. However, repeated here at such length and with so absolute a refusal to modify any position already adopted, they risk trying the patience of even his most fervent admirers.

Far from being the victim of a spiteful academic cartel that has refused him access to the published media, Mortimer is in fact a bestselling author with a particularly hefty axe to grind.

The louder and more repeatedly he grinds his axe, the more he risks being mistaken for an obsessive or a solipsist, incapable of dispassionate neutrality about his own pet theories.

As the best essays in this collection demonstrate, towards the end of the book, after the sound and fury of the great axe-grinding has almost died away, he still has much to communicate about his explorations of the forgotten corners of medieval England. I will not be alone in wishing that he would seek out these new forests to fell.

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Nicholas Vincent is professor of medieval history at the University of East Anglia