Thursday, December 29, 2011


A review of S.B. Chrimes’ Henry VII (1972, original) (1999, my copy)

(Rating 4 of 5)

Henry VII has one of the more unlikely stories of any British monarch. Often times this king is overshadowed by his more (in)famous son, King Henry VIII. But King Henry VII has a greater tale to how he became king than his son does. Henry VIII was born a prince, becomes heir at the death of his older brother, and becomes King at nineteen at the death of his father. While Henry VII’s journey to the throne is much greater tale than simply inheritance, and is one of the least probable since William the Conqueror, this King Henry does not get the attention I think he deserves.

(King Henry VII)

Like the other rebel prince Henry, the Duke of Lancaster, the Earl of Richmond would have to led an army against an evil King Richard in order to claim the crown of England. However there are two key differences in their case. The first is King Henry IV captured Richard II and forced him to abdicate, where Henry VII had killed Richard III in battle. The second is Henry IV was, like his opponent, a grandson of King Edward III whose royalty was unquestionable. Henry VII was very distant in kinship with the crown. While even the sons of Richard, the Duke of York, had a clear claim to royalty, Henry was closer to French royal family than English one. Henry’s grandmother was King Henry V’s widow and a daughter of King Charles VI of France, but his English royal blood came from his mother’s family who were descended from John of Gaunt*, but through a line whose legitimacy was at best questionable.

(The evil King Richard III, who Henry must depose to take the crown)

Chrimes tells the story of this Welsh nobleman who never knew his father because he was born after his father had died. After King Edward IV takes back power from the pathetic King Henry VI, young Henry Tudor goes into exile with his uncle in France. In exile, Henry and his uncle Jasper plot a way to come power, which would not have been reached if King Richard III had not begin the demise of the York dynasty by undermining it from within. Richard deposed his nephew, King Edward V, and imprisoned him and his brother in the tower of London, never to be seen again. Henry Tudor would return at the head of an army and defeat Richard III and take the throne.

(Jasper Tudor, the uncle who raised his royal nephew when in exile)

From the point of Henry’s accession Chrimes’ story begins to turn dry. We began to lose narrative in favor of analysis. This is a shame because it loses a lot of drama that took place in King Henry VII’s reign. Henry VII had to deal various pretenders to the throne. These were pretenders not only in the sense that they just claimed to be King, but they claimed to be other people than who they really were. They would try to pretend they were the imprisoned Earl of Warwick or the late Duke of York. Henry VII would also become a diplomatic mastermind strengthening his position while not allowing his treasury to be wasted in long drawn out conflict.

One of ways this book change my outlook at King Henry’s reign was in his marriage to Elizabeth of York. I, like most, had always read deep political motivation in Henry taking the throne before marrying Princess Elizabeth. However Chimes makes the argument that there was really no other way for him to go about it.

(Elizabeth of York, begins life as the daughter of the King, briefly the sister of the King, then the niece of the King, ultimately the wife of the King, and post mortem the mother of the King.)

“Historians have often sought to make much of the fact that the marriage of Henry and Elizabeth of York, which he had solemnly promised to perform at the meeting in Rennes Cathedral on Christmas day, 1483, did not occur until some four months after Bosworth. Much play has been made of the idea that there was some profound political motive for getting himself crowned and his title declared in parliament before he entered into a matrimonial union with the Yorkist house. But it is difficult to see how he could have possibly proceeded any other way. He was necessarily obliged to ascend to the throne on the merits of his own claims, to which marriage to Elizabeth could add nothing.”

He also goes on to explain that Elizabeth was technically still a declared bastard by Parliament. Henry would have to undo this any he could only do that as King. King Henry VII also, as Henry Tudor, was attained person; Chimmes explains not once, but twice, in this book that Henry had to undo that and the only way he could achieve that was by becoming the King.

Chimmes wrote a very good book. It could have been better if it contained a tad bit more narrative a little less analysis. There are also some historical errors in book. They are little things like claiming King Charles II was never Prince of Wales and that King Henry VI was. Nevertheless, it is a very good book.

*Edward III’s son and Henry IV’s father.

Monday, December 26, 2011


A review of Charles Ross’ Edward IV (1974 original) (1997 my copy)

(Rating 4 of 5)

There is an old phrase that goes ‘never hire two brothers to work for you, because they will always be more loyal to each other than they will ever be to you, and if they are not, who can trust a man who cannot trust his own brother?’ The sons of the Duke of York were apparently not very trust worthy. Over all King Edward IV seems to have been a very good king, but his family problems would show why the House of York would not reign long after its founder.

(Richard, the Duke of York. A man who thought he should be the king, was the father of two, yet his boys showed no family loyalty)

This book is interesting not only for what it does talk about but also for what it does not. Ross never deals with the allegations of Edward’s illegitimacy other than to mention that allegations exist. I personally believe that he was the Duke of York’s son, but you would think a biographer would discuss it even if only to point out how ridiculous the allegations were.

Unlike Henry IV, I do not think it would be right to describe Edward IV as a self-made king, even though he was not born destined for the crown and had to win it twice. At first he comes across as an aristocratic teenager with good pedigree that is placed on the throne by powers greater than he, led by the Earl of Warwick. However, much like Emperor Claudius of Rome, once in power he clearly knows how to use it. Far from being Warwick’s pawn he is a true king with his own ideas how to do things. Although he loses his throne in 1470 he comes right back the next year to recover it and from then on is as strong as ever.

(The Kingmaker, the evil Earl of Warwick)

(Edward's marriage to Elizabeth Woodville would turn the Earl of Warwick against him)

King Edward IV’s son-in-law, King Henry VII, is the king most accredited with creating a very powerful English monarchy; the reason Henry is able to do so is by respecting and adding on to the system that had already been established by Edward. Although Edward's life is adventurous, in some ways, he pales in comparison with the warrior kings Edward III and Henry V; however I think Edward IV’s greatness is the fact that he did not involve his kingdom in any long foreign wars that would tact the English resources into poverty. In other words, unlike some other Kings of England he did not try foolishly prove to the world he was the rightful King of France. King Edward stayed at home and tried to improve his own kingdom. His ideas were so productive that Henry Tudor would go on to mimic them.

“To rescue the crown from financial abyss into which the Lancastrians had plunged it was no mean achievement. To die solvent was something no other English king had achieved for more than two hundred years. Henry VII had the great advantage of being able to build upon the foundations laid by his father-in-law. Indeed, the best testimony to the quality of Edward’s financial policies is the degree to which the shrewd and calculating Henry held firm to them.”(p.386)

His main problem seems to be with his own family. The reason the House of York was unable to entrench itself for the long term had to do with in-fighting amongst the its members. Edward had two younger brothers when he was king: Prince George, the Duke of Clarence and Prince Richard, the Duke of Gloucester. The elder of the two (Clarence) tried multiple times to usurp his older brother and was many times forgiven, but he tried one rebellion too much and was executed under Edward’s orders. The fact he put his own brother to death—no matter how justified—would soil his reputation. The younger seemly loyal brother was an asset to his rule and Edward trusted him. But the evil Richard would betray that trust after Edward dies, by deposing his brother's elder son and having both of his sons murdered. King Richard III would blacken the name of his lost brother who ruled England effectively for twenty years. Richard’s plans would unravel as Henry Tudor, who increases his own legitimate standing by marring the eldest daughter of King Edward IV, overthrows him.

(Doomed boys, the sons of Edward IV, King Edward V and his brother Richard, the Duke of York, murdered by their uncle's orders)

(Richard III, deposes his nephew to seize the throne but his reign is cut short by Henry Tudor)

This is a great book detailing the events of the brutal Wars of the Roses the brought the English monarchy to great highs and lows in very short periods of time. The reader is left thinking that if only Edward had lived one more decade he would have been able to put his own son, King Edward V, securely on the throne and history might have taken a far different turn. Edward IV is a tale of triumph and tragedy.

{video is from David Starkey's Monarchy

Thursday, December 22, 2011


A review of Ian Mortimer’s The Fears of Henry IV: The Life of England’s Self-Made King (2008)

(Rating 5 of 5)

Ian Mortimer tells the tale of a tragic prince who lead an incredible life but has been unappreciated throughout history. Some of the lack of appreciation is understandable because his warrior son had left such an incredible legacy that his own suffers from want. The rest of it is due to an unsuccessful reign and the judgments of his time period. It is a great book filled with excitement but told with historical professionalism.

(King Henry IV)

Henry is born the son of the Duke of Lancaster, John of Gaunt, his paternal grandfather is King, and his maternal grandfather was the great warrior, Duke Henry. Throughout his life Henry would try to live the life a prince was expected to. He was a knight, he jousted, he went crusade where he fought holy battles, and he had even traveled to the Holy Land setting foot in Jerusalem. Henry had the potential to be great asset for to his cousin, the King.

(John of Gaunt, Henry's father, the Duke of Lancaster)

Unfortunately, for both Henry and his country, they had King Richard II as their monarch. Many monarchs that have been overthrown were not themselves, bad people. More often than not they were just incapable of doing their jobs and suffered the consequences of it*. Richard, however, was a pure tyrant king who created a climate of fear for his people. King Richard who had come to the throne at the age of ten was often insecure, jealous, and paranoid. He always seemed to make enemies where he could have friends. The King never understood that the rebels in the peasant revolt were actually pro-monarchist, against noble power as much as he. He did not understand his uncle, the Duke of Lancaster, was actually trying to help him. Even his mother tried to get him to see reason but King Richard II really believed that his uncle was out to get him, even though he never acted against him.

(Richard II, a tyrant king)

Through no fault of his own Henry finds himself banished from England forced into exile, unable to attend his own father’s funeral, and is disinherited. Much like Julius Caesar, Henry finds himself forced into an impossible position and acts in a similar manner. He returns to England in head of an army that grows the further he gets into the country (showing clear dislike for the people to Richard) and easily captures his rival.

Henry quickly encounters a problem. He had promised not to take England by conquest only to fight against a perceived injustice. In later ages it would be accepted that rulers who are tyrants can be overthrown, but what Henry was going to do to Richard violated all morals of the day. He took the throne from his cousin and through Parliament had himself proclaimed King Henry IV.

The revolutionary act of disposing of a king and taking his place would condemn Henry to a difficult rule. When King Edward II (great-grandfather to both Henry and Richard) was overthrown he was replaced by his own lawful heir, King Edward III, who did not partake in his father's overthrow. Edward III would avenge his father by killing the man who deposed him, Roger Mortimer, the Earl of March. This allowed King Edward III to rule with legitimacy. Henry was the man who deposed King Richard and replaced him as king. Henry was not Richard’s lawful heir as had been Edward III to Edward II; there were multiple people who had better claims than Henry regardless of which method of succession was used**. Yet Henry deposes a king and becomes one at the same time, under the justification that Richard was a bad king. This makes the new King Henry IV vulnerable because the same standard could be used on him! In addition, as W. L. Warren pointed out in his book on King Henry II often times powerful nobles who become king, such as King Stephan, have a difficult time making the transition from nobleman to king. Henry learned the hard way that running a kingdom was not the same as running a duchy.

(Henry's famous son, King Henry V)

It has often been said that great leaders are judged by the circumstances that they faced. This is not true for King Henry IV, although he saved the kingdom from a tyrant and handled all crises that came to him rather well. His legacy was tarnished by what he had to do to become king. During his life he went unrecognized by his peers the Kings of Scotland and France. After death, he would unappreciated by his own successors, even his own son. He was Henry the Usurper and no king could glorify a usurper and remain safe on his own throne. Unlike his ancestor, William the Conqueror, he was never able to pull a show of legitimacy that the public could at some level accept.

Ian Mortimer did a great job telling the tale of a tragic figure not even the great William Shakespeare was able to give justice. I would highly recommend this book to anyone it is a great read.

*Henry's own grandson, King Henry VI, is a good example. Others were King Louis XVI of France, and Tsar Nicholas II of Russia.

**As Mortimer points out there were many entails but none of them could be used to create a successful argument that Henry had a hereditary right to be king.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011


A review of Ian Mortimer’s The Perfect King: The Life of Edward III, Father of the English Nation (2008)

(Rating 5 of 5)

The Perfect King is a very enjoyable to book to read, Mortimer seems to understand the importance of keeping the story part of history. In the telling of the life Edward III, Mortimer can be both funny and serious at the same time as any good history professor who has to lecture in front of students. His subject is a fascinating one, King Edward III came to throne after his father’s violent overthrow and for the first few years of his reign was under the thumb of the man who brought down his father, Roger Mortimer, the Earl of March. Edward would survive to dispose of Mortimer, and become one of the most successful kings in English history. He was a warrior prince who would humble France like none before him. His son, Prince Edward, would succeed in capturing France's King John II and bring to England a prisoner. One of the main themes of the book is how the King’s legacy would change through the ages. Although he was considered one of the greatest monarchs for five hundred years after his death, in the nineteenth century historians took a much more critical view emphasizing his faults and failings while ignoring his good traits and record of success. Mortimer tries to tell Edward’s story to be understood in the context of Edward’s own era.

(King Edward III the great warrior king)

(Mortimer pays for usurping the throne)

Probably the intriguing argument—if not the most famous—that Mortimer tries to advance in this book is the theory that Edward II did not die in Berkeley Castle but lived on into 1341. In the past I had never really questioned Edward II’s death not even the brutality of it. The hot poker story I had heard criticized on the grounds of it being too gruesome, but I always thought that a silly argument for it was brutal time period where people disemboweled as a form of execution. In such context the hot poker story seemed very probable to me. I still think he died at Berkeley, but this book did make me pause. The part that got me the most was the whole ‘William the Welshman’ royal pretender who is not only spared from any punishment but is also entertained at royal expense and gets to the meet the family! Maybe Edward II’s body should be exhumed to determine what age he was at before he died.

(Edward II, was he or was he not murdered)

Edward III is most famous for his war with France and his reputation is as a great warrior king. Mortimer shows in this story that Edward was an excellent and imaginative tactician who not only waged war but change the very way it was fought in the Western World. He would win victory after victory nearly reclaiming all the lands lost by his great-great-grandfather, King John.

“Until now gunpowder had only been used in sieges, with the sole exception of Mortimer’s use of ‘crakkis of war’ on the Stanhope campaign. Those had been dangerous exploding buckets by comparison with Edward’s refined guns. As well as small cannon with calibres of roughly four inches (the shot were still stone) he brought his newly developed ‘ribalds’—series of bound gun barrels designed to shoot metal bolts, like crossbow bolts. And Edward had not only developed them, he had thought of how to use them too.” (p.238)

Where Edward III does not get a lot of credit is in his abilities as a lawmaker. While his grandfather, King Edward I, had the first ‘Model Parliament’, it was actually King Edward III whose parliaments were ‘model’. It was under Edward III that the two chambers of House of Lords and House of Commons formed. It was also during Edward’s reign that the Commons had actually begun to have a real role in the making of law that was respected and consistent. Edward III had a strong relationship with the Parliament.

“Edward was a man who listened to his representatives, and held a dialogue with them, even if he did not or could not agree to their demands. Although it is the mass of legislation passed by his grandfather, Edward I, that caught the attention of early legal historians, prompting them to call that king ‘the English Justinian’ (referring to the great Byzantine Emperor who codified the Roman Law), Edward III was no less of a legislator. But his methods were different: he was a lawmaker not a lawgiver. He made laws responding to parliamentary demands. Sometimes these demands allowed him to promote his own agenda for legislation; at other times the measures were all but forced upon him as a result of his need to maintain a high level of taxation. Sometimes even he had his own wishes presented to him in the form of a petition from a magnate. But the parliaments of Edward III are remarkable for the breadth and depth of the parliamentary dialogue between king and people. So great was Edward’s contribution that one modern scholar has assigned him the title of ‘Second English Justinian’, putting him on a footing equal to that of Edward I, the codifier of the English Common Law.” (p.308)

One of King Edward III lasting achievements was the creation of the Order of the Garter. An association of twenty-six knights including the King and the Prince of Wales that continues to exist to this day.

(Prince Edward, the Prince of Wales, known as the Black Prince. He was the man who would have been king and one of the first Knights of the Garter.)

“It was at this point that Edward founded—or, to be exact—completed the foundation of the Order of the Garter. On St. George’s Day 1349, at the very height of the most horrific disease the kingdom had ever seen, Edward held a great tournament at Windsor during which he formally instituted his Order of twenty-six men who would joust and pray together once a year, and conduct themselves everywhere like proud Arthurian knights.” (p.263)

(King John II of France, captured by the Black Prince)

Edward tried in every way to be a good king although he was from perfect. Nevertheless, he was an amazing king. It is unfortunate that he outlived his glory, his sanity, and his own heir apparent.

{Video was posted by B29Productions on YouTube}

Sunday, December 18, 2011


A review of Michael Prestwich’s Edward I (1988)

(Rating 4 of 5)

Michael Preswich’s Edward I is a great book with only one flaw. One the biggest questions, to me, about King Edward I is: exactly why is he called Edward the First when there was not one, not two, but three Kings Edward before him. In addition to having multiple predecessors with his name, Edward Longshanks was also named after the previous King Edward, Edward the Confessor. Yet nowhere in this book does this subject even come up! When I first read this book back in college, I asked my professor, Phil Cole of the University of Southern Maine, if he knew why the Hammer of the Scots was labeled number one, and he confessed he had no idea. I assume that Edward is listed as the first of his name because of Norman Conquest; although I have never found any official statement to that fact. Apparently in England they only count the kings and queens that occurred after the Norman Conquest.

(King Edward I)

During his time as a prince, young Edward, had some sympathies with the reform movement amongst the barons of England, but he would ultimately side with his father King Henry III against the reformers led by Simon De Montfort. When England broke into civil war it looked for a while that the reformers might actually win. Edward himself was captured but he and his father would ultimately prevail and Montfort would be dead.

(Scary statue of Edward I)

After helping to secure his father’s throne Prince Edward left England and went on crusade. His crusade, like many of them, was a very overrated experience and although Edward was proud to have gone. The Prince was grateful for the prestige his crusade gave him and always wanted to go again, but his adventure in the East did not led any significant accomplishment. What I found most fascinating was the way children were regarded in the middle ages. Since college I have known that people in the past, emotionally, kept their young children at arm’s length. This was due to the child mortality rate at the time. Nevertheless I was stuck by Edward when he found out he lost his first-born son he seemed not to care, but when he was told he had become King because his father had died he cried nonstop. When questioned by this behavior he declares that he can always have more sons but he only had one father. Some logic in that I guess but it is very cold.

(Edward's rival king, Philip IV of France)

As King, Edward is known for three things: the ‘model’ parliament, the conquest of Wales and the near conquest of Scotland. All three of these things are very well covered by Prestwich. Prestwich is always fair giving Edward credit where he thinks the old king deserved it but at the same time making it clear that he was not quite the ‘English Justinian’ that he was always made out to be.

(St. Edward's chair)

In parliament, he did pass a great deal of important legislation such as the two Westminster Acts. However what he is most known for is the composition of parliament, making sure it was represented by all interests of the kingdom. However, Prestwich points out that the composition of parliament was something done for the King’s convenience not anyone else’s.

“Although there were no clear rules defining who was entitled to receive summons to parliament, it is obvious that the king was looking for men whose advice he valued, and whose local power and authority he could not ignore. There was something of a concentration of men who held estates on the borders near Wales and Scotland, a natural reflection of their military importance. If a man was sufficiently distinguished, he might be summoned even though he was not a tenant-in-chief, or particularly wealthy.” (p.447)

(Model Parliament, a dramatized non-historical scene)

Even though Prestwich dispels a lot of myths about this medieval king, he does not try to deny his importance to the British Constitution. It was Edward’s actions that allowed the Parliament to form into what it did and history shows other actions could have sent it to a different direction.

“Although parliament had played a very significant part in the political struggles of the late 1250s and 1260s, it would have been possible in the 1270s and 1280s for it to become something much more like the French parlement. That body was a specialized legal tribunal, with its own expert, learned staff, attended only rarely by the king himself. It was far superior to the English parliament in terms of records that were kept, and the professionalism of its staff, but its importance was much less, for it could never stand for the community of the realm, as the English parliament could. Had Edward not chosen to summon large numbers of magnates to his parliaments, along with representatives on occasion; had he not chosen to receive petitions, often in considerable quantity, in parliaments; then there might have appeared in England a small, specialized parliament, little more than a legal committee of the royal council, along the French lines.” (p.460)

King Edward’s other far lasting contribution was the conquest of Wales. Kings of England since the days of William the Conqueror had been receiving homage from Welsh princes, although they never sought to rule Wales directly. Prestwich argues that the wars were largely provoked by the Prince of Wales himself, Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, for refusing Edward homage and openly aiding his enemies such as the allies of Simon de Montfort.

“Although it is possible to criticize much that Edward did in Wales, the fact remains that he was in the end thoroughly successful. Of course his resources were immeasurably greater than those of the Welsh, but the Welsh had succeeded in retaining a considerable degree of independence in the face of powerful English kings ever since the Norman Conquest. Edward had now taken a major step towards the eventual political unification of the British Isles, though in his later years he was to find that he could not repeat in Scotland what he had achieved in Wales.” (p. 232)

(The loser, The last non-English Prince of Wales)

Edward is probably most famous for his almost conquest of Scotland. This fame has increased since the 1990s because of Mel Gibson’s Braveheart, which I acknowledge as the source of my interest in King Edward I. In that movie, Patrick McGoohan portrays King Edward and he does bring the character to life. However, it needs to be pointed out that the movie is not very historically accurate.

The war was primarily caused by Edward’s bulling. Asked to oversee a succession dispute, King Edward picks the right candidate in John Balliol, but then proceeds to completely humiliate him to the point the new King cannot control his own country. Edward deposes the Scottish King John who turns out to be, unfortunately, more a loser than King Edward’s grandfather the English King John*. Although it had seemed to Edward that he had conquered Scotland, he would find he would have to keep reconquering it to the point it would bankrupt his treasury, Edward would win only a Pyrrhic victory over William Wallace and Robert the Bruce. Robert would go into to become King of Scotland while Wallace would suffer a terrible death.

(Robert the Bruce, King of Scotland)

“From Edward’s point of view, there can have been no doubt whatsoever that Wallace was a traitor who deserved to die a traitor’s death. The king may appear today to have been ungenerous in failing to recognize the obvious qualities of his victim, who had shown a great capacity for leadership. Yet Wallace had not conducted his campaigns according to the chivalric code of the day, and there is no reason why Edward should have treated him with compassion or respect.” (p.503)

In the end this a great book about a fascinating individual. He was a giant among men both literally** and figuratively. Historians had been fascinated by him ever since, even to the point of opening his coffin in 1774. Michael Prestwich does a very good job separating the man and the legend.

(Coffin opened in 1774)

*It is interesting to point out that neither England nor Scotland ever had another king named John.

**He was well over six feet in an age where that was rare.