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}

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please feel free to leave a comment on any article at anytime, regardless how long ago I posted it. I will most likely respond.