An Anvil Unto Sorrow
Yale University Press, 2010
After a lifetime of teaching and research, Seymour Phillips has produced a mammoth new life of King Edward II for the Yale English Monarchs series. The new life is far longer and far more thoroughly researched than either of the two previous full-dress lives of this king; it has an epic sweep that’s missing from either Caroline Bingham’s The Life and Times of Edward II or Natalie Fryde’s The Tyranny and Fall of Edward II. Phillips’ book will stand for the foreseeable future as the definitive work.
This must be heartening news to Phillips, and may he have joy of it, for O! how he must have suffered in the writing of such a book! He puts a brave face on it in his Acknowledgements, but the unavoidable fact is, Edward II is an endlessly frustrating historical figure, and if it weren’t for the fact that the Yale English Monarchs series is a purely voluntary thing, Phillips might well feel like the loser in a game of musical chairs. If you’re lucky enough to draw Richard III or Henry VIII, the world laughs with you – but if you get Edward II, your every faculty dinner will be choked with irritation. You’ll suppress a bile of corrections while your dinner-mates burble what they think they know about your subject.
The problem is this: there are only two things the average intelligent person knows about Edward II, and both those things are probably wrong. People get both of those things from the work of a famous playwright, except he never said either of them, although his primary source did, except that primary source isn’t trustworthy. Hazard pay ought to be involved.
Phillips will get to these misconceptions, and so will we, but there is so much more to Edward II – so much complexity and human drama that even in a biography this size, incidents crowd upon each other. Phillips sets out to master the whole breadth of his subject matter and distill its vastness into one coherent – if bristling – narrative, and he succeeds completely. Here at long last is the first life of Edward II that its subject would have considered fair. Here is the even-handed assessment he never got from his father and only rarely from his barons, his wife, or his son.
He came to the throne in July of 1307 at the age of twenty-three, succeeding his terrifying father, the dour old warrior-king Edward I, so-called Hammer of the Scots – and inheriting from his father no sterling patrimony. On the personal front, the old king had felt no compunction about undercutting Edward’s standing with the earls and moneyed men of the realm by savagely criticizing the prince openly, at court (including a reported incident of hair-pulling that’s simply too awkward to be invented). And on the national front, young Edward came to a throne badly encumbered with debts – mostly racked up by the continuously mounting costs of the old king’s Scottish wars against Robert the Bruce (it was at the height of one such campaign that Edward I had died, first commanding that his skull be brandished at the forefront of the army during renewed assaults, something his son naturally declined to do). For all his faults, Edward I had been a masterful man, fond of (and adept at) bending other men to his will. His son – tall, young, articulate, and even better-looking than his father had been in his youth – was, for all his strengths, not a masterful man; he was not a hacker and hewer of royal authority but rather a sometimes-complacent incumbent of that authority. Living in his father’s shadow had not been easy; when he was freed from it, he expected to rule and be obeyed, not to exchange one autocratic overlord for a pack of them.
His magnates, having long chafed under the father’s iron rule, had different ideas about the son, and they wasted no time: into the time-honored Coronation Oath Edward was to speak on 25 February 1308, the lords inserted a promise to “uphold and defend the laws and righteous customs that the community of the realm shall choose” – essentially making the king the head of a ruling council, the chairman of a board without whose approval he could not act. Edward’s biographers have tended to cite this as a portent of things to come, a king too weak or conciliatory to control his earls. But even at this early stage, Phillips intervenes with a calmer, more even-handed assessment, wondering if such a provision in the Coronation Oath might not have been a reflex on the part of the lords against the broken promises of Edward – not so much a defiance of Edward II’s rule as an encouragement to rule them fairly.
This is Phillips’ approach throughout the length of his book: in straightforward linear fashion, with chapters broken up into sometimes almost cinematic sub-chapters, he takes his readers through the major events of Edward’s reign – his devotion to his Gascon favorite Piers Gaveston, his marriage to Isabella, the daughter of the King of France, his protracted conflicts with his leading magnates, headed by such fiery, independent men as the Earl of Lancaster, his ignominious Bannockburn defeat at the hands of the Bruce, the civil war into which he fell with his earls, his devotion to the later favorite Hugh Despenser the Younger, his deposition at the hands of his own wife and her chief ally Roger Mortimer, his forced abdication in favor of his young son Edward, his imprisonment and death. And at every turning point or milestone, Phillips is there with not just the usual one or two well-thumbed sources but with dozens of them. In light of such careful, unprecedented scrutiny, it’s hardly surprising he comes to more balanced appraisals than any of his predecessors. A party line is never followed – an inquisitive historian is always at work, questioning every assumption. It’s invigorating to watch, and in its painstaking, scholarly way, it’s a joy to read.
This is a lucky thing, because more complacency has accreted to Edward’s reign than that of virtually any other English king. He is seen as the very model of a useless ruler – vain, vindictive when he could be, vacillating, and prone to extravagant waste. And although Phillips feels a certain visible strain of sympathy for his subject, he doesn’t restrain his criticisms on the many occasions where Edward’s insight – or his simple common sense – fail him. What he does instead is proceed from the assumption that simpering milksops didn’t keep their thrones long in the bloodthirsty Middle Ages. Edward II had the Scots under their most gifted leader howling at his northern border, and he had most of his most powerful English barons constantly threatening to take up arms against him – yet he ruled for twenty years. In the days before standing armies and centralized pensions, that took a very big helping of exactly the kind of character historians have traditionally refused to grant Edward II.
That character can be elusive, and watching Phillips slowly adduce the outlines of it is the main pleasure of his book. For a man does indeed emerge, and because he’s here for the first time delineated by so many different sources and from so many different angles, he appears to us in new and wholly lifelike detail. Here is a man of exceptional intelligence and perception, often presciently aware of personality flaws in other people and yet obstinately unwilling to uproot the main such flaw in his own personality, his insistence on the freedom to treat his favorites just as he pleased. This Edward is very often conciliatory toward his barons for the sake of the common peace, a man who (much like his future namesake Edward VII) tended to hide a first-rate practical mind behind a louche exterior. Phillips’ Edward is a better listener than the previous Edward, a better manipulator for good and ill, and a better negotiator even than he appeared to Phillips in the early stages of his research.
And yet his reign must be considered a failure, and one of the biggest reasons for that can be fairly located in the person of one man, the aforementioned Piers Gaveston. He was handsome, funny, virile, and Edward’s lifelong best friend, and he had the added benefit of being hated by Edward I – is it any wonder Edward II formed an unbreakable attachment to him? Here was one person he could be certain liked him for himself, the one loyalty that was his and not his position’s. This is the eternal appeal of favorites (as expertly explored in depth in The World of the Favorite by J.H. Elliott and L.W.B. Brockliss); for a certain kind of monarch, they become avatars of independence. Gaveston was this for Edward, and since Gaveston was also greedy of honors and contemptuous of Edward’s nobles, ruin was the only likely outcome:
Gaveston’s life and death were a tragedy for himself, for his family and for all with whom he came in contact, not least the king. Edward II had begun his reign with the best of intentions but his persistent loyalty to Gaveston led him to make ill-judged and even dangerous decisions, the consequences of which were often complex and unforeseeable … in the wider world of English politics and government, the death of Gaveston now created an undying enmity between Edward and the earls who were primarily responsible, Lancaster and Warwick.
They don’t need to be gay lovers to achieve this tragedy, but of course that’s how gossip will run, especially if there are things at stake. In this Phillips is working against all the various pro-Lancastrian chroniclers who had every reason to blacken Edward’s reputation after his death, but in the face of his level of scholarship and acumen, they’re fairly small fry; Phillips’ real adversary here is Christopher Marlowe, whose sleek, great play about Edward II did more effective blackening than all the chronicles combined – and all without any of the homosexual hanky-panky by which most people know Edward II today (British theater in the 20th century grew increasingly notorious in adding ‘gay’ to the play, but in the text there’s only deep, passionate friendship on display). Phillips is too serious to have much sport with Marlowe, but he addresses the question, as he knows he must. “Accusations or suggestions of sodomy,” he tells us,
which was considered tantamount to heresy, were a familiar method of blackening the character of one’s enemies; they were used, for example, by Philip IV of France against both Pope Boniface VIII and the Templars, and in the previous generation had been used against Philip’s own father Philip III … the hint, if such it was, that Edward engaged in unnatural vice was readily picked up and disseminated by chroniclers, especially those on the continent.
Ian McKellan in Marlowe’s Edward II, 1969
Phillips finds no evidence for that “unnatural” vice, although he’s willing to accuse Edward of more natural ones like poor judgement:
By the end of February 1308 a major crisis in the affairs of the English crown was fast developing, a crisis for which Edward II bore much of the responsibility. It is possible to show that many of the more extravagant charges against Gaveston were ill founded and that the relationship between him and Edward was probably based on a deeply felt sense of brotherhood. It is also fair to note that although Edward had been expecting to marry Isabella since 1299, his new wife and queen was little more than a child whom he still barely knew.
The point is well made here – Isabella would have been a very strange sudden addition to Edward’s world and hardly a comfortable one – and it’s given rich further texture as Philliips shows us the slow, gradual steps by which Edward and Isabella came to be fond of each other; they talked, they horsed around at Christmas, he saved her from a fire in their apartments during a visit to France, and even when she was in the midst of an armed insurrection against him, their letters back and forth are curiously affectionate. Read enough of those letters – especially in context of the care and attention both parents lavished on their children – and Marlowe’s version starts to look a little silly.
And as with Gaveston, so too with the second well-known probably-wrong detail of this much-beleaguered king’s life: his manner of death, specifically by having a red-hot poker rammed up his bum – done, chronicles tell us, both to condemn his illicit lifestyle and to prevent the body from having any external signs of violence. Phillips argues from logic: the same people who would have found it expedient to lie about the illicit lifestyle would have found it expedient to add this detail. There’s of course a chance it’s true, but Phillips doesn’t lean in that direction:
There is no evidence of any initial suspicions about the manner of Edward II’s death. … it is known that the woman who eviscerated Edward’s corpse visited Isabella at Worcester a few days after the funeral. This could be interpreted as Isabella wanting to know more about the manner of her husband’s death, either because she had a guilty conscience or because she suspected foul play; or the purpose may simply have been for her to receive Edward’s heart.
(The medieval accessorizing of individual body parts … yeesh …)
This is our author’s way – he doesn’t sloganeer. Instead, he methodically builds the most likely scenarios out of the available evidence. And he’s always alert for cracks in that evidence, especially if it broadens the focus away from black-and-white heroes-and-villains. Did, for example, Edward II die of natural causes (exacerbated by the prison life and prison diet to which he was subjected after his deposition), or was he – pace poker – murdered at the instigation of Roger Mortimer, perhaps with the queen’s consent? We’re unlikely to know for certain, but Phillips wants things as clear as possible nevertheless:
Although it is impossible to prove that Isabella had nothing to do with her husband’s death, one part at least of the accusations against her can be rejected. The ambiguous messages allegedly sent to Edward’s gaolers on her behalf by the bishop of Hereford was pure fiction since the bishop was not even in England at the time and so could not possibly have done this.
As mentioned, this ceaseless watchdogging must occasionally have palled the long research and writing of such a big book on such a thankless subject, and sometimes hints of that surface even in Phillips’ judicious prose. One of the contemporary chronicles of Edward’s reign lamented the fact that he was fond of “the counsels of wicked men,” and sometimes even his foremost defender seems to wish he had less of that fondness to record:
… Edward was prepared to follow sound advice when it was given to him by men he trusted. But he could just as easily be persuaded to make bad decisions by irresponsible favourites whose company he enjoyed. From this point of view, Edward II was as heavy a cross to bear for his friends as he was for his enemies.
In Marlowe’s play, Edward revels in self-pity, calling his life “an anvil unto sorrow,” and in Marlowe’s play we don’t feel much sympathy – and it’s that callow, resentful princely popinjay who’s carried the day ever since. Marlowe’s strutting piece of stage mummery will never receive a longer, more detailed, or better rejoinder than Seymour Phillips has now given it. He’s done his best to move the terms of the topic from buggery and pokers to a battle for the soul of kingship. If he doesn’t succeed, it will only be because actors are pretty.
Steve Donoghue is a writer and reader living in Boston with his dogs. He’s recently reviewed books for The Columbia Journal of American Studies, Historical Novel Review Online, and The Quarterly Conversation. He is the Managing Editor of Open Letters Monthly, and hosts one of its blogs, Stevereads.