‘I am Thy Man’
by W. Mark Ormrod
Yale University Press, 2011
The qualities of a great king are three: strength, care, and luck, and the greatest of these is luck. A strong king who is not careful may lose his kingdom, his crown, and even his head to domestic resentments he thought fit to ignore. A careful king who is not strong will be a pawn, either to his own subjects or to foreign powers. And not all the strength or care in the world will help if a sudden storm shatters your fleet at sea. But luck reaches out far beyond storms and uprisings: the most important kind of luck is posterity’s to bestow.
As is often the case in such scholarly productions as historian W. Mark Ormrod’s magnificent new biography of King Edward III, posterity waits until the tables are cleared before it delivers its verdict. It’s usually in the final chapter of a soup-to-nuts book like this that readers get the now-obligatory section devoted to the subject’s historiography. Here is the place where those readers will typically find the slighting of competitors, the backhanded complimenting of old teachers, and the subtle positioning of the author’s own work as perhaps the finest piece of biographical writing since the Gospel according to John. Ormrod isn’t quite that bad, but it’s in this chapter that he quips, “the three popular books on Edward published between 1973 and 1992 were entirely devoid of originality,” thereby doing a rather stiff disservice to Michael Packe’s smart and intensely readable 1983 life of the king – and it’s here that he takes us on a quick but comprehensive tour of how Edward III has fared at the hands of subsequent ages.
In his own time, his greatness was not in question, even by his enemies. He came to the English throne in 1327 at the age of fourteen, a gawky, raw-boned lad with the bright hair and florid features of the Plantagenet family. It wasn’t a happy ascension: his mother Queen Isabella and her lover Roger Mortimer had deposed and finally dispensed with his father Edward II (who could have given master-classes in the art of eluding greatness) and now ruled the country in a regency of ill-disguised complacency. There were rumors that Mortimer, the earl of March, dreamed of marrying the Dowager Queen and making himself king. Frustrated, scandalized Edward was crowned in sham splendor and allowed to take a wife – plain, utterly captivating Philippa of Hainault – and start what would become an enormous family – twelve children, of whom the first was another young Edward, the lad who would grow up to become the famous Black Prince – but tension was rife.
Edward chafed three years under that tension and then acted in 1330: he let a group of men by secret passageways into Nottingham Castle and arrested Mortimer (and gently but firmly sent his mother to the nunnery for the rest of her days). The usurping earl was given no hearing before the King or his Parliament – he was condemned out of hand, as he himself had so often condemned others. In October of 1330, he was dragged through the streets of London, taken to Tyburn, and hanged, drawn, and quartered, and there is no reason to think Edward didn’t watch.
He had a great survey of work to do, and powerful temptations, the worst of which was the ambition for a second crown. By 1328, all three sons of the French king Philip the Fair had ruled in their turn, and all three had died childless. The current occupant of the throne, Philip VI, was a Valois cousin, but so was Edward, whose mother Queen Isabella was the daughter of Philip the Fair. French law forbade inheritance through the female line, but French hostility – Philip VI had invaded the English-held territory of Gascony in 1337 – demanded some sort of answer. Edward made it the proudest answer possible: he claimed the French crown in his own right and quartered the fleur-de-lis with his own arms.
What resulted from these small storms was the great cataclysm known to history as the Hundred Years War, in which the struggles between France and England for domination of the West formed the center of a far larger fight, a proto-world war: Philip made common cause with the Scots to England’s north, linking their constant agitation for freedom from the English crown with Edward’s diplomatic attempts to regain the sovereignty of Gascony, and Edward sought support, men, and money in the Low Countries, working to turn Flanders into a Valois goad. Both monarchs were hot-headed and eager for chivalric glory, both had money and men in abundance, and both loudly proclaimed that God was on their side.
From the start, He seemed to favor Edward. In a string of battles – Sluys in 1340, Crecy in 1346, Calais in 1347, then Poitiers a decade later in 1356 – Edward and his redoubtable son the Black Prince beat the French and their allies time and again, slaughtering wounded prisoners, ransacking the countryside, and racking up astronomical debt. In 1340, Edward virtually went bankrupt and defaulted on huge loans made to him by the Florentine banking firms of Bardi and Peruzzi, ruining the English branches of both operations – and yet the war went on (and there were numerous equally expensive clashes with the Scots during these years as well, for which there also was no money). Edward’s cheerful motto, “Hay Hay the wythe swan / By Godes soule I am thy man” fit well with his own generally cheerful demeanor, but events were conspiring to cloud the sunlight of his grand beginning. In 1348, Edward III faced an invasion worse than any his royal predecessors had ever seen, and it was no human army.
In 1348 the Black Death came to England. Carried by rats, borne by flea-bite and the air itself, the plague scythed through the cities and towns of Edward’s realm, sparing nobody (Edward himself lost a score of friends, and a daughter), yielding to nothing. Hamlets were depopulated in a matter of months, and bodies filled hastily scraped-out mass graves in every outlying field. Kings are helpless in the face of such scourges, although there’s still something to be said for dogged steadfastness – Edward certainly didn’t hare from country estate to country estate in a blind panic, as Henry VIII would do nearly two centuries later when confronting outbreaks of the sweating sickness. Rather, he grieved and endured, and in time the first few deadly waves of the sickness wore themselves out.
Despite war and pestilence, Edward’s kingdom survived and even thrived in some ways. The king and queen were generous patrons of the arts (he for their reflected glory, she out of genuine interest), friends to stonemasons, sculptures, cathedral-raisers, historians, musicians, and poets. William Langland’s The Vision of Piers Plowman belongs to Edward’s reign, as does a part of the chronicle of Froissart, that resplendent Tacitus of his day, and of course Chaucer, the glory of what would become English literature, what he would make English literature. Cathedrals soared skyward, market towns prospered, and the king’s clutch of sons – the Black Prince, Lionel, Thomas, Edmund, and that very picture of the ‘over-mighty subject’ John of Gaunt – honored their father and mother and miraculously avoided warring with themselves. Or perhaps it wasn’t so miraculous – they lived in the shadow of the mightiest warrior-king since William the Conqueror, and that king’s coriolis bursts of temper were only curbed by the caring, shrewd love of Queen Philippa.
She died in 1369. Edward, who in his teens could blast apart an armored man’s chest with a two-handed swipe of his broadsword, who laughed while ordering his flagship to ram an oncoming vessel, who could order the death of a city in a towering rage and rescind the order at one soft plea from her, Edward lost her and broke beyond mending.
He stooped from his tent-pole 6’2”. He lapsed from his courtly coiffure. He let his soldier sons’ bulletins sit on tables. He broke, and he didn’t even want to mend. He became lost from himself.
Nature abhors such a vacuum, and it typically sends abhorrent creatures to fill it. This one’s name was Alice Perrers, a rat-faced gap-toothed social climber who found the shell of the old king and filled it with midday giggles, cronies with shopkeeper accents, and Queen Philippa’s jewelry modelled by a woman not fit to look at her. Perrers and her friends began to rule the country through Edward, controlling access to the old man and issuing edicts in his name.
The grinding expense of the war in France was strain enough in England, but this was too much. Charges were brought in the 1376 Parliament, the “Good” Parliament, and indictments were handed out, and Alice Perrers was sent away, clamoring and demanding her rights the whole time. She went right on demanding her rights for years afterwards. It’s doubtful she even noticed when Edward died, in June 1377, although the rest of the kingdom did. Thousands of crying mourners lined the streets of London to watch Edward make his long slow last trip to Westminster. Decline was over; there was only posterity now.
As noted, it sang his praises at first. Fifty years, glorious wars, an upright prince, gaudy tournaments, the Order of the Garter, the groundbreaking due process of the “Good Parliament,” the show of all those heirs – this was more than ample restitution for the appalling degradation Edward II had allowed and encouraged. This was an England midwived into nationhood. As long as he was in living memory, that memory glowed like the sun of Camelot come round again. Even the thought of Alice Perrers couldn’t dim it; she became a cautionary tale, a good man’s failing.
After that living memory was gone, accounts and assessments began, of which Ormrod’s massive Edward III is the latest, one of the longest, and certainly the best. Here is every controversy of that long reign, those tumultuous times, that towering king, carefully documented and dissected. Ormrod is an immensely learned guide and yet the possessor of a nimble style that turns even the most detailed discussions into fascinating reading. He achieves this in part by constantly keeping the bigger picture in mind:
Medieval principles of good government were perceived and expressed in strikingly personal terms. The king was more than the symbolic embodiment of the state: he was the personal instrument through which its good intentions were promulgated. There was a huge amount of routine business performed in the king’s name with which he had, in reality, nothing directly to do. But the monarch was expected to inform the most important aspects of the crown policy by the direct application of his grace and will.
For a book of this length, it’s nothing less than astonishing that Ormrod so consistently manages to avoid the pitfalls of over-specialization. Other entrants in the ongoing Yale English Monarchs series haven’t been nearly so successful at this, and a couple of them have degenerated into archive-sniffing monographs of no interest to anybody but specialists. Not so Edward III, which always remembers the personal element in all its politics, as when Ormrod relates the tension between Edward and the scheming Stratford family in the 1340s. Despite an ostentatious public reconciliation with the family, Ormrod points out that none of them ever again held government office, and he takes an entertaining, common sense guess at why:
Posterity may have preserved a strong image of Edward III as the great conciliator, whose instinct for political peace inspired in him a great generosity of spirit and a powerful gift for friendship. In the case of John Stratford, however, it is hard to resist the conclusion that even Edward knew the exquisite pleasure of a lasting grudge.
Inevitably, any account of Edward’s life and times will make mention of one other, darker pleasure Edward might have allowed himself, an incident that is heavily alluded to in the 1596 play The Reign of King Edward III (thought in some quarters to be by Shakespeare, by scholars who’ve obviously either not read it or not read Shakespeare), features prominently in most encyclopedia entries on the king and gets a quick, dramatic retelling in what is still by far the most popular work of history to deal with Edward, Barbara Tuchman’s 1978 massive best-seller A Distant Mirror. The story is this: in 1342, a battle-weary Edward visits Salisbury Castle to see the Countess of Salisbury (after first having seen off her husband, William Montagu, to the wars in Brittany), is driven to a frenzy by her beauty and wit, seizes her alone in her bedroom, binds and gags her, and brutally rapes her, leaving her bruised and bleeding when he returns to London. According to Froissart, there was no rape – merely a struggle of conscience won by the King. According to Froissart’s source, Jean le Bel, the countess confessed the whole thing to her husband upon his return (“crying and sitting on the edge of the bed”), causing him to burst into Edward’s court, renounce his lands, and yell “You have villainously dishonored me and tossed me into the shit.”
Ormrod can’t ignore this story, although he does his level best. He gives it a couple of paragraphs in a very busy book, and he makes it clear from the start where his loyalties are:
Shortly after Montagu’s death [in 1344] a scurrilous story began to circulate on the continent, claiming that Edward III had developed an uncontrollable passion for the countess of Salisbury and had raped her while her husband was away on his service in the early 1340s. This tale, redolent of biblical and classical themes, is very likely to have had its origins in anti-English propaganda put out by Philip VI. It derived its potency from the idea that Edward had committed an act of gross betrayal against a brother in arms and thus broken the very code of chivalry that he claimed so stridently to exemplify.
We don’t know exactly when this ‘scurrilous story’ began to circulate, but it certainly didn’t derive all its potency from some high-allegorical twist of irony. Le Bel’s version is full of intensely human details – how the countess didn’t let her husband touch her while she was telling him the story, how she was a changed woman, never happy again, how Montagu loved her but couldn’t stand to live with her anymore – and a great deal of its potency comes from those details. In discounting all that, Ormrod sums up the case for the defense and puts his faith in chronology:
It is, of course, perfectly possible that the king made advances to Catherine Montagu. He may even have had a fully fledged consensual affair with her. Even so, there is no hint of such a scandal becoming public knowledge in England while William and Catherine lived. … Indeed, what is surely most striking about the rather obvious attempt to defame Edward III is that, so long as the king lived, it had no recorded currency in England.
But both Froissart and le Bel are clearly referring to a story that was in circulation by the 1350s, and it turns up in contemporary French records as well, to say nothing of the fact that if advances or affairs were perfectly possible, worse things were too. It’s one of the only times in the whole course of this book where Ormrod skirts a discussion instead of having it, even though that discussion might have shed some fascinating light on the king’s reputation.
That reputation is the subject of Ormrod’s final chapter, in which he takes the reader on a lively tour of the ways posterity has handled Edward III. This tour naturally culminates with those meddlesome Victorian ‘gentlemen scholars’ who tended to look at Edward as a pasteboard front-man for an increasingly powerful nobility, a strutting wastrel-warrior whose disastrous wars in France and Scotland bled the Treasury and started the Hundred Years War and whose indulgence of so many strong sons made the Wars of the Roses unavoidable. Ormrod cites William Stubbs’ extremely influential Constitutional History of England from the 1870s and Charles Plummer’s damning account of Edward and his “bastard feudalism” from 1885, and he makes it clear that 20th-century reassessments have been slow to recover ground lost to 19th-century historians leery of European meddling.
Ormrod himself tries hard to strike a balanced tone. He liberally cites Edward’s shortcomings, his “unreasonableness, his bullying, and his infuriating refusal to accept realities that did not suit him.” He frequently mentions “the perhaps rather limited reach” of Edward’s intellect and dutifully tells us that he could be “petulant, wilful, vulgar, and boorish.” In compensation he talks about Edward’s ability, “through sheer force of personality, to turn imminent disaster into survival and recovery.” But our historian’s true feelings are perhaps revealed in the little details; he calls that final chapter “Edward the Great.” And so the king is lucky after all.
Steve Donoghue is a writer and reader living in Boston with his dogs. He’s recently reviewed books for The Washington Post, The National, The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, Historical Novel Review Online, and The Quarterly Conversation. He is the Managing Editor of Open Letters Monthly, and hosts one of its blogs, Stevereads.