Our book today is Thomas Costain’s magnificent 1958 volume The Three Edwards, the third in his “Pageant of England” series, this one centering on the reigns of Kings Edward I, II, and III and thus covering some of the most dramatic and vibrant years in English history. Costain – an old newspaperman from Canada who unexpectedly discovered late in life that he had a knack for writing the kinds of primary-color rollicking-good historical fiction that the Hollywood of his day really liked. So many of his novels were adapted into successful movies that he was able retire from journalism in style and with nary a backward glance.
He wrote with the head-down no-nonsense work ethic of a bricklayer, but his books are uniformly, sparklingly readable – most certainly including The Three Edwards, even though the review-jobbing professional medievalists of the day predictably carped at the corners Costain was cutting to tell his rattling good yarns.
There are of course rattling good yarns aplenty amidst this material, but Costain’s main saving graves as a popularizer is that he isn’t only that: he’s also thought a great deal about his subject, and some of the observations he comes up with are worthy of Will and Ariel Durant. About his first monarch, for instance, he remarks that “the strength of Edward was not in innovation but in his genius for adaptation and his appreciation of the need to define and codify” (he adds: “he would in the years ahead of him earn the title of the English Justinian”).
Costain was an unapologetic romantic at heart (this is one of the main reasons, probably, that his novels will never enjoy a revival in an era tawdry enough to venerate “Breaking Bad”), and even in his nonfiction narratives, he never misses an opportunity to put a human face on the proceedings, even if he risks anachronisms along the way. His account of the illicit passion Edward II’s Queen Isabella felt for the strapping traitor Roger Mortimer, for instance, would scarcely be out of place in a Phyllis Whitney novel (don’t ask – Stevereads will get to her in due time):
It is not difficult to believe that the queen, her emotions aroused by the fine dark eyes of the prisoner, had communicated with him, had in fact made occasion to see him. It is easy enough, too, when served by loyal gentlemen and ladies-in-waiting, to have a cell door opened and a corridor kept clear and thus to receive a guest when the silence of night has settled over the dark Tower. It would be risky but possible to carry on a liaison under the eyes of the court. It is easy to imagine also that the sub-lieutenant could have been won over if pressure of the right kind had been brought to bear on him.
Naturally, it’s not just love but death that fills these pages, including the biggest mortality of modern times, the Black Death of 1346. Costain paints a thrillingly dramatic picture of the plague’s inexorable march across the Continent toward England, which waited fearfully and grasped at every rumor:
When the plague reached France, the people of England became aware for the first time that it was universal. Word of strange and fearful things came over the water to the island. At Avignon the churchyards could not hold the dead and the Pope consecrated the Rhone so that bodies might be committed to the waters. The French people were said to be adopting strange methods to escape contagion. Some were wearing small lions carved out of gold. The gates of Paris were erupting with people seeking escape. Only in houses with windows opening to the north could there be safety. The doctors, who were completely in the dark, were advising people to avoid the sun and warm winds. Stay inside, they were saying, and fill the air with the scent of burning juniper and ash and young oak.
But it’s at the level of the individual that Costain consistently excels, especially when the historical character he’s describing is one he’s come to like. And since, for good or ill, it’s virtually impossible to read about Edward III without coming to like him, his chapters in The Three Edwards are the book’s most effective – culminating in the enfeebled warrior-king’s notoriously unsentimental end in 1377, although even there our author saves the scene with a fine flourish at the end:
The end came suddenly. His sight had not been good for a long time and then, on June 21, his voice deserted him entirely. He was too weak to do more than raise a feeble hand to indicate his wants. Soon even that effort proved too much and he sank into a condition almost of a coma. None of his children were with him, not even the duke who had made a point of attending him closely. The household officials, having been convinced long before of the imminence of death and seeing nothing to be gained now, were paying small attention. Alice Perrers remained in the room and a small knot of household servants and courtiers kept watchful eyes on her. She had never thought it necessary to win the favor of the staff and had been repaid by a general suspicion and dislike.
The king’s confessor was in the room, hovering tensely over the royal couch. When the dying monarch recovered enough strength to mutter the words Jesu Miserere, the priest placed a crucifix in his hands. The royal lips were pressed to the cross. The breathing became less and less perceptible and finally ceased.
Thus died the most brilliant and colorful of the English kings. He had lived to the ripe age of sixty-five years and had been king for fifty of them.
Everything that Thomas Costain wrote is worth reading, but to my mind, his popular histories are the pinnacle of his maudlin, purple-lipped art. “The Pageant of England” was a staple of book clubs and special-edition vendors for decades, so who knows how many basements and cellars still have cobwebbed copies tucked away in some corner? I recently found a hardcover with a pretty dust jacket (at my beloved Brattle Bookshop, of course) and spent a wonderful afternoon re-living the pomp and splendor. I strongly recommend the experience.
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