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review 2016-11-10 18:55
Edward III: the Perfect King
Edward III: The Perfect King - Ian Mortimer

Ian Mortimer believes, not that Edward III was actually a "perfect king," but that he was striving towards it - that it was one of his goals in life to live up to the great prophecies made at his birth in 1312. 


Edward III was the grandson of Edward I, "Hammer of the Scots," and the son of Edward II, a weak king, and Isabella of France, daughter of Philip IV "the Fair."  (The latter epithet relates to Philip's hair color, not his personality; he was a tough king, and sometimes a very cruel one.)  Isabella would be the only one of Philip's four children (he also had three sons) to produce male children who would live to adulthood, which would result in great tragedy for France for the next hundred years.


Few English kings can have come to the throne in a more perilous situation - he was a boy of fourteen, and the puppet of his mother and particularly of her lover, the ambitious Roger Mortimer, Earl of March.  For diplomatic reasons he was almost immediately married to the twelve-year-old Phillipa of Hainault (a principality in what is now Belgium).  He had few friends, and little time not monitored by either Isabella or Mortimer.  He was told, and spread the news far and wide, that his father, Edward II, died of grief in September of that year, while in confinement at Berkeley Castle.


At seventeen, in 1330, already a father, and aware of how precarious his situation was, he took an enormous chance, and personally overthrew Mortimer in the middle of the night, while they were staying at Nottingham Castle. He would rule alone for the rest of his life, which would be long (he died only in 1376).


However, Mortimer argues, Edward III already knew that he had been lied to in 1327, and that his father still lived.  It's a really interesting argument, and I think he has pretty good evidence.  (Mortimer has a fairly long article on his webpage laying out the general lines of his argument: http://www.ianmortimer.com/EdwardII/death.htm .)


Edward III's future prowess as a warrior king is legendary - he would lead the English to victories over the Scots, at Halidon Hill, and the French, at Crecy, Poitiers, and Sluys (the great naval battle of the Hundred Years' War).  What may be less famous is his attention to, and building up of, the English Parliament, his great building projects (he had hot and cold running water in his bathroom!), or his fascination with the new inventions and machinery, such as clocks.  (There's also an interesting bit about Edward III as a model for Arthur in medieval romances.)


It may have taken me a year to finish, but I kept getting distracted.  I blame you lot, as I keep thinking "well, that book looks interesting..."

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text 2016-03-04 20:05
Reading progress update: I've read 151 out of 586 pages of Trial by Battle
The Hundred Years War, Volume 1: Trial by Battle - Jonathan Sumption

Chapter 5: War in Scotland


While the young Edward III and the not-quite-so-young Philip VI (both on their thrones only a few years) dispute the latter's holdings in France, Scotland is also a matter much on Edward's mind.


His grandfather, Edward I, after totally subduing Wales, had turned on Scotland (his nickname was "the Hammer of the Scots" for good reason), where he made and broke kings, but failed to conquer the entire kingdom.  The kings of Scotland, however, are technically the greatest of his vassals.  In Edward II's day, however, this is less true, and the Scots rebel rather more successfully than previously.  In the chaos surrounding the overthrow of Edward II, Edward III's youngest sister, Joan, is married to David II of Scotland (also a child - she is seven and he is four), in order to seal a peace.  (She is mockingly known as "Joan Makepeace.")  Edward III loathes this peace.


To break it, he will use the claim of Edward Baliol, son of John Baliol, to be king of Scotland; Baliol has already sworn fealty.  He defeats David II's regent, the Earl of Mar, at Dupplin Moor, and is crowned at Scone in 1332.  However, he has little support within Scotland itself, and is forced to flee back to England after a devastating surprise attack, only three months later.  The English are quick to provide him with support, and use with great success many of the tactics that the French will become familiar with at a later date, at Halidon Hill.  At the end of the battle, five of Scotland's earls lay dead, as well as the regent and thousands of other men.  The English casualties were light.


Edward Baliol, as previously agreed, then ceded most of the southern counties of Scotland, and "ruled" over a rump Scotland.  Where he had few supporters.  That situation could not last, and did not.  David II was in exile in Paris, where he had friends at the French court, and other rebels would rise. Edward Baliol's rule would be short.


Edward III had won victory on the battlefield, but could not subdue the Scots as his grandfather had the Welsh; he was distracted by events elsewhere.  Philip VI had a new great minister, Miles de Noyer, more aggressive than his predecessors, a man confident in his own abilities and his master's rights to rule all of France.  And Philip, under his advice, would be supporting the Scots via privateers, the promise of 6000 men, and confronting Edward III's position in Gascony.


Edward III cared about retaining Gascony more than conquering Scotland - Gascony was part of his inheritance, and Scotland was not.


Next time: The war actually kicks off!

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review 2016-02-25 05:35
An encyclopedic overview of Spain during the Middle Ages
A History of Medieval Spain - Joseph F. O'Callaghan

This is amazingly encyclopedic account of the history of the Iberian peninsula from Visigothic times to the end of the 15th century. While it may be getting a little dated, it's narrative of the development of the kingdoms, societies and cultures of the region holds together thanks to Joseph O'Callaghan's clarity and his command of the sources. This is a book from which a reader can profit either by reading it cover-to-cover or by dipping into its clearly-delineated chapters, each of which can stand alone as a mini-essay on their topic. If you're looking for a book on Spain during the Middle Ages, this is definitely an excellent place to start.

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text 2016-02-21 18:38
Reading progress update: I've read 122 out of 586 pages of Trial by Battle
The Hundred Years War, Volume 1: Trial by Battle - Jonathan Sumption

Chapter 4: "Crises of Succession."


When we left things in Chapter 3, it was about 1325 and the French had just rolled over the English possessions in Gascony, leaving only a rump portion on the coast in English control.  Edward II was in great trouble at home with his own nobles, angered by an irresolute king, his failure to emulate his father, Edward I, his unending favorites (the current ones are the hated Hugh Despensers, father and son), and his loss of most of what remained of England's possessions on the continent.


Edward's estranged wife, Isabella, has been sent to the French court to negotiate with her brother, where she has joined forces with an exiled English noble, Lord Mortimer.  Now Edward II has decided that he will not do homage for Aquitaine again (he's done it 4 or 5 times now, as he has outlived 4 or 5 French kings), and has decided to send his teenaged son and heir, the future Edward III, to perform it for him.


Once Isabella has Prince Edward, she will not let him go, but will attempt to raise England against her husband, in favor of her son.  And she succeeds.  Edward II is pursued, imprisoned, forced to abdicate, and then mysteriously dies.  Edward III, at 14, is ruled by his mother and her lover, Mortimer. 


Meanwhile in France, there is a far greater succession crisis.  The last of the Capet kings dies, leaving no son.  His third wife is pregnant, and the country anxiously awaits the result.  It is already clear that a daughter will not become France's first queen regnant (though the precedent in France is very recent, less than 20 years old, and far from a rule out of time immemorial).  An infant king, however, will need a regent, and the great nobles of France, including the representatives of Edward III, meet to pick one.  Their choice is Philip of Valois, the late king's closest cousin.  (That he is an adult, French, and a known quantity helps - Edward is a minor himself, English, and very new on the scene.)  When the baby is a girl, Philip very quickly becomes the first king of the Valois line.


Back in England, Edward III overthrows his regent, Lord Mortimer, at 17 (he leads a break-in through secret tunnels in a castle to capture him, one autumn night).  And it is already clear that the tactics that worked against his father, Edward II, will not be so successful with the son, but Philip VI of France is a slow learner.  (Also, according to Sumption, the worst warrior as king medieval France ever had, who was actually sane.  Sumption describes him as obese, led by his fellow nobles, to whom he knew he owed his crown, and indolent, to which I'd add "addicted to pulling the cat's tail.") 


It is interesting to be reading this and Ian Mortimer's The Perfect King, which is a bio of Edward III, at the same time.  The major difference is that Sumption, as with many historians, believes that Edward II died in 1327 (he thinks smothered with a pillow), and that Mortimer believes Edward II did not die in 1327, and that Edward III was aware that his father lived for most of the first 15 years of his reign.  (Curious as to Mortimer's argument?  He's got a page on it here: http://www.ianmortimer.com/EdwardII/death.htm .)

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text 2016-02-01 23:07
Trial by Battle: Thoughts on Chapter 3: Gascony
The Hundred Years War, Volume 1: Trial by Battle - Jonathan Sumption

Chapter 3 of Trial by Battle takes us through the French territory at the heart of the animosity between the English and French crowns: Gascony.  The king of England was also Duke of Aquitaine (thanks to Eleanor of Aquitaine), and as such owed homage to the king of France.  This was always a difficult situation - in part because one king owing homage to another was an idea the feudal system didn't deal with very well, and also because the Gascon lords didn't want to be ruled by anyone at all.


The Gascons found that being ruled from afar, by a duke who remained mostly in England, was superior to having dukes at home to prevent them from doing anything they liked.  And if they couldn't get their way from the English king; well, they could always ask for their pleas to be heard at the Parlement of Paris.  (The Parlement of Paris was not a political or governing parliament like the English Parliament, but a judicial body.)  They could play the English and French crowns against each other, in order to get their own way.


A strong king, like Edward I, had managed his ducal holdings through a shrewd mixture of of diplomacy, bribery, bullying, and knowing when enough was enough, and that it was time to back off.  His son, Edward II, was a weak king, and the Gascon lords mostly got the better of him.  He was not helped by generally sending a new senechal there every year; whether they were competent or otherwise, none of them would have enough time there to become experts in the local situation.  More and more holdings slipped into the power of the French crown, and Edward II seemed completely unable to stop this process. 


It all culminated in a war the English didn't want in the 1320s, in which they were steam-rollered by the French, and the French strongly suggested that the only English ambassador who would make much ground in negotiating peace with them was Edward's "evil" out-of-favor wife, Queen Isabella (the only sister of their king, Charles IV).  Oh yes, and English nobles fed up with their weak and indecisive king, the Despensers who had given him poor advice, and the resulting humiliation at the hands of the French.

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