16 March, 2012

Edward II's Bad Press

Some of the harsh judgements passed on Edward II by historians of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries:

"A more complete ninny than Edward II has seldom occupied a throne. He was indeed a man of commanding presence — tall, strongly built, and very handsome — but his kingly figure was not yoked with a kingly intellect or will. He had no taste and no capacity for kingship, except in the mere matter of military parade and Court ceremony. He preferred to ride a horse, row a boat, dig a pit or thatch a barn, get up masques, and patronise playwrights, try his hand at farming and horse- breeding, to the work of government. As recreations these pursuits might do credit to a great ruler, but when they are the chief occupations of a monarch who cannot rule, they betoken the trifler and the pitiful incapable.": J. Mackinnon, History of Edward III (1900).

"[B]rutal and brainless athlete...incompetent, idle, frivolous and incurious": T.F. Tout, 'The Captivity and Death of Edward of Carnarvon' (1934).  Tout does allow that Edward was "not, I suspect, exceptionally vicious or depraved."  Gosh.

"A scatter-brained wastrel": Ibid.

"A weakling and a fool": May McKisack, The Fourteenth Century 1307-1399 (1959).

"Weak-willed and frivolous": T.F Tout, The Place of the Reign of Edward II in English History (1914).

"A coward and a trifler": Tout again, in Edward the First.

"He has no high aims, no policy beyond the cunning of unscrupulous selfishness.  He has no kingly pride or sense of duty, no industry or shame or piety...vulgar pomp, heartless extravagance, lavish improvidence, selfish indolence make him a fit centre of an intriguing court.  He does no good to anyone": William Stubbs, A Constitutional History of England (1875).  In fairness, Stubbs also describes Edward III as "unscrupulous, selfish, extravagant, and ostentatious.  His obligations as a king sat very lightly on him."

And a much older and particularly unpleasant judgement on poor Edward: "Of four sons which he [Edward I] had by his wife Queen Eleanor, three of them died in his own lifetime, who were worthy to have outlived him; and the fourth outlived him, who was worthy never to have been born": Richard Baker, A Chronicle to the Kings of England (1643).  That one makes me furious.

Not entirely on-topic, but I had a good giggle at this page, which starts badly (by claiming that the centuries-later story of Edward I deceiving the Welsh by presenting to them a 'prince who could speak no English' is true) and gets worse (by suggesting that "Some doubt could be raised as to whether King Edward II was the genetic father of Prince Edward", AGH!!!). There's also a list of Edward II's supposed bad points, among which are included:

- Flaunted his homosexuality
- Enjoyed good food and wine
- Enjoyed fine, expensive but elegant, showy, bizarre clothes & jewellry- Liked acting or 'theatricals'
- Patron of writers and players
- Enjoyed poetry and wrote some.
- Played kettle drums, loved music & had a troupe of Genoese musicians [2 trumpeters, harpist, horn player and a drummer.]
- With Gaveston he enjoyed jesters, jugglers, actors and singers.
- Collected books on French romances and legends.

It had honestly never occurred to me before that being a patron of writers, enjoying poetry and music, and collecting books could actually be considered bad things. Perhaps the writer means that such cultured hobbies were out of place in a king of the fourteenth century and that they distracted Edward from the real business of making war and killing lots of people. If so, this should really have been stated more clearly. I also wonder about the 'flaunting his homosexuality' bit. There's an awful lot I could say about that particular statement, but I'll limit myself to wondering whether 'flaunting his heterosexuality' would have been considered a bad thing, or even worthy of comment.

Finally, and definitely off-topically, today is the 690th anniversary of the battle of Boroughbridge, where Andrew Harclay, sheriff of Cumberland, defeated the earls of Hereford and Lancaster.  See here for the Battlefields Resource Centre's pages about the battle, and here for my post on the aftermath of the battle and the possessions of the fleeing Contrariants seized by Edward II's household.  Oh, and here for the dishonesty of some modern writers in misquoting the Vita Edwardi Secundi's account of the battle and its aftermath.

7 comments:

Undine said...

Yow. You must admit, though, the Victorians/Edwardians had a great way with insults. You just don't see phrases like "scatter-brained wastrel" anymore.

It's interesting how Edward's fondness for music and culture has been held against him. I believe Richard III has gotten similar criticism. Of course, if the opposite had been the case, they would be described as uncouth barbarians!

Kathryn Warner said...

Absolutely, Undine - viewed objectively, I can't help but admire such a vivid use of English. :-)

It's most odd. Elsewhere, I've seen Edward sneered at for supposedly being 'stupid' and 'uneducated'. Whatever works to insult him, evidently. It does seem to me sometimes that every single thing he ever did or didn't do has been used as ammunition against him in one way or another.

Gabriele C. said...

And what the heck is wrong with liking good wine? Let's have a party with Ed, drink some wine, listen to minstrels and laugh about jesters, and then have a moonshine row on the Thames. :)

Kathryn Warner said...

Exactly, Gabriele. Doesn't Edward sound like he'd be really fun company? :-)

Anerje said...

That first comment sounds like it could have been written from Edward's time. Very sad that it was only written just over 100 years ago - those chroniclers made an impact. As for Edward 'flaunting his homosexuality', I'm afraid he didn't flaunt it enough for historians to be able to agree about it:>

GeorgeD said...

It's obvious that poor Edward has a very bad case of vae victis!

Unfortunately, that's a rather common thing in history. Let those kings and rulers just win a few battles (and, as you said, kill lots of people) and die peacefully in their beds, then nobody will object to anything they ever did. However, if they were on the losing side, or even deposed, they may be sure to be presented to posterity as monsters...

And now I begin to understand why that German emperor, Henry III, has always been so much petted by historians (his contemporaries seem to have been less thrilled with him). Having gained "the most virtuous princess" in Europe for a wife, he had the jesters, jugglers, actors and singers chased from his marriage feast...

Kathryn Warner said...

Great points, Anerje and GeorgeD!