18 August, 2006

Edward II Novel of the Week (6): 'The Death of a King' by P. C. Doherty

Published in 1985, this is the highly prolific Doherty's first novel. It takes place in 1345/6 and is narrated in the first person by Edmund Beche, a clerk who is ordered by King Edward III to investigate the circumstances of his father Edward II's death.

I enjoyed the structure of the novel - every chapter consists of a letter sent by Beche to his friend Richard Bliton, Prior of Crowland Abbey, as he details his investigations and discoveries. (According to Doherty's Isabella and the Strange Death of Edward II, Bliton was the confessor of Hugh Despenser the Younger. That must have been a full-time job.)

Unfortunately, Beche himself remains an engima - other than the fact that he's competent and resourceful, I feel that I never really learn anything about him as a character. This is also true for other characters - Edward III, for instance, never comes to life (admittedly, he only appears a couple of times) and few other people appear long or often enough to be fully rounded characters. Dowager Queen Isabella is emphatically an 'old bitch', as the narrative often calls her, and tries to have Beche murdered twice.

There are some historical inaccuracies, though nothing too bad. Beche states (in 1345) that he can't speak to Thomas Berkeley, Edward II's jailor, because he's dead. However, Berkeley lived to 1361, and his son was only fifteen in 1345, not the hardened soldier depicted here. The earl of Kent was executed in 1330, not 1329; Adam Orleton was not Bishop of Worcester in 1345, having been promoted to Bishop of Winchester in 1327; and it was in the reign of Edward III, not Edward II, when John Stratford was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury. (These are the kind of picky little details that only a hopeless anorak such as myself would spot, and are unlikely to bother the general reader.)

The 'error' that bothered me most, though, occurs early in the novel, when Edward III tells Beche that he was born in March 1312. In fact, Edward was born on 13 November 1312, a date which is undisputed. I assumed this was a careless error by Doherty, but there is a reason for this change - which I'll comment on later.

**NOTE: SPOILERS. In order to discuss the novel properly, I'm going to give away the 'secrets' that Beche discovers. Anyone intending to read the novel, and who doesn't want to know what happens, should stop reading here.**

Beche's journey takes him all over the country, to talk to Queen Isabella, the Bishop of Winchester, Lord Berkeley, and so on. He comes to realise that all is not as it seems, and comes to the startling conclusion that Edward II was not murdered at all, but escaped from Berkeley and is still alive in Italy. As if that revelation wasn't enough, Edward III's father is not Edward II, but Roger Mortimer. Edward III is desperate for this truth to remain hidden, as it means that he is not the true king of England, and would also invalidate his claim to the French throne.

This is the real reason for Doherty's 'careless error' with Edward III's date of birth. As Doherty certainly knows perfectly well, Edward II and Isabella were together in York in February/March 1312 to conceive Edward III, born in November that year. However, if Edward III was born in March 1312, this would push the date of his conception back to the summer of 1311 - when Edward II was on campaign in Scotland and nowhere near Isabella. Unfortunately for the Mortimer theory, Roger Mortimer spent the whole of 1311 in Ireland, and couldn't possibly have fathered Edward III. (Not to mention that there isn't a shred of evidence that his affair with Isabella began before 1322 at the absolute earliest, and probably not until late 1325.) And surely someone would have noticed if Isabella became pregnant when her husband was hundreds of miles away?

I have to say I find this very dishonest - to change a perfectly well-known, undisputed historical fact to fit your plot. However, for me it's the only major flaw in the novel. The plot unfolds very nicely, one startling revelation following another, and I loved seeing Edward II survive his imprisonment at Berkeley - the scene where he escapes with the Dunheved brothers is very well done. Edward himself appears at the end of the novel, in a monastery in Italy. He has taken the name Hugolino in memory of his friend Hugh Despenser, and is relieved to be free of the burden of kingship. He has no wish to return to England, or to become king again, but wants only to be left alone - a wish which sadly doesn't come true.

This is a very interesting take on the mystery of Edward II's death. Doherty makes Edward's survival seem plausible, and shows how the fact that he isn't dead affects Isabella and Edward III - they know he's still alive, but they don't know where. Isabella shuts herself up at Castle Rising with a large bodyguard, afraid of her husband taking revenge on her, and Edward III fears that his father will re-surface with the truth of his 'son's' paternity. I really love the idea of Edward II escaping from Berkeley and living out the rest of his life at peace.

The real question is, can this be what really happened...?


Susan Higginbotham said...

I enjoyed the last chapters in Italy here--thought it was a nice portrayal of Edward II.

Kathryn Warner said...

Yes, that was my favourite part of the novel too, although my absolute favourite scene is the 'flashback' where the friar friend of the Dunheveds meets Edward in about 1318. It's pretty short, but a very vivid portrayal of Edward, I think.

Unknown said...

Thank you, so much, for this post. One of the aspects of historical fiction that is most frustrating is when it is challenging to understand the lines between fiction and history. I am delighted to find your site, and your review of this book (that I really enjoyed).

Unknown said...

Thank you, so much, for this post. One of the aspects of historical fiction that is most frustrating is when it is challenging to understand the lines between fiction and history. I am delighted to find your site, and your review of this book (that I really enjoyed).

Kathryn Warner said...

Thank you for the kind comment, David! So glad you enjoyed the review, and a warm welcome to my site!