Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Review: The Perfect King: The Life of Edward III, Father of the English Nation, by Ian Mortimer

The Perfect King is, as the title suggests, a biography of Edward III, who reigned in the 14th century. It’s a bit modern for me as far as history goes, but I had hugely enjoyed Mortimer’s The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England and was looking forward forward to it.

The history begins ahead of Edward III’s own story, which helps to set the scene and establish the situation into which he was born and grew. The difficulties his father, Edward II, suffered (and caused) are gone into in sufficient detail to create the context for Edward III’s own story, without going overboard. It’s worth noting the author employs the simple consistency of referring to Edward III as ‘Edward’ throughout (handy when his father shared the name and his eldest son, usually called ‘the prince’ or ‘the Black Prince’, likewise).

I had the vague notion that Edward II had been murdered by red hot poker, though the author disagrees. Direct evidence of Edward’s father’s survival is scarce, but the circumstantial evidence is quite numerous, and a credible case is made for Edward II surviving for years longer than is generally believed.

The amount of information is extensive, and not limited to battles and war (although I must admit that is what most interested me). It was fascinating to read how early moment swung to and fro as Edward tussled with King Philip of France.

Throughout the book, the author does a good job in the useful (and sometimes essential) task of providing context to the actions and speech that are described. The medieval world is, in many ways, far removed from ours and the behaviour of those in the 14th century can seem inexplicable, without explanation.

The succession of sad news and rapid descent from glory to tragedy of Edward towards the end of his long reign (one of the longest in English history) is very sympathetic. It takes little imagination to place oneself with an old man whose mind is fraying daily but who remains burdened by royal responsibility (particularly in the modern age, when Alzheimer’s is on the march).

It’s slightly surprising there wasn’t a brief section on the immediate aftermath of Edward’s death, regarding the succession.

The book has a number of maps near the beginning, including England, the Anglo-Scottish borders, France and other bits of Europe. Unlike some maps in books, they’re detailed without being cluttered, and none of the maps get partially devoured by the spine of the book.

Notes are frequent throughout. It’s a small thing, but I much prefer footnotes to having notes explained at the back of a book, which happens here. Checking back and forth is a little more tedious than glancing at the bottom of the page.

As is common with this sort of book, there are a number of photographs (black and white) and the odd picture contained within. The tombs are particularly interesting as they feature, in all likelihood, realistic depictions of the faces of significant figures, including Edward.

The end has eight appendices. Generally, these were of little interest to me (excepting an interesting explanation of why I* was almost certainly descended from Edward III). However, the whole purpose of appendices is to provide additional information that doesn’t sit easily in the main body of text or is not essential to the main subject, so that’s not an issue.

*Well, anyone with English ancestry. But that includes me.

I really rather like this book, and finished it feeling that I had an understanding of England prior to and after Edward’s reign, as well as the impact of major events (including the Black Death) on society. I have a little knowledge of the era but wouldn’t say I was well-versed in it, and never felt confused or out of my depth. 


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