Review: Edward II: The Unconventional King by Kathryn Warner
First of all I need to make a little disclaimer. I know Kathryn Warner well and have been friends with her for a long time. We have shared research and opinions on the reign of Edward II and I have nothing but the highest regard for her work. This does not mean however, that I cannot give an objective review of the book in question and Kathryn has not asked me either for the review or for any positive publicity. All that follows is my own honest opinion.
What people think they know about Edward II can be summed up in a nutshell: that he was gay and was murdered with a red hot poker. The fact that the first point is speculation and the second a later fabrication is usually lost in the need to have a story with sensationalism. Because of this not many people know of his extraordinary hobbies (for a king) of thatching and digging ditches, his disastrous quarrels with his cousin Lancaster leading up to the decisive Battle of Boroughbridge (Battle of where? I hear you cry), or even that he had an illegitimate son, Adam. In fact, I expect that not many people, historians included, have ever really scrutinised Edward's character and personal life.
Kathryn Warner looks at Edward II as a real person, not just as a stereotypically inept ruler who presided over a disastrous reign. She has long held a passion for winkling out the facts behind Edward's actions, as can be seen in her marvelous blog (http://edwardthesecond.blogspot.co.uk). But her compulsion for discovering this man's character and dismissing the unfortunate myths that have grown up around him have not blinded her to an objective analysis of his many flaws and faults. However Edward had positive traits to his character too, and the records of the time often reveal little moments that show him as a rather endearing man who would rather perhaps, be catching fish than issuing writs.
Many controversies and misinformations have sprung up around the character of Edward II, including his relationship with Piers Gaveston, his sexuality and whether or not he loved his wife. Warner tackles these issues head on, relying on sources from the time, many not transcribed or translated into English before. She attacks the conventional image of an effeminate, stupid, cowardly useless king only caring about his male lovers, and shows him for what he was: physically strong, handsome, intelligent, and brave with a strong sense of loyalty (often to the wrong people). Yet also at times tyrannical, greedy, tactless, lazy and with a talent for annoying his magnates.
This book is chock full of facts, all backed up by extensive endnotes and references. The last chapter, however, concerning Edward's possible survival after the reports of his death at Berkeley, is more controversial. I have seen evidence both for and against Edward fleeing to the continent and living out the rest of his natural life there, and both sides are compelling, to say the least. Warner presents evidence of his survival after his supposed death such as the Fieschi letter, the Melton letter and a plot by Edmund, earl of Kent (Edward's brother) to rescue the 'dead' king from Corfe. It certainly appears as though those men believed in his continued physical existence but, sadly, it's one of those mysteries that we may never know the truth about.
Edward II: the Unconventional King is a great addition to the other scholarly works about Edward II and indeed fills the many gaps they leave open. Unlike the works of some popular historians, it does not descend into speculation, unfounded statements and personal prejudice but relies heavily on years of solid research and comes out as a fair and factual assessment of Edward II's character and reign. As far as medieval biographies go, this one is a breath of fresh air.