|Book Reviews||Paul Doherty, Isabelle and the Strange Death of Edward II (New York, 2003).
Edward II is generally regarded as one of the worst kings England ever had. Though some studies have shown that he was not altogether a failure and that it is unfair to simply give credit to his advisors for all the developments generally regarded as positive, like administrative reforms, or his temporary successes against his opponents. Nor should it be forgotten that some of the problems were not of his own making but inherited from his father, Edward I. Nonetheless, Edward II's twenty-year reign was plagued with confrontations, ranging from bickering to outright murder and bloody battles, and ended in one of the most, one could indeed argue the most spectacular and complete collapse of a royal regime ever seen. What makes the downfall of Edward II even more exceptional and interesting is that the person at the centre of his downfall was no other than his wife, Isabella of France. Along with her lover, Roger Mortimer, Isabella successfully overthrew her husband, had him locked up where, so the general wisdom goes, he was gruesomely put to death. But, Paul Doherty asks, did it really happen? A closer look at the evidence certainly leaves room for doubt.
The first two-thirds of Isabella and the Strange Death of Edward II provide the reader with a overview over the reign of Edward II. It is a simplified version focusing mainly on Edward II's relationship with his favourites, Piers Gaveston and Hugh Despenser the younger (or as Doherty likes to call him 'de Spencer') and, naturally, to his wife, Isabella, and how these two forces in his life interacted with one another. Presumably it was not only that Doherty wanted to set the main concern of this book, the mystery surrounding Edward II's death, in context but also that it could not be expected that the readers already knew enough about Edward II to be able to do without this introduction.
Only in the last third of the book Doherty discusses in detail the events surrounding Edward II's captivity and apparent death. It is interesting to read about the odd events that happened in the first years of the reign of Edward III and to see how Doherty tries to sort them into a coherent story. However, while the author brings together a lot of different and contradictory evidence and points out the problems raised by them, there is a feeling of confusion that permeates the book.
Isabella and the Strange Death of Edward II is a well written book. The narration is interesting and it is obvious that Doherty's knowledge of the era is exceptionally extensive and detailed. In fact, as I recently discovered, Paul Doherty wrote his doctoral thesis on "Isabella, Queen of England 1296-1330" (unpubl. DPhil thesis, Oxford, 1977). However, Doherty is occasionally less than discriminating with his sources. For example, he has a tendency to rely heavily on Ms Strickland's Lives of the Queens of England, which, praiseworthy as it is, is not always the most reliable book and not exactly the cutting edge of historiography. Secondly, Doherty sometimes cannot refrain from giving motivations and feelings to the actors of the story that he cannot possibly know or extrapolate securely from the sources. Which part of his text is based on sources and which part are his own conclusions is not made clear. Obviously, the fact that references are relegated to the back of the book (understandable as the target audience seems to be the interested 'lay' person rather than scholars or students) does not help here either.
The main problem of the book, in my opinion, is it is set somewhere between a popular history and a fact-based novel about the possible survival of Edward II. Though definitely trying to stick to the former, the tone sometimes sounds more like the latter. Some of Doherty's conclusions also don't hold up well for the reader who has some knowledge of the period itself. To give an example, for me it was hardly surprising that the body of Edward II - or the body substituted for Edward II - was transported to Gloucester in a closed lead coffin. Despite having undergone embalmment it would still not be too well preserved after the considerable period of time that had already gone by. - The latter, by the way, was caused by the fact that Isabelle and Mortimer were in the north to deal with the Scottish question at this time. [R.M. Haines, King Edward II, p. 198 - "This [the funeral] took place at St Peter's Abbey in Gloucester on 20 December, the delay being brought about by the Scottish campaign."]
Another aspect that astonished me when reading the book, an astonishment that has grown since I learned that Doherty wrote his thesis on the era and that he has written a huge amount of historical novels to boot, were that some really strange mistakes have crept in. Perhaps I am too nitpicky when I insist that the Exchequer was located at Westminster not London. However, the last earl of Cornwall was not, as Doherty claims, a 'royal half-brother' but Edmund of Cornwall who was a cousin of Edward II. Can this be interpreted as a sign that the book was written in a rush? There are some other instances where rather peculiar errors appear in the book.
If I had to sum up my impression of Isabella and the Strange Death of Edward II in a few words I would say 'could have done better'. Doherty's knowledge and his skills as a writer could certainly have produced a book that was more precise and placed less reliance on his fantasy. However, this said, I would expect that for many a reader, who is not looking for a water-tight historical analysis, this book will be both entertaining and educational.
|[28 September 2010]
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